The mill city
At the peak of the textile industry in the 1930s, Bombay had 136 mills employing about a quarter of a million people. Since the Great Bombay Textile Strike of 1982, which effectively sounded the death knell of the city’s textile industry, most have been either destroyed and built over or left to crumble on land worth as much as a small country.
When I first arrived in Mumbai, I stayed on the border of the two old mill districts of Parel and Lalbaug. From my fourth-floor window, I could see chawls, smokestacks and the sloping gray roofline of the abandoned Finlay Mills to the south. To the west, silhouetted against the violent orange of a setting sun (air pollution makes for gorgeous sunsets), I could see the office towers of Lower Parel alongside the India United Mill’s smokestack, the vaunting ambition of the past juxtaposed against its contemporary counterpart. Smokestacks were Bombay’s first high-rises.
In Bandra, my current home, the streets are wide and tree-lined (though still traffic-clogged), and something like fresh air blows off the Arabian Sea and over the Carter Road promenade. Not so in Parel. While living there, I would sometimes go for walks around the abandoned mills for a bit of quiet and space.
The only living remnants from the city’s days as the “Manchester of the East” are its textile markets — particularly the 108-year-old Mangaldas Market in the South Mumbai bazaar district of Kalbadevi. The lanes and roads running from the whimsical tower of Crawford Market north through Mohammed Ali Road, Masjid Bunder, Zaveri Bazaar and Chor Bazaar (the evocatively named Thieves’ Market) are a cramped and frenetic showroom of Old Bombay. It’s all overhead: the curved, communal balconies of the chawls, terra cotta roofs, cantilevered wrought-iron balustrades hung with laundry, the occasional well-maintained wooden cottage, painted in vermillion or ochre or periwinkle blue. Branches burst through cracks in the brickwork and gray-black grime — the product of pollution and humidity and torrential monsoon rain — sweats down the façades like so much running mascara. There is romance in the decrepitude. Mumbai has turned its back on this Bombay with its own peculiar brand of nostalgia: for places assumed lost before they’ve even finished decaying.
Though most good tailors stock their own fabrics, which certainly saves some time and hassle, I still come to Mangaldas to buy mine. On a Saturday afternoon, I’m greeted by shrill urgent offers of saris and pashminas. There are hand-woven ikats from the east, patterned cottons from Gujarat and Bihar, block prints from Rajasthan, prismatic silks from Mysore and Bangalore, brocades from Benares, tackily printed synthetics and woolen suiting from factories just outside Mumbai itself, all stacked chest-high, parabolically unfurled at the flick of a finger.
Here are Bombay’s many patterns and origins, its colors and textures stacked vertically, pressed against each other under the high dark roof, which disappears behind a mess of wires and hand-painted signs that tilt down toward century-old cobblestones and cracked, uneven concrete. Hordes of women press fearlessly up to the edges of stalls, sweat-soaked husbands timidly in tow. I force my way through to purchase blue linen for a blazer, a fine cotton printed with a florid Mughal pattern for lining, a white-and-blue ikat to stitch a kurta, a modern, semi-Westernized adaptation of the traditional knee-length shirt. A typically Bombay combination — traditions stitched one inside the other, consolidated but not quite assimilated.
I’m attempting to leave the market, standing at the corner of a lane with my bounty, beginning to sweat profusely (it’s October and the heat is still intense following the monsoon). An older gentleman laughs as he edges past me to follow his wife. “If you wait,” he says, “you’ll never get by.”
Snyder is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.