Bombay and Istanbul

I spent the last week of November thinking about Bombay.

I only have two posts about India here and I blame myself for my laziness, incompetency and perfectionism. If I delay my travel writing, I always end up losing the feeling of being there, the posts become mundane reports or encyclopaedic entries. So when I know too much time has passed since my travels to write about them, I end up trying harder, reading vigorously and spending more time on the piece which delays it even further until I totally lose my inquisitive tourist’s touch. So I could not write about Bombay, Jaipur, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Delhi, Varanasi, Goa, and Lucknow yet. All of these locations deserve a post of their own.

My two posts about India were the most important two pieces regarding my travels: the unforgettable wedding of our friends Aparna & Pratap and the heavy presence of religion one feels in India (this post is in Turkish).

But before I take this opportunity to write about the Bombay I remember and cherish, I need to apologise to sensitive Indian readers for calling their financial capital Bombay instead of Mumbai. There are two reasons for this:

    1) I cannot get used to Mumbai because when I discard the name Bombay, I feel like I am getting rid of the colonialist associations of the name. I am not oblivious to the effects of colonialism however Bombay is not Delhi; it owes part of its charm to her colonial past.
    2) Being Turkish, I have seen a my share of name changes of cities, towns, villages, streets, parks, an airport, a football stadium and more; I do not like it when people try to rewrite history with nationalistic motives even if the original name is given by and is the derivative of a word in the language of one the colonialists in Bombay’s past.

Of course I must add that a similar situation exists in Istanbul. Indian nationalists claim that Mumbai comes from the Goddess Mumba, their Turkish counterparts claim that Istanbul comes from “Islam bol” meaning “abundance of Islam” whereas the word Istanbul is derived from a Greek phrase “is tan poli” meaning “going to the city”.

Getting back to the last week of November 2008, the locations of the shocking terrorist attacks were familiar to me from our four days in Bombay in December 1999. And I have always thought of Bombay as India’s Istanbul. As I followed the news I could not help but think about the two cities and their appeal and their problems.

The Hotels
When we were in Bombay, we stayed at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club right next to the Taj Hotel. We had “high tea” in the hotel as was recommended by the locals. I also saw a beggar that I cannot forget right next to the Gateway to India just meters (or yards for the Indian readers out there) away from the Taj: he was a teenager who had no limbs and was lying face-down on a piece of wood with wheels, under the hot sun.

The Istanbul equivalent of the Taj Hotel would be the Çırağan Palace Kempinski. It’s an old palace somewhat tastelessly redone after it was burned down, but owing to its appearance from the outside and its perfect location, is the most popular high end hotel in town.

Taj Hotel Bombay

The Taj Hotel in Bombay And This Is Just The Backside

The Taj Hotel is a beautiful building inside out, built out of spite after one of the Tatas was denied entry to a hotel operated by the English because he was an Indian. We were told that the engineers building it held the plans upside down: the side overlooking the sea looks like the back entrance, the gardens and the better looking entrance open up to a small street. There was a street vendor at the back entrance during our visit cooking tasty looking chicken and lamb at the back of a pick-up truck. One of my regrets about our time in India is heeding Seha’s advice and not eating there.

Oberoi Hotel I barely remember because we only passed in front of it a few times going up Marine Drive (probably towards Chowpatty Beach). This bay (Back Bay) is sometimes called The Queen’s Necklace because it looks like one at night with the gentle curve and the streetlights. Sometimes coming back home from work, when I look at the shores of the Bosphorus from one of the two bridges, I remember Back Bay, Chowpatty Beach, Malabar Hill.

The Oberoi is like the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul. Important yet ugly and out of place.

Victoria Terminus Train Station
The train station (formerly called Victoria Terminus) was one of the touristy places we visited. The area around it was so crowded that I felt claustrophobic and at home at the same time. It was interesting to see the commuters with their food in metal cases still using the old train station like it’s supposed to be used as opposed to Sirkeci Station in Istanbul, the last stop of the Orient Express. Sirkeci Station is barely used now because Turkey turned its back to rail travel in the 50’s, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has been privatised and turned into a restaurant.

The area around Victoria Terminus reminded me of the Saturday afternoons I used to spend with my dad loitering around in Eminönü, just meters (yards) away from the Sirkeci Train Station.

Victoria Terminus

It’s Usually More Crowded

Eminönü has been the shopping district of Istanbul since the Byzantine times which makes it the busiest part of the city for the last 1500 years. My father and I would start in the Mısır Çarşısı (The Spice Market) and look at the birds, dogs and cats, fish, spices and teas, monkeys, cheese and sausages, hamsters, dried fruit and nuts. We’d have lunch in Pandeli which brings back images of aubergine and tender meat, and elderly waiters with pristine white shirts. And finally we’d walk up the street towards Süleymaniye, the most magnificent of the mosques in the city. I remember my father buying me toys and trinkets from the little shops in tiny and crowded streets: balloons, Chinese toys made from cheap plastic, a small radio, a green ring connected to a small rubber ball hidden in the palm used to spray water to the face of the unsuspecting onlookers.

My grandfather had a little shop in Eminönü when I was 3-4 years old. My oldest memories in life could be when I would be going there to visit him with my grandmother. We’d take the dolmuş (a shared taxi traveling on a set route) to Kadıköy from Şaşkınbakkal, the boat from Kadiköy to Eminönü. On the way back, I’d always get a treat of seeds to feed the pigeons in front of the Yeni Camii Mosque. I was always quiet and timid in my grandfather’s shop, a small place full of rolls and rolls of cloth at the end of a dark, dismal arcade. I adored my grandfather but I never liked his shop. I don’t really remember why.

Leopold Cafe
Leopold Cafe is another typical tourist spot. We had stopped there for some food just because it was a must in our tourist’s itinerary. I remember buying Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children from one of the bookstores in Colaba close to the cafe. I don’t remember what I ate there, the food should have been bland but the aura was interesting – old but not yet out of place with others like us reading Lonely Planet India sipping chai (spiced sweet tea).

The Istanbul equivalent of Leopold Cafe is difficult to pick. We don’t have a tradition of old establishments. Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel The Museum of Innocence talks about the bourgeois life in the 70’s. The protagonist Kemal’s modern day equivalent would not be able to dine in the places that Kemal and his fashionable friends frequent. Okay, there might be a few old meyhanes (slow food meze and rakı places) or restaurants serving simple home style food but that’s about it, and they were never tourist spots.

Leopold Cafe

The Interior Looks Better

Because picking a place similar to the Leopold Cafe is hard, I’ll pick two instead. One would be the Pudding Shop in Sultanahmet Square. This was a meeting place of the hippies on their way to India in the sixties. The hippie trail to India began in Istanbul because Istanbul is the invisible membrane between the west and the exotic east. But today, the Pudding Shop is just another pudding shop and there are no hippies around.

My second pick would be Reina, one of the club/restaurant complexes on the Bosphorus. This is where Turkish businessmen bring their guests to show off the beauties of Istanbul the easy way – without the hassles and the complicated history of the ancient peninsula. It’s the symbol of 90’s decadence with the gorillas at the door sniffing you before they let you in with disgusted looks and valets charging more than a full meal in the Pudding Shop just to park your Ferrari in the parking lot next to the club. You’d see more fake organs with fake tans than anywhere else in Turkey if that’s your thing, but view of the sea at night is fabulous.

The Trapped
I was glued to the tv/computer screen during the Bombay attacks because a friend of mine was one of the hotel guests trapped in the Oberoi. She ran to her room after spotting two terrorists and locked herself in the bathroom. She kept contact by mobile phone calls and text messaging, we could hear the gunshots in the background when we called her.

For hours we waited to hear some good news from Bombay. We did not know a lot and in some ways this was fortunate because had we known the horrors going on in the corridors we’d have a lot more difficulty trying not to think about what could have been happening. Only after having read the eyewitness accounts, I was able to fathom the extent of her bravery. 40 hours later, we knew that she was safe with the commandos but still it was an hour before she got out. Possibly because no one knew what was going on in the hotel.

Now following up on the news and comments (one of my recommendations by Mohsin Hamid is here and another good one by Arundhati Roy is here) I am convinced that the terrorists are accomplishing one of their goals: the Indian subcontinent is getting more and more unstable. For this, I blame both sides.

The subcontinent is one of the most interesting and beautiful places in the world and Indian democracy as demonstrated by resignations of those who felt responsible (something that would be unthinkable here in Turkey) has been setting a good example to the rest of the world when the future looks bleak for those of us living in countries still struggling to find their path.

I sincerely hope it stays that way.


One Reply to “Bombay and Istanbul”

  1. you probably wept at the slumdog millionaire train station scenes…already feels like it was filmed in ancient, happier times…great article

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