Provocative commentaries on international issues, social development, and people and places by a veteran journalist
Time of Innocence, So Long Ago
Published on November 28, 2008 By PranayGupte In Current Events

When I was very young and single and living in New York, I would visit my parents in my native city of Mumbai from time to time. They would predictably make mighty efforts to find a bride for me in the traditional custom of conservative Hindu families. I was, after all, an only child, and it was understandable that my parents dreaded the prospect – however unlikely – that I would wind up with an American spouse.


An endless procession of eligible Indian women would be brought to our seaside apartment by their fathers and mothers, anxious to marry off their – usually – beautiful and accomplished daughters to a journalist of The New York Times who made a reasonably decent living in the United States. I doubt whether either a total stranger like me or the job I held impressed the winsome women; I doubt whether any of them had bothered to read my newspaper – which, in any case, wasn’t available in India in those pre-Internet days.


It was all very awkward. For the wives-to-be, these visits were clearly a chore, and I must have seemed to them to be a bore. So I frequently sought refuge in a charming café known as The Sea Lounge. It was lodged on the first floor of the Taj Hotel. It offered fine sandwiches and other savories, and it afforded a view of Mumbai’s busy harbor. It also offered a vantage point to ogle pretty women without any obligation whatsoever, least of all that to glance at them was a tacit acknowledgment that one would consider marrying them.


This isn’t to say that transient customers like me didn’t entertain naughty notions. But The Sea Lounge was a happy place in those days, one where Mumbai’s beautiful people put on a cavalcade, one where Bollywood stars could be spotted, one where important businessmen did important deals. I usually brought along my camera and took lots of pictures of pretty women in pretty sarees – so many, in fact, that the Indian woman whom I eventually married through a romance threw out my entire collection in a fit of retroactive rage. That singular act of destruction of my personal history may not have necessarily contributed to our divorce some three decades later, but I still remember how utterly devastated I was as I watched my color transparencies slide down the garbage chute of our New York apartment.


It wasn’t the fact that beautiful pictures of beautiful people were forever lost. It was the special moment, it was the special ambience of The Sea Lounge, and it was the special time in my life. That time had been captured on film, and now it was gone forever.


I reflected on that time as I watched on television the terrible happenings at the Taj and other locations in Mumbai these past few days. The terrorists who invaded the facilities surely must have stormed into The Sea Lounge; it’s always a busy place, and it’s always open. It is, in fact, a metaphor for cosmopolitan Mumbai. It resonates with Mumbai’s self-image as a global city – much in the manner of the lounge of the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel, which is a microcosm of Dubai’s societal, commercial and ethnic diversity.


It was a much more innocent time for all of us back then, of course, a time when I was young and filled with aspirations that would take me on wonderful journeys into the homes and lives of wonderful people in every part of the world. It was a more innocent time for Mumbai and India, too, a time when terrorism wasn’t a part of our conversation, let alone our lexicon. India, a 5,000-year-old civilization, was barely 30 years old as a nation back then, and I wasn’t quite 30 myself. Mumbai was a relaxed place back then, one where people didn’t have to wonder if the next stranger who ambled along would lob a grenade or pull out a machine gun and start firing randomly at innocent men and women.


Perhaps it’d be naïve – especially for world-weary men like me – to assume that the innocence of another time would be forever frozen in amber. That innocence may have gone, seized from us by the cruel dynamics of an age of intolerance and warring ideologies. But I don’t think that holding on to the memories of a long-ago but lovely age is such a bad thing – even if part of the memory bank includes uncomfortable moments with parents of women who don’t care much for traditional rituals such as arranged marriages.


It isn’t such a bad thing to hold on to many of those larger memories because that time still holds important lessons for us – that it is far better to engage in conversation than confrontation; that it is far more productive to accept that people will always worship differently from one another and that no faith enjoys the monopoly of moral certitudes; that killing people can never eliminate the enduring universality of goodness; that the acceptance of our cultural differences actually sustains civilization and doesn’t smother society.


But what do I know? I am just a middle-aged man frozen in the amber of his memories, a man who still remembers what it was like to be young and alive in a very different time, a time of innocence when being at The Sea Lounge at the Taj in Mumbai meant inviting the attention of those who brought you good things to eat, and not of those who ensured that you never left that place.


(Note: Pranay Gupte has been a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, Newsweek, Forbes and The Earth Times for four decades, and is the author or editor of 10 books. He is Director of Special Media Projects in The Executive Office’s Strategic Communications department. This essay is written in his personal capacity and does not reflect any authorized official position.)


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