The workshop is so small, I can’t even step inside. Bolts of somber suit woolens and bright white shirting cottons line the walls. Rafiq Shaikh, in white kurta pyjama, the long shirt and loose-fitting pants worn by men across the subcontinent, with a tape measure slung around his neck like a doctor’s stethoscope, stands over a length of charcoal wool hieroglyphically marked with chalk in two shades of blue — the abstraction of a suit jacket.
Shaikh has worked out of this tiny shop in South Mumbai for the past 20 years (he maintains a larger showroom not too far from here), and his family has been tailoring for generations. “We are into this business right from — I don’t know — my grandfather’s grandfather’s time,” he says. That’s since well before his family emigrated here from up north during the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, a geopolitical catastrophe that resulted in one of the greatest human migrations in history and the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
Though ready-to-wear and designer clothing have become increasingly popular in India in the past 15 to 20 years, bespoke tailors such as Shaikh are still scattered all over town, in large showrooms, modest workshops and tiny open stalls in narrow lanes and bazaars. As India has liberalized, the population has become increasingly brand-conscious; designer wear represents luxury and modernity. Before ready-made became commonplace, practically everyone had his or her clothing stitched to measure. Bespoke tailoring is not a luxury here so much as a tradition, an old way of doing things.
And Mumbai has a tendency to shun the old; this city has little time for sentimentality. Entering the city proper from the north, I see gray towers and half-built skyscrapers appear over the low-rise apartments, old fortresses, dinghies and fishing villages that ring Mahim Bay. It is futuristic, almost dystopian — vivid, audacious, impossible.
Some people, local and otherwise, will tell you that the city has no history, that it’s just a colonial invention. But despite those hazy giants on the horizon, there remain under the swinging cranes and precarious bamboo scaffolds, behind the dangling prop roots of banyans and the layers of grime kicked up by constant construction and the trampling feet of more than 20 million people, glimmers of the elegant old city that was Bombay.
‘WE ARE CRAFTSMEN’
Despite the ubiquity of tailoring throughout the city, the best-known tailors tend to cluster around such old-money bastions as Breach Candy, Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade in South Mumbai, known simply as “town.” Shaikh’s workshop is a short walk from the shore of Back Bay in a quiet corner of Cuffe Parade. Up the road, across from the Taj President Hotel, Hammad Ansari has opened a showroom and workshop, called Yaseen’s, with his nephew, Faisal, the fourth showroom in his family’s 50 years of tailoring.
Like Shaikh’s family, the Ansaris emigrated from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, bringing with them a venerable family tradition. “My father used to stitch for the Britishers and learned cutting from a British man,” Ansari tells me as we sip chai in the comfortable, mirrored fitting room at the back of the shop. But the family tradition goes back even further: Most Ansaris, he says, are families of weavers.