If ever anyone had tailoring in his blood, it’s Hammad Ansari. His hands are dexterous and steady, his face deceptively stern until it breaks into one of his frequent easy smiles. I ask him whether he can guess my measurements. He looks me in the face for a moment, glances at my shoulders, chest, waist and then rattles off a series of numbers. He checks his numbers against the measure — they’re all exactly right. “I can tell a person’s measurements just from his face,” he says.
“In the ‘80s, when ready-made came and was booming, 2,000 tailors were closed down — 2,000,” Ansari says. “So then new people came with a new concept of tailoring.” Faisal explains that tailoring has gravitated toward two poles — the modest neighborhood tailors who survive on alterations and simple work in low-income areas, and luxury tailors like his father and uncle.
“The craftsmen will survive. We are craftsmen,” Hammad says with the utmost seriousness — and a smile.
Muni Gupta is not a tailor herself. But she has run Burlington’s of Bombay, the bespoke tailoring shop at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, since 1955, when her brother asked her to take over for a few days as a favor. She did well — exceptionally well. “He wouldn’t take back the keys,” she recalls. “My father was furious. I may have been the first working woman in Bombay.”
Gupta’s father had opened Burlington’s six years before, in 1949. He and his family, like the Shaikhs and so many others in Mumbai, had arrived during the partition, in Gupta’s case fleeing Pakistan at the last moment. “Overnight we became paupers,” Muni Gupta says. They arrived in Bombay after a brief stay in Delhi and, with some help from connected friends, managed to secure the space at the Taj.
Despite her age and height (she stands no more than an inch or two over 5 feet), Gupta still runs her shop with the authority of a monarch. As we walk through the bright, impeccable showroom, she orders fine linens and woolen suiting off the shelves. She points out block-printed Jaipuri cottons and south Indian silks. She unrolls an elaborate Benares brocade, woven with real gold, over a glass-topped table; lifting the edge, I can feel its cool metallic weight in my palm. On top of this she unrolls a pale pink silk crepe embroidered with a washed cotton thread — kantha embroidery, she tells me, an endangered skill too time-consuming and expensive to survive in the poor rural communities where it originated.
When she first arrived here, Gupta tells me, Bombay extended fewer than eight miles from north to south, had a population of about 2 million and barely 2,500 vehicles plying its roads. Neighborhoods such as Lalbaug and Parel, just north of where the city proper ended, were dominated by hundreds of textile mills and workers’ tenements, known as chawls. “I learnt to drive in Worli,” Gupta recalls. “There was one house there.” Mumbai, in its disorienting extremity, tends to inspire this sort of hyperbole; it is a fabulist’s city.
Today, Worli lies near the geographic center of Mumbai. Including both the city proper and a few suburban districts, the city covers just over 230 square miles and is home to about 13 million people, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth. (For a point of reference, New York’s five boroughs hold 8 million people in about 470 square miles.) Contiguous satellite cities to the north and west add as many as 7 million more — there’s no consensus on the exact number — and about 2 million cars choke the ill-paved roads. The remaining textile mills are now mostly overgrown ruins.