The new is insistent but the old persists

Change is constantly perceptible in Bombay. But what is change, if it means you are no longer necess

The woman who used to sell fish no longer appears in the dark shadows outside my apartment door. "Hawker" is a formal English word for surveys and sociological studies. In the Indian languages we say machiwali, meaning the woman with the fish, or bhajiwala, the man with the vegetables. It joins the seller and the thing sold in a greater intimacy. The fishseller's red sari, silver nosering and bangles of glass used to bloom in the shadows, and her arm would always stretch out to show how large a fish was, this large, from the elbow to the palm. Neither do I see the vegetable man, with his long iron cart, his spotless white clothes shining in the sun. They are as unfailing as the seasons, but when they disappear I remember how vulnerable they are. The fish and vegetable sellers will be replaced by others, but not the monkey man, with monkeys as ragged as his clothes. And the flute-seller with bamboo flutes. Their time is over. What is change, if it means you are no longer necessary?

Change is one of the most perceptible things in the Bombay air, second only to construction dust, and that includes both the persistence of the old and the insistence of the new. The value and importance of both fluctuate according to the context. Nothing is without the deepest ambiguities.

Beauty and exhaustion

A few evenings ago, I am at a dinner for a friend, Amrita Shah, whose biography of Vikram Sarabhai - a scientist and founder of the Indian space programme - has just been published. None of the women - all writers, journalists and film-makers - is wearing a sari, including myself. If we were all asked, as I am by a Frenchwoman, why none of us is wearing a sari, we would say it is not only about convenience. It has something to do with change, with the need for the new and a certain natural exhaustion with the old, however beautiful.

Ancient ways of learning

Dhrupad is the most ancient form of Indian classical music, originating in Vedic chanting. I learn this form of singing from Bahauddin Dagar, the 20th generation of a family of great dhrupad musicians. In this week's lesson, we talk more about tradition than we sing, but we both continue to play our tanpuras, so that our conversation is surrounded by continuous resonance.

When I learn from Bahauddin, I submit myself to the tradition in a way that I don't anywhere else in my life, because I know, almost unconsciously, that there is no other way to learn dhrupad. It means not questioning anything till one reaches a very high level of competence, and never taking notes but listening deeply. I am always surprised at the ease with which I can do this. It is as if there are more ancient ways of learning that survive within me. When I need them, they come to life. The sequential is an idea that has little meaning here.

The storyteller is sacred

Over the weekend I travel to Dahanu, a richly forested tribal area only a three-hour drive from Bombay. My friends Brian Lobo and Pradeep Prabhu work with the Warli tribals there, defending their rights to land and proper wages. For years, along with other organisations in different parts of the country, they have been demanding a Tribal Bill, which was finally passed last year.

Dahanu is a space very far away from Bombay, much more than an actual measured distance. My husband is shooting parts of a film essay here. As we enter the forest, we are told that the Warlis can see from about two kilometres away exactly how many people are approaching, and if they know the person they can even identify who it is from that distance. The Warlis tell us the forest must be preserved because it is where the past is handed over to the future. In the initiation rites for a newborn they say: "Resist the sarkar [government]; don't be afraid of the lion and the bear, we live with them; don't be afraid of thunder and lightning, we are part of them; and don't send away a hungry man from your door." They have a storyteller whose role is sacred. They also have a story affirmer without whose presence the storyteller tells no stories.

Sharmistha Mohanty is the author of "New Life" (RST IndiaInk Publishing, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran