Zara hatke, zara bachke,
Yeh hai Bambai, meri jaan
“Duck a little, save yourself.. This is Bombay, my love…” goes the lyrics of a well known song of the 50s, of the film Aar Paar, penned by Majrooh Sultanpuri. True it is, and every mumbaikar or a person for whom Mumbai is “Bombay” would wear a smile now.
Once Bombay lodges itself in your eye, you’re doomed to a lifetime of tunnel vision. If one peers at the drizzly outlines of the Cinquantenaire of Belgium, the triumphal arch erected to commemorate Belgium’s golden jubilee, within few seconds he or she might reach at the conclusion : it was merely a bombastic version of the Gateway of India!
I had another conviction. I’ve lived in other cities, but it is clear that Bombay is nostalgic, for various personal reasons. My friends, my short-term childhood or my cousins, Bombay had something more to attract me always. Bambai ki baarish, the Bombay monsoons, were the best, after those of my hometown, Mangalooru. For some natives of this city, the Mumbaikars, the roots have fed off the putrefied ballast of palm fronds and fish entrails that was used to reclaim the seven islands from ocean and iniquity. Unfortunately, it’s scarcely that simple. Roots don’t hold easily in a metropolis built on ever-shifting flood plains and tremulous marsh. Bombay’s always a struggle , but they’re hooked on the thrill of daily combat.
Bombay has none of the imperium of Delhi, the self-conscious stasis of Calcutta or the provincial self-satisfaction of Madras. It is the ugly stepdaughter city but the Prince Charming must cut his heels off to win her hand. It is a city in which no one dies of starvation but the vast majority are forced to endure living conditions that no enlightened zookeeper would allow for his animals. Yet the exiles and arrivistes keep flooding into the City Unimagined, to the Bombay they see as siren and saviour. They never leave.
Why would you do that? Would you live in a matchbox, breathe bad air, drink foul water, offer yourself as mosquito-fodder and roadkill? Because Bombay is an addiction. It isn’t good for you but you need the high of neon and insomnia, concrete and opportunity.
While thinking about the bird’s eye view of Bombay such as this one is not rocket science, it tends to have its own challenges. What you exclude becomes as much of a statement as what you include. Then there is always a stream of guilt. Friends become repositories of wisdom and talk about the ancient hamam in South Bombay, where you can still have a Turkish bath; others ask if you are including anything on the black sand beach from which one of emperor Ashoka’s progeny is supposed to have set out to proselytise for the Buddha; my mind wanders in the interiors of the Governor’s bungalow, or the vada pav stall at the juhu beach, or a glass of cutting chai on a stroll alongside the Marine drive. The Andheri local, which was a nightmare for my mom , as she had to travel with the mischievous little me, my father’s favourite Maratha Mandir for the great movie freak in him, or the Wankhede stadium grounds for my friends, which is sometimes our meet up spot…there are millions of Bombay stories for me to narrate. Everyone has a Bombay story, a Bombay they wanted to represent. But then, there’s something special for althese stories; everyone’s Bombay is not the Bombay I thought I knew.
Bombay has always surprised me, even if I visit for few hours or months, it surely has some effect on me. And that’s great, because, it feels as if the city takes my troubles along with it’s, and gives me the part of it’s immense strength to proceed. And that exactly happens now!