Thursday, 6 March 2014

Mumbai is a city, Bombay is an emotion

A friend sent this graphic about Mumbai/Bombay the other day on a chatting app.

I personally don’t like to differentiate between these names and often use them interchangeably, especially when talking to different people. Out here in Australia, I tend to go more with Bombay because not necessarily everyone knows it is now officially called Mumbai.
Although I associate myself with Pune (because I was born there), I grew up in Mumbai. I may not have been proud of this fact before, for bizarre reasons (like overcrowding, too fast), but my recent visit to Mumbai changed this completely. I don’t know what it was, or what I saw and sometimes it’s just so damn difficult to portray an emotion in the right words, but something happened that I now want to be associated with Mumbai more so than Pune; a statement which makes my wife chuckle, given my previous strong disassociation with the metropolis.
There I said it. I love Mumbai.

“Dhanda” is the only word that defines the city
I’ve always known it and I’ve read it innumerable times, but like with each year you become older and wiser, you see the world through a different lens. Sure, the population in Mumbai may have exploded beyond control, but that has also given way to opportunity. The city is known to be one that never sleeps and although that might have sounded trite earlier, it meant so much to me this time around. We reached our friend’s place quite late in the night and after settling in, felt hungry. I was amazed we could order any sort of food (not just burgers or pizzas or fast food) at midnight and they delivered it past the Cinderella hour. We were gorging on fresh rotis, paneer masala and dal kadhi at 1 am!

During my 2nd visit to Mumbai, I decided to travel on BEST bus/es from the swanky new international airport terminal to Borivali, simply for the thrills. The new T2 terminal is spectacular (at least from the outside) and it only affirms our faith in Mumbai being the financial ticker-joint of the country. This particular bus journey was not without its share of misdirections though. On checking with another passenger on Western Hwy underpass, I was told with great confidence “Haan, Borivali ko 40 aur 348 bus jayega”. Another bus with a completely different number rocked up with Borivali Stn as the destination and I was told this would take me there, so on I jumped. When the bus conductor approached me for a ticket, I confidently said “Borivali National Park”. His reply came via a typical lack of emotion that conductors have mastered over the years “Yeh bus Aarey Milk Colony tak hi jaata hain”. I had to walk a km to get back to the next bus stop to board the right bus to Borivali.

Along the Western Hwy, now gloriously uplifted (pun intended) via a network of well-built overpasses/flyovers, I saw many a number of local businesses – welders, marble craftsman, small shops, mechanics, curtain makers, timber shops, tailors all open and operating way past 10 pm on a weekday. I suppose Mumbai has always been like this, but after living in Australia for well over a decade, this was a shock. The entrepreneurial spirit of the city (or maybe it was desperation to work and earn a living) surprised me no ends. When a customer wants something done at 10 in the night, there will always be people to do it at that hour. The whole of the path along the highway was buzzing with activity, with industry close to midnight. “Dhanda” is clearly one word that defines this city perfectly.

Memories are strange things. You think you may have forgotten something or at least won’t remember all the details exactly as you’ve experienced decades before; but the way memories quietly bide their time in some dark corner of the brain, waiting for that one little stimuli to respond (just like a Mimosa plant responds to the slightest touch) is astounding.
I went back to the same place I grew up in when I was in Borivali and it all came flooding back - the sights, sounds, smells. Even the people and their interactions with me. I haven’t been back to this place for over 18 years, but it was as if I never left. Sure it had changed a little bit in terms of renovations, clean-ups, but the soul of the place was exactly what resonated with my memories all these years. I was even fortunate enough to stay in a neighbour’s apartment, on the same floor where I lived all those years back.

Perception is also another peculiar thing. The very roads, buildings, rooms that seem huge when you are a kid are generally not that. I walked around a few places and what seemed to take ages back then only took a matter of minutes!

Walking through those lanes again and meeting people from my past was a remarkable experience. Conversations flowed as effortlessly as if they had stopped only the previous night and continued on from there. The small garden where over 20 boys played cricket 18 years back was a bit worn down and even discarded. The tabela where a school friend lived was easily replaced by a high-rise, but the local open spaces where the whole community gathered to celebrate Diwali, Ganpati and Dandiya-Garba were still around. Although public transport has made a few inroads into the area, it still remains the quiet locality it was all those years back though.

Each year, I try and meet different people when I am in India. My wife reckons this is the best way to build relationships and network and I totally agree with her on this (amongst a horde of other things). It was no different this time around. I met and chatted, over countless cups of chai with friends from a very distant past.

Alma Mater
One of the most compelling reasons to go to Mumbai was to visit my school – a place which I haven’t seen since I finished my Year 10 in 1996. The walk to school was admittedly a bit tearful and quite literally a walk down memory lane. A little bit of urban development has admittedly got in the way of this memory, and I had to take a rather circuitous route to get to the school premises. Gone were the 2 small pedestrian traffic-only gates on either side of the Western Highway. The school building has survived the rapid pace of development and although there was an entirely new wing built into the school building, it still looked pretty much the same. I wasn’t expecting to see a lot of my teachers around, but surprisingly, I did get to meet 3. One of the teachers who taught us Geometry was now in charge of the school as the Headmistress. The 2 other teachers, who taught us languages were still around and looked pretty much the same to me, as if age had nothing to do with them.

Given that it was a working Saturday, the school classes were on. I stuck around for the school assembly with the primary students and even joined in reciting the school prayer. This was followed by the national anthem, short speeches, public announcements and then a host of patriotic songs, a student accompanying the choir on a Yamaha keyboard. Not sure if the student was simply bored or was a creature of habit, he cheekily struck the keys on his keyboard to the tune of “Kyonki Tum Hi Ho (Aashiqui 2)” while no one was paying attention.
As the students rushed to their classes, I sauntered out to the school canteen and dug into 2 Wada Paav’s and a cutting chai, as the clouds rumbled overhead in the sky and a few drops caught me unawares. Yes, it rained in Mumbai in February.

Last-benchers reunion (of sorts)
Later in the evening, I caught up with a few friends from school. For years, we nutted it out through the school together enjoying the immense benefits of gracing the last benches of our classrooms. Teachers may have given up on us academically, but ironically, 1-2 of the class toppers were often from this group of no-good souls, or “chikne ghade”/”shame-proof” people as one our teachers described us.

Time and space are non-entities when it comes to catching up with school friends. Some of them don’t even look as if they’ve added 18 years to their lives. I could have started a conversation with any of them back in school and could have continued it 18 years later without pausing for thought. A few of them are even better looking and fitter than they were in school. Sadly, I can’t say that about myself! Although age may not have affected looks, it had certainly toyed with the brain-cells of some schoolmates and it took half an evening to carefully bring them on the same page, when it came to recollecting places, faces and incidents from school. It was almost comical to see some of us gently goading our brains to wander into pockets of memory, while our mouths were busy attacking Dum Aloos and Chicken dishes with gusto. 
I felt even a tinge of jealousy, because unlike me, some of these friends can regularly meet while they are in Mumbai. It’s in these moments of introspection, that I sometimes wish I was back in India.

The evening had to end, like all good things have to, with one friend having to go on to another party later in the night, which would have seen him and his partner return home well into the next morning.

Mumbai is that kind of city. It never seems to sleep. It never needs to, for some. It never does, for some unfortunate ones.

Aapki yatra safal rahe
Commuting in (and out of) Mumbai is an experience into itself.
Citing adventure (and fascination for our little one) as our motivation, we caught the Deccan Queen to get from Mumbai to Pune. It was by far the best and most pleasant journey we ever had. Our little one greatly enjoyed the build-up to the train journey, amazed by the sea of humans descending on the train station and was excited with the whole process of loading bags into the compartments. However, as we pulled out of CST to head to Pune, he was fast asleep by the time we rolled past Dadar!

While in Mumbai, I was fortunate enough to catch autorickshaws to get to a few places in a hurry. I say fortunate, because until that moment when I got out of the rickshaw, I had no clue that the F1 Corporation was secretly recruiting and training rickshaw drivers in Mumbai. I was to meet a friend in a mall for coffee in Kandivali and got into a rickshaw, giving myself a liberal 45 mins (on a weekend) to get from Borivali to Kandivali. The moment I stepped into the rickshaw, the driver coolly plugged into his earphones, reset the meter and set off at a pace I’ve only seen Vettel, Alonso and co. race at. Exactly 21 minutes later, I got off at Kandivali! I had never experienced Mach-1 until then. I’ve heard people in Mumbai are always in a rush and the city has a frantic pace. I was witness to this, thanks to the rickshawwalla.
I boarded the Shivneri bus at Borivali the next day to get back to Pune. The MSRTC has certainly come a long way, from those red rattling STs, to the semi-AC “Asiad” to the current lot of good looking, sturdy Volvos commuting people all across Maharashtra with a winning trifecta of affordability, speed and convenience.

As I hopped into a window seat of a largely vacant Shivneri, a woman conductor (yes, MSRTC has come a long way) came along to issue tickets to the few handful of passengers dispersed throughout the bus. By the time the bus picked up the last of the passengers and made its way out of Sion towards Vashi, I glanced at a wall near a traffic signal. It simply said “Save the unbreakable Mumbai spirit”.

Mumbai is that unbreakable city.