Soul Of A City...

Do you believe a city could have a soul? As in a breathing, thinking, rejoicing and occasionally weeping soul? I do.

For me, cities are not just a cluster of buildings or a mesh of railway tracks. They have much more to them than just the infrastructure. I also strongly believe that a city is as much part of your personality as your zodiac sign is and that makes you vaguely predictable. As in, almost every Taurean is fiercely stubborn – a bull with locked heels. Similarly every Mumbai BBU(born and brought up) is street smart. Of course you do see exceptions to prove the rule. I have seen passive, doormat-ish Taureans and similarly you can occasionally find a na├»ve Mumbai BBU or a subtly dressed Delhi BBU or a native Hydrabad BBU correctly pronouncing H1B instead of Hech1B or a Chennai BBU not enjoying rice-sambar! Point being, cities have  soul and we have soul and sometimes we actually find a city that is in every sense our soul-mate. It understands you, nourishes you, often fights with you and yet at the end of the day, takes you under its broad and rusted wings. I don’t mean to suggest that villages don’t. Or that they don’t alter you. They certainly do but their charm works magically as you near retirement. You think of a village when you want to sit back, read for hours, eat fresh, locally grown vegetables and fruits and swim in the river or sea. Cities associate themselves with growth, cut-throat competition, parties, deadlines, commute that lasts for hours, eating leftovers & freshly baked pizzas and sleeping for four hours max. Cities mold you, break and re-make you, they shape an identity for you and before long, you become what your city wants you to be! For example, can you imagine Sex & The City or Suits happening anywhere but in New York City? Can you imagine my latest favorite - The Lunchbox unfolding anywhere but in Mumbai? Can you read any Jhumpa Lahiri book and not find Boston in it? Can you imagine Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja as riveting anywhere but in Bangladesh? I cant. Even though these are fictitious characters, their city becomes a tiny and yet very core part of what they do, how they think, why they fall in or out of love.

For me, when I fondly think of any city, Mumbai is of course the first name that comes to my mind very effortlessly. This city is in my being. It accompanies me when no one else does. I do often find myself feeling lonely – that could happen in a train or on the beach – so basically when I am not alone and yet, it’s the same city that comforts me as well. I was born here, in an area of Mumbai that later gained its popularity for a deity – Shri Siddhivinayak Temple. The deity whom this area was actually named after – Prabhavati Devi has since taken a back seat. There is, after all, no comparison between the gold plated steeples of Siddhivinayak Temple that attract millions every year and a small temple hidden behind a skyscraper where oldies still go to devour the calm and peace it offers. While I was growing up & attending Shardashram, famous only for being Sachin Tendulkar’s school, my city started from Matunga & ended at Nariman Point. I was not known of any suburbs. My parents took me to Dahisar at my mama’s place when I was in third grade. This area marks the end of Mumbai Municipality and upon my return I told my class teacher that I had been to America. Yes, suburbs were far off, almost like a foreign land. My experience widened and so did the boundary of what I considered Mumbai as I started with college and yet I felt relieved at the end of every day as I returned to Prabhadevi and its familiar sights and smells. We stayed in a chawl & like any other chawl dweller we considered it to be a bad place for a growing up girl so I wasn’t allowed to mix with other kids. Books became my friends then. So in a way, I owe it to this city, my love for books & also the freedom it offers me from being too dependent on people for happiness or sorrow.

Every Sunday, I was taken to Shivaji Park. Its not actually a park. I mean there wasn’t any park then. It was just a beach with golden sand, horse carriages, Ghati (and by that I mean a caste and not the non-maharashtrian synonym for tacky) men carrying wicker baskets full of yummy kulfi. There were a very few stalls that sold chat that is now ubiquitous but then we never had money for Bhel Puris or for balloons and yet I was a happy kid. I built castles. They were the proof of how pathetic I am at art and crafts. All I could ever make was a cone shaped mountain. Sometimes I longed for the plastic beach toys that other kids had which would enable them to carve nice shapes and actually make forts. I think that was the time, I had grown up enough to understand the value of money and how its abundance or lack could impact you. I always wondered how would it be like to have rich folks who could get you all the chat you wanted to eat and a ride on the nearly-dead horse and a balloon shaped as a plane and those plastic beach toys. 
Then, there were very few couples sitting at the back of the crowd and carried on doing what couples do. Holding hands was the ultimate limit of obscenity. Instinctively I knew never to ask my parents what these college going, young couples were up to. By the time I enrolled in D.G.Ruparel College of Art, Commerce and Science, these couples were mushrooming everywhere on my beloved beach, their antics had now crossed the first base. An umbrella still covered them from the prying eyes and yet I wasn’t sure why people would want to be in public for their most private moments. A stone’s throw away from where these couples cootchi-cooed, was a Hindu crematorium – the traditional one with wooden logs, fire and sundry. If my parents ever saw a funeral party approaching, they made me look somewhere else but that did not stop the smell of burning flesh from making me gag. Again, I knew what that was all about. We would take longest route on our way back home, to avoid the place, to avoid the mourners, to avoid the chant – Ram Naam Satya Hai…

but beyond anything, my most favorite moments on the beach were when we – my father and I, collected the shells. They weren’t too distinct. There was almost the same hardness and same pattern of red, cream and white on their body. Collecting as many as possible, hiding them from my mother and smuggling them back home was an adventure. Later, I would clean them with soap water and my mom would just know – she could find sand deposited all over the place. Those shells decorated my book-shelf and also a lot many of my otherwise pathetic art and crafts projects. All those in my class, not fortunate enough to stay so close to a beach would envy me for that bounty. It felt good to be on the other side of envy, for once. The second best moment was the sunset. I loved the painted sky and the reduced glow of sun as it dipped in the sea. I would stare hard at the setting sun and then for a minute or two, everywhere I looked, I could see it. A bright, orange dot on everything I lay my eyes on.

Finally, my dad would take me to the water. We both would remove our shoes. He would fold his pants. I would be wearing a knee length frock that wouldn’t need any folding. He would hold my hand just to keep me from running like a monkey. The first wave washing off our naked feet was always too cold. It always deposited the while salts on our brown and tanned feet but the second, third and fourth would be warm and inviting and we wouldnt care if there was more salt on us. I would bent down, dip my fingers in the water and taste it. It was always too salty and made me cringe but that was a ritual. We would stand there for some time. My frock would fly around me but it didn’t occur to me to put it back in place, to tidy up to keep my modesty from onlookers, firstly because there weren’t those many perverts around. 10 year old could show her undies in public and no one would look twice and secondly because it indeed was a carefree age. While my dad held on to my hand like a leash on dog, I would bend down and splash water back into the sea. I guess, for the first time, even before my menses showed up, when I myself realized I wasn’t a carefree child anymore, it was on this shore. My father had stopped holding my hand. He would just stand there looking at the horizon, pointing out Mount Mary church in Bandra and later Centaur hotel. I would make sure to tuck my frock between my legs so that it wouldn't fly all around me. That – being aware of onlookers and comprehending their eyes was the flashcard this city had waved at me – Finally I was a grown up.

Even today, I go to the exact spot on the beach where my parents would take me when I was a kid. A lot has changed. I have changed. My parents no longer accompany me. Walking in sand exerts a lot of pressure on their aging and complaining knees. There is no sand now. It was all dug up and sold to builders all over the city. Sea has reclaimed that land and hence you have only a tiny crescent of place where you can sit now. Your clothes get dirty now because there is no sand that slides the moment you get up. Now there is a very fine sand, called reti, black as tar and it clings to your body and clothes. There are at least 2 dozen stalls selling everything from chat to chinese. People eat that irrespective of its price or hygiene. These days kids don’t carry any toys with them because there is no sand and most importantly there is no space. It’s so crammed that you can’t tell one family from other. Couples are still there – now we see the married ones as well, not quite sure if they are married to each other though. Or maybe, like a friend explained, they are. They are married and stay in a cube shaped room with 10 other people. They come here on this beach to find that solitude. They come here to hold hands, steal a kiss, gaze into each other eyes, tell each other dreams of growing old together, dreams of having kids, dreams of making big in this scary city – basically to do everything they can’t in their overcrowded home. Not that they are alone here but that’s the beauty of this city – it walks by your side and yet you can choose to be alone and on your own when you want. The privacy they cant afford or expect in an overcrowded home can easily be found here with thousands of other unknown faces. I know its all sweet and heart-warming but I cant help but resent when people completely forget where they are. I have seen the worst. They have long passed the third base and the fact that there are kids and elderly around be damned! 

These days there are no shells. What you find instead is all plastic. Empty containers, paper dishes, used condoms, plastic bags full of garbage or sometimes with wilted garlands & flowers that were offered to  Gods before dumping them here in the sea as per our customs. There will be human shit now instead of horse dung patties that were common back then. Needless to say, I no longer taste the water for its saltiness. I don’t venture into the water. Last time I tried, I was up whole night scratching my feet. The rash was instantaneous & remained itchy for next 3 days.

Every summer, my father would take me to Nehru Tarangan (Planetarium). Its here that I dreamed of becoming a scientist. I know, 99% would want to be an astronaut but I was happy on planet earth. I just wanted to be that guy who wrote those books about stars and had a telescope of his own. I would diligently weigh myself on all planets. Then, my weight was non-existent on moon. I was always scared of dark and yet my father tells me now, the only place where I didn’t crib about it was this place. Stars, galaxies, universe, earth, black holes, supernovas – It was fun to be lost in them. They were sparkly, bright and very pretty. At the end of the show when the projector in the middle would settle back down at the center of the theater, it always played tricks on me. For a few seconds, I would feel as if my chair was in the air and it was me and not the projector that was slowly moving back to the floor. We never had money to buy a telescope or even those books on sale outside but I knew not to ask for anything. My father felt inadequate when my demands were not fulfilled but i always dreamed of returning to this place with lots of money and I did go back last year with pocketful of money and almost bought the entire shop and then returned it the next minute. I just didn’t have time to read these books, most of which I had outgrown but I promised those books to my future child. S(he) would read all that and I will vicariously live through that.

 I know Mumbai is not just about Sea, a Planetarium and its ever present crowd but for me, they hold together a lot of childhood memories. They make me feel small, insignificant with their expanse. What am I really as compared to a roaring sea? What is my achievement of life really as compared to the universe this planetarium sketches across its dome? What is my unhappiness or my problem as compared to millions around me? With all the hue and cry i make about my life not being perfect, about some days spent in despair, there are so many out there who would give and arm and leg for life as privileged and protected as mine. There is no other city that can make you feel so blessed and humble even if you have limited means!

I may be shifting to suburbs very soon – for a better and bigger house so that I could have a room of my own – a luxury I have always wanted but never had till now. I know that suburb is also part of Greater Mumbai but its NOT Mumbai. For me Mumbai is sea and salt in the air. For me Mumbai is my third parent that has seen me growing up. For me Mumbai is what made me into what I am today so I am going to miss Prabhadevi and the sea and my planetarium that's literally minutes away from my home but like this city has taught me - I must move on!

1 comment:

  1. Very Nicely written and cant agree more that anywhere I have been I could never find a city as understanding and so me, like Mumbai . Then be it for any type of person .. As they say for every true blue mumbaikar you can take me out of mumbai but u can't take mumbai out of me :) Cheers to Mumbai & Mumbaikars :)