Much gets said about the frenzied pace of a metropolis and its coldness. But every big city is an organism of parallel layers, bubbles even, that jostle along, seemingly oblivious to the others’ presence. My city is Tinsel Town, it’s the financial capital, it’s the safest city, it’s a port, a tropical island, an organised crime base, a place starved for time and space and a mental border between South and North India. I inhabit a few of these bubbles and only occasionally, with great effort, do I cross over to the others. Because they are all Mumbai and anything that is Mumbai is mine to witness, to touch and experience and love.
In 2009, the BMC, Mumbai’s civic body invited citizens to come paint the walls of an arterial road abutting the railway track. I jumped at the opportunity to splash paint and spend a day on the streets. A lot of friendships were made that day that we spent whitewashing, priming and rendering street art on the rough wall of Tulsi Pipe Road.
The paint has since worn away and been covered and recovered with other such wall projects. The pavement dwellers who were displaced for this day of fun for the more affluent, have eked out their homes again too. Bollywood posters come up now and then and in the past year, election campaigns as well.
The city grows and breathes with every newcomer here. I just got to lay my handprint on it for a day. Even if it lies buried under layers of others, the city and I communed that day in September.
I love this city in a way that I have never been able to love a human being. Even to call it love feels facetious because it feels silly to say I love myself in a way I’ve never loved another.
I live inside a body and a name and a lifestyle that people identify as me. But these are mere identifiers, a hat & spectacles placed over an invisible being as a visibility courtesy to other people. These are not me, they merely symbolise me. Ostensibly, they protect me from the universe running over me by mistake but really, they protect other people by alerting them to the scary presence of another.
ME – this is what I know in an innate sense that defies words and expression. The closest I can come to it is this geopolitically defined, this culturally denoted, this statistically demarcated, this verbally described experience called Mumbai.
In 24 hours, this city (and I) go to vote for one of the most shouted about elections in recent times. Relationships have ended, allegiances wrought & broken and people have even died for this. And after that, true to our name, we’ll go to work, to school and to places we must be so the system runs. So we run.
What is a city, after all? It’s more than its people and its buildings and its location and its numbers. It transcends what is written and spoken about it. And if it is a city that you have lived in your whole life, it defines you and you in loving harmony, define it back. Just like every drop defines the ocean and the ocean is every single drop. I feel the way Mumbai feels, every second.
I feel most at peace in the nights here. One of the labels hung on my city is after all, the city which never sleeps. I am awake and watching the city’s nights as its noise transitions from tinny, metallic horns and the tang of concrete to deep bass breathing and the rumble of machines coming to a stop. The night is defined by my wakefulness and by the sleep of every one of the others who are it.
Sleep, my place-self. Sleep the sleep of island magic and moonlit sonatas. Mumbai sleeps.
What if we were all places instead of people? Towering construction. Sweeping grasslands. A rabbit hole. A pothole. A wrought iron staircase. A treehouse. The ground floor of a building under redevelopment plans. A library. A cell for illegal aliens. The verandah of a brothel. A nursery. The last window of a factory floor. A town square. The green room of a fading star. A shop.
Aren’t we all places already? We are worlds unto ourselves with gates & doors called identity. Know me and gain entry.
Some of us are plush, luxuriant drawing rooms that invite guests to sink in and never leave. Some are spider webs, some carpets, some thresholds. Someone is a transit point on public transport, bright, always impersonal, always busy. Somebody is a bus-stop in the rain, holding both promise and fear. There’s always a person who is the most comfortable spot under a tree, perfect at a particular time and one season. And there’s the one who is your favourite spot on a threadbare sofa with creaking hinges, whose prods & pokes spell comfortable familiarity. One person is an amusement park and another is a discotheque – one lively in the day, another at night and each full of gloomy foreboding at other times. There are even those who are museums, furniture shops, antique stores.
And what else are those we envy but places we look at in a glossy brochure, wishing we were there? Ah, but they tell us, you wouldn’t want to live here.
What is the place that you are? And is it your favourite spot in the world
It’s not something we take into consideration. We even consider it so rarely that if it does happen, we are quick to assume ulterior motive. And we continue to buy into the myth of the cold cruelty of cities, of a story where characters never speak to each other or care about one that falls, of people who never touch each others’ lives at all. We believe humanity to be a rapidly evaporating commodity that’s barely contained only in the oldest and most decripit of associations. Yet, every close friend and every great love was a stranger once.
Growing up in 90s Mumbai meant dealing with the reality of terror attacks, political unrest, union conflicts & bomb blasts. There were also people sheltering together, unknown hands helping one another through floods, acts of blind trust & good faith in humanity that probably saved more lives than the authorities.
Once, I fainted in a Mumbai local. I had been indoctrinated well enough in public transport safety to get down, stumble and collapse onto a seat, holding my bag tightly to me so no one could steal it. A stranger sat down next to me, offered me water, offered to drop me home. When I refused, she gave me her shoulder as she half-carried me across the pedestrian bridge, 2 staircases and to the auto stand. I never knew her name and I don’t recall her face.
A month later in another train, the woman before me swayed and might have fallen off had it been in the other direction. The train was so crowded, she didn’t even hit the floor, just sagged onto me. I held her till the station arrived, walked her down, sat with her and asked if I might drop her home. She consented and I escorted her home. It was no bother at all. I think the universe was giving me a chance to give back and a big lesson too.
Look around you. These are not zombies, not monsters, not cold machines, not malicious agenda. You are surrounded by a world of human beings and the possibility of connections. Kindness and good faith are the magic ingredients in a connection. It’s all there, if you allow it to happen and allow yourself to be a part of it – the kindness of strangers.
She says it doesn’t look quite real to her. It’s so many people; nobody knows anyone else. So anonymous, so cold, she surmises.
I say yes. And no. There are so many lives and so many stories happening this minute in this one corner of the city. We do the math and guess at 400 occupants of the building opposite. It mirrors the one we are in so that’s 800 people and their stories. Including I tell her, this one you and I are in.
Look there, someone sitting down to early dinner. And there, she pokes at the grill, gesturing her question. Someone loves plants. A teddy bear on a bed. And expensive furnishings, she observes. An old length of pipe too precious to throw away, so it’s stuffed into a window grill.
How many people do you think are having sex right now? I see her grin from the way the side of her face lifts. She says, I think about that a lot. We all do, I tell her and we laugh. And it’s not cold.
It will take you some time, I say. You’re new to Mumbai. But I like it here, she reassures me as new people drawn to this island always do. I know, I say but it is not you yet. Mumbai is a friendly stranger you’re getting to know, maybe you even have a crush on. But for me? Mumbai is me.
Remember that broken mill we passed? That’s me, my history, my scars. See this glitzy building, these shiny lights that waste more energy than my toxic relationships? Also me. And that train chugging along and every single life in there, chopping vegetables over gossip, staring longingly across the grill between coaches, hanging on uncomfortably wedged grateful for a place to stand? That is also me.
It will take time and you will also not see it coming. You’ll go along for weeks, maybe even years hating these hard things the city throws at you. Mumbai doesn’t make love easy. One day you’ll open your eyes or even before you do, mid-blink, you’ll realise. The anonymity is your identity and your community. The city is one with you. And it is everything. Everything but cold.
When we leave the balcony, she shuts the door with the slightest of shivers.
When was the last time you saw a 30- something look like this? That’s a 30-something pretending to be 20 and you bought it.
We have a mental picture next to each age number till 25. ‘Kid’ gets bigger till it hits ‘Grownup’. ‘OLD’ is a white-bearded, balding man or a toothless, hunched crone leaning on a stick. We are quick with the statement “You don’t look that old at all! You look YOUNG !”. We mean it as a compliment as if being a certain age is the ideal way to be, instead of a natural life stage that everyone passes through for exactly the same time. We decide that young and old are about age bands, rather than a set of factors like experience, exposure, financial independence, emotional maturity, physical fitness, metabolic health, mental stability and attitude. We assume that a ‘Not Young’ person suddenly has a slower pace, less dramatic body language, tighter frame of movements. We assign a limited ABC book image to the binary labels of ‘Young’ and ‘Not Young’. Anyone different may gain temporary membership to the coveted Club of Young.
Being told I look younger is not a compliment. I don’t look 17 because at that age I hadn’t learnt how to manage my allergies & my periods and it showed. I don’t look 24 because then, I was severely underweight from being assaulted and had stretch marks. I don’t look 28 because then I was strapped into a corporate life, weighed down by appropriateness & stress greying. I don’t look 33 because I had water retention & dark circles from an abusive relationship.
I look every minute of my 39 years. The lift in these dusky skinned, bony arms was hard won. The smooth lines of my hair were the result of many negotiations between beauty standards & personal preferences. That tilt of face is measured in the slaps I endured to keep me down. The grace in awkward, clutching fingers took years of accepting my traumas and learning to do so on stage. The feet planted firmly apart have warred against manspreaders and slut-shamers and managed to stay standing. 39 is the story of many wars survived.
Don’t erase my history and tell me that it’s a compliment. 39 looks like this.
When I was a child, my primary school building had a tree growing in the ramshackle courtyard outside. One had to climb a few boulders and avoid the loose stones and holes burrowed in by rodents to reach up. And once one got there, it wasn’t comfortable since it grew on a huge, sharp-edged rock. It also offered very little shade, having dwindled in foliage over no one knows how many generations of children. But the tree did allow for contact, if you knew how to reach it. And I did. To its northwest, angled towards the steep side and atop a jagged patch of rock, was a spot just big enough for my bottom to perch on, legs drawn up close. And if you were small and kept very quiet, no one would come looking for you to tease or order or threaten to tell a teacher.
I’d go there every few days, having failed to find my place in the complicated world of primary school. People were full of greed and jealousy and spite and temper. But the tree was peace. It was silent, harmonious in a way my numerous music tutors never would be. I never needed to speak words aloud, fearing correction, judgement or sneering. The tree seemed to know. In its company, my bruised little heart would feel the gentle embrace of its shadow (the only spot where it fell, right over where I sat). Trees feel safe to me. They are old and carry the lessons of time, unlike buildings which only speak of their builders money and politics.
I spotted this tree at the junction of a rapidly disappearing Mumbai (the textile mill belt) and the greedy new city emerging in its place. Flanked by the wall of an old mill and facing a spanking new skyscraper, this one holds stories that would fill history books, only no one will ever write one. But I listened and it gave me a glimpse into a thousand lives, in a single breath. I can still talk to trees and they still carry stories. Thank you, old friend.
The hardest thing to let go of, is what you thought the future was going to be.
We get told so much about persistence and the merits of believing in one’s dream. And we’re only reminded that the world is full of other options, when we’re at the absolute dark end. But the truth is that life is full of a million possibilities every minute.
Great intellect may let you see these possibilities well in advance. And since we almost never pay attention to our emotions, we let what comes up, exist just so long as it’s convenient – feeling joyful at one prospect over another. And we respond to other feelings that come up, with dismay, confusion or worse – denial.
That’s why we also cling to situations and people long after they’ve proven themselves bad or even just irrelevant to us. We’re trying to recapture that first convenient feeling, assuming that’s the only (right) one to feel.
But the truth is, just as it is possible to hold several thoughts on one’s head at one time, it is also possible to feel a lot of things for the same person or situation, simultaneously. Acknowledge the flaws in that person you thought was so perfect, the unsightly bumps in that new road.
Honour the presence of all those feelings. They have insights for you. Understanding what they’re saying may make the difference between a crash landing and swerving away in time for the ride to stay fun.
Mid 2000s: I was fresh off the press, newly minted professional and facing a reality that I was not prepared for because the generation before mine had never seen it — RECESSION. I was the forerunner of a generation that would only be named a few years later but would come to define worldwide shifts. I had lived in the same city my whole life and I had rarely ventured beyond my home-college-workplace circuit – physically or mentally.
I found my dream job in an industry that I’d wanted to join and a good company. I had also been blogging for over a year and was just discovering that I had a voice and a place to exercise it. Each day was a new lesson. Even my daily commute became an adventure. I learnt about who I was and where I came from — because you really can’t have one without the other.
Mid 2010s: I took to the stage as a quest for a new life, smarting from deep wounds, forcing myself to shed every skin I’d accumulated. I started, with a promise to myself to carry a mindset of healing and not vengeance. I wanted to tell stories of hope, of inspiration, of triumph. It meant tapping into deep wells of emotion, of wading through long accumulated hurt, of salvaging the good parts, of picking out the broken bits and attempting to heal them.
One story that cried out to be shared, was of the bruised history of this city . Maybe all big cities are this way and each one in their own unique way. To me, the stage feels like a hyper concentrated experience of being a Mumbaiker. You are constantly being stripped down to your most basic truths because there is no time or space for extra baggage. And yet simultaneously, there is the sad knowledge that we cannot carry anymore, a lingering memory of all that we leave behind. It is us. I have been writing this story in diary entries, in blogposts, in poetry and finally, in performance for over a decade now.
Last month, one telling of this story was picked to feature in The Habitat’s fortnightly line-up of oral storytellers. I ran through a story that sits comfortably with its words, because I’ve shared it so many times now. When I realised it was being recorded though, I asked if I could have a do-over. This is such an important story, that I felt it deserved more than an autopilot telling. They obliged.
The better part of this month has forced us all to examine in brutal detail, our emotions, our motivations and our identities. #MeToo encompasses and colours every interaction, every thought we’ve had about another person, every desire, every play for power. Raw, so raw. This is the only way I can explain what happened when I went back for a do-over telling.
I went up on the stage where I first learnt how to be a performer, with a story that finally fits right, after the years of edits and retellings and rethinkings and research. And midway, I felt myself collapse inside. The audience blurred before my eyes, my breath caught and I felt like my insides were old, withering and flammable, catching fire. and I felt like I was watching bricks and walls that make me, collapse. I mumbled “Sorry, I must leave.” and ran off the stage. I couldn’t stop shaking, sweating and feeling like I was going to drown in something unidentified that was rising from inside me. It was a good ten minutes before I recovered enough to be able to re-enter the room.
My story had nothing to do with the MeToo movement but it is laced with pain and we are living in a world of burning, screaming pain. I imploded. Where else could it happen but on stage, where one’s truths rise to the surface? When I returned, a stranger caught my hand and said, “Please go back and finish your story. It was so touching. I really want to hear it fully.” It gave me the courage to start again and luckily the host welcomed me back up.
A performance shifts in every rendition. And if you’ve seen this piece before, you might notice that it sounds sadder and more melancholy than before. But maybe that’s what the truth of this piece is — stripped of its showmanship and its sugar. This then, is FLAMINGOS, a story about the city I love and about people just like me.
Chinchpokli is a station on Mumbai’s Central train line. Cotton Green and Sewri are consecutive stations on Mumbai’s Harbour train line. All three of these roughly correspond to Lower Parel on Mumbai’s Western train line.
Most of the mills have been or are being redeveloped into urban commercial/office centers. Due to the laws, many of them are not allowed to destroy the original construction, which is why exposed beams, industrial pipes and chimneys still dot this landscape.
The flamingos appeared this year as well, delayed but in greater numbers. Bombay Natural History Society (among others) organises walking tours to see the flamingoes. You can also find your own way from outside Sewri station (on the east) to the docks where between rusty boats and fish-stained ropes, you may catch a glimpse of these migratory pink birds.
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