Survivor’s Guilt In The City Of Gold

When I wrote this post earlier this year, I doubted anyone would actually read it. It was something that I wrote because I felt I had to, for myself.

My first brush with this story was back in 2000. A young greenhorn, freshly out of college, I’d been given an internship that would take me around the city and (I hoped) be my stepping stone onto the corporate ladder. I looked at the list, clutched in my fist and read through the rainwater dripping off my hair, an unfamiliar address. It was the first time I had stepped off at that station called Lower Parel. In the years to come, it would become home station to me as I passed it everyday on my way to and from work. But back then, I didn’t even know about the staircase at the end of the platform that lead to an overbridge. I walked out into a busy market, even then as filthy as current-day Mumbai with its roads bruised by incomplete construction.It was pouring. I walked all the way through muddy puddles, broken roads and unidentified messes. On either side, high walls towered around me, the kind I had only ever seen in Hindi movies of the late 70s. Instinctively I recognized them as factories and mills.

A few years later, my career took me to the other side of the tracks to a place with the quaint name of Chinchpokli. The first time I heard that name, I really thought the speaker was kidding. But he wasn’t and the directions he gave me were ones I would follow for the next four years. I’d spend my lunch or coffee breaks walking around near the office. My wanderings took me past the plush building, past the post office, right through the heart of an old-fashioned bazaar (complete with clay pipes, stacks of tobacco shavings, religious pictures and plastic jewellery). The back gate of my office compound led into a narrow lane, which ended up at another picturesquely-named station, Cotton Green. Both sides of the lane were flanked by those same high walls, broken windows and architecture of another era.

My father is the one who told me the tragic story of the mill-workers in Mumbai. Once I saw a play called ‘Cotton 56, Polyester 84‘. The story of two mill workers whose lives are permanently put on hold by the strikes and their pathetic attempt to pass their days counting the number of people wearing shirts of either fabric stayed with me. I had no words to describe what I felt, though.

I spoke to the boy (a relative newcomer to Mumbai) about this sometime back.And he is the one who dug out this movie for me to watch. City Of Gold is the appropriately titled story of the greed, the desperation and the angst that collide and fuel this place that I call home.

The movie begins with the phasing out of mill divisions and the subsequent protest strikes by the mill workers. A mill worker was one of thousands who trained in a specific job and spent all his adult life doing just that. His peers were his colleagues, his friends and true to the Bombay chawls, his neighbors & family. This simple, defined world was thrown into despair when the strikes began. Not only did the mill worker lose his job, but his self-esteem was battered, his relationships worn down and the social structures that he belonged to, eroded.

The mill workers had been working people with all the sense of respectability and pride characteristic of the middle class of this country. But an entire generation was suddenly rendered jobless, unemployable and thus, impotent. Knocked over from their traditional roles as bread-winners, their families suddenly found themselves struggling to cope both financially and emotionally. Anarchy reined. Their women, traumatized by the shift in gender roles turned into incessant nags, dejected by life or fell prey to bad decisions with irrevocable consequences. Their sons, similarly tortured, varied between escapism of every way to crime.

City of Gold focuses on one family and some related characters and how these events shaped their lives. It’s sobering to see what one normally reads as a newspaper headline over morning tea, turn into a catastrophe that destroys entire families. The boy described the movie as ‘hard-hitting and pulling no punches’. I’d agree. It’s grim, it’s tangible and it’s real.

Speaking objectively (as much as I can, anyway), this movie could have been a dreary, heavy documentary but it wasn’t. The characters all felt real and well-defined. The movie also pulled together diverse sub-plots and zoomed between the larger reality of the mill strikes to the mundane dramas of everyday lives of the workers perfectly. What was most interesting was that a story with so much berth to fall into controversy, finger-pointing or preaching, didn’t. You can almost picture the story-teller, gritting his teeth to stick to the facts and pass no judgment while at the same time empathizing with the horrors faced by these people.

My only real grouse was with Anusha Dhandekar (who plays a very small role in the movie) since her bubble-gummy, glittery self seemed out of sorts in a movie of this nature. But the boy brought home the point that she was meant to represent the viewer (the entire story is a flashback, narrated to her by a man who grew up in the mill worker chawls). That touch actually makes the movie even more real.You and I after all, can have no more than a very superficial impression of what elapsed in that historic period in Mumbai. She is what connects us to the movie, just the same way that the glitzy malls and hip pubs that stand on those places today, do.

I loved the movie. It tells of a people I never knew, of a time that was before me. But it speaks the truth of the city that I call home. I cannot, in good faith, call myself a true Mumbaiker by enjoying the glamourous urbane life with no thought to what built it, after all. Mumbai, Island city, Maximum City is a place of much dazzle and money and it all stands on the remains of exploitation and greed. It is survivor’s guilt but I think that is the very least we owe to the people that lost everything to make this city home for us today.

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City of Gold was released in both Hindi & Marathi and directed by Mahesh Manjrekar.

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History

Friday* evening is when the city comes alive with a vengeance. As if it were sleeping the rest of the time. But Fridays are a frenzy of partying and drinking and laughing too loud. In a frantic attempt to drown out the panic of life running out faster than we can make sense of it.

One such Friday, I stayed in late at work. Of course the work never ends. I suppose I could have left earlier. Met a friend for coffee. Or another for drinks. Or walked down the seaface. Or photographed flamingoes in flight. Or watched Aamir Khan’s debut performance as a director. Instead I took a walk.

Behind my office is an old building that used to be a factory. Now one half of it has been converted into a glossy glass-and-steel office complex. The other half is used as a parking lot. On a late Friday evening, there weren’t too many cars around. I strolled around in the semi-darkness. Not even a breeze…unusually warm, even for a Mumbai December.

In between the buildings is a long stretch of concrete road. No vehicles at that hour. No employees walking out of the building. Just the stars above on an unusually clear night, visible between asbestos sheets on one side and curved steel girders on the other.

I stepped into one of the open doorways. I wondered if this is what it felt to walk around in an old castle.

Heavy cylindrical pipes overhead, solid pillars and rusted metal staircases at the corners. Hundreds of busy feet must have walked this floor thousands of times over the years. Machines being oiled, a worker showing another one how to pull a lever, a foreman looking at a sheaf of papers, sparks in another corner. Things were made here, lives were built here, dreams were dreamt and realised…or shattered here. Hundreds and thousands of them. Don’t they say ‘put your heart into your work’? Those milling masses must have put their very souls into their work. I still feel them.

Mumbai was built on industry, on factories, on the hard labour of workers. They made this the city of dreams, the commercial capital of the country. The grit and hard-headedness that is taught to us as a way of life now were the lessons that they handed down from lives of unrelenting labour. They were my true ancestors. I haven’t forgotten.

Incidently this post was written almost a year ago. The building in the photograph does not look that way anymore, since it has been converted into yet another gleaming office complex. The mills shut down long ago and now with their buildings being revamped, it feels like the tombs of Mumbai’s ancestry are being razed away.

* From a Friday long, long ago.

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Pipes

Unless I’m greatly mistaken, these are the pipes that one uses to smoke ganja? I remember seeing these in little shops on my way home from school as well, and wondering what they were. Back then, I figured they were some special attachment to be used on taps. My curiosity continues unabated and I’m still wondering whether these aren’t illegal. If I’m right, they are…sort of.

I could be wrong, however. Does anybody know what these things are used for? I didn’t have the nerve to walk up to the shopkeeper and ask him. He didn’t seem perturbed by my taking photographs though.

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The Old Mill

More intelligent minds than mine
Have spoken
Everything of consequence said
Now I speak my unimportant bit

Never saw the sky this blue
Broken shells hint at the idea
Of something that was
And has passed
Like time whispering

Footprints on sand
Just before the tide washes in
Aren’t ugly
Neither is the old mill.

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