I tend to think of myself as a natural disaster. Maybe I am born this way. Like that ne time when I earned the wrath of a nun while walking down a road. Initially she had smiled at me indulgently as she read loudly ‘When God made me….’ –it was the slogan printed on the tee shirt I was wearing…her expression changed from bliss to anger and she glared at me savagely as she read the next part of it.
‘When God made me-he was showing off’. Something told me, it didn’t go down well with her. She pointed out the blasphemous words to the other nuns. In my defense I didn’t wear the tee shirt because of the message, I just thought the color of the tee shirt was pretty.
And hence my overprotective dad, well aware of my tendency to invite trouble, has always gone on an overdrive to shield me from the unknown forces that plot and scheme at the celestial level. Needless to say I had to convince my parents that in spite of my special talent of attracting trouble I would manage just like the rest.
This is the story of a girl who decides to stand on her own two feet– or stilettos in my case. She packs her bags and does the most clichéd thing she can do: she shifts to Mumbai.
Mumbai. I picture it as one of those rotund, pot-bellied ladies or maybe an Indian version of one of those bloated Chinese monk Buddhas- bursting at the seams but ready to stuff itself with more junk food. As if there’s a ‘Bring it on, baby’ sort of a smile plastered perennially on Mumbai’s face- ever-welcome to anyone who wants to bring down their sandcastles from the air onto terra firma.
At the airport of the City of Joy, Kolkata my parents waved me a goodbye with all the melodrama befitting of a Bengali family that carts along the entire dynasty to the airport for some last minute family bonding. And mom, like all moms, told me to look out for the eligible bachelors. I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders.
I then disappeared into the melting crowd at the Indigo gate. Shuffling my way to my seat, I found myself buckled in next to a middle aged lady- maybe 35 or 40ish. Her beaded necklace reached almost to her knees, her kurta had seashells sewn in randomly. I wondered if she was returning from a holiday in SE Asia & it was her clever ploy of smuggling in the seashells which the airport authorities otherwise prohibit from carrying. Her hair frozen to a sparrow’s nest with hairclips that looked like drumsticks-sticking out from odd angles holding the chaos in order. She had massive sunglasses perched atop her head, accented by a humongous bindi. Bright magenta lipstick, gothic nail paint, heavy blush on the cheeks. I took in the rainbow of colours and suddenly my white shirt and dull brown trousers made me feel inadequate.
As I reached for the in-flight magazine, I caught her eye and I told her this would be my first time in to Mumbai. She said ‘in 2013?’ I said ‘yeaaa’. ‘You’re late’, she said. I thought out loud ‘I am?’ She said ‘ Of course, people shift to Mumbai in their early twenties’. Looking slightly offended I told her I was in my twenties.
‘Still, you could have come earlier’ she said, -‘All these models, they start off at 17-18′. As I nursed my bruised ego she dismissed any such illusion with a wave of her hand by saying ‘Models have legs that don’t end…they just go on and on in silky-smooth airbrushed strokes’.
Snapping my seatbelt over all five foot four inches of me I looked out of the window at the only runaway I would ever find myself on.
While I was mulling the death of a career in the glamour industry quietly…Lady Ga-Ga…well that’s how I’ve nicknamed her- was a little hyper.
I tried to say that the airline food was surprisingly good but she interrupted me by sharing more pearls of wisdom. She said gravely ‘Location matters in Mumbai’.
The last time I had heard ‘location matters’ was from a Casanova who was explaining what matters most when you kiss a girl.
I snapped back to the present and asked her to elaborate. She said, ‘There’s the town and there’s the suburbs’ ‘Town is where the rich and those who matter stay’. The suburbs is where everyone else stays.’
I said ‘So in Mumbai you don’t judge a man by his shoes?’ ‘No’, she replied, ‘but you judge him based on where his shoes get to rest at night’. I looked at her, pretending to be enlightened and said ‘I see’. I guess I just don’t get the same thrill from judging another person as she does.
Encouraged by my naivety, she took an upper hand and animatedly ran me through the different parts of Mumbai. Like an art curator who walks you through his entire collection of curios.
Her eyes glistened when she spoke about parts of South Bombay. She remembered Bandra fondly, despite it being the suburbs. She grimaced when she mentioned Meera Road and so forth. She waxed poetic about Malabar Hill, home of, according to her, the “Dirty, Beautiful, and Rich.” I asked her about Dharavi…she said ‘Why is that where you’d be staying initially?’ and laughed at her clever joke. I said ‘uh,no but…’ She cut me short and said ‘You guys need to grow up. Fixated about Dharavi after watching Slumdog Millionaire and reading whatnot’ ‘There’s more to Mumbai than just romanticizing slums’.
Well, Lady Ga-Ga may have been dismissive but how can you not think about a place that’s crooked and crumbling and yet has the ability to stand straight with its head held high. Six lakh residents crammed in 520 acres of the Dharavi slums- it is home to a thriving warehouse industry, India’s largest recycling centre and home to the small scale industries- in a nutshell, the backbone of this city.
‘So what else is there I need to see?” I asked. She gave me a scathing look and said ‘Find out. How would I know what you’d like in Mumbai unless of course you want to do all the touristy things, the museums, the Gateway, eating bhel-puri, vada pao and a walk on Marine Drive’?
I had a brainwave. The underworld mafia dons. I thought it was the right time to ask her about the bad guys who led such exciting lives in such unexciting times. But it turned out to be a mistake. She pooh-poohed me away and said people like us who were born and bred on a staple diet of Bollywood had not grown up right.
Tell me about it! My friends have always grumbled that I didn’t grow up right and now I have a perfect stranger rubbing it in as well.
I tried to butt in and name a few Hollywood movies which are my all time favourites, thinking this would dilute her condescension, but she nipped me in the bud. She said I should explore the vibrant theatre life in Mumbai. NCPA, Prithvi, Stand up and improv comedy shows, wine tasting, etcetera. She also told me to soak up the Kala Ghoda festival in February, get drenched in its colours, rent a bicycle & explore the Kanheri caves at Borivali, take a boat to Elephanta, attend a Sufi concert, keep an eye out for gigs at Horniman Circle, Strum the guitar at Bandra Bandstand, and top it off with an ice gola at Juhu beach. Wow, I said to myself…that’s quite a heady mix.
And just when I was warming up to her… she’d turn frosty and snooty and then at times she’d look at me- recognize the babe-lost-in-the-woods look and have sound advice to share. Like Lady Gaga and her costume changes, this woman was constantly in flux. One second she walked the red carpet in a dress made of meat, and the next moment she stepped out on stage in an elegant cream colored dress. I could barely keep up with my co-passenger the way the world can barely keep up with the original diva.
Like when she gave me a few tips on how the dating scene works out in Mumbai. She said ‘Dont expect the guy to come to your door to pick you up. Neither of you will make it to the party on time. Be independent, reach the venue on your own’ I looked crushed, I said ‘what about chivalry? Isn’t the guy supposed to pick & drop?’ She said ‘Drop. Most certainly yes. Mumbai’s very safe, but be smart and don’t travel back so late in the night. If you expect to be picked up as well then better date someone in your neighborhood. But that limits your choices and it’s the recipe for a bad romance’.
Lady Ga-Ga mentioned in passing the places where you could shop till you drop and where exactly in Crawford market one could buy original cosmetics for half the price. I said ‘But Frank Sinatra said-‘I like intelligent women, when you go out it shouldn’t be a staring contest’ She snorted, with a poker face ‘ You think men really want to know about your opinion of the weakening rupee? Men are visual animals’
There were a few other tips by her- keep an eye out for paparazzi and maybe you can get into the newspaper, stay on the edge of fashion but don’t look like you’re trying too hard, and no matter what you do, never ever look star struck.
Finally I landed in the city immortalized in my head after reading Shantaram and Maximum City. I remembered lines from MC which went, “All great cities are schizophrenic. Bombay has multiple personality disorder”.
Schizophrenia or not, my first stop at a local phone recharge shop sure jolted me out of my senses when I asked for a certain recharge card. The shop owner said ‘Khallas’.
I was reeling ‘khallas?’ Isn’t that what the underworld mafia dons say when they murder some hapless person? I looked at him again, totally lost, and a little scared. This time he made the same hand gesture I was so used to watching in the Bollywood movies when the victim is silenced permanently. His hand made a clean sweep and he said ‘Khallas’. I reflexively took a big gulp.
I blinked at him and then it hit me. He meant the coupon was out of stock. I could breathe again.
Hailing from a city known for its sweet language and roshogollas- needless to say, it took a while to get used to the Mumbai lingo which appears crass but really, the people mean no harm.
There’s a kind of physical touch that comes with the city too. That rough push which you may get in a local train is usually a helping hand (at least not a malevolent hand) that’s helping you get off at your station. And there’s that man who crossed the road to tell me that I was headed in the wrong direction, he had simply overheard me saying out loud my destination to someone on the phone. No, the people of Mumbai don’t mean to pry into your privacy or step onto your toes– they’re just plain and simple helpful. Of course, I’ve had my run-ins with ticket collectors for no fault of mine and have had some unpleasant experiences as well.
Mumbai can intensify the feeling of loneliness for those of us trying to find a foothold in a new city. To be fair, I’ve also heard the same thing about London and New York. It’s one thing that great cities have in common.
Like Oliver Twist I’ve felt a bit of an orphan finding my way about the city as it can overwhelm the senses. And when trying to hold on to a bit of warmth, I’ve been told harshly by new friends that they feel a burden of responsibility towards me for feeling so rootless. So where perfect strangers have exuded warmth like a bonfire on a cold night, those close to me have sometimes not found a place to fit me into their supposed fast-paced lives.
But you’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt or masala for that matter. It’s not for nothing that there’s a proverb that goes ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. Ok, it’s not a proverb, just a movie. You get the drift, right? But unlike Clint Eastwood, the chairs I’m talking to tonight have people in them.
And Lady Ga-Ga? I remember her every time I dig into berry pulao at Britannia or queue up at the other Parsi restaurants for dhansak and caramel custard. Some of my friends have landed at these places late in the evenings and found it closed, much to their disappointment. But Lady Ga-ga had warned me ‘These Parsi restaurant walas, they close shop by 5pm’. I blurted out ‘But that’s bad for business, don’t they want to make profits’. She looked at me scornfully and said ‘There’s no such thing as a happy marriage. Just as there is no such thing as a poor Parsi. They open and close their restaurants according to what pleases them’. In a city obsessed with money and greedy for fame, it’s nice to see not everyone subscribes to that philosophy.
As for Lady Ga-Ga she disappeared with a wave of her hand and lowering of her glasses that summer day as I waited for my suitcase at the baggage claim. My takeaway from meeting her was the realization, that in the end this city is what you make of it- not what other people tell you it is.
It’s the story of struggle, it is the story of achievement, it is the story of newcomers who feel lost in it during the initial months, and it is the story of the veterans who’ve lived here long enough to take up the place of Lady Ga-Ga and give advice to the rest of us.
Bombay is like an ink blot spilled on an open page of a book- you can press it between the pages and open to interpret the design in your own unique fashion.
Maybe this city’s evolved like that. Maybe it’s only like that in our minds. Or maybe Bombay was born this way.
Enakshi Biswas is acompulsive story teller and considers communication as her lifeline. She believes, like a search engine can pull up endless search results for keywords, we all are a search engine of stories, with a limitless repository of stories lying dormant. Waiting for the right trigger to make us search within ourselves, all those untold tales.