My Bombay is No More

Last night I dreamed I was in Bombay again. (Forgive me Daphne Du Maurier). Back to that city of skyscrapers and slums, a city that never sleeps, a city I love. I saw myself getting into a train, hopefully a superfast, and circumventing the city. The stations slip by–Goregan , Andheri, Bandra, Dadar. A little before town comes Grant Road, a station I’ve always wanted to get out at, but never have. Visitors to Kamathipura get down here, someone once told me. If I ever go back, I think I will stop at Grant Road.

Perhaps it was that conversation last evening with a good friend from the city. Perhaps it was the incessant thoughts that kept me up till two last night, but there is this sudden need to escape. From this, from here and now, from the ghosts of love past, from love that is but cannot be, from who I am and what I want and what I should be, Bombay is always escape for me. (I didn’t mean it to rhyme)

Sometimes when I read a book set in Bombay, there is a hollowness in the pit of my stomach. The sort of hollowness you encounter when you meet a past lover, look into their eyes and see them and yet don’t.

I’m not sure why I like the city. It is an antithesis of all that I am. But then again there are no absolutes in Bombay. You will find a part of your soul everywhere you look. I remember an interview with a Bombay-based writer who told me that Bombay was the muse and central character of his novel. I understood exactly why. She is the perfect muse Bombay, that city of“secret yearnings, nascent dreams, timorous memory. Steeped in glamour and restless energy. Swathed in timeless magic and fairy lights. Beneath it all, her heart of darkness. Bollywood and brothels, paucity and opulence, despair and sanguinity, grime and purity—everything is allowed to exist, everyone is allowed to be and therein lies her beauty. Like a woman of the night who paints her face, sheds her skin and shrouds her soul as she flits from lover to lover, Bombay belongs to everyone because she is owned by no one at all.” (excerpt from an article I wrote in 2013).

To experience Bombay you have to live in it. The visitor’s Bombay, viewed through the grimy windows of a taxi, is a city of food and shopping and glamour, of traffic and jhopadpattis, of children with dirty faces and runny noses who rap against the glass of your cab window trying to sell you pirated books and stickers, of eunuchs who threaten to lift their skirt if you don’t give them money, of music and art and boozy dinners, of malls that are open past midnight. Oh, don’t get me wrong, that is also Bombay. But to live in that Bombay is a different experience.

If you are a single, salaried person, who doesn’t own a house or have family there, you will probably end up being squashed into a tiny, one room flat with three other people. Or maybe, you will end up being a paying guest of some lonely old lady who wants a little money and maybe some company too.

You will take the trains and learn how to get in and leave the ladies compartment without getting trampled upon. You will eat sandwiches and dosas with outlandish fillings–noodles and bhujjia, pav bhaaji masala and warm jam and you will like it. You will shop for vegetables late at night after work and buy booze off shelves at Hypercity. You will discover the various dabba services—hearty, home cooked food, calorie counted packages, macrobiotic plates.

You will drive down to Lonavala and experience chikki in a way you never have before. You will leave knowing that while strawberry fudge, toasted almonds and aniseed chikki are tasty–nothing beats roasted peanuts bound together by jaggery and patience. You will eat it all the way back and come home with a dreadful tummy ache. You will see the ghats come alive after that first shower, the dry brittle red mud exploding into a sea of green.

You will discover the Sanjay Gandhi National park and the Powai lake and marvel at the sudden silence that hits you amidst the bustle. You will hear stories of leopards and crocodiles, and while a part of you hopes to avoid it, there is a sudden thrill in knowing that maybe, just maybe, you will encounter one. You will experience your first Bombay monsoon. You will see roads disappear overnight and water seep in beneath your door.

You will live for three months with the stink of wet clothes and moldering leather and you will leave your windows open and allow the rain to wet your bed, to escape that stink.

You will encounter random acts of kindness from strangers. The man who offers to share a rickshaw with you, the crowd that helps you stand up after an accident, a policeman who walks you down to the main road when you lost. You will wake up to crowds chanting Ganapathy Bappa Moriya for almost two weeks before the final immersion and you will pandal hop, eat modaks and put on three kilos. You will be introduced to twenty varieties of beans and experience the sweetness of goda masala. You will make a spare set of keys at the market, take yoga classes at the Gokuldham temple, go for long walks in the Aarey milk colony.

Perhaps, it seems very trivial and silly. No it is, I suppose but for me, these things once spelt happiness and freedom. Bombay is a spectacle, a marvelous spectacle. Bombay is an experience. You will find love in Bombay, you will heal a broken heart, you will find some version of peace. By losing yourself in those teeming crowds, you find yourself. You learn to let people be..because there are so many sorts of them in Bombay. You will see the beauty of squalor and the squalidness of beauty. You will shed a layer and gain several more. And the shape of your dreams will change. I know mine did.

In my dream, I saw myself getting out at Churchgate, past the dogs and crowds and the paan stains and the soap suds that streamed out of the station bathrooms (dhobis wash clothes here, I think). I walk all the way to Marine Drive and sit on the promenade there, watching the lights reflect off the murky water, the skyline cluttered with the swoop of brightly-lit buildings, the smell of jhaalmuri and roasted wheat lingering in the air. Bombay is an assault on the senses, a peal of laughter in an empty room, an awakening, I want to go back and yet I am afraid. That is the problem with a past go back, thirsting for it. But like sand in the desert that sifts shape, without you knowing it, places change and so do you.

My Bombay, like Manderley, is no more.

  • Preeti Zachariah

Preeti is a dreamer, writer, feminist, animal-lover, journalist, part yogi, writer in the making…

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