Sometimes, the merest thing can trigger off memories- an image, a sound, the whiff of a perfume. I viewed a photograph of Mumbai….endless tall buildings, a grey snaking road and a bird soaring in the sky and there I was transported back to my favourite city.
I WAS suddenly that bird…..free, flying, soaring over a city which I love-warts and all! A city which sets me free….for it has given me so much to be grateful for. A flood of recollections came rushing…..about Mumbai or Bombay as it was then, about me. About happiness, contentment, a simple life and friends.
My earliest memories are of Bombay….since I was born there in a Naval hospital. The family roots were in Mumbai- a slew of them…..Grandparents, uncles, aunts, second cousins, spread across the length (since there is very little breadth) of the city. My father was in the Air Force, so we travelled the country on postings. Summer vacations were invariably in Bombay. Thus giving me the most enriching moments of my life.
My nani and mausi lived in Worli….in one of the oldest chawls possibly in the city. I had friends in all the 10-12 houses. A terrific view of the Naka itself , an Irani cafe across the road, a delectable bakery around the corner and that lovely sea breeze blowing all the time. A HUGE fish market close by made for entertaining visit with nani. The access to the fish was through a row of other shops selling utensils, bangles, groceries and the most amazing peach coloured “Shrikhand” flavoured “golis” which I could eat by the dozen.(still can!) Kittens with pointy ears and huge eyes skulked in corners, hungrily eyeing the glazed eyed fish heads as the benign, “nav-vari” clad ladies sold their “not very aromatic when raw” wares at the top of their voices! Colourful, thriving, throbbing with life, full of vitality, rushing at a great pace…life in Bombay for me.
The vacations were idyllic. Playing with my dolls, getting them married, swinging on the makeshift swing my nani used to rig up for me, eating, sleeping, movie outings, meals at family homes, LOTS of books to read and lots and lots of companionable conversation, a normal loving home. Simple pleasures, simple joys. Shaping my personality for the years to come.
What I also learned, though I realised it only later was the absolute melting pot of cultures I got exposed to and learnt from. Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Marwaris, they all taught me a bit about themselves. The language, the food, the nuances have stayed with me through the years. I know kanda, batata, kothmir as I know aloo-pyaz, dhania! I love little vatis of dal with varan as much as I do my aloo paraths. I love sai-bhaji-A Sindhi dish bursting with greens , surprisingly healthy AND mouth wateringly delicious.
Ganpati, Govinda, Gudi Padwa were our festivals-celebrated in all their fervour by all in the community. Ganpati in fact is my favourite festival- as much for the lovable Vighnaharta Vinayak as for the community feel and tremendous sense of belonging it gives. I always wanted to celebrate Ganpati back here in Delhi too but it somehow has never happened. I do however, make it a point to visit wherever the “sthapna” has been done. I do manage till laddoos on Sankranti, the occasional dandiya –raas garba twirl during navratri and Maharashtrian sarees always! The beats of the dhol from Bombay make me want to break into that rapturous, unfettered dancing which is so Mumbaiyya! Think “Mach gaya shor sari nagri re” from “Khuddar”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-u4VdG064I. Think ONLY the beats and music from “Chikni Chameli”!
As I grew, the dolls went, the books increased, the outings and family remained the same. Comforting in its sameness, we had a drill-reach Mumbai….relax and then meet and visit EVERY single family and relative we had. Shopping at Dadar and Gandhi Market (beautiful sarees) and on occasion a memorable trip to Crawford Market, which has remained with me also for the delicious “faluda” I sampled at Badshah. Movies dotted our busy social schedule and other activities also were fitted in with ease-which once included a show called “Holiday on Ice “graceful ice skating and dancing.
The teenage years ended and college beckoned-in my case The Institute of Hotel Management at Veer Savarkar Marg….popularly known as Dadar Catering at Shivaji Park…:) And I discovered a totally different Mumbai…..as a young student. BEST buses to get to college-inevitably the same one every day, vada pav at the Dadar beach, hitching a ride home (students of Dadar catering were famous for hitching rides….it was against our principles to pay to go home!) Clothes from Fashion Street, browsing for book bargains on the pavements of Fountain and drinking Energee. An occasional high expense (we were students) visit to Strand book stall left me happy with my loot but thirsting for LOTS more. A place I discovered which stays my very own is an outcrop of rocks right behind the Mahalakshmi temple. Once done with the darshan, it used to be possible to just go sit there and gaze at the sea. Indescribable peace.
Weekends were for movies at Sterling and Regal, and for visiting my dada-dadi at Vile Parle. My best friend lived a short walk away, so long hours were spent in his company, discussing the meaning of life and sampling pav-bhaji at Adar-one of those typically Mumbai Udipi joints serving delicious everything-Idli, dosa, pav bhaji, uttapam, fresh juices, sev puri, dahi batata puri…..yummmmm!
The (very) occasional night out parting with friends, an odd party there and my college life was sorted. Since, at our college, we also were required to work in hotels post 5 pm to gain practical experience, a whole bunch of us were inevitably found near The Taj around midnight, finding our way home. Walking the deserted streets-safely I might add to the nearest station or bus stop. College itself was fairly hectic and military like in its schedule and expectations…I guess I took to it because I grew up in and with the Air Force.
Three years sped by….and in each of those, Mumbai was racked by violence. The riots when the Babri Masjid fell, the horrific blasts and the subsequent riots too. My Mumbai was battered and bludgeoned. It was hurt. But its spirit was intact and it came to its feet in a trice and cocked a snook at the perpetrators of those heinous activities. It said to the world-“my head is bloody but unbowed”.
The assaults on Mumbai have continued since, but till date the city bounces back…albeit that she is an old lady now.
I left Mumbai 18 odd years ago. Since the, I have gone back almost once in two years for some achingly short and some satisfyingly long holidays. It still holds its charm for me. It still liberates me.
I now live in Gurgaon-a part of the National Capital Region of New Delhi. Very often, I witness the great Mumbai-Delhi divide…..endless discussions on the merits and demerits if both. Many people around me rue the state Mumbai is in today. Overcrowded, dirty, chaotic. Full of immigrants. They crinkle their noses in disdain over the slums. They shake their heads at the slow-moving traffic. They say “I can’t live in Mumbai”. And I look at them and think…”I wish I COULD live in Mumbai. I t is home. It is happiness. It is the days of my youth.”
(Thank You Kunal Karan Kapoor for permission to use the photograph!)
(This post was published as “Indelible Bombay” by Unboxed Writers http://unboxedwriters.com on August 21, 2012)