To Bombay from Bombay

I must return to Bombay for several reasons. One because I tricked myself into believing that a poem is enough but it never is and two because I am reading Vivian Gornick.

Seven years between you and a city of your childhood is enough to make you want to give up everything in its honour. Even if a great deal of this childhood was spent stuck in an apartment on the 8th floor. Even if Bombay was a two- month long vacation in a house full of singing aunties, a toothpick of an uncle whose only connection to the house, and his solitude was the wheezing AC in the only bedroom of the apartment, and an OCD prone grandmother who washed the floor and the TV with equal amounts of Surf Excel and madness.

This is all that Bombay was. This and the shopping bags from Linking Road that amma lugged into big suitcases every evening. These bags had what my sister and I wore for the rest of the year – pants in the gaudiest of red, purple, and pink. Jackets in Amrutanjan yellows, and night dresses with cows and moons on them.

She really did shop for the whole town, as dad would often say. She got bags with 20 compartments for various sisters-in-law and their cousins. Back in Bangalore, during functions, ‘Attige Bombay inda tandiddu,’ (Aunt got from Bombay) was muttered approvingly.

The evenings were hot and sweaty only because we stepped out of the AC room then. As I remember Mahim – its street walls  were permanently blackened by building after building of factories. Blue carts stood idly on the footpath- and behind them – bearded old men in off-white shirts selling vad-pav. We’d hit Icy Spicy for Chinese and the good old Shobha for North Indian and Kulfi.

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When I found myself in this city seven years later, I asked the nearest taxi driver to show me the way out and he mumbled something from his swollen red mouth, pan juice overflowing.

In the taxi, I was glued to the window, inhaling the formless, moving shapes outside. Big billboards with Deepika Padukone’s face on them told me that it has indeed been seven years. I think back to the time when long ago, returning from a film at 8 in the night, my aunt suddenly announced that Rani Mukherji and Karan Johar were sitting in the car next to us at the signal. I poked my head out the window, in between our car and theirs- and gaped at the horrified couple who were not Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee.

They were then visibly upset and my aunt proceeded with all shamelessness to make it clear to them that even she wasn’t all that happy with them for not being Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee.

Bombay hadn’t changed or if it had, I was happy to note that I didn’t care. The air was hot and smelled like it always had – Like the fantasy I had of going to Juhu Beach or an open drainage and blinding myself with a pair of binoculars, having set upon myself the task of finding the sea smell. I say binoculars here because of Garcia Marquez.

In Living to Tell the Tale, he mentions a night he spent with some friends. His brother couldn’t sleep properly because the goat next door was giving birth and the persistent moans of labour disturbed him so he said that the goat’s noise ‘is as annoying as a lighthouse’

That Lighthouse is my Binoculars.

Marquez later says that he would never forget this moment. And as it turns out, neither have I.

Bombay smell is like petrol smell. Not everybody appreciates it. There are takers and then there are abusers. I take it whole-nosedly. 

It’s what I imagine I’ll smell if I stand at the edge of a flyover and open my nose out to the sea –  and it’s the same smell that follows me, away from the flyover, past Kamathipura and Andheri and into Marine Drive. 

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In my room at the hotel next to Bombay hospital, I sneak into the small, parched balcony that is barely holding itself along with its hundred pigeon-droppings and the blackened floor. I lean out and leaning out, I reached into the corners of the mind where Bombay was tangled like the numerous black wires on the clotheslines outside the Loreto building in Mahim.

***

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The next morning, I was walking up and down the Marine Drive beach assuming I’d get to see Shah Rukh Khan’s house somewhere. It was only after fishing out my phone and keying in my destination did I realise that that was in Bandra. You know how when you are young and if you are going to a city of film-land; you are positive that you will ‘run into’ a famous film star or at least catch a passing glance — à la Fan in Fan.

What is the point, I felt like asking after Google told me how far Mannat was from Marine Drive. I was sad for a moment and then I realised that I was in Paro Devi’s city and immediately felt like I do when I’m in love. I felt hopeful and alive from the pit of my stomach. It was 7:30 in the morning. I was a little drowsy, mildly hung-over, and no Shah Rukh Khan anywhere. But I realised that just being in the same city as your favourite writer can save you in ways even Shah Rukh Khan can’t.

Did Paro Devi come here often, I wondered. And through the rest of my stay there – it’s all I asked myself.

I was in the same city as another Shah-Rukh lover and that seemed enough. I was in the same city as a writer whose work I’d stalked for years. And there – standing in Marine Drive smiling sheepishly at all the joggers, I was able to rescue Bombay from Bombay.

I returned home with Two Bombays. One is the Bombay of my childhood and there it will remain happily for the rest of my life. The other is a borrowed Bombay – one that you know through someone else, one that comes alive in someone else’s writing. And because of some one else’s love for the city, you consume it and learn to love it.

Elena Ferrante said “When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities.”

When I first read this, I shook my head. I didn’t agree. For a long time I believed that  cities come out alive when one is not in love. But maybe I should have just read it more carefully. She is not saying anything about being in love, she is saying when there is no love. Very different things. And back in Marine Drive that day, if I hadn’t thought about Paro Devi who had taught me so much about love through her writing and her documentaries — Bombay would have become sterile.

Feminism is about Love and kindness, she says in so many of her interviews. And as I have come to realise, it really is the closest definition of Feminism.

But what does Shah Rukh Khan have to do with love or feminism?

Now only I will start writing next post.

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One whistle for the city

I’m falling in love with cities sooner than I’ve fallen in love with people. 

What is this fascination that won’t go away?

My grinning childhood might be stuck here or is it my heavy, remorseful body wading through teasing memories of slow afternoons? 

I see my mother’s smiling face in all these cities – her body younger than mine, her energy – more reckless than your grandfather’s. 

But what do I have to do with blackened buildings and curving streets? 

What do I have to do with yawning dogs and blinking lights?

I can only say this – R.L Stevenson once wrote a poem on trains. Painted stations whistle by.

And sitting simply, long after I’ve abandoned the city, that line from the poem will come and bite my armpit.

What to do? 

F.R.O.G.S

This piece was written over a stretch of the first few rainy evenings in September. On the first evening, I sat at the department computer, earphones plugged in — listening to YouTube audios of croaking frogs, crickets and other night sounds.

Mangalore and Goa are two of my favourite cities because the frogs here know me well. What began as a tribute to frogs became an inward journey  into the home that I spent my childhood in.

TVs had a volume of their own here and this was the most liberating thing about the house. It was always blaring loud no matter who was around. Back home in Bangalore, every time I sensed my father’s mood swings, I wished all the TV volumes in the world would mute. But in Mangalore, rules bent themselves so neatly that we sat on them and made paper boats.

***

In the afternoons, Goa and Mangalore have the same slumberworthy capacities. The heat becomes duller, settling on the eyelids — making it heavy with sleep. And if there are trees around, the occasional rustle of the wind sends the birds into disarrayed flapping of wings, causing many hypnic jerks. The short dreams are always about birds – flapping eyelashes instead of wings. And, of aeroplanes that fly dangerously close to huts.

Read more here.

Dilli

2015

Some cities share their stories with us so fiercely that when we leave, we don’t miss them anymore because their stories quietly replace them.

For the longest time, Delhi was lived quite precariously within the strong red walls of Karnataka Bhavan and its sombre neighbour, Ansal Plaza. This was where we headed to for a stroll, for pizza and to generally avoid the vacuum of living in a strange city and yet living outside of it.

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Early this year in Ansal Plaza, I found Hi Seoul, and I allowed myself to feel less tortured about not having the courage to explore Dilli. Finding Hi Seoul was the result of some form of exploration, I told myself. So as my parents and aunt trundled to Dominos’; the sister, the brother, and I walked to Hi Seoul.

The next day, we caught our early morning flight to Manali. Delhi safely went back to being the building we stopped at before resuming the actual journey.

***

2016

Chawri Bazaar

When I stepped out to go to Daryaganj, my phone was recovering from the heavy-duty Delhi Metro apps I’d just downloaded. Daryaganj, as my app pointed out, was squeezed between Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk. The Chandni Chowk of Kajol from K3G’s galli, of delicious jelebis and cheap clothes that cousins talked about always a little breathlessly, and of the way my mother’s eyes turned suddenly soft and then shy when she recounted her second trip with dad there.

I cursed all my well-wishers back home who told me that I’d die if I didn’t take warm clothes and wear two socks and two bras in Delhi. I was baking – bra, body warmer, a full sleeved cotton shirt with frills, my brown jacket, socks and warm crocs.

I climbed out of the Chawri Bazaar Metro station and saw a line of cycle-rickshaws. My Google maps said walk 20 minutes to reach Daryaganj. I said chalo, why not and as I walked towards the footpath, one of my legs stood firmly in front of the cycle-rickshaw and refused to move. It all had to happen fast so obviously I went to the nearest cycle-rickshaw and looked inside. The last time I had seen one was in Band Baaja Baraat where Bittu and Shruti do their Shaadi Mubarak business phone call in a cycle rickshaw. Daryaganj jaana hai, I told my man. He nodded and I hopped inside.

My rucksack and I hugged each other as we sat because we were happy and didn’t want anyone or anything else in life. Except maybe some jelebis. Jelebis, yes. And as I sat there, bobbing up and down, I dreamt about a magic camera that could show you what all your friends were doing in that moment and then I imagined all my friends staring into my moment and feeling very happy for me. My father’s disapproving face appeared and I felt happier.

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The cycle-rickshaw braked and I fell, face -first on my man’s back. My rucksack fell and along with it, all my camera fantasies and hopes. My father’s face erupted into raucous laughter and I sobered down. I had arrived in Dilli. I held on tightly to the sides of my cycle-rickshaw and felt a little afraid for my life. My man was humming and braking and screaming at bike/car walas and jumping in and out of potholes with very little effort.

The road suddenly sprung to life and all the vehicles jammed on the lane started screeching away. There was no trace of a footpath — all the cycle-rickshaws had pulled closed to one another and were honking in unison. We were now on a two way road with a serious monopoly issue. Our side had colonised half the road.

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When we hadn’t moved for a while, I paid up and squeezed myself out and stood on no man’s land. I was trapped. There was no room for my rucksack and me to stand, let alone move. My man took pity and offered to drop me to the end of the road. I looked around to see various no man’s land people offering 100 bucks to just sit in the cycle-rickshaw.

Metro

The metro quickly became something I looked forward to travelling in everyday with a mild jouissance. Imagining my body and the bodies of many other women in the metro, lolling freely in the comfort of the ladies compartment made me want to know them differently.

A woman was reading a text book by the door – her lips pouting in enviable concentration, her eyelashes barely visible and her posture so confident, I wondered if she did this every day. Another wriggled into the space between two large women and apologized for her huge Mega Mart bag even as the women dutifully ignored her and went back to sleep.

On my last day in Dilli, two women asked me for directions and one of them enquired if I took the metro regularly. I shamelessly said yes and smiled like a maniac for the rest of the journey.

***

Daryaganj

Monica James writes in Invisible Libraries that today, the library of Daryaganj contains the city. ‘A walk through the library of Daryaganj is also a walk through the city and in your wanderings books become your guides.’

There were various kinds of libraries here: deodorants, clothes, sweaters, track pants, spiral-bound books, diaries, but mostly more books. They were pouring out of the pavements. Lines and lines of massive books in all sizes displayed on thick, plastic blue covers. I scored two Judy Moodys here for Rs 10 each and a moth-eaten copy of Austen’s Sanditon for Rs 30 which I bought only for the inscription I found inside:

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A mean sized auto pulled up at one of the pavements and a lean, short man wearing green chappals slowly started shutting down business for the day and arranging it in the back of the auto. Everywhere else, books were being returned to humongous plastic covers, rags and travel bags. One such pile was being stuffed in when I noticed a bent copy of Blankets. 200 Rs. I decided against it because by now my rucksack was threatening to burst. I still regret not buying it.

On the way back – the rush from before was gone and Meena Bazaar had fallen to a quiet mist. Shop after shop selling meat had their showcases filled to the brim with kebabs and sheeks. On the other side, boxes of sweet smelling fruits were piled on top of each other. At Jama Masjid, I cut into a galli full of weddingy shops: Invitation cards, tent works, plumbing, bride and groom clothes, and travel agents selling exclusive honeymoon deals.

In the corner, a thin man with a big scar on his forehead sat with his knees pressed to the chest – he was getting a shave from a large man dexterously waving his knife. All the top-half of the buildings in Chawri bazaar were blackened, dusty and closed. The lower half of the buildings flourished with activity. I walked on and on, realizing that in a parallel universe, I am sitting in one of the many balconies at Karnataka Bhavan gazing down at red brick walls.

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Seeing and Reading

Pondicherry

Day Three – 11/10/16

When I am listening to the soundtrack of Pride & Prejudice, I imagine what it must be like to touch the keys of a piano. My sister and I were put in a music class in Belgaum once. We were new and mother made us do everything that our neighbours were doing. We were very late joining so the neighbour kids lent us their music book. It was filled with ragas, all written in neat, round Kannada.

Ma copied everything down in two separate notebooks.  She hand wrote it in a ball point pen. I don’t remember how long it took her. But we didn’t go to that music class for very long. We didn’t understand the instructions because they were in Marathi. One day, the music teacher played a tune on his harmonium and asked my sister, ‘ye raga cha naav kai?’ (What is the name of this raga?) And my sister screamed her name loudly. Everybody around us collapsed with laughter.

I was happy that at least we got people to laugh at us. I was sure they didn’t like us much. We were the strange girls from a strange town who didn’t speak their language.

***

When day 3 begins, I am sorry. My bus is at 11 pm and there is a lot to be done, drunken, walked on, touched and taken pictures of. In the middle of all this, I am worried because I only have Alice Munro to read and things with her are never quite simple. I decide to risk it and take her along. I leave the room determined to see and read as much as I can.

If it has rained all morning, I haven’t heard it. I can only tell by the suddenly wet roads. I take a little stroll by the beach and don’t recognise the almost vacant land before me. On a Tuesday morning, Beach Road was a ghost town. I walk to Indian Kaffe Express for breakfast. It’s a small restaurant with six tables and 2 waiters. And here I begin to read the first story in a book called ‘The Progress of Love’.

Reading Munro makes me hold out all my stories like one would hold out playing cards. In this moment, I see the capacity there is in all our lives for stories and storytelling. Atwood once said that in Munro’s stories she feels a nostalgia for vanished miseries.

The first story I pick is called ‘The Progress of Love’. It is the story of a girl, an old house with cornflower wallpapers, the many women and a few men in it. The girl recalls watching her mother trying to kill herself on a Saturday afternoon. Standing atop a chair, and noose around her neck, the mother tells her to go call her father. The girl runs down the hill, looks for her father at the farm, and cannot find him. She is still wearing her night clothes but she only realises this after it has been pointed out to her by a bunch of men who stand listlessly– ogling and sniggering at her. Your father is not here, they say and laugh loudly. The girl is repulsed by the sound of their laughter. Munro later says that the sound of a group of men laughing loudly is the most terrifying thing in the world.

While on the bus back home, there is a loud group of men that doesn’t shut up until very late in the night. They call each other loudly, make jokes and sing songs. By the cold silence that follows after, I can tell that everybody on the bus is annoyed with them. I am annoyed too but I am more afraid. Their voices are loud and all alike. Just before exploding into menacing guffaws, they whisper things to each other. Every time they do this, I tighten my grasp on the far end of the curtain and go deeper within the folds of my blanket. When they get off the bus at Electronic city, the many relieved faces of women and men peep out from the curtains. There is a long line of sighs heard. Mine, I am sure, is the longest.

***

The story continues. The girl runs back up the hill and waits for a train to pass by. Even as she waits, she bawls loudly in the faces of many strangers who are sitting by the window and watching her. This scene stayed with me. This is the most ridiculous, yet the boldest scene I have ever read.

My waffles are cold by now. I pack up and head towards the Romain Rolland Library.

It is a government -white building with dusty old stairs out the front. When I step in, I smell a faintly old library smell coming off the corners of the red oxide floor. I peep in and see some fifty old men sitting pinned in their white lungis and white shirts, all reading newspapers. My enthusiasm died a little bit and I left. I walked slowly towards the Pondicherry Museum.

The Pondicherry Museum is a treat. The first floor has a whole section of ancient coins, guns, swords and stones. The second floor has the entire bedroom/living room/dining room set of Governor Dupleix. This includes the hugest almirah I have ever seen and a giant piano. My favourite moment at the museum was watching two Tamil school boys gaping at a vintage car and nudging each other. ‘Par ra, indha car la, Jacku, Rosu titanic la kiss pannanga’ (See man, in this car only, Jack and Rose kiss off in Titanic)

I giggled at this for 5 minutes before regaining composure and heading for lunch.

***

Lunch was a solid 6 hour halt at Palais De Mahe. This was easily the best meal of the trip. Prawn Moilee with appam, 3 cocktails whose names I don’t remember, gin, and coffee. I sat with Munro, reading another story called ‘Lichens’

I was there until it was time for my bus. Flashback tells me that Goa was far more exciting. N suspects that I’m used to being on my own and that’s why it’s not what it was like. I am glad I did this though. I am happier and calmer. 

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