Sometimes it all gets too much for me, and I have to withdraw. Yes, even from my family and friends. Mumbai’s frenetic pace can mesmerize you into thinking that manic activity is normal. That we have always lived this way. But I guess, deep down where we carry our legacy of freedom encoded in our being, we know that this is a lie. The truth is…
Mumbaiites have not always fought for every square inch of space. We have not always attached a monetary value to every aspect of our lives. We have not always had to feel the do-or-die rush of toxic adrenaline as we gear up each morning and evening to engage in choiceless battle with our fellowmen on platform 2, or automotive anarchy in the rush-hour traffic. We have not always had to walk our streets with wary caution, our bodies clenched like fists to reduce the space we occupy to a bare minimum. We have not always had to have mastered the skill of looking through others as if they don’t exist, hoping only that they will be considerate enough to return the favor. We have not always had to traverse this city with one hand on our wallets and the other one clutching a kerchief to our noses.
I have learned of a saner Mumbai at the feet of Dadasaheb Lohekar, who occasionally holds court at the local park where I live. The man is 91 years old and looks every day of it as he sits there with his decrepit Alsatian. However, his memory is as sharp as a Grant Road pickpocket’s blade and he has some stories to tell of this city. Of course, he’s not old enough to actually remember some of the things he talks about, such as the days when Mumbai’s only inhabitants were the Koli fisher folk. Yeah, the people we resignedly make way for in the locals today as they climb on with their noxious baskets, most of us unaware of the fact that Mumbai is named after their patron goddess Mumbaidevi.)
But Dadasaheb is old enough to talk authoritatively of them and the standards of coexistence they adhered to. He is old enough to remember the Parsi, Gujarati and South Indian Hindu families that lived together peacefully here at one time, when property was not an issue of power and the sharing of resources not restricted to partisan community pockets.
His eyes, already filmy with advancing cataracts, cloud over even further when he regales us with stories of a Mumbai we would never recognize today. I don’t blame him. I get sort of misty-eyed myself. And so, on some nights after the daily struggle to emerge intact from the teeming human anthill, I take off on my old Enfield and look for evidence of Mumbai in the urban apocalypse. I leave my suburb behind, aware of the fact that the bike’s exhaust is not doing much to improve the pollution I often complain about.
I see a different Mumbai emerge after midnight, though the city truly never sleeps. This Mumbai tosses uneasily in its half-awake somnolence, the relative quiet after a day of commercial convulsions probably allowing it to reach back into its memory and remember that another order once existed. For some reason, I always end up staring at Haji Ali bathed in the moonlight, glowing an eerie, timeless green. Its aloofness from the madness of the mainland seems to tell me that one can be part of the chaos and yet be apart from it.
As its walkway disappears under the tide, I understand that I, too, need to occasionally deny the city access to the essential me. The rat race churns on less than a hundred yards away, but Haji Ali finds an island of detached peace just by drawing up the bridge once in a while.
“Do you realize that it’s two in the morning?” grumbles my wife as I sneak in. “You will be late for work again. Each time you do this, I wonder if the police or gundas have finally got you.”
I’m up by seven, my mind already strategizing the commute to work and the uncertain odds of another day in Mumbai. I’m bleary-eyed but ready. The most profound insights of a Mumbai night cannot match swords with the realities of the city by day….