Pune – Lost in Transformation

From Pensioner’s Paradise to Pseudo Boomtown… Pune’s story of degeneration is being rewritten every year. The city’s infrastructure rocks and reels under the onslaught of reckless urbanization; the town planning authorities dither over where (if at all) to plonk the international airport. Meanwhile, Pune unfolds itself in a sweeping signature of chrome glitz and tinted sheet glass like something out of a bastardized Transformers episode written and directed by Ram Gopal Verma.

Is anyone complaining? Not yet – there’s no time or scope for regret when you’re dancing as fast as you can, after all. However, we do have what the Pentagon would describe as ‘a situation’. We’re talking of major identity theft here. Or should I say identity abandonment?

Pune has sacrificed its human side on the chrome altar of crass commercialization. Traditional youth hangouts like Empress Garden, Sarasbaug and FC Road wear a faded, jaded look as the city’s brand-conscious yuppie crowd heads for the new shopping districts and watering holes to scuttle their call centre and software salaries. Camp’s iconic MG Road barely manages to hold its own.

As the mountains that previously kept Manic Mumbai at bay and Pune’s clement weather in place surrender to the bulldozer of metropolitization, the line that divided Sin City from the Oxford of the East grows hazier. As physical and spiritual distance between the cities reduces, Pune is turning into a cheap Mumbai clone – in appearance, in temperament and in values.

Who cares? I do! Damn it, this city is my foster home, and I love it for a reason!

Sure, I moved to Mumbai to pursue better career options, but with the consolation that nothing and nobody would steal the peth-and-wada culture of Pune from my heart. I would endure the kicked-anthill craziness of Mumbai just as long as I had the option of withdrawing to Pune’s blessed peace, quiet and laid-back laissez faire when I needed to.

My visits to the city are turning into a poor joke – these days, I find myself wondering where Mumbai ends and Pune starts. Kondhwa looks suspiciously like Bandra did a few years ago, before it gave up the human element forever. Kothrud and Karve Nagar bear a doom-laden resemblance to Dadar and Mahim – not the city’s ‘happening’ places, but more of its congested launch points to the glitzier locations. The once proud Puneri is bending over backwards to sound either like a Dharavi tapori or a Nariman Point magnate. I can’t see the ‘misal’ for the McDonald’s anymore!

Hello, Ground Control calling Spaceship Pune – you’re spinning out of control. Return to base before you run out of fuel and crash….

Mumbai – A Bohemian Rhapsody?

Kamlesh (not his real name) arrived from Delhi with stars in his eyes and a spring in his step. That had me wondering, since he had a grueling second-class train ride behind him. To land in the blast furnace of Mumbai after a non-AC train ride from the sweltering capital in such ebullient spirits is no mean feat.

I had told my wife that I would spend that Saturday with my Delhi buddy. She had been agreeable to the point of indifference, which probably meant that she had planned to join an extended hen party at our neighbor’s place anyway. Women are never averse to more things to complain about at such events.

Anyway, I helped Kamlesh sort out his luggage at Dadar TT and flagged a taxi to take us home. He asked the driver to stop along the way so that he could pick up a couple of beers, and I once again wondered at this laissez faire on what was supposed to be a company-sponsored business trip.

“Mumbai!!” he exulted when he’s stashed his bottles on the back seat. “Sin City! Man, I’ve always wanted to check out Mumbai, and now I have three whole days for it!”

Sin City?! I mean, sure, there is a lot of shady stuff going on in Mumbai that the media just love hollering about. But that doesn’t make the other metros Abodes of Sanctity either. In fact, if I recall right, some Bollywood offering or the other attempted to showcase the slimier side of Delhi’s ‘social’ circles. I asked him to explain.

“Oh, I know, I know,” he said dismissively. “People who live next to the sea never go swimming. You Mumbaiites are so engrossed with the daily grind that you miss out on all the fun that this city has to offer.”

“Well, I do go to the movies with the family,” I countered defensively. “Not that I want to… it’s a sort of recurring weekly hijack. And I take them to every new mall that blots the landscape, too….”

“Pah!” said Kamlesh. “Movies! Malls! See what I mean? You’re missing out on all the REAL action. But then, you’re married.” He said that as if referring to some unfortunate physical defect. I’m sure that there are folks who would agree with him on that. I’m not one of them, and my dander was up anyway.

“Okay, so what do you hope to do in Mumbai after you’re swilled those beers?” I asked him, mindful of not raising my voice. The taxi driver could not have understood much of the conversation, but he had hear the name of his city spoken in less than reverend tones and was glaring daggers at us through the rearview mirror.

“Have fun,” said Kamlesh smugly.

“You may wish to expand on that,” I said reasonably. “You know nothing of Mumbai and you’ll need some local guidance.”

He pondered this. “True,” he said. “Okay, I want to smoke some good Afghani dope, get hold of one of those bimbos Mumbai is so famous for and generally lose ten years of my life in three days!”

I was taken aback. I had never seen evidence of Kamlesh’s bohemian tendencies before. I believe he pushes magnetized mattresses from Japan on unsuspecting customers in Delhi for a living – I mean, it’s not as if he’s in advertising or anything like that. But that was not the point. He had apparently judged this city as degenerate and was all set to exploit the degeneration.

“I hope you don’t expect to find that particular fun package where I live,” I said, though I suspected he would if he looked hard enough.

“Forget home, then!” he countered passionately. “I’m not interested in wasting these three days in some backwater suburb! Drop me off at a hotel in some happening locality. I mean it, pal… I want to make the most of this trip!!”

“What you have in mind is pretty perilous for someone who hasn’t been in Mumbai before,” I said evenly. “But have it your way. Just let me know before you leave for Delhi again. It’ll be interesting to know if you got what you wanted.”

I got off to take a separate cab home and asked the driver of this one to take Kamlesh to Colaba. I added that he might find it worth his while to help my friend find a hotel there, and to supply some classified information. The man nodded sagely and off they went. My home was deserted when I got back and I resigned myself to watching Oprah or something equally soporific on the telly for the rest of the day.

Next morning, I got a call from Kamlesh while I was at work. He wanted me to bail him out at Kamathipura police station, where he had been taken after he was found high and sozzled at one of the better brothels there. The cops had also retrieved a small amount of hashish from him – thankfully not enough to mark him as a peddler. I took the local to Grant Road and went to the chowky.

Kamlesh’s wallet, gold ring, watch and Ray Ban goggles were gone. His right eye was blackened and his shirt was torn in various places. He himself was a chastened man and none of the effervescence of two days ago was in evidence. Five hundred bucks and a strident lecture from the PSI later, he was out of the chowky. I took him back to his hotel, where he showered and changed. Then he took a taxi to VT, from where he would catch the first available train to Delhi. I didn’t expect to hear from him again too soon.

A hooker glanced a silent question at me as I approached Grant Road station to catch a train back home. I waved at her with weary good cheer and went my way.

Yes, he was right. People who live next to the sea never go swimming… but that’s not all there is to it. In Mumbai, we live with an understanding – supply does not necessarily equal demand. I hope Kamlesh finds his peace with that fact eventually, or else he won’t be safe anywhere at all….