Mumbai Meri Jaan: Kabhi Cushy, Kabhie Kaam

Culture

Mumbai Meri Jaan: Kabhi Cushy, Kabhie Kaam

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

love Mumbai. Scratch that. I am in love with Mumbai. For the longest period of time, Mumbai has been like a raging affair that refuses to lose its charm or passion. Every time I am here, I find myself relying on cliches – yet managing to discover a new persona of this manic, schizophrenic, unpredictable beast. For me, Mumbai is like an exuberant lover dedicated to the cause of keeping the spark in our romance alive, revealing new sides of its old self every time we are together.

Ever since we met, Mumbai has been a constant that keeps knocking on my door, again and again, changing shapes and morphing identity to fit into the keyhole I am looking at it through.

The city wasn’t always a permanent fixture in my life. For the first 20 or so years of my life, it was an abstract idea, an alien island, a mirage that dwelt on the horizon where dreams lived and Shah Rukh Khan roamed the streets. The first time I met Mumbai, I was a newly minted lawyer, a thoroughbred, well-paid corporate mule that was poised to start living the corporate dream complete with a cushy job and cushier salary. I was still wet behind the ears, a young professional who had suddenly been thrust into the heart of the gigantic aspirational beast that is corporate India. The dream – where I had the means to afford the buffet of opulence this city is known for, but had no time to enjoy any of it.

I was looking at Mumbai through keyholes that were actually the glassed domes of Mumbai’s fabled high-rises, tinted with expensive weekends, and highlighted by a soul-sucking grind that refused to relent. It was exhilarating. Until it wasn’t. Because then, it was exhausting and numbing and terrifying and made me wonder if it was worth it.

My second encounter with Mumbai was a short while later, when I was between jobs, struggling with an existential crisis that only makes sense when you are in your early 20s. It was a very brief phase but extremely instructive in the sense that it revealed a side of Mumbai that can only be witnessed if you throw yourself into the true grind of the city and walk in the shoes of an average working-class Mumbaikar.

It was a Mumbai that was designed to fuel a creative’s fire, an accomplice that is intent on making your masterpiece happen and a storyteller who is willing to share an anecdote at every turn you take – if only you are willing to listen.

I budgeted my savings, hustled short-term jobs, and travelled by locals to the corners of the city that my novice South Mumbai self didn’t even know existed. It was a brief, transient period of my life that gave me a glimpse into the struggles of surviving the Maximum City with all its grit and occasional glory. It was a picture that was starkly different from the one that I had hung on the walls of my mind while I sat in air-conditioned cubicles and cursed my job.

Without the luxury of faux sympathy and distance, the woman who sat everyday on the floor of the local weaving flowers into tiny gajras with her wrinkled, scarred hands was no longer an object of misplaced pity. She was a fellow human being struggling to make ends meet. Just like the man who slept outside the station and hoped to one day go back to his village and till his fields. I know what it sounds like – a relatively privileged millennial equating a few days of her hardship with the generational poverty of those on the streets. Yet, I believe there was a bond, shorn of pathos.

It was harsh, tough, and overwhelming. It was a version of Mumbai that helped me discover more about myself and the world around us than I could have ever hoped to find while peeping through shiny glass walls – an eye-opening reality check into my privileges that reset my priorities and redefined how I viewed and processed the world around me.

At some level, I’ll always owe this city: To have given my presumed empathy the truth potion it needed.

My third and ongoing encounter with this city came under drastically different circumstances. It also happens to be my most cherished rendezvous with Mumbai, the one where I really, truly, and irrevocably fell in love with the idea of this city and everything it encompasses.

After evading multiple occasions where I could have been pulled back into the city’s inescapable orbit, I finally gave in when I made it to a six-month writer’s residency programme. I arrived in Mumbai again, but this time as a creative, a writer who had set out to explore the contours of her art, passion and creativity. Mumbai, the city of dreams and art and everything in between, welcomed me with open arms and revealed a facet that I had never had the fortune of encountering before.

It was a Mumbai that was designed to fuel a creative’s fire, an accomplice that is intent on making your masterpiece happen and a storyteller who is willing to share an anecdote at every turn you take – if only you are willing to listen.

I walked down the cobbled streets, a camera and a notepad in hand, finding new shades and new insights while walking down the familiar paths. I spent hours sitting on a corner bench in Prithvi, soaking in the energy and vibe of people who throng it for their love of art and stories. As a non-Mumbai native who did not have the benefit of shared and inherited nostalgia, this was the first time I realised the old-world charm of Mumbai’s Irani cafes, discovering the stories that lie hidden beneath the corner table and can be found only between sips of cutting chai. It was a Mumbai that I had only imagined in my wildest of fantasies, the Mumbai that made poets out of ordinary souls and compelled people to bleed on paper, as words and sketches and graffiti on the walls.

This was the first time I realised the beauty of the fabled spirit of Mumbai, the soul that has managed to retain its dazzling allure despite an exterior defaced with pain and hardships and endless struggles. This was also the first time I realised why Mumbai is the city of dreams. It is not just because it is where money and stars and industry and commerce collude. It is because Mumbai is where your dreams are allowed to breathe, to be inspired and to find expressions in ways only this city’s landscape can permit.

I wonder what the next stage in our relationship will be. Will I grow weary of it? Will I keep going back to it as if returning to a toxic, abusive lover?

As lyricist and film writer, puts it in an essay titled “The Bombay of a Film Writer”, he often talks with his friends about leaving the city. “‘With Skype and smartphones, we can make it work from there,’ we reassure ourselves, like lovers in a long-distance relationship. This restlessness leads to the assumption that some other place, quieter and less conflicted than Bombay, will fuel creativity. But then we all know this is just a silly game. None of us is leaving Bombay and moving to a sunset-view cottage in Goa. That will be too neat, too honourable… Bombay by day is the city we deserve, Bombay by night is the city it deserves to be… Life is complicated; I am looking for a complicated city too.”

And I couldn’t have picked a more complicated one.

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