Saturday, April 22, 2006

Addicted to Bombay

As part of a lively debate on his Bombay v/s Delhi series, Dhoomk2 asked me to put in a post on Bombay. This is my attempt.

Bombay is a drug. Prolonged use is lethal. Highs include money, wealth and success. That's what draws the droves into the city everyday. From the uneducated exile arriving at VT with Rs10 in his pocket dreaming of becoming a film star, to the IIT-IIM grad arriving at the airport dreaming of heading Citigroup India.

For this, they are willing to endure a painfully low “quality of life”. As is oft said – “People in Bombay don’t live, they exist”. Commuting in jam-packed trains or stuck in traffic jams. Walking over perennially dug-up streets, choking from the dust in the air and nearly drowning in the rains. Living under a polythene sheet supported by two poles, with a gutter flowing below you, and sharing that space with three others. Or staying in matchbox-sized flats paying rents that could feed an entire village. And dreaming of buying an apartment at a price that could feed a hundred others. It's all part of the dream.

So, then what is it? What is that keeps everyone going? X factors, sex factors, Y factors and why factors. Here’s my take.

Welcome to the jungle. Bombay throbs with activity. Enterprise runs in its blood. From the fish markets of Sassoon Dock to Lion Gate, to the Stock Market to kapda bazaar, Dawa bazaar, Chor bazaar, Null the tanneries in Dharavi, the tabelas of Jogeshwari, Film City in Goregaon...and on and on. Each place an industry on its own. Each place with thousands of people chasing their dream.Too many places, too many people, too little time..too many dreams. All in one city.

For all its crowds, Bombay also gives you privacy. Even if you share it with a million others, your space is still yours. With the sea as your constant companion. For each harried commuter that pushes you to get ahead at Churchgate station, there will be many others who won’t care as you ponder life’s vagaries over a sunset at Marine Drive. Or Chowpatty. Or Worli Sea Face. Or Carter Road, Band Stand, Chowpatty and Juhu. You will come here again when you fall in love. And probably when it’s raining.

Bombay doesn’t believe much in sleep. Its lifelines – the local trains – sleep only for three hours. Buses, I’ve heard even less. You can find a taxi almost anywhere at any hour. The driver won’t fleece you, unless you’ve taken him from the airport.

When the trains do wake up at around 4am, life’s already gathering pace. On the first trains out, you’ll find a man with a large basket of gendas (marigolds) sitting next to you. He’s headed to Dadar’s flower market, where there are already hundred others lined up on the roads. Once he’s gone, you’ll be joined by the newspaper-wala grappling with a bundle of papers under his armpit, defying various laws of physics. There’s even a good chance now, that you could be joined by dance bar girls. Perhaps you won’t recognise them. Away from the dance floors they rule, and devoid of their make-up, Roshni, Chandni, Huma, Rupa and Mona look like the girls-next-door. They are.

Dance bars. That quintessential part of Bombay nightlife. No, dance bars aren’t about sex. There isn’t any. Dance bars are about the yearning. And the money. It’s about the garlands of Rs10/100/500 notes (depending on which one you visit). After showering garlands of marigolds on his God, the same man now showers garlands of currency on his girl. And oh, how he yearns for a smile from her. It’s the only time he realises the true meaning of “Salaam-e-ishq meri jaan zarra kubool kar lo, tum humse pyaar karne ki zaraa si bhool kar lo”. The mohabbat ka maara to his maseeha.

And then the people. Bombay belongs to its masses. Bombay belongs to Sailu, the nariyalpaani-waala, who personifies the typical quiet do-gooder in our city. Bombay belongs to the street kid who peddles a whole array of books at traffic signals. And then asks you for a lift from Mahalakshmi temple to Worli Naka. He’s not worried if you refuse. This is Bombay and he’ll get his lift. His day is over. It’s time to study. Under the streetlights on the road next to the Doordarshan TV Tower. And there are many others like him at the steps of Asiatic Library. They will make it in life. In their own way, all of them will. If they will, so will you. This is Bombay.

Money, wealth, opportunity, lust, agony, ecstasy, crowds, loneliness, privacy, space, fun, people, food, Gods, demons, poverty, affluence, effluence, greed, power, movies.

Life. Bombay.

Suketu Mehta took 584 pages to narrate his Bombay stories. And his publisher is now thinking of a companion volume with the stories that didn't make it.

Me? I think Bombay can’t be defined and is beyond description. Just like the high you get from a drug. Bombay is a drug. And I’m an addict.