I am no longer a Mumbaikar. Come to think of it, I never was. In 1999, I left Mumbai for Bangalore, before taking a long flight to Seattle where I now live. That was 11 years ago.
In 1983, I came to Mumbai as a wide-eyed 11 year old. I was warned about this constantly-moving, English-speaking, full-of-touts treacherous city. I tried to merge into the crowd even as the suitcases in my tiny hands on the platform in VT platform shouted newcomers. The city looked nowhere like what I imagined it to be.
My earliest memory of Mumbai is of the bloody riots that followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Schools shut, we stayed at home glued to the television that beamed a face of Mumbai that still brings me goose bumps while a peep through the window showed the serene university campus at Kalina. Soon, we moved to our quiet quarters at Mahalaxmi. The proximity to the evergreen luscious acres of the nearby race course and a beautiful patch of the Indian Ocean visible from my balcony over which a red sun set every day meant I never felt we were in this beastly yet lively place called Mumbai.
The next five years of my life were steeped in academics. I changed two buses to get to school only to come home late in the evening to play a game or two of cricket the rules of which changed depending on the yardage available to us on the day. Then I took a four year hiatus from Mumbai to finish my engineering degree in a town a night’s ride away, returning for short, breathless vacations – tense days sandwiched between exhausting tests and their impending results.
I never really travelled by local trains until I found my first job in Santa Cruz in 1994. Even then, I took a slow train from the nearby Mahalaxmi station to Santa Cruz, staying on the western side of the city, going against the flow of the crowd, flexi-time allowing me to travel peacefully, read a book even.
When the city burned after Babri Masjid was demolished, I was away. When the city came to the knees after the bomb blasts and majestically rose back to its feet in hours, I was away. When city succumbed to the torrential rains and quickly recovered, I was away. When common man was mercilessly massacred at CST, I was away.
No wonder I have no connection whatsoever with this city. Much of the Mumbai I have seen has been on screens, big and small, and what I have seen versus what I have experienced tells me Mumbai I know and the Mumbai I am expected to know are different cities.
So now when I am in Mumbai, I am a traveler, a tourist, a passer by, a voyeur even.
I know I am here for three days, may be five. The city does not touch me, most definitely does not bother me. The narrow roads are not crowded, they have “character”. The air here is not dusty, heavy and polluted, it is atmospheric. It is not hot and humid, it is deliciously sultry. The rattling old Fiat cab I am sitting in is a cozy vintage. The spicy staple of vada-pav is a tangy culinary delight. It is no longer plucked from an oily aluminum flat pan rather unwrapped from clean cellophane.
My bloodline drags me to the city, but it is a matter of time before Mumbai will be for me a pin on the map, a fading sepia memory, a scrap in a lost album, an insignificant footnote to an indescribable passage.
Hence, it is no wonder, unlike any Mumbaikar I know, I today spot a sunrise …