Cartography of Memories

Stereotyping the Contours of A City-and-a-half That Inhabit My Mind, All For the Sake of Remembrance

India:

Multicultural Regionalism / Sectarian & Caste Disparities |

Land of Plenty / Of Beggars, Slums and Poverty |

Explosion of Cuisine, Language and Culture / History of Violence Against All Minorities | Scientific Minds and Techie Genes / Yes, Slumdog Millionaire Was But a Film

 

i.

It’s not the city where I was born that I reminisce about every so often, rather, it’s the city that birthed who I was bound to become that I miss and covet today. I was born forty minutes sly of midnight in the hot, humid May of 1983, in a city that competes to be epithetized as either hot or humid.

My earliest memories of Bombay[1] are safely guarded and regurgitated from the lens of my three-year-old self: large, muddy grounds; sweet shop and bakery right beneath our five-storeyed apartment; curious neighbors – one of only 60, who inhabited the three-building colony, as we call it; the loud calls of the golawala (crushed ice-and-flavored-syrup vendor) pushing his wooden cart through the tar-lined roads; Vespa, a scooter brand – the first of its kind; and hoardings of Bollywood movies on billboards across the Juhu Beach. These sepia-tinted flashes fork like lightning scripts across my nightly dreams even today, never allowing me to trifle with the physical – and metaphorical – cartography of a city that is part of my mind’s map.

ii.

Today, that map is renamed as Mumbai, and its old-time street vendors vanishing under the “sorcery” of development, modernity, market economy, and Googleization. Let us not lament the loss of what is already past. It’s certainly not as if we intended for the cotton mills and handicrafts industries to shut shop or for the mill employees to adopt the new binary-prefix of tobacco factory (employees).

Growing up in the 80s, 90s and 00s means my generation has had the privilege of watching history in motion. From single-screen theatres we now hung out at multiplexes and malls; we got air-conditioned taxis and public transport; our schools evolved with regional languages as compulsory subjects to adopting French as an optional paper; we saw textile shops fighting for prime real estate with readymade garment houses; small porcelain toys and View Master gave way to Scrabble and Battleship Earth; and once-a-month movies screened via projectors in the neighborhood park got scrunched into video cassettes, VCDs and DVDs. It’s called globalization and nostalgia plays tricks with memories, convincing me that the good ol’ days were indeed golden and all that is post-modern, commercial, easy and fast is overrated.

iii.

Street culture permeates Mumbai. It’s a city for the street-smart. It’s been referred to by all romanticists and businessmen (how odd to compare the two) as the city that lets you dream and gives you second chances. We are big hearted like that. We are aggressively money minded like that. We grab our inch of space and queue up, elbowing out the other 20 million bodies, to stake a claim to the 400 square feet apartment / train ticket for suburban travel & window seat once inside the train / telephone bill payment queue / water-filling depots and hand pumps / college admission / street food / gang fights / saving up to celebrate our noisy, colorful, bright and sweet-meads filled festivals.

The thousands of tourists who visit the city each year are amazed at the swathes of commonalities and disparities that co-exist simultaneously in the same temporal and spatial framework. You would find a couple of Mercedes E-Class, BMWs or even a Porsche share bumper space with scooters stuffed with four-of-a-family and even the international media’s leitmotif for our country – the bullock cart and other strays jamming traffic. No, but you won’t find limousines here (that’s too Las Vegassy), and be it our movie stars (who like to keep it sedate with all-terrain SUVs of the Toyota kind) or the city’s billionaire businessmen who have made it in to the stock markets of NY, we love to appear extravagant without appearing to try too hard.

Yes, we do have holy gurus and fraud spiritualists who love nothing better to nurse the pale hands of the Amreecan Bohemian and rechristen the belles as Madhubala, Madhuri and Meenakshi (all famous Bollywood heroines). Mumbai’s underworld also frequently makes news – they are world famous in India, as the saying goes – with a generous sprinkling of dons, thugs, drug peddlers, extortion mafia, and sex traffickers.

iv.

Community life is intense (not just in Mumbai, but across India) and fits together like a jigsaw puzzle; my parents come from a city in southern India, Chennai (earlier Madras – we do have a peculiarly niche habit of renaming places and destroying geographical markers that dig roots in the mind) and speak Tamil, an ancient Dravidian language. For the sake of bread, cloth and shelter (roti, kapda and makaan are the Great Collective Indian Dream) they migrated to Mumbai in the mid-70s and picked up Hindi, our national language. Mumbai is located within the state of Maharashtra, whose dominant language is Marathi, so my parents also picked that up. And, with our neighbors coming from all states of India, they also happened to roughly-speak Gujarati, Parsi, Bengali, Punjabi, Malayalam…you get the drift? It’s not for nothing that we think in our mother tongue, analyze in Hindi, compute in English and speak in the global languages of French, Japanese and Spanish. We are multi-tongued like that.

Mumbai’s working culture is frenetic, full of long-distance commutes by train (the ones set-up by the British); only the capital city of the country, Delhi, has a full-fledged metro system, with other cities just beginning to lay metro lines. Pub culture is a phenomenon that might be just 20-years-young, after all drinking, disco-ing, chilling out and going on dates are symbolic of the Western – Amreecan – culture. The working population unwinds in the trains and buses, chomping on peanuts, reading newspaper, listening to walkmans and iPods, and sharing gossip with fellow commuters.

Mumbai might have not patented this yet, but we sure have dibs on maintaining multiple cliques of friendship, a group for each branch of our daily activity: the children of your neighbors became “a” set of friends you hang out with on the stairs outside your apartment; in the evening you play with a group of kids who belong to the three to four buildings adjoining your own; you have kids to go to the bus-stop with and only certain kids whom you share the bus-ride with; you have classmates and canteen friends; library mates and sports pals; after returning home from school, you go for tuitions with your tuition-friends and attend prayer classes with your religious friends; and trust me, they are all friends – bosom buddies whom you share snippets from the various shards of your life. Once you are all grown-up, you maintain a different set of friends for attending career coaching classes and entrance exam classes; you have buddies with who accompany you on trips; and the one or at best two best friends who never mingle or mix up with all the other friend sets and sub-sets you maintain. Totally, a Mumbaiyya way of being.

The lives of our collective households are not mothers or grandmoms, but out dearly, beloved maids, security men (whom we fondly call watchmen), door-stop vegetable vendors, coconut sellers, iron-man (the coal-streaked laundry guy who picks up our clothes, presses it, dry-washes it and returns it – free home delivery, no less, and no tip given {that is such an Amreecan thing to do}), the child caretakers (for the double-income couples who can afford it), and the sundry types of travelling vendors – flower seller, milkman (yes, on cycles with large aluminum cylinders even today), newspaperman, junk collector man, knife sharpener man, kerosene man, candy and ice-cream man..of course, we have shops, boutiques, malls and hyper-markets selling all these things, but we are used to luxurious door-step deliveries like that. It builds the character of the community.

You must have also peeked into our colorful and bright festivals; it’s not always Diwali – the festival of lights, or Holi – the festival of colors, that are celebrated. Those are two celebrated by the larger public. The glimpses of colors, music, bonhomie and community togetherness you might have caught on movies are largely exaggerated for the purposes of beatific cinematography, however, exaggerations are based on perspectives of truth, so let’s just say that many families do go all movie-like and celebrate festivals and marriages in Mumbai with pomp.

~~~

Key to the Map: Water

The monsoons have gate-crashed Mumbai this June and the hosts are only too happy to welcome the sudden chill to the party – after all, 40 degrees Celsius, with a relative humidity of what, is something to have heated discussions over. But we do more than gossip or small talk with bearish, we have a peculiar affair with them, we romanticize them, we sing songs, Bollywood-style within the windowed secrecy of our homes.

We devote paeans to the monsoon god, Meghduta, the cloud messenger and fantasize about hot onion, chilly and potato fritters dipped in Maggi Tomato Ketchup and cutting chai as perfect accompaniments to the dripping orchestra outside. In ancient India, people of the Indus Valley Civilization (who were one of the first to populate the Indian sub-continent some 5,000 years ago) worshipped Indra, lord of heaven and the thunderstorm. After all, abundance and bounty of agricultural land was tied up with the monsoon.

On an exaggerated average, every fifth Bollywood flick would feature the heroine getting wet in the rains and the hero dancing with her on the streets, in the park, inside the bus, underneath an umbrella, all the while praising the romantic samaa (atmosphere) and enticing his lover to take shelter from the downpour in his arms. Ah, can’t praise the virtues of snuggling up to your partner the next day and calling in sick to your boss under the pretext of pneumonia. We are filmy like that.

Monsoons, however, have also drawn out Fear and Loathing in Mumbai. Six-years-old, in what has come to be known as 26/7 – a serial moniker, the first of many for oddly disparate tragic events that shook the city – torrential rains bombarded the metropolis and submerged the erstwhile island, and left its commuters and residents stranded in the worst possible places – on flyovers, highway lanes, inside buses, trains and other public and private transport services, offices, schools and residential complexes whose ground and first-storeys quickly submerged under the unexpected deluge of rain.

How did we survive? Well, as someone who personally witnessed the unfolding events and got stuck in the floods, I heartily recommend hand holding with a bunch of complete strangers. We walked through the city from our work places to our homes, in the pitch of night, with no electricity and only the light from the cloud-hidden moon to keep us sane and grounded. We braved chest-high flood and used bus stations as our mile-markers, finally reaching home in the wee morning light. Petrifying? Yes! Exhilarating? Hell, Yes!

͠~

Cashews, Carnivals and Claus: Goa

When I hit five, my banker dad and homemaker mom promised us (my elder brother and I) a long vacation in a city which had a fraternal history comparable to Mumbai – Goa, a beachy-touristy-sleepy-Feni high city-state on the west coast of India, which patiently bore successful rulers from the Delhi Sultanate (early 13th century) to the Portuguese (18th century).

Goa was a revelation. Piercing sunlight, sweet and tangy jackfruits, plump and happy people, and cotton-candy like sand under your feet – too many generalizations, well it’s all true. The raw, sandpaper scent of the sea and salt always lingered in every neighborhood and forestland was never far away. We had plenty of mud to play around with in our apartment and indigo-colored leaves to decorate our mud-pies with.

The city gave me two enduring legacies: belief in tooth fairies and anticipating Santa Claus. Mumbai’s cosmopolitan culture meant that Father Christmas was never really in vogue back in the early 80s, however, you could also attribute it to me being too young (hardly three) for my parents to initiate me into Claushood. Midnight candlelit masses, churches swelling with hymns and choirs, stern nuns in their starched habits and benevolent fathers with their canes – it was otherworldly for me – like I had landed straight into the sets of Omen before all the evil stuff began.

My papa took me to lotus ponds and jumped in to pluck giant stalks for his blue lotus (Nilofar is Arabic for blue lotus). We also pilfered cashew fruit from trees and went scootering to village squares and town markets for the best deal of the day. There would be fairs at school, weekend visits to the more than 100 beaches (yes, I am exaggerating here, clearly, I love the idea of beaches) and tinkering with the tools in the garage shop downstairs to our apartment. I also learned how to build sand-castles at Colva beach and collect giant shells from Mandolim beach. My love for gardening originated in the butterfly, dragon-fly and moth-fly buzzing mini-flower pots mom kept in the balcony – and my first stage play and song-dance routine also took place in the Goan school (the role I played? a gardener!). I witnessed my first carnival at Panjim, masked men jiving on streets and mad-hatter tattooed on the head of another. The meaning of gayness – abandoned joy – became known to me at 5.

These swatches of remembered retellings aren’t magnified bits of childhood memories. These are certainly not nostalgic musings. We indulge in nostalgia when something close to our hearts is beyond reaching…what I share about the city that gave me dreams and fairy tales is not tenuous as wisps of nostalgia, but as legible as the lines that marks our palms. I think when you grow up on fairy stories and Santa Claus and the beating drums in the forest and music and lyrics, you tend to loop those snippets into longer spindles of your life’s narrative. Writing has allowed me to do just that.

The city has yet to see this story-teller in the last quarter of a century, however, in Goa, I left behind traces of spools that would someday allow me to pick up the threads. Today, I spun those into a yarn about the cartography of memories and the pleasant trappings of geography. Bon Voyage.


[1] The christening of Bombay can be attributed to Portuguese writers and travelers to India in the early 16th century, who referred to it as Bombaim (meaning, good little bay) – Shirodkar, Prakashchandra P. (1998). Researches in Indo-Portuguese history.

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