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Whenever anyone tells me about the torture of travelling to Andheri East, I have to say, “Bitch, please. I grew up in Marol.” Let that sink in while you take in my nice clothes and my polished words. They usually reek of vacuous Versova, of lecherous Lokhandwala, bungalows four and seven and seaside heaven.
Today I’m surrounded by high-rises that boast their own clubhouses and swimming pools. There’s a cafe at every street corner, a mall at every turn, a restaurant in every stop and an asshole attitude in every person. The people around me are a whirl of toned biceps and unabashed miniskirts. They are iPhone users, Honda City drivers, Marks & Spencers shoppers. In a city called Tinsel Town, today I’m perched at the very tip of the shine and sparkle. It’s a far cry from the black-and-white photo albums of my childhood that have Shannon Bose on a new cycle, Meena aunty yelling at us in tuition class and Fatima’s father meticulously washing his secondhand Fiat every morning.
The joke goes that people from anywhere else in the city need a visa to enter Andheri. Of course, we’re home to the international airport. Also the biggest suburb in the most crowded city in the country. Which just means everywhere in Andheri is really far way. Because even Andheri West is far from Andheri East. The road that leads from my past to where I am today, is as twisting and unpredictable as Andheri Kurla Road.
That was a different me, living in a universe separated from the one I’m in now, by a solid wall. This wall is made of people’s biases, of real estate prices. The city now recognizes Marol as a metro station, a traffic bottleneck, a punishment posting. But I knew it once as someplace else.
The Marol of my childhood didn’t have paan stains and discarded car tissue boxes. Oh no, it was filthy in a whole different way. There were mounds of dark brown mud pockmarked with weeds and an occasional silver chocolate wrapper. We called them mountains. And then the pigs! They were equal citizens of Marol village. The lanes wound around fisherwomen, makeshift crosses, a statue of Mother Mary at one turn. The Catholics stopped and made the sign of the cross; the others just looked up into her weather worn eyes. Mother Mary watched over us all.
And where her eyes couldn’t reach, other less serene ones did. We lived around a steep slope that lay somewhat uncomfortably over a local hill. Every kid dreamed of being a superhero – Spiderman was a hot favourite – and climbing that compound wall. This easily accessible wall however, was never once scaled by a single kid in the colony. There was only one thing scarier than going up on that high wall and that scary creature lived in Building no. 5. Preeti aunty, childless all her life. The ladies in the colony were generous with their affections, their time, the kadhi made by Shannon’s mother, the exciting VCR at the Mhatres’ house and new telephone in our house. They shared their culinary experiments and their children. Preeti aunty was the custodian of playtime for all the kids in the colony. Our parents warned us about going outside the gate and about strangers offering sweets. But they never had to caution us about the compound wall. As long as Preeti aunty lived in Building no.5, no kid would scale the wall. Preeti aunty, large set with a loud booming voice, her brusque brand of affection rolling around her in tyres about her waist – we FEARED her. She was the bogeyman, the ultimate threat “EAT YOUR TINDLI OR I’LL TELL PREETI AUNTY!” The compound wall was forgotten in all our fears and there were no broken bones or worse, because of it.
Every Marol kid went to one of the two local schools – a local one unimaginatively named Marol Education Academy or the more aristocratic sounding St.John The Evangelist High School (mine!). My school belonged to the church, the hub of Marol gaon, bordered on one side by Bohri colony. My mornings began with aazaan, kausalyasuprajaramapurva and Our Father who art in heaven, holy be thy name. Inside every classroom, the teachers droned. And each time our attention strayed, Christ on the cross on every wall reminded us that we’d pay for our sins. You can take the child out of Christian school but you can’t take the Catholic guilt out of a kid. Kids around the country would read about turrets and towers and giant bells that needed ropes and pulleys to be made to ring. I saw these everyday as a matter of daily course, when I went to school. They were all crumbling and decrepit when I was there. But it was a bona fide historical building and the tallest one in the area. More than a 100 years old.
Getting to school was a walk through one-story houses with courtyards, chickens pecking on the ground. We stopped not for traffic but to let a goat pass before jumping across a gutter. There was even a well, called into ceremonial use during every East Indian wedding’s paani ceremony. At the church entrance, a gentle-eyed stone Jesus Christ reminded us not to stray onto the main road. Marol Village was a remnant of that slice of this city’s history when it was a cluster of fishing villages.
Each time someone calls me a big city girl, I can’t help but think of my beginnings. I grew up in a village. And now that I live in an uber urban area where my neighbours don’t know me and a salaried employee tracks my security and my mail, I remember Marol and the community life. There’s no Preeti aunty to scare the kids off the barbed wire fence. There is a barbed wire fence. There’s an impersonal security guard with a face that changes every month, in place of Bahadur and Resham who would help our mothers carry groceries and make angry faces when we clung on to the gate, demanding piggyback rides. I have a posh address but inside our homes, we are the same people, the same spaces. I guess I haven’t really come that far. I’ll always be a Marol village girl in the Big City.