Big City Girl

I am the first born-and-bred Mumbaiker in my family. Neither of my parents had lived in Mumbai before marriage. My father, quintessentially a small-town boy, albeit with some campus years that expanded his world view, had stayed in Chennai and Kolkata for a few years each. But none of that would have prepared him for the uniquely mad life of Mumbai. My mother, on the other hand, grew up in Delhi. But she was the daughter, the youngest child, of a high-ranking government official and so her upbringing was as close to that of a sheltered princess as post-independence middle-class India could possibly get. Not the most ideal background for the rigours of a Mumbai housewife’s life, either.

A year later, I came along and they became (as my father liked to put it), “a young couple with a small child”. Their first years were marked by all the struggles that I was too young to remember – moving from rented flat to another, learning to run a family and a household. Those were the early days when housing loans weren’t as common, not even to qualified professionals and they struggled with that bane of every newcomer to Mumbai – housing.

After those initial struggling years, they managed to book a flat in a seemingly godforsaken corner of the city’s suburbs. It was far away from any train station and one would have to walk for 15 minutes to get to the nearest bus stop. But it was surrounded by a large, green patch (even then a rarity in Mumbai) and close to the international airport, which fact made my father think the area would boom very quickly. He was right, almost. It was 1982 and I was ready for kindergarten. We moved into the no-man’s land between Andheri and what is now called Powai, a then-unknown place named Marol. I was enrolled in what was considered the best school in the vicinity.

St.John the Evangelist High School, was over a century old and belonged to the even older church, next to it. Surrounding these two, was a rustic Christian village, replete with single and double-storey houses, two-feet wide lanes, tall crosses on street corners, blackish pigs running wild and shopkeepers squatting on the road. This was nested in a Bori/ Muslim colony and a short distance from where we stayed.

Our colony comprised a long, wide road with plots of five buildings on either side. When we moved in, only three of those plots had been constructed and we moved into Plot 3, beyond which lay a garden plot and then untamed wilderness. Within a few months, the colony was populated and eventually, the other plots began to come up. Most of the flats were occupied by families like us, young people with small children.

Two years later, I transitioned from pink frocks to the khaki uniform of primary school. All the kids in my colony went to my school or to the asbestos roofed shed-like building at the end of my colony. The parents of the Johannian kids sniffed at the latter, which condescension carried down to us in the years to come.

By the time I was ready to enter secondary school, the entrance to the colony was marked by a street bazaar on one side (where my mother shopped for vegetables) and a couple of shops on the other side (grocer, dairy and attawala). Further down the main road, the other colony was also growing and it housed the area’s two doctors, a tailor’s shop, hardware stores, a barber (which my dad patronized and which also cut my hair when I was small enough to need help getting into the chair) and a stationary shop (which provided our textbooks and school supplies). The school at the end of the colony had put up a signboard saying ‘Marol Education Academy’ but us Johannians remained unimpressed.

The early 90s were a busy time in our lives. Liberalisation, cable TV, the Gulf War and closer home, the Babri Masjid issue. We had class discussions on these, my parents followed CNN with rapt attention and the men of the colony banded together to patrol the gates at night to keep off would-be fundamentalist attacks.

Did I mention, my neighbors? To our left were a Goan Catholic family with three daughters and a son, all at least 10 years older than me. Opposite to them were the a booming-voiced uncle and a demure-looking aunty in pretty frocks, my first and most vivid impression of a Parsee family. Facing us were one of the few senior citizens families in the colony. Upstairs were a Malayali Protestant family, very quiet but nice to us. Below us were two Malayali Hindu families, best friends who moved in the 80s and sold their flat to a Bori family that would send us sweets every Eid. Most of us celebrated every festival from Diwali to Eid to Christmas to Holi and Easter. School holidays happened of course, as did the sweets and delicacies that would arrive from the relevant families to all our houses. I never really appreciated the meaning of ‘secularism’ till it was eroded by all the politico-religious events of the 90s.

By the time I was nearing the end of school, a gleaming bus depot had sprung up across the road, servicing the hundreds of families right upto the entrance to Aarey Milk Colony. The shops at the entrance had prospered and more had joined them (a jeweler, a chemist, Monginis’ bakery, readymade foods, stationery and even a restaurant). St.John’s had run a collection drive through tuck-shops, donations and yearly fetes that funded a new church building. The playground was walled off and the large well opposite to the gate had been covered. And that shed-school at the end of the road? That had not just a new roof but a few stories too. The MEA brigade had started to talk back to us Johannians. The circumference of my daily life had also expanded to the corners of my colony which now had about 18 fully developed plots. My friends lived in other plots but also in Marol village and the other ends of the St.John nexus like J.B.Nagar.

My last year in school was my tenth standard (as per Mumbai tradition) and my world expanded to coaching class and college. I joined a fashionable college where most people hadn’t even heard of Marol. I travelled by buses and trains and realised just how neglected the east side of Mumbai’s suburbs were. My sights shifted from the place I grew up in and went skipping over to Bandra (where everyone in my college shopped), town (an occasional day-long jaunt to browse books at Flora Fountain) and the ‘posh’ sights of Juhu. I still returned home every evening so I knew Marol was getting more and more crowded, the roads were getting worse and there were more cars on the road than I had ever seen before.

In 2000, six months after I had graduated and shortly after I began my first job, travelling to the black hole of the Worli belt, we moved. The 1BHK flat that I had grown up in felt too cramped, too tiny, too dingy for three adults. The commute to college and office was getting far too grueling for us and my father predicted it would only get worse (right again!). To top it all, the ground facing our building for many years (undeveloped on account of the power station at its center), had gotten around building regulations and grown a tall guesthouse overnight. None of us wanted to live next door to the random, floating populace of a guesthouse. We literally and figuratively crossed the tracks and began a different life. For a few years after that we kept in touch with Marol, mum through her carnatic class group and I, with my school friends. But people moved on as did our lives. In 2005, we moved again to an even glossier address. We had arrived. Also, we sold the flat that I grew up in, to another ‘young couple with a small child’. The heartening note in this was that the young woman was one of my childhood friends who not only knew the area well (having grown up in it herself) but had also visited the flat often to meet me. At least, it felt like we were handing over the first home we had ever created, not to a stranger but to someone known.

Last week, I was on my way to Powai, en route to an IIT event. On an impulse, I routed the autorickshaw through Marol village. The old school was undergoing renovation. The church was as I remembered it from my alumni meet 5 years ago and the midnight masses with J of that time. The well was gone and roads had been laid down everywhere. The pigs were gone too but the bylanes seemed just as tiny, tinier even. As we came out, we couldn’t resist driving further down the road. As we passed the bus depot (now housing a bank and facing a restaurant and numerous shops), I stopped. My mother got down to buy samosas from the grocer/sweet shop we had always patronized and I went for a walk down the colony road.

‘The buildings look shorter!’ was my first thought. Of course, I’ve walked down these roads when I was all of three feet tall. M.E.A. is now a 7-storey gleaming white building with a tree-lined walk from the road. The block of shops now has a mobile phone store, various jewelers, a tailor and clothing shops as well. There are tall trees lining the colony road on either side. It feels peaceful and prosperous. The main road is concreted in places and has those neon markers embedded in it. Standing on the new divider, I started to laugh, in surprise, delight and…I don’t know. And then I wanted to cry.

I thought I had left Marol behind, that it had become too small a place for me. I’ve been defensive of and then indifferent to my unfashionable background when compared to some of my now friends who grew up in more stylish areas. And I struggled for all those years with the absence of urban amenities in the area while travelling everyday to better endowed places in the city.

But looking around me, I realised that Marol had grown up too. I didn’t stand out at all as someone who came from a ‘better’ or ‘nicer’ part of the city at all. People around me were dressed just as fashionably, flashing the same phones and iPods as anywhere else. There is a flyover starting at the spot where a butcher’s shop used to muck up the street. The shops have tiled entrances. There are gleaming high-rise buildings housing corporate entities and on their ground floors, shops, banks and ATMs. The route to the international airport has been cleaned up and is dotted with numerous hotels. Andheri East is now undergoing the growth that my father foresaw in 1982.

It’s one thing to read about it in a newspaper or see it on television. That’s like seeing a photograph of a person. But the truth about life and progress and growth really hits you only when you meet it in person. The city of my childhood doesn’t exist anymore. There is a coffeeshop or a restaurant at every street corner. Big, flashy cars clutter up every road from Dharavi to Dombivali. There is a show of money everywhere. And the beggars have been joined by entire families, respectably clad, asking for help. It isn’t anymore a safe haven for any hardworking person. Muslims and other minorities are not treated with the same equality that I was taught. Safety for women is a statement on a public release, not the unspoken truth that we all lived with.

I often hear my parents complain about the evils in this city. My boyfriend has lived here for a year and he hates it. Most times I agree with them. But at the same time, I can’t bring myself to hate it or even be as dispassionate about it like them. Stories and movies about Mumbai, often have to do with the outsider’s impressions. In a lot of ways, this is a city that runs on the backs of newcomers. But I think, with all its flaws, it is still a city that is uniquely encompassing of outsiders. You come to this city and as the daily struggle of life here absorbs you, you become entwined in its fibre, you become one with it. As my parents did.

And what of those who have no prior history to speak of? This city is too big, too overwhelming for anything else. It demands a lot, too much perhaps from its inhabitants. From the ones all its own, it leaves no room for allegiance to any other place. I don’t feel Tamilian or even South-Indian. I will never feel like a Delhiite, even if it is one half of my cultural genes and I was born there. I have no other geographical or cultural identity other than being a Mumbaiker. It mirrors my life or maybe my life mirrors it. It holds me in both, a mob-style clutch and a womblike embrace. Mumbai. Metropolis. Home.

15 thoughts on “Big City Girl

  1. So much has changed. Bombay (oh yes, that’s what the city is to me) has changed beyond recognition. Every time I visit, I have this semi-ache in my heart. Well, initially, there is this sensory overload that I begin to dread days before I arrive. And then when I land, there’s this urge to grab the city with both hands and hug close to my heart. And then some pain because the one I am hugging has changed for good… and possibly is too cool to hug me back.

    I know it sounds hugely melodramatic but that about describes how I feel about my once-favorite city in the whole world.

  2. Hi there! I’m Mithun. From Marol. Bhawani Nagar. Plot no. 1. a former pupil of the asbestos roof school 🙂 You’ve described bhawani nagar so perfectly, so beautifully that I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic about it. I’ve been away from home pretty much for a large part of the last 3 years, and everytime I came back I could see the change. The place has changed, for the better, yet it maintains the calm and quiet like no other place in the city can(at least for me). oh, and IMO Saagar Sweets has the best samosa chutney ever 😀

    Thanks for the wonderful read!

    1. @Lakshmi: I was at the international airport yesterday and I realised that if the place (road to the airport) were a person, it would feel like an old, very old, childhood friend who had grown up with me. Hey, I learnt to drive on that very stretch!

      @Mithun: I know what you mean. It was heart-wrenching and soothing both at the same time, if that makes any sense. But from what you’ve said, I think it will. Thank you for commenting, btw and welcome to The Idea-smithy!

  3. I still live in Plot 3, Garden View. Is this by any chance Ramya didi from Bldg 14. The parsi couple you mentioned must be F’s family. Am i right? And the senior citizens were the family with Jango the dog, i think D uncle?

  4. @Sagar: Spot on! Except the senior citizens were the elderly couple I lived next door to. I’ve deleted the names, Sagar, to protect their privacy. It’s great to bump into you online. How are you and what’s up?

  5. I am good didi, actually even vaibhav (Chintu) is online. How are uncle and aunty? Where do u guys live now. I am working at present apparently as a programmer. What about u?

    1. @Sagar, Vaibhav: Hello there! It’s good to hear from both of you, after all these years. My memories of both of you as little boys go a long way. 🙂 Hope you’re doing well. I’m taking a break from the corporate world to give being a writer a fair shot.

  6. wow, we finally have a writer amidst us. Are you in touch with any of the other people from plot 3? I think when u guys left i was still in primary

  7. Hi Idea

    Stumbled onto your blog recently. Really like your writing, esp this post. I worked for many years in an office in Marol, and frankly, considered it to be a hell-hole on earth. Your post conjures an entirely different picture, & quite magically so.


  8. @Dispatch: You have my sympathies, really. It was a horrendous place to have to commute to, especially for work. But it was also where I grew up so I have a different perspective. What’s more, the actual residential colony I was in was quite lovely. Childhood and nostalgia are magical on what they do to ugly reality.

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