In my 20s, I found ruins and I also found flamingos. Let me tell you how.
Mid 2000s: I was fresh off the press, newly minted professional and facing a reality that I was not prepared for because the generation before mine had never seen it — RECESSION. I was the forerunner of a generation that would only be named a few years later but would come to define worldwide shifts. I had lived in the same city my whole life and I had rarely ventured beyond my home-college-workplace circuit – physically or mentally.
I found my dream job in an industry that I’d wanted to join and a good company. I had also been blogging for over a year and was just discovering that I had a voice and a place to exercise it. Each day was a new lesson. Even my daily commute became an adventure. I learnt about who I was and where I came from — because you really can’t have one without the other.
Mid 2010s: I took to the stage as a quest for a new life, smarting from deep wounds, forcing myself to shed every skin I’d accumulated. I started, with a promise to myself to carry a mindset of healing and not vengeance. I wanted to tell stories of hope, of inspiration, of triumph. It meant tapping into deep wells of emotion, of wading through long accumulated hurt, of salvaging the good parts, of picking out the broken bits and attempting to heal them.
One story that cried out to be shared, was of the bruised history of this city . Maybe all big cities are this way and each one in their own unique way. To me, the stage feels like a hyper concentrated experience of being a Mumbaiker. You are constantly being stripped down to your most basic truths because there is no time or space for extra baggage. And yet simultaneously, there is the sad knowledge that we cannot carry anymore, a lingering memory of all that we leave behind. It is us. I have been writing this story in diary entries, in blogposts, in poetry and finally, in performance for over a decade now.
Last month, one telling of this story was picked to feature in The Habitat’s fortnightly line-up of oral storytellers. I ran through a story that sits comfortably with its words, because I’ve shared it so many times now. When I realised it was being recorded though, I asked if I could have a do-over. This is such an important story, that I felt it deserved more than an autopilot telling. They obliged.
The better part of this month has forced us all to examine in brutal detail, our emotions, our motivations and our identities. #MeToo encompasses and colours every interaction, every thought we’ve had about another person, every desire, every play for power. Raw, so raw. This is the only way I can explain what happened when I went back for a do-over telling.
I went up on the stage where I first learnt how to be a performer, with a story that finally fits right, after the years of edits and retellings and rethinkings and research. And midway, I felt myself collapse inside. The audience blurred before my eyes, my breath caught and I felt like my insides were old, withering and flammable, catching fire. and I felt like I was watching bricks and walls that make me, collapse. I mumbled “Sorry, I must leave.” and ran off the stage. I couldn’t stop shaking, sweating and feeling like I was going to drown in something unidentified that was rising from inside me. It was a good ten minutes before I recovered enough to be able to re-enter the room.
My story had nothing to do with the MeToo movement but it is laced with pain and we are living in a world of burning, screaming pain. I imploded. Where else could it happen but on stage, where one’s truths rise to the surface? When I returned, a stranger caught my hand and said, “Please go back and finish your story. It was so touching. I really want to hear it fully.” It gave me the courage to start again and luckily the host welcomed me back up.
A performance shifts in every rendition. And if you’ve seen this piece before, you might notice that it sounds sadder and more melancholy than before. But maybe that’s what the truth of this piece is — stripped of its showmanship and its sugar. This then, is FLAMINGOS, a story about the city I love and about people just like me.
Chinchpokli is a station on Mumbai’s Central train line. Cotton Green and Sewri are consecutive stations on Mumbai’s Harbour train line. All three of these roughly correspond to Lower Parel on Mumbai’s Western train line.
Most of the mills have been or are being redeveloped into urban commercial/office centers. Due to the laws, many of them are not allowed to destroy the original construction, which is why exposed beams, industrial pipes and chimneys still dot this landscape.
The flamingos appeared this year as well, delayed but in greater numbers. Bombay Natural History Society (among others) organises walking tours to see the flamingoes. You can also find your own way from outside Sewri station (on the east) to the docks where between rusty boats and fish-stained ropes, you may catch a glimpse of these migratory pink birds.
My city has flamingos.