(Listen to my rendition of the story and follow along with the text below)
I grew up in a city with names that were more poetic than its places.
Churchgate. Chandivali. Even Andheri.
Like every suburban Mumbaikar,
I knew the two km radius around my patch of land and I knew it really well.
I knew how many black pigs there were in Marol village.
How many potholes there were on the road to Sahar airport.
Everything else was just some other jungle.
So in the mid 2000s, when I read the word CHINCHPOKLI
in a job listing, I laughed.
I’d heard the word before
In a flop movie called Roop ki Rani, Choron ka Raja
Where Sridevi’s character was called Princess Chai mein chini of Chinchpokli
And at that time, I’d thought such a bizarre name
could only exist in a screenwriter’s imagination
It turns out, Chinchpokli is a real place.
A real place in Bombay. South Bombay.
Not the South Bombay of the posh accents and
the “Bhaiyya bhaiyya mineral water dena bhaiyya” people
But the South Bombay of the millworkers
Who wrote the history of this city
With their yarns and their dyes and fabrics for the rest of the country
Set up in the 1800s by the British in their landing port
For easy shipping to Manjarpadu (Manchester)
These textile mills had endured long after their founders left
And carried this port into being the financial capital of this country
It was all gone by the time I went to work there
Lost to years of union negotiations and trade strikes
Closed after a century as the mill business moved away
Shutting machines and lives in one fell swoop
Leaving behind human beings caught in a fullstop in time
All that remained was one broken window here,
One weed encrusted pillar there
A life size set for a story called Cotton 65, Polyester 84
That I walked into every day in my Van Heusen suit, my Arrow shirt
The boundaries of my geography grew as the history of this city shrank
The old mills were being reopened to make way for
Malls, loyalty programs, a popular nightspot named after an amphibian in blue
As industrial pipes and open brick layouts became architectural fashion statements
And the millworkers faces, hipster art for their walls
Across the road life was being lived like a snapshot from
a Doordarshan black and white program
There were Dalda cans outside every house, bearing tulsi and home grown herbs
Old men sitting in street corners counting the fabrics worn by passers-by
Cotton 65, Polyester 84, Nylon, Rayon, Terrycot
As kids chased cycle tyres on sticks
There were places with names like Cotton Green and Sewri which had not heard of Wikipedia
And Wikipedia had not heard about them either
In the monsoon, the drumming of rain as well as the tinkle of bells
from Lalbagh, home to the biggest deity of this city’s proudest festival
And every day of my life that I added to the ones that went before mine,
This city became a little more mine.
Each morning I would leave
the billboards & high-rises of Andheri
Take a train to station that still had
broken cobblestones in places
Grass growing between their cracks
I’d turn right at a shop that was selling
Phantom cigarettes and chillums at 8:30 in the morning
Walk through a bazaar hawking coloured powders
Haldi, Mirchi, Rangoli powder maybe?
And I would enter my office
and wonder whether I dreamed it all up
Too much sun can do that to a Mumbaiker
who lives their entire life inside an office cubicle.
But in the evening, I would come out into a culture of credit cards and neon signs,
Parking lots replacing the bazaars
I’d look up at the sooty chimney still bearing the legend Phoenix Mills
And I’d think, walk respectfully when you enter here
These are the tombstones of my city’s past.
One day, a newspaper article caught my eye
It was a story announcing the pre-monsoon showers
Accompanied by a National Geographic style photograph of pink birds
I looked at it and I thought
Where in Bombay does this happen?
We are a city of crows with thieving intent
And pigeons with stomach upsets
Flamingos look too pink to be real
Flamingos belong in Alice’s wonderland
Not my Mumbai
But the story said that
the flamingos migrated to the marshlands surrounding the city every year
Sewri station, it said, was the place to get down at to go see them
That morning, I took a Harbour line train from Platform 6 in Andheri
It turns out there was a train connecting my patch of land to theirs
And when I got down at this slow station
I half expected to see pink birds flying overhead
Then I took out the newspaper and read the story again
Sewri station, flamingos
Real place, real birds?
To my west was the city in all the colours of progress
Cement grey, steel silver, shiny chrome, tar black
As construction workers mingled with old millworkers
To my east was a blaze of green,
the kind of green you never see in a Mumbai summer
Some day I thought
It’s really hot today and I’m wearing high heels
I can’t go trampling through marshlands
I have a meeting today about my promotion
Right after I finish this project
I’ll come back to see the flamingos
Pre-monsoon showers arrived
And I was transferred to the Andheri office at the end of the month
I never had to go to Sewri or Chinchpokli again
The newspapers have stopped carrying stories about the old textile mills
Sewri has been renamed Lower Colaba
Even Blue Frog has shut down and given way to something newer
While all around me, people are weighed down by
GST, demonetisation, Aadhar, decriminalisation, recrimininalisation
We are a city of plodders, of grinding lives
Our lives can be changed with one move from Delhi
Just like those millworkers all those years ago
But in my mind, I know a different place
I remember an island where fish doesn’t smell because it’s so fresh out of the sea
I remember when Dalda cans told stories
A place where millworkers children chased cycle tyres
and ate peppermint sticks called Phantom cigarettes
And I know now
This Annapoorna blessed
fishing village of a thousand names
has pain, it has poetry
It has a history
It has pink long-winged birds that take flight every summer
My city has flamingos.
This is one of my favorite performance pieces. ‘Flamingos’ is a story that I was only able to start formulating 10 years after I had experienced it. And it took me many steps to build it into that story that I felt it deserved.
I have so many special memories around this piece. One of them is my first meeting with Karthik Rao, a musician who would go on to collaborate with me and turn my words into magic many times. Our first meeting was outside an open mic event. I was working on my first draft of this piece and started reading it to him. He began strumming along. And that was all the introduction we needed. We performed it together without plan or practice and were probably the first people to unite music & poetry in the open mic spaces of that time. This is our debut performance together.
Another time, years and accolades later, I was recording at a radio station. I was writing a different piece on the go that was due to go up the next morning. I just couldn’t get it right and we were working late into the night. Then I requested a break to soothe my throat. Feeling guilty about keeping the team back late, I apologised the cameraperson who was sipping chai. He listened expressionless. Then he said, “Aap iBar mein perform karte the na? Aapka woh Chinchpokli wala piece suna tha maine. Mere dada ek millworker the.” He was referring to this piece. I was speechless, wondering if I had offended him. Then he said, “Aapke liye jitni bhi der rukna pade, no problem. Saari raat baithenge, aapke liye kuch bhi”. 🥲
Finally, my favorite performance space came of age the same time and in the same place that I came of age as a performer. They invited me to record this piece for them and showcased it on their channel. Here’s ‘Flamingos’ performed at The Habitat.
If you liked this post, also read:
Or you may want to listen to this podcast episode: Flamingos