Pyaar hua, ikraar hua hain
pyaar se phir kyon darta hain dil
kehta hain dil rasta mushkil
maloom nahin hain kahan manzil
Mumbai is not an easy place to love. Caught as we are, in an identity dichotomy between tropical languor & trading port fervour, Mumbai demands much and promises nothing. We chip ourselves away, tuck away our stray bits, and compartmentalise our big feelings & voices so we can carry on through to the next day. Until it spills out because, like the island, we’re linear but not straight lines. A grim collaboration, that outsiders misunderstand and dub ‘Mumbai spirit’. No, Mumbai isn’t easy to understand or love.
I came to my love with pain. 25 and raised on bitter nostalgia for other places by migrant parents. Quarter century & buying into the historical poetry of Delhi, the cautious progressiveness of Tamil Nadu & the flamboyant bhasha intellect of Calcutta. Unassuming, struggling, dirty little Mumbai never stood a chance in the dreams of a 25-year-old with a brand new degree & a life full of glitzy options. I was enamoured by beautiful Bangalore, and tempted by greedy Gurgaon. London, Bangkok, New York, Singapore, Dubai, and Sydney wooed me in the global economy. Bondi beach outshone Juhu. Brooklyn bridge rolled off the tongue easier than Mahim Causeway.
But Mumbai had a job for me. Wedged into the ageing district of defunct textile mills (another story), it was a gritty stepping stone to loftier places. So I braved the harrowing commute & grim realities every day.
A month later, I found myself trudging through muddy water, rain seeping into my collar. Mumbai’s unforgiving monsoon was already exacting its toll, wreaking havoc on skin, hair, spirits, health & mood. It was already 8:30 AM, a time when the city would already be ripe & alive many hours but per the time of the year, bogged down with grey skies and heavy moisture. Mumbaikers know that work is balm for all things that hurt, a distraction from the desperate struggle for time & space. So I only noticed the rain still pelting on the office windows at lunch hour. My colleagues & I assessed the foul weather by the debris pooling around our feet. 2 inches, said one. Lagta hain, aaj bhayankar baarish hain, said another. We laughed wryly, slyly at the one who’d been humming pyaar hua, ikarar hua hain, in hopes of attracting a rainy day girlfriend.
3.30 PM or yawn hour, too early for chai, spirits still damp from the weather, we were told we could leave. I got a cab with a colleague, one I wasn’t friends with but who lived in the general vicinity of my home. In 2005, there were no smartphones, social networks or ebooks. We sat in silence, just like we did at work, an unfriendly but peaceable sharing of space, watching the torrent lash our windows. That’s very Mumbai. Finally, he said, “We’re not going to get anywhere in this. I’m getting down.” My watch showed an hour had passed. We’d only moved one signal. “How are we going to go then?” I asked shakily. “We walk,” he said & got out. Sinking heart, I got out right into knee-deep water. I was soaked within a few minutes. But getting wet on the way home isn’t as annoying as when going to work. It’s not the damp that bothers me anyway. An island city can easily become one large pool when the puddles and potholes and gutters unite and the roads remain just memories. Main na rahoongi, tum na rahoge, phir bhi rahengi nishaaniyan.
A huge overhanging wire snapped next to me, bringing back a flashback of a calamity movie I’d seen. Hard Rain. It had a scene of an electric pole short-circuiting and killing everyone caught in the flood. I wasn’t to know that BMC had cut power connections across the city – an absolute first in the city that never sleeps because it’s got 24×7 lights and no load shedding. “Where are we going?” I muttered, trying to avoid thinking. “Let’s try for Dadar,” said my colleague. Dadar is the centre of Mumbai’s power & people fulcrum. He wasn’t looking at me but his hand reached up in front of my nose. I took it, and stepped across another bumpy track. Who knew just how uneven the city was? To really know a city, you’ve got to experience it underfoot. At some point, the island turned to sea beneath us. Wading is a word used for when you’re enjoying waves at your ankles on a pristine beach. We were just flowing along, supported by poles, walls, traffic dividers, other people’s hands & shoulders. Personal space dissolves in trains but is quickly reclaimed when we get off. Apparently, the rain of 26 July dissolved those too. The water began dipping below our ankles when we climbed the Dadar flyover. Stepping up next to pavement dwellers huddled under blue plastic sheets, we peeped over the overbridge. My heart sank. I couldn’t see where the platform ended and where the tracks began. There was so much water. If I had dived headfirst off the bridge, I would have had a greater chance of floating than of hitting my head on land. Yes, I thought it. When there is rain pelting at you and the water mysteriously rising again while two stories below there’s even more water pouring in, you think maybe somebody is trying to tell you something? Darta hain dil, bahut darta hain dil.
“Let’s go” came his voice again. This time, no questions. So we stumbled, sloshed in formal shoes full of gutter water, our leather satchels made heavier by water. At the foot of the bridge, the market was open, shopkeepers watching Mumbai moving even as water replaced land. One of them had a table laid out with cutting chai cups and was handing them out to passers-by. Yes, free. I took out my brand new Nokia 1100 and tried my parents’ number again. The call wouldn’t go through. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. You’re always thirsty on a tropical island because it’s so hot and salt water is not potable.
We reached Mahim Causeway, the link between two of the islands that make this city. I spotted an auto rickshaw. Just then my phone rang. Yes, the gods were finally answering me! I hit the power button and waved to the auto rickshaw. The call was from my aunt from Bangalore. “Hello Ramya, the news is saying Mumbai has gone underwater, what is happening?” At that minute, the autowalla saw me, started his auto and raced away. On the phone, my aunt’s voice began crackling. Frantic, I started running after the auto, making very little progress in the flood. My aunt’s voice tuned back in & I stopped. My brain went into emergency protocol. Freeze, take stock, decide, go.
“Aunty, I’m fine. I’m walking. I’m not alone. I’m can’t reach my parents. Call them and tell them I’m okay.”
And then the line went dead. I’d learn later, in a future that I didn’t think I’d live to see – that phone calls within & to the city had jammed and stopped. This might have been one of the last calls to go through before maximum city went into zero connectivity. I was standing on the national highway, where two arterial roads merge & become one link to the next island. Except it was only water as far as the eye could see. It was a moment of absolute aloneness, another first in Mumbai. No one was coming to rescue me. Even the ubiquitous public transport had failed me. I was all alone. Maaloom nahin hain kahan manzil.
“Okay, let’s just take the highway then,” said a brusque voice at my elbow. We walked out into a drenched evening without street lights. I realised that the highway slopes and is bordered by a deep gutter on each side. We’d be swept off our feet if we were anywhere near there. A newly built divider had been an ugly wall between both sides. That day it was our lifeline as we scrambled atop it, finding the water at thigh length. People on dividers were usually beggars, street urchins & such. Today I was one of them. But twilight and water wash away social differences and blur your sanity.
“I wonder what that is” said S (my colleague), pointing to a cloth-covered lump on the divider. I said, “Maybe it’s a dead body!” He gave me a look of equal parts hatred and wonder. “Can you be positive for a minute? It looks too small for a body anyway.” “Maybe it’s half a dead body!” I said, greatly cheered by his annoyance. I noticed he gave the lump a wide berth as he passed. I nudged it with my thigh as I passed. It was just somebody’s stuff. Since I couldn’t count train stations, I counted signals, in a bid to feel like this was just another commute home. The divider human traffic ran into a gridlock so we got back down onto the highway, water waist-deep. It was pitch dark and the water was black but full of floating debris. I swivelled around as something bumped into my hip. It was large, several feet long and bobbed firmly. Oh god, oh god, I swayed and gasped. S grabbed my shoulders before I unbalanced. With a grin I couldn’t miss even in the darkness, he said, “It’s not a dead body. It’s a bike seat come loose.”
It was raining too hard for me to cry. There was too much water too high for me to hug him, slap him, do anything but keep walking. I saw the Asian Paints building on the east horizon. Chinchpokli to Santacruz, had I really walked that entire distance in waist-deep water? Almost immediately I walked into a human chain. It was so dark and the rain so loud I hadn’t even known they were there till I felt clasped hands against my stomach, a shoulder bump into mine.
“Aage bahut current hain! You can’t go ahead.”
Through the maze-like daily commute, Mumbai had never heaped so many frustrating devastations on me. Past delirious now, I began arguing with the people in the chain. I’m a good swimmer, I’ve walked all this way, heck, I’ll just swim the rest. Home is so close. It’s closer now than my office. I am not going back. I was all but ready to dive under the black water. S patted my shoulder, gently. “Let it be. It’s too dangerous. Come, we’ll find another way.” I didn’t know he had a gentle bone in his body. There was nothing else to be done. In a daze in the darkness, we moved over gutters, through winding service streets, past shanties, huts, slums.
Then my foot gave way. It was excruciating. It was just a cramp but in that moment, defeat crushed me to the ground. I wanted to sink down and die. Enough, Mumbai, enough, I’m done. I sat down where I was, on some slum doorstep and told S, “You go ahead. I can’t move.” Then I closed my eyes into sweet oblivion. When I opened them again, I didn’t know how much time had passed. To my frustration, I was still alive and awake. To my disgust, it was still wet everywhere. To my annoyance, S was still standing there. He looked at me calmly and said, “I’ll wait. I’m not going anywhere without you.” I wish he’d not done that. It was so much easier to dislike him. It would have been so much easier to give up. Why Mumbai, why can’t you just let me go in peace after you’ve ripped it all away?
Slowly, ever so slowly the pain ebbed. The noise faded into a dull background the way most noises in this city do. I stood up. We made it to SV Road, then Linking Road. We were not going to try for home. Instead, we were going to my friend’s home in Santacruz. The bright shops were ghostly dark. At least I knew where we were now. I had walked these lanes hundreds of times.
My friend’s home was off SV Road. I realised it sloped downwards when I entered it. With every step, the water rose. But I couldn’t show uncertainty. I was leading S and he had led me out of Chinchpokli, then Dadar and stayed with me when I gave up. I shrugged off thoughts of the train that didn’t run, the autowalla who sped away, the people in the cars who wouldn’t offer help. I could not afford to dwell on that. I would realise later, that’s what outsiders call ‘Mumbai spirit’. My friend’s home – that was the only thing I had to focus on and I did. It was the last building at the end of the lane.
Behind me, I could hear S’s steps slowing, his hand in mine tightening. “Ramya,” came his voice, quavering in the darkest of darkness, “I can’t swim. This is too high.” I turned. The water was up to his neck. I couldn’t see his face but I could hear his panic. “Please S, it’s just two buildings more, I promise. Hold your breath. I’ll pull you if it gets higher. I am a good swimmer. I’ll get you out of here, I promise.” ‘NO” he said flatly in a tone I recognised from myself, minutes ago? Hours ago? Centuries ago? How had I become the leader of this mad race to survive?
I racked my brain. Could I get to my friend’s building alone and return with help? S’s hand was still in mine. I knew he wouldn’t drown. But he had stayed with me when I gave up. I couldn’t do that to him. The terror of not knowing how to swim and being stranded in dark water alone? No, I’d never do that to anybody. But what what what to do? I briefly considered knocking him out so I could tow him in the water. I gave up the idea because I didn’t have anything big enough to hit him with. “Please S, I promise this is the third building. They’re in the first building. It’s right there, I know it. You’d be able to see it if it was daytime.”
“No, they all look the same and I can’t see a thing. No no no.”
My heart sank for the hundredth time. Now what? God, Mumbadevi, Raj Kapoor, Mumbai, what? A flash of lightning pulsed through the sky. And in that, it lit up the building we were standing in front of. Khatau house. A bolt of lightning flashed in my mind. My friend’s family had lived in the last building for 20 years. They had shifted out two months earlier. To Khatau House. We were standing right outside its gates.
“S, we don’t have to go anywhere! We are here! This is it!” I yelped in joy. “Then why did you say it was further?” he asked in a hollow, haunted voice. I think he really believed I wanted to murder him. Maybe not that far-fetched; I did consider knocking him out after all, not two minutes earlier. I laughed and if it hadn’t been for the water, I would have hugged him. “You wait here. You can see me. I’m going to open the gate and come back for you.” I kept my voice light & talking so he wouldn’t panic as I let go of his hand & started wading. I remembered that there was a deep gutter running outside the building. Miraculously I stepped onto the narrow tile ledge connecting the building to the lane. But the gate wouldn’t budge. Ugh, now what? I wasn’t going to give up, having gotten this far. I looked up, trying to assess if I could climb it. Unfortunately, it was the heavy fancy wrought-iron type with vertical bars and no horizontal ones for me to step onto.
Inside the compound, sitting atop a car, I spotted the watchman. “Andar aane do, please. Mere uncle rehte hain yahan pe. Please please.” I began pleading, assuming he had locked the gates to shut out any riffraff. “Tala nahin laga hain, bas latch hain. Aap khol do.” he said. Oh. Next challenge. The latch was sunk underwater. I’d have to put my hand into the black water just above the gutter. Funny isn’t it the thoughts that come to one after having spent 6 hours walking in this same water and getting ready to die in it? That was the only time I thought of worms and water snakes. But I put my hand in, unlatched the gate. I also remembered to go back for S, who thank heavens had not fainted.
I had a roof over my head that night, hot food and drinking water, dry clothes and even a bed to sleep on in safety in my friend’s place. When I woke up, S had left already, bringing an abrupt end to our rare evening of closeness. We never spoke about it again. I still hadn’t been able to reach my parents. But everything looks possible after the rain. I left alone in the early evening sun. The rain had ceased & the lane was a serene, unbroken sheet of water. It was down to my knees. I didn’t mind getting my clothes wet again somehow.
On Linking Road, a family was distributing bottles of drinking water. I got into a BEST bus. The lady next to me asked me if I had eaten food. Without waiting for an answer, she unpacked what turned out to be cold vada-pav. They had spent the night in the bus. I was the only new passenger. “Office se nikalne se pehle, canteen mein jo bhi tha, hum sab leke aa gaye. Vadapav kaaeange aap?” Outside Mithibai college, my fashionable alma mater, youngsters in shorts stood in knee-deep water, mucking out gutters, helping people cross.
I got home at 6:30 PM on Wednesday, having left at 8 AM on Tuesday. I had never stayed out overnight. I had never seen a rain like this. No one had for 100 years. But what I saw of the city, its people, and its dramatic turns of fortune made me a believer. I can never truly call myself an atheist. Because on that day that was a once-in-a-century, life-endangering calamity, Mumbai took care of me. It carried me in the voice of a colleague I didn’t even like. It held me in the hands of strangers forming a human chain, directing traffic, brewing endless cups of tea, bringing news, sharing phones for as long as a connection would work. It showed me kindness in vada pavs, water & chai offered by strangers. I didn’t have any friends or family with me along the way. But on 26th of July 2005, sky and sea became one and everything else dissolved. The city beat as one. Mumbadevi held us up to the pouring rain and then set us right back into our Mayanagari. Mumbai, not an easy city to love but once it claims you, you are hers forever. Pyaar hua ikarar hua hain, pyar se ab nahin darta hain dil.
I wrote this piece after living though the unprecedented floods in Mumbai on 26 July 2005. That experience changed how I looked at the city I’d lived in my whole life and which now my world knows as my one true love. And here’s the song referenced throughout the above piece. The video is one of the most enduring icons of romance in Bollywood – which is another name for the same city I love.