I remember this moment. I was on my way back from town though I don’t remember where I had gone and why. I also remember being in a train that was unusually empty for that hour. I remember the feeling of uneasy relief and thinking how odd that was. Isn’t relief supposed to be peaceful, something akin to contentment? And it was but it also felt bittersweet, like something that was hard-won and felt not quite worth the struggles that came before. It was so of this city.
It has to do with living in this city. Mumbai demands everything from you. You cannot be of anyone or anything or any dream else. All you can do is surrender to it unconditionally and trust that it will hold you. The Mumbai train is a perfect illustration of this. You battle mind-killing traffic, deafening sounds, lung-stopping pollution. Then you make it to a station thronging with people ten deep, straining to hear an inaudible announcement, read an illegible signboard to try and figure out which train you need to take. And then you look around at the crowd on the platform, waiting for the same thing. In that moment, Mumbai asks you to decide.
Will you die a little at the thought of fighting (yet again)? Will you strain and struggle and risk falling through the gap between the footboard and the platform? Will you push and shove and add a little more chaos to the desperate millions?
Or will you surrender to the city and be one with its messiness? If you choose this, when the train arrives, the crowd will pull you in with them. If you’re still a little outside the compartment, magically, there will be hands, strangers’ hands that will hold on to you. As they curse and frown, the others in the compartment will bend and twist to make some uncharitable room for you. Mumbai will rescue you, make room for you and it will hold you. Mumbai takes care of itself. So if you surrender to it, it will always make sure there’s a special place for you.
I remember thinking all of this. I remember realising that the silk saree I was wearing had not creased a bit. I remember noticing that my hair had settled perfectly into something very different from what the stylist intended. I remember thinking that my eyes look misaligned (they often do, in pictures) even though they are not in real life. I remember looking at the picture and thinking, “That looks like me. I belong. In my skin, in this city.” I remember feeling like Mumbai.