Day 22: Mumbai to Unaccustomed Eyes

It will soon be one whole year since I landed in Mumbai, so I am probably no longer a newcomer in the strictest sense of the word. Mumbai, however, continues to awe and amaze, and occasionally exasperate, me. There are aspects of Mumbai life which are unique and some of them require a good amount of getting used to.

If you have not seen Mumbai before, the first thing that grabs your attention is the crowds. No amount of reading up on it prepares you for the first sight of the teeming millions everywhere–on the roads, the trains and the buses. It is intimidating. I may not agree with Shiv Sena’s parochial, anti-immigrant, almost xenophobic politics but I have to agree with them that the city is bursting at its seams and cannot accommodate more people.

The crowd takes your breath away at times. You get to see sights never seen before. Nowhere had I seen, for instance,  a queue of people waiting to get into an auto-rickshaw as one sees outside local train stations at peak hours. The local trains themselves are another story altogether. Their efficiency is legendary. They are also packed like you cannot imagine during rush-hour. You have not really experienced Mumbai in all its glory if you have not got into a train spilling with people on all sides.

Apart from the crowd, the cosmopolitanism of the city is ever so obvious and amongst the first things you notice. No other place comes close to Mumbai here–Delhi probably comes a distant second. I am sure we have people from every state of India living in our society.

And then when it rains, it pours. And how. I had never before seen it rain like this–it is a sight to behold. For three months the skies open and the rain comes down in torrents, almost non-stop. You forget what sunlight feels like, or what it feels like to walk on a dry street. Yet life goes right on, without a break, despite delayed or cancelled trains. And thank God for washing machines–I have no idea how Mumbaikars of earlier generations got their clothes to dry during the monsoons.

For a city groaning under the weight of its population, Mumbai is greener than I expected. Especially during the monsoons, the whole city gets swathed in greenery. Hills become lush and verdant. Boundary walls made of stone get covered with a carpet of velvety moss.

Monsoons also bring with them a characteristic fishy smell to the outdoors, though . It bothered me initially but I stopped noticing it after a while.

And then one day, the rain is gone just as suddenly as it had come. Sunshine is back in all its glory, and brings with it hope and a feeling of victory–of having survived the Mumbai rains!

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7 Responses to Day 22: Mumbai to Unaccustomed Eyes

  1. Glad to read about your thoughts on Mumbai.

    I still recall Mumbai with nostalgia.
    It is my birthplace and I spent the first 18 years of my life there but left it for good in 1967.

    My childhood memories of Mumbai include trips in an open Truck (or Lorry, as they call it) on Republic day. Thousands of trucks, teeming with people would jam the roads in the evening till late in the night going round the city, to celebrate Republic Day when all big and important buildings would be illuminated with colourful and decorative lighting. We carried blankets and plenty of food and it was a great outing for us kids. The thrill of traveling in an open truck was unique. Only on Republic Day was it officially permitted.

    I remember the rains too. A raincoat was essential. Umbrellas didn’t help much.
    I used to enjoy wading through knee deep water and also getting wet and inviting the ire of my mom who wondered when and how the clothes were going to dry. Yes, there were no washing machines those days. We hung our clothes on clotheslines in Balconies and simply waited longer than usual. It helped of course, when we avoided cotton and wore clothes made of synthetic fibre (nylon, terelene, terycot etc). I remember ironing my clothes sometimes, not to remove wrinkles, but to dry them as they were still damp.

    I remember the tramways too. They were slow but supplemented the BEST service. They have disappeared now. There wasn’t single flyover then. The one from Kemps corner to Marine drive was the first and it came up during my childhood. After the seventies, several more have come up and I have lost count of them now.

    The Shiv Sena was born during my boyhood. Being a south Indian, we were anxious.
    But we needn’t have worried. There was no fear of being physically harmed or attacked.
    All that they resented was that there were too many of us grabbing the jobs that they wanted.
    After the agitations they would congregate at the nearest Udupi restaurant for a Dosa or Idli.
    Not Vada Paav or Paav Bhaaji! Ironic! They latter turned their wrath on the Muslims.
    Nowadays they are focusing on Biharis! Watch out! Dont talk Maithili in public.
    Who is next on their “persona non grata” list? I wonder.

    I also remember my days playing street cricket with tennis balls.
    Traffic was not too much excpet on the main roads. We could play without being a nuisance to the car drivers. On occasion, the evenings were spent flying kites from our terrace.
    During rainy months we played carrom or cards. Others played chess or read comics or listened to film songs on the radio. TV did not exist.

    School was just a short walk away for me. In less then five minutes, I would reach my class room after leaving our doorstep. I was privileged to have a childhood in which no time was spent commuting to school. I studied at Don Bosco School in Matunga and we lived just behind the school.

    All the tall buildings were in South Mumbai. There were no tall buildings any where in the suburbs. three stories was the limit and hardly any building had lifts. Marine drive was the only broad street where you had buildings only on one side. The drive along the curve was a pleasure those days. We enjoyed the breeze and during the monsoon, we also enjoyed getting wet when an occasional wave was large enough to hit the boundary wall with enough force to spray the footpath.

    Auto rickshaws were unknown. They came later and were limited to the suburbs. Till the sixties, you could hire a “Victoria”, a horse drawn carriage. Later they were phased out by the taxies. The initial taxis were small cars called Morris Minors and later Baby Hindusthan. Later they were all replaced by Fiats/Premier Padminis. Unlike Calcutta, where all the taxis are Ambassadors, Mumbai did not have Ambassador taxies. Fiat and Ambassador were the only cars on the street. Marutis did not exist. The rich and famous had imported cars which were petrol guzzlers. I remember petrol price was 79 paise per litre!

    I remember during my boyhood in school, Masaala Dosa at the Udupi restaurant was just 2 annas, (12 paise) A coconut could be had for 19 paise, a Joy Icecream stick for 2 annas. Pocket money which my parents gave me was half an anna per day (three measly paise!) I saved up a weeks pocket money for these treats without my mother’s knowledge and she would wonder why I didn’t have an appetite that night when we came home for dinner. I wouldn’t tell her I had already eaten at the local Udupi restaurant. During my one year at college in 1966-67 (at Elphinstone College, at Churchgate) things had got more expensive and I remember my pocket allowance had increased to one rupee per day! It was enough for a thaali meal at the local restaurant those days. I carried a pass to travel on those crowded local trains and so I did not have to spend on transport.

    Wankhede stadium had not been built. All cricket matches were at Brabourne Stadium near Churchgate.
    Matunga where we lived was almost entirely inhabited by South Indians.
    The Parsees were concentrated at Dadar Parsee Colony and at Colaba.
    The educated middlea and upper middle class Maharashtrians lived mostly at Dadar/Parel/Shivaji Park area, which also gave birth to most of Mumbai’s famous cricketers. The Gujaratis were everywhere, but there was a concentration of Gujarati population at Girgaum/Kalbadevi area.

    I remember a Sindhi Colony near Sion Circle, for the refugees from the Sind province of Pakistan.
    Business was in the hands of the Gujaratis, Sindhis and Punjabis mostly and they employed South Indians and Maharashtrians.
    Milk was supplied by Aarey Milk colony but private diaries also co existed and were monopolised by “Bhaiyas”, as the UP wallas were then called. Milk came in bottles those days, not in plastic satchets. Bread and Bakeries were in the hands of Goan Christians.

    Mumbai was the only place in Maharashtra where you could get by with out knowing Marathi. Even the Maharashtrians spoke the unique brand of Hindi of the Mumbaikars which Munnabhai speaks.It is a mixture of Hindi, Maraathi and Gujaraati.

    Mumbai was also well known for the movie industry. All the important people of the Industry lived in Mumbai, not just actors.

    Mumbai fascinates me because it is perhaps the most efficient city in India.
    Way back in the 1960s people wondered how the city was going to accommodate the thousands that were pouring in and how enough water could be provided for all of them. In 2014, we were still wondering !
    Looks like this is an ‘elastic’ city. It just stretches ! I don’t know when it will snap.

    New Mumbai did not exist during my days. Looks like there will be many more Mumbais in future!
    Sorry for this long comment. I just got carried away.

    • Thank you for this wonderfully evocative comment–this is a beautiful, complete post in itself. I am sure all Mumbai lovers would want to have it framed and hung on a wall where they could read it often.

      Most people here have not heard of Maithili and do not know which region to associate it with. Some of them are very surprised to know it is spoken only in a small part of Bihar–they say it sounds ‘exactly’ like Bengali! In any case, I’ll be damned if I stop speaking it to please anyone!!

    • Fem says:

      This was so nice! The places you talked about still have majority populations of one community or the other, but people have become more and more mixed. A good thing really! I myself live in a Gujarati majority area, and revel in the theplas, dhoklas and other goodies that are abundant in the local shops.

      I actually haven’t seen an Ambassador in quite a few years now. When I was a child, my parents would hire ONLY an Ambassador for family trips. Anything else was looked down upon.

      The Shiv Sena would target the ocean if it suited them. They are morons! What is really amazing is that Mumbai still has the best infrastructure and safety in India, even with the never-ending increase of population.

      You should have hoarded the petrol then, and by now you would be a millionaire! 😀

  2. Pepper says:

    Coming from somebody who calls Mumbai her very own (Not just me, my parents and aunts and uncles and my whole clan has been born and brought up in this city), I loved this post.

    I know Mumbai is difficult. Very difficult. I know people who hate this city. Yet, my heart can’t stop loving it 🙂

    • Despite its difficulties, Mumbai is fascinating and has a way of growing on you. Everyone who has spent even a few years here comes to love it. It truly is the maximum city. I can understand just how attached you must feel to this city since your entire family was born and brought up here 🙂

  3. chattywren says:

    You just made me so nostalgic about the city! Agree to the crowds and infrastructure somehow holding up, but it is a city which grows on you. And everybody knows a little different Mumbai than you, which is fun too.

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