The moment I land in Bombay I whiff the air for all the aroma, scents and smells so elaborately described in Shantaram. It does seem to be a harmonious blend of many things living and cooking but my not so tuned olfactory sense fails to distill out the constituents. The first thing I notice in Bombay is the clamour for space – cracks are too small for the plants that sprout out from decrepit walls, houses are too small for the families, the city is too small for its population. But it is a harmonious jostle for space. Nothing or no one seems to edge the other out. This embodies the spirit of Bombay for me contrary to the Shiv Sena theory of ‘Sons of the Soil’.
Bombay from air is all blue – the blue not of water but tarpaulin sheets. A city ever ready to welcome the rains. For the very first time did I see auto-rickshaws covered over with tarpaulin sheets. One needs no further evidence of its shanty towns than what one witnesses from the sky. It’s an endless array of tin roofs broken in its monotony by tall spires of buildings here and there. It is one thing to bask in heritage but another to let the grime take over. Almost every building except the ones newly constructed have dirty scars running through its length and breadth. Is it the futility of painting what the evening rains immediately wash over? I can only guess.
The first day was a rude treatment. Coming from Chennai where railway stations have a clear cut layout for entry and exit, I had to go around the Kurla railway station six whole times – once for the ticket and many times for boarding the train and exiting the station. The rain and my dirty wet jeans made it worse. I got out on the wrong side of the city exit which is a little more than a by lane. Plodding along in the hope of getting to some main road I was told there wasn’t one for a long distance further and that I need to climb over the station to the other side to get home. Adding to it was the discomfort of having the backpack on the front as advised by a very thoughtful friend. Maybe that’s why I looked not so much an outsider except when I asked for directions.
People of Bombay are what you can call humanity. Used to the brash treatment of Chennai locals where not a sentence goes by without a vexatious exclaim, I was warmed by the compassion and brotherhood of Bombay. People address you with the familiarity of a neighbour. Help is proffered even before you ask for it. It’s like being lifted on to a boat while drowning at sea. That’s what the peculiar rains of Bombay did to me the first day.
The next day was fresh and mildly sunny. By now it was second nature to flip open the umbrella. Getting out of Dadar railway station I felt like stepping into the garden of Eden, such endless baskets of flowers, flowers I haven’t seen previously in India, flowers I didn’t know were sold in the market and all so fresh and in full bloom. It was literally a feast to the eyes. They were stranded together to form garlands and it was incredible – the finesse of a master craftsman. I was unfortunate to not have a reason to buy them then and there. Nobody I will want to buy it for lived in the city. If flowers are not perishable I should have spent a fortune buying everything my eyes fell on.
Shopping in Dadar and Bandra, my day drew to a close when I couldn’t find an auto to take me to the station. Bombay came to my rescue and two girls pulled me into an auto with them with not a moment’s thought. This happened on another occasion leaving me to wonder at the civic prudence in the act of helping. Voluntary sharing of rides helps manage the larger problem of traffic and congestion. And that without the necessity for a ride sharing service or application on the mobile. A city with compassion needs no enforcement, that’s the biggest takeaway from my three days of Bombay.
I could not leave Bombay without a visit to the famous Yazdani bakery and there again the chai master treated me like I was a regular. A mad man at the table across bought me a biscuit. One cannot escape feeling humbled by the spirit of Bombay. Though I couldn’t go to Colaba and the many places spoken of in Shantaram, I could recognise the Bombay of the book. I can now understand how it’s not so difficult to strike a conversation with a stranger and the very high probability of it maturing into a long lasting relationship. I can feel the pace of the city and how it chokes out any tendency to idle. Bombay is a place where the one rupee coin finds existence and purpose. Though I continue to find Chennai more liveable, Bombay offers a lot many lessons to learn from. The roads retain not more than ankle deep water and that mostly at its margins even when it is incessantly raining. It’s respect and pride in the colonial heritage, the preservation of the buildings and the substantial use they are put to and importantly, it’s people who are human, who are aware of their neighbours on the road, in the train etc, who are human to pause and help even when running between places. The people more than make up for the insufficiency of the city. Bombay, I salute you!