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BLOG - ER Ramachandran

Monday, August 02, 2010

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan...

Mumbai , Bombay, Bambai all mean the same. The city’s name might have changed to Mumbai but if you hail a cabbie in Masjid, he is likely to explain his refusal with ‘Nai. Main Bambai jaa rahaa hun!….’ V.T. or C.S.T. is still Bambai for him.

The city is an experience. To be experienced but cannot be explained. With multi cultures, multi languages, multi cuisines all nurturing few million hopes, the city is really an Eldora Do for immigrants far and wide.

How does one understand the city? You will never really understand it. It will surprise you each time you try to paraphrase it; you cut it open to decipher it; it will open into something else.

How does one travel in Mumbai? In as many ways as possible - right from walking miles at a stretch along the train lines as people do amidst gallons of pouring Monsoon rains to get to their place of work; to zip across the city in double fast local trains hanging on to the overhead strap on one hand and two more necks on the other; to take a somewhat comfortable journey if you get a seat in the BEST bus otherwise stand for long time with some heavy shoes crushing your big toe; drive your own car cursing the traffic and sweating by buckets; to sit in the back of an air-conditioned Mercedes twiddling your thumbs surrounded by crawling traffic for miles going at a speed less than a determined overzealous paunchy morning walker. But all of them WILL reach their destination - office, factory, school, market or whatever, do their work and get back more or less the same way! This happens throughout the year come rain or shine. Rain will be in sheets of water and shine will come with buckets of sweat.

It was once jocularly said that what you can get done in a day in Mumbai , a fortnight in Delhi and may never get done in Calcutta (Now Kolkatha) as so many doubts will be raised about the outcome , the Bongs will thrash it with heaps of discussion and pass a unanimous resolution that the task should not be attempted in ‘ the best interests of one and all’!

How does one attempt to get to know Mumbai? The contrasts alone will need a document to just even fill, leave alone understanding it.

Sample this:

No city has made such elaborate arrangements for homeless to study at night. There are well-lit parks with toilets and 24 hour water supply to drink where you can study, sleep, wakeup, wash go across the park for kadak chai and resume studies. The number of street children who have studied and made to top positions, started their own companies is legion. Most of them come back to the place for thanks-giving and create more facilities for new hopefuls.

Considering the city’s diversity right from dress to religion, culture to food and what have you, it is presumptuous to assume there can be any unity at all. It is here Mumbai has surprised the rest of India always! In smaller towns, even where a single religion reigns, people divide themselves in to subsects like insect colonies to slug it out and pull each other down a la frog- in- a- well. In Mumbai this is unheard of as most of them have no time for these little politics and games, as life is one fast to-and -fro journey each day. You get to hear ‘Marnekeliye vakth nahin’ or ‘Shwas lene ke liye pursath nahin hain’at least three or four times a day and it is indeed true. You are for ever traveling, meeting some one and running off some where, basically trying to survive so much so there is hardly time for small time khit-phits.

People criss-cross the city after office hours traveling miles to meet at a dingy space to practice for a play for which availability of stage is still uncertain. Some people on their weekly day off get up at the crack of dawn and travel to other end of the city so they can teach slum children. Old rich Parsi ladies will stay late night and brave the December chill to distribute blankets to people sleeping on the footpaths during shivering winter.

It’s another matter, film stars and high society kids mow down homeless, sleeping on footpath on their swanky cars with their brashness fortified by few pegs and ‘I-know-the Police-Commissioner’ attitude. Or a girl is raped in train in filmy style. Or a person is murdered during daytime in the middle of a road by bhai log in front of non-caring crowd. The city is a bundle of paradox.

Privacy is guarded zealously and there is an unwritten signboard which says ‘don’t disturb me, please’ on most mumbaikars’ faces. ‘Neighbour’s business is none of my business’ is practiced so religiously; neighbours living in a flat for not having met each other is not uncommon .Most people prefer it that way. You have parks where apart from regular stone benches for a group or family, you have single seat for a loner! Loners are a major component of this crowded cosmopolitan city.

But strangers will walk you to safety when you are caught in a neck-deep monsoon rains lashing the city for days at a stretch. The poorest of the poor and the friendly pickpocket will look feed chai and biskut to an industrialist when his Mercedes breaks down in the middle of a night as water enters the carburetor.In New Orleans they left a busload of senior citizens to starve and die, but this will never happen in Mumbai.

How is it for foodies in the city? Idly and Dosa were basically south Indian breakfast, not anymore. For quite a few morning walkers, especially Gujarathis, a visit to Anand Bhavan in Matunga is a must for delicacies like Masala Dosa, Medu Vada and Idly with filter coffee after their fast walk in Five Gardens in Matunga. The rush at Mama Kane by Non-Maharashtrians is seen to be believed for their various types of Pohas and sabudana vadas for breakfast. In the evenings as commuters walk their way to Churchgate or CST to catch a local train, it is the Maharashtrian dish Vada Paav. South Indians take cookery classes to learn how to make Gujarathi dishes like Khandvi, Khamand Dhokla.

If cricket is a religion in the country today, the ABC of lessons in religion sprang from Shivaji Park, Cross maidan and the various Gymkhanas along the Marine Drive. So are Hindi films and particularly Hindi songs of an earlier era which brought India together, after imposition of Hindi by a senseless Government failed and had threatened to divide the country.

As you peel layers of Mumbai you will see little Gujarath, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Punjabs etc doing their own thing in various layouts of the city. But they are all Mumbaikars due to what the city has done for them.

What drives a Mumbaikar day in day out, roughing out the long haul in crowded trains and going through the grind with his uncomplaining attitude for years? How do the dabbawallas manage to feed half the city carrying a home- cooked food in a Tiffin carrier using a distribution system that has confounded the management Gurus so much so they have started similar system in Boston?

When does a citizen turn in to a shock absorber and carry on as if nothing has happened and carries on her duty without a care or fear that she could be the next victim of a bomb in a train, market, near a bus stop and travel through the very same places she has seen a bomb blowing up her friends or relatives or fellow travelers?

This enduring spirit, this ability to look in to the eye of a disaster and muster enough courage to go on with life is what differentiates a mumbaikar from others.

It is this spirit which will defeat every design of a terrorist no matter how many attempts he makes. The same spirit will once again defeat the Raj Thackeray ‘Thamasha’ as it did once to defeat Bala Saheb’s cry to divide the city.

Sure Bombay like a mega city has mega ills – the filth, the underworld, the unmanageable population. But these are the results of city fathers who failed to foresee and plan for city’s growth. The same is now happening to Bangalore too. But the spirit of Mumbaikar to get on with the job ‘come what may’ is typical and usually rubs on any newcomer to the city quickly.

That is why Mohammed Rafi and Johnny Walker sang ‘Yeh hai Bambai meri Jaan’ , O.P. Nayyar's tune in CID, a picture directed by Guru Dutt even as early as Fifties for Dev Anand. Even today the same spirit reverberates in the city.


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  • Superb post!
    And yes, we still use "Bombay" when we talk about our city, but write "Mumbai", and it still works out fine. That's one of the best things about Mumbai/ Bombay/Bambai... everything works, somehow or the other.
    Unfortunately the single seats in the parks were meant to create loners. The authorities hit on this 'brilliant' idea to stop couples from getting too cosy in our ironically named Nana-Nani (grandfather-grandmother)parks! So yes, unfortunately we do have our share of culture-police too. But from what I've heard, the single seats just made it easier for the courting couples to get even cosier ... they simply share those single seats!
    But no matter what, the buzz in this city is exhilirating. It is the Anything's Possible city.

    By Blogger Sunita, at 4:03 AM  

  • Thank you Sunita..The multiple use of single seat is interesting! Forever Enterprising mumbaite...

    By Blogger ER Ramachandran, at 9:21 AM  

  • You have really captured the spirit of the city.
    Believe it or not, I have spent just one day in Bombay, and that really made me hungry for more. I hope that one day I can spend a good length of time there, to get a true flavour of this fascinating city.

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