One Night @ Mumbai, 2nd February 2010
I never go to weddings and that too just fly one evening down to Mumbai after office to attend a wedding reception is something that I never could imagine that I would do. But I did. I did this for a couple whose only child was getting married. It is possible that they will never see another function in their life as the newly married son leaves home permanently to become an NRI. Besides I knew that they would be happy to see me. These days of the afternoon of my life, I take these things seriously. Slowly one by one people who love me are becoming memories. This makes me more conscious and aware of the few remaining around me. This couple whose son’s wedding I went to attend was one of them.
I left office a bit early to catch the early evening Go Air Flight. In a rush I forgot to drink water and when I pushed around long queues at the security I realized that my throat was parched with thirst. I looked around for a glass at the security enclosure and found to my dismay that there was a snout out of which water gushed and you had to position your head, shoulders, torso, tongue and jaws to catch the water that ejected out like in a fountain to wet your face and smear your spectacles and embarrassingly moist your sweater. At the age of 50, I ended up unsuccessfully looking like a school girl wet all over her face because there is no luxury of drinking out of glass even though the school may have a water dispenser. In desperation to look for alternatives I headed for a Café Day counter to buy water when I suddenly stopped in my tracks and said “well, this is a ploy for me to buy bottled water.” I became adamant and walked up to the help desk to lodge my complaint. The girl was helpful, please maam, she said why you don’t write in the feedback form. I refused. I know these ploys very well, something similar to why court cases get so long to conclude; once you have delayed the moment, you have succeeded in distracting the person as well. No, I said, call the manager. The manager took about half an hour to come with three paper glasses.
Meanwhile I started to speak to the police, the cleaners and the other staff at the food counters. Each one said that they could not drink water from that fountain and as a result many had symptoms of dehydration. All of them including the policemen said that they were not allowed to complaint on the drinking water issue because they feared suspension. The cleaning staff said that one word of resentment and out they went of jobs and who would risk a parched throat at the cost of children and the elderly in the family? My heart sank. Is this our democracy, the world’s largest, on which I have an unwavering faith? This is not done, simply not done. Just for the profits of a few MNC chains, an entire population in the one of the world’s hottest cities is to be deprived of water? Besides, the height of the snout is such that water perpetually remains out of reach for children. The whole saga reminded me of Tagore’s poetry called Samanya Khoti, a Small Damage in which the queen ordered some huts of the poor to be burnt down because she wanted some fire to keep her body warm. The King exiled her by saying when private interests demand such a public sacrifice there is no question that she can in any way be tolerated. But the Indian democracy, the assimilative, unifying, universalizing and all absorbing grand civilization, has stooped so low at the altar of Mammon that thousands of people are to die of thirst to quench the profits of a few MNC brands? And should there be any protest the people are to lose their jobs? The manager at the airport tried to tell me that they were saving glasses to save trees? Is that the great environmental lie that is being told around? This is absolute nonsense and what is worse is just like once superstition helped sustain the dominance of religion, today science is being ferreted around to help establish the dominance of capital. No wonder, science is as disgusting as superstition when put to similar uses.
Anyway as I was boarding the plane, the TV showed two women in Ghaziabad fighting over the parenthood of the child. One woman was the surrogate mother of the child, while the other one the married wife of the biological father. Two men standing behind me were animatedly arguing about what motherhood should be? No, not whether it is a social structure or a biological fact but whether the woman who the man has socially married or the woman with who he had sex with reserves the right to motherhood? Interesting, the same mistress and wife argument seems to be preoccupying the minds of men while women debate about society and body. Monogamy has only sharpened the divide among women and their respective rights, men are least constrained by it.
I reached Mumbai without further fights or delays and felt an immediate elation at the quiet, mind-your-own-business and your business is my business attitude of the auto rickshaw drivers. One of them helped me to reach the Hotel Atithi, just on the outer walls of the airport. The desk handed me a form to be filled up in which I had columns like religion and caste. I jumped out of my skin !!!. I, the free citizen of India, having to write my religion and caste? I, for who the world’s longest Constitution has been written down? I a free citizen for who the world’s largest democracy grants equal dignity to all adults irrespective of religion, caste, class, creed? How dare the hotel abrogate the sanctity of my Constitution? No, the manager said, it is the state government that insists on such details.
Was not Jyotiba Phule from Maharashtra, was this not the home of Tukaram, Ramdas? Was this not the land that gave India so many martyrs to the Freedom Movement? But unfortunately, Maharashtra has decided to disown every body and make a hero out of Nathuram Godse, the man who killed the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Do I think of Godse as the mythical Oedipus, who killed his father so that he could have control over his mother, perhaps the nation in this case? What is this strange psychology? Is attachment for mother also a subconscious expression of something else, like getting at a better and a stronger male, the father in this case? Sometimes a man’s chivalry is directed at other males rather than protecting the women. Just thoughts…I was wondering that when I came to Mumbai in 1969, as a child to visit my just married aunt I used to see hippies on the road. The American youth becomes a hippy when he is angry with the father and all that he stands for. The Asian youth become a religious fanatic, probably because religious fanaticism hurts the well established secular discourse of the state.
The taxi driver turned out to be an eager guide as well. He showed me all the new spots of interests; like the place where Hemant Karkare was shot at, the path the terrorists took, and the home of the Jews that was under siege. He was in fact so eager to show me the tree near which Karkare was shot down, that he nearly jumped the road divider. Strange he never even mentioned the Taj Hotel even while we drove past it several times. I think that like the terrorists he too believes that the people who visit the Taj ought to die. The class divide runs very deep even if the Marxists are no longer in fashion.
The taxi driver was an elderly Muslim from Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh called Abdul Rashid. I asked him how long he was in Mumbai to which he said that he had lost count. Seeing his eagerness at giving me a bonus ride (since I was paying him a fixed sum) all around the Shiv Sena monuments like Bala Saheb’s home, Raj Thackeray’s flat, MNS office and the Shiv Sena building I asked him whether he believed in the MNS. Abdul Rashid did not reply and instead grew philosophical and said that there was no reason to believe that we can every carry anything after we die. Why fight over trivial affairs when we are going to come alone to this world and depart alone? He sounded so much like Aurangzeb’s dying words and it was only then I noticed that he was tall and lanky and wore a skull cap which he said he had croched. He also said that as a past time he often wove skull caps. I asked him whether he knew calligraphy, the other talent of Aurangzeb, he said no that he did not know the letters.
Emboldened by my interests in the Muslims, Abdul Rashid showed me Haji Ali across the sea, standing patiently waiting for the devotee. In a sharp contrast to that the Siddhi Vinayak Temple stood in an arrogant defiance, as is trying hard to make a point. Devotees thronged in thousands, the long queue having reached Dadar. Rashid seemed very proud of the long queue that showed the devotion of Mumbaikars, something to brag about to a Delhiite like me. In Delhi, he was certain, that I will encounter no such intensity in devotion. He did not seem to mind that Haji Ali was empty.
Abdul Rashid took me to an alley approaching Colaba that was full of hotels especially to cater to tourists from the Gulf or on their way to the Gulf. There was a large building called the Hajj centre, serving the pilgrims to Mecca. Abdul Rashid has never been to Mecca, it is near home, he said, he can go at any time. Near home, I asked, utterly surprised at the suggested proximity between Mumbai and Mecca. Yes, Rashid said, it is the same sea, only this side and the other side. I never think of spaces like this, I always think them as separated by land mass, water bodies or by mountains. Rashid spoke of them as joining different locations. A significant difference in perception between him and I. I think of the world as discrete and divided, while to him it is all a unity with apparent diversity. I wondered whether it was for people like Rashid or intellectuals like me that we survive as a democracy.
Though Abdul Rashid was eager to show me the Muslim “deras”, he seemed to be very relieved to get on to the 5 km long flyover that rose straight from Mahalaxmi to the Flora Fountain completely ignoring spaces such as the Bhendi Bazaar, Gaffoor Market and Mohammad Ali Road, the names that are famous for the Bombay Blast of 1993. He mentioned several times that once we are on the flyover we will leave everything down below into the invisibility of our memory, we will not even catch a glimpse of these spaces. He was eager to erase all these notorious spaces in Mumbai; he was so enthused about Karkare and the 26/11 terrorists, perhaps because they were from Pakistan; but the blast embarrassed him, it were his own men and he too weak to do anything about such men.
The other narrative of Mumbai that Rashid felt that I should know was the saga of Pramod Mahajan. I saw everything, Pramod Mahajan’s flat, Rahul’s residence, Pravin’s residence, the hospital where Pramod Mahajan breathed his last, the crematorium in which his last rites were performed and the jail in which Pravin is locked up. Abdul Rashid thought that there could be no criminal like Pravin Mahajan, one who kills one’s own blood and makes a married woman take off her sindur. The motif of Sindur is India, Hindu or Muslim, it is of no consequences. Though Muslims except the ones in West Bengal do not wear sindur, the notion of the magic powder is spread deep into the soil of India. As they say in Kashmir, Islam in India is a Hindu sect. It is unfortunate that the Hindus have never seen it in this way. Whatever it is, I was convinced that the Muslims in Mumbai felt happier with the BJP than the Congress. The BJP could protect the north Indians from the MNS being the bigger Hindutva brother. The issue of the Hindi versus Marathi is getting to be more important.
I was surprised because Abdul Rashid no longer showed me any film star’s homes, or any studio, or any theatre halls. He showed me offices and restaurants, the Times of India office and the Jehangir Art Gallery, but stayed clear of cinema. Aapko dekhna hai? He asked disappointed. By now he had gathered a good impression of me because I wanted to go by the Worli Sea Link on my way back from the wedding and he was impressed because I had a large heart to spend Rs 50 as the toll tax. I got defensive; I merely said that taxi drivers were famous for showing film stars’ homes. Yes, he said, that used to be the case, now no longer. This was because the film wallahs no longer were important. I immediately understood; the drama of real life, the Karkare- terrorist shoot out, the point blank cold blooded murder of Pravin Mahajan or the tandav of the MNS were far more exciting. Real life events and not the make belief world of the cinema were now making up Mumbai; cinema was on a backfoot.
The disconnect of cinema and Mumbai was like the giant flyover that like a roller coaster took traffic off the crowds at Bhendi Bazar or the Sea Link that completely bypassed Mumbai, leaving it only as a side view in the horizon, cinema represented this grand impulse to leave the city behind as a space occupied by real people. The gloss of the flyover was a way to gloss over life. Mumbai was leaving itself behind. No wonder then some people wanted Bombay to become Mumbai, a way to claim or reclaim the city of reality and as Shobha De said make some sense of the growing culture of Bombay in which Mumbai had little space. Abdul Rashid’s deliberate ignoring of film stars was a way of isolating a culture that refused to acknowledge the presence of Mumbai in Bombay. These were of the people in clubs and malls ignoring the crowds in trains and who now needed to be ignored in return.
We reach Colaba and Abdul Rashid does not know the exact venue. So we stand asking people and Rashid gets down the cab to ask very old persons in the locality. The venue is a club and Rashid feels that the elderly should know it. But this club for the defense service persons and though Rashid assumes that very old taxi drivers would know of the location, I had no heart to tell him that familiarity with spaces is a matter of social class and not geography. My neighbour in my Delhi suburb residence is born and brought up in the city but has never been to Hauz Khas or Panchsheel; her modest social and economic background has made no grounds for her to ever access or visit these areas. Spaces in a city are divided by class and community and just as I have never visited Chitpur Road in Kolkata and my neighbour has no clue about Hauz Khas, drivers in Colaba had no reason to know of Navy Nagar.
Anyway we reach the destination and Abdul Rashid is again impressed with me. What fine people, what refined decoration, he commented. I went inside the reception ground but found myself standing at the end of a serpentine queue, a shorter version of the long ones of Siddhi Vinayak. Mumbaikars do not seem to mind the queue and wait for their turn. No one, even with slowly depleting food on the bouffet stacks ever thought of breaking the discipline and the routine. I remembered what a student leader in Jharkhand told me about Deccan India’s superior civilization. More reservations and more OBCs, the leader had opined, made India south of the Vindhyas more civilized. I agreed. Friends from Delhi eventually rescued me, have food first and then return to the queue, they suggested. I relented and found that opportunist strategies do better than bland obedience, at least when one is hungry.
On my way back to the hotel Abdul Rashid brought me by the new Sea Link. The empty stretch of the bridge provoked speeding and accidents. He brought up the topic of Noor Haveliwallah who in a state of drunken inebriation, hit, crashed and mangled taxis and killed a police on duty. The taxi unions and the police association were up in arms sending the court and the legislative assembly thinking of draconian laws to check drunken driving. Noor was an NRI, a woman, a non-Maharashtrian, Muslim, unmarried, outgoing and partying and a non-celebrity and had destroyed property of taxi drivers and killed a policeman. Neither Salman Khan’s crushing of the pavement dwellers, nor had the terrorist killing of policemen invoked such strong reactions on the Mumbai streets as Noor Haveliwallah had provoked. The attributes of her origin had made her a perfect candidate to be burnt at stake. She, a woman had upset not the street dwellers but a class of wannabe middle class aspirant, the taxi wallahs and had killed a policeman being a woman, one who should vis-à-vis the incumbent of the state remain invisible and inconsequential. Instead, she has assumed enough social and economic powers to maraud and kill. I could see Abdul Rashid express the lower class anger against the upper class and what best can it be if it is a young and unmarried woman and hence untouched by patriarchy, uncontrolled because she has partied, autonomous because she is on her own and free because she was enjoying with her own friends and Muslim, India’s most hated minority?
Anyway I returned to the hotel, barely being able to stay awake at hours past midnight. I crashed in my bed only to wake up at the alarm going off. I bathed and spoke to Madhusree. The hotel, as usual with its impeccable hospitality got me the complementary morning tea, good Assam, as it would suit my taste. The hotel had me dropped off at the airport where I again stood behind a long and a patient queue. I was traveling by Go Air whose boarding pass contains a tea or coffee at the Café Day. I proceeded towards the coffee counter but there was a serpentine queue again. I turned back and headed straight for Landmark; I was not to stand once again behind a queue even if it was for free coffee.
I had collected the morning Times of India edition at the hotel. I boarded the plane and read through it. Noor Haveliwallah was made to walk barefoot all over the place, a way to abrogate her social class and her existential being. The police association was collecting money to support the family of the deceased victim among them. One wonders what they did for the families of the colleagues who died on 26/11. Well. There was mention in the newspaper about insurance companies paying up for the damages, but not the solution but the punishment made Mumbai go agog. I don’t think that Mumbaikars want her to hang, but pay up astronomical sums for damages; what is a woman’s life worth so that one would want to take it? But her wealth, that should go. Women and wealth do not go together; women should not have wealth because that makes her independent and powerful, so the wealth should go. The barefoot image of Noor was a prelude to stripping her, dignity, wealth, social status and above all freedom. Her pathetic demeanour reminded me of Marie Antoniette and her execution by a power hungry and vengeful mob, albeit of the French Revolution demanding equality, liberty and fraternity.
The newspapers had other news, how the government is seeking to modify the CRZ rules so that capitalists and not the fisherman are benefited, how students forced to take the technical courses committed suicide, how SRK says that he will take the Shiv Sena on and Udhbhav Thakeray’s bogey of insiders and outsiders, the suicide of a cop at a mock drill, driven to desperation by his own ilk rather than rammed into by Noor Haveliwallah, how the liquor baron dies unable to bear the news of death of his daughter, and the SC ruling that Muslim cops who have two wives should be sacked. These pieces builds up the Universe of Mumbai – of conflict, contests, assertions, aspirations, despair and dominance tucked away behind the neat and long queues of Mumbaikars patiently waiting for their turn at everything. A Gujarati co passenger borrowed my newspaper apologetically saying that his edition was safely lying at home at the assigned time but because he had to leave early for the early flight he could not bring it with him. Soon the plane touches ground at Delhi and I am back after spending one night at Mumbai.