Even as the infinite sea moves like a gigantic, living creature in perpetual motion, bringing cool winds and the tide from the blue horizon across the Fort where land ends, where you can still see a lighthouse in the distance floating in the sunset waters, Bombay moves across its horizontal and vertical geography in perpetual insomnia.
It is sleepless, relentless in its daily rituals, eternally active and eternally weary, moving from day to night like machines, comic book stories and soft colours, holding its sticky humidity in its skin and eyes like remembrances of things, past and future.
If you don’t know the city and if you are alone, it can disorient you, make you stunningly solitary, lonely, vulnerable and fragile, even if you are lucky to have an address during the night. The city moves with its own fierce rhythm, breathless and restless; it wakes up early even before the dark, even while life and hope floats across the VT, or at Marine Drive, or at crowded Café Leopold behind the Taj, where the bullet marks are still on the wall and the nightmare of the carnage moves like an invisible graffiti on the sea shore.
At Marine Drive, hundreds are feeling the sea. At Juhu, thousands are walking barefoot on the beach. At the Bandra bandstand, young couples, many of them Muslim – the girls in burqa – hold hands and kiss for the entire world to see. They care two hoots and they fill the air with longing and love, the chemistry of subdued laughter and desire, and the lovely synthesis of young, unrequited beautiful bodies.
In the morning and the evening, the local trains turn into a quagmire of flesh becoming flesh; the fresh ironed shirt and the soapy bath in the morning becomes a messy memory. In the evening, during rush hour, the streets are blocked for hours, the trains are jammed with human beings. Some suffocate, some become asthmatic, some just can’t hold it anymore and puke. Distances are long and endless. Others, for instance outside Churchgate Station, quickly go into the backlanes behind the old Blitz office, and the legendary People’s Publishing House bookstore; they slowly down a few drinks, not only to let time linger, but to feel a bit stronger inside, ready to face the ride. The old style pubs are full of people, and smoke. Conversation and intoxication. Booze is expensive, a pint of Old Monk rum costs Rs 180.
Days after Bal Thackeray’s death, the media hyperbole, the State honours, and the terror of lumpen violence that stalked the empty streets two days before the ‘announcement’ of his death, Bombay is back to what it knows best: chasing its dreamless dreams, in relentless pursuit of work, wages, dignity. The Shiv Sena and Congress might have killed the working class movement, but its culture pervades every lane and bylane of the city, the suburbs, and the entire stretch where mills lie empty, or have been turned into real estate, where working class ghettos of the informal sector run their inevitable course of stoic labour and poverty.
People still remember the vast ‘red zones’ across the mill area, the strong trade union movements, the textile workers’ strike of 1921 which Lenin hailed, the vibrant street theatre, the brilliant IPTA genius in Bombay cinema, the communist currents, the egalitarian ethos, the coffee house, little book shops, hand-written pamphlets and study circles, the endless processions, the revolutionary songs and lyrics, the great Royal Indian Navy mutiny, the freedom struggle. People still remember the tens of thousands who poured in after legendary communist and trade unionist Krishna Desai was murdered by the Shiv Sena goons, and the huge textile workers’ strikes.
The bad memories stick: how the Shiv Sena and Congress goons and the corporates killed the working class movement, how the communists slipped, how the mills became the real estate property of politicians and big money sharks, how a great progressive ethos and radical current became dimmer and dimmer.
And even while the richest man’s 27-storey skyscraper at affluent Peddar Road shows a dirty finger to the entire city, including the slumdogs of Dharavi, Bombay’s hardworking people, especially its vast poor on the margins, the migrants, who live in small holes in the wall or in ghettos and slums, turn the city into a vibrant black hole of sweat and sensibility, constantly poking a finger at the affluent society. They are living landmarks of the stunning social and economic disparity which marks the city’s scattered landscape.
People work hard, from dawn to dusk, and people live very hard and frustrating lives. And yet, they are not defeated.
In vast stretches, and not just in the floating slums at the crossing, towards Filmistan near Goregaon, you can see entire families with their handful of utensils and a little fire, living in matchboxes made of plastic, tarpaulin, cardboard, torn sacks and waste. In these subhuman, tiny dark and dingy twilight zones, often surrounded by swanky cars, fast moving traffic and shopping malls, you can see hard working women doing their daily chores, washing clothes, cutting veggies, lighting a fire, putting water on a tulsi plant, mopping the floor, listening to the radio. This is the Great Indian Democracy at work.
You can see people living across the road, often just a sheet penned between two railings near a public park, marking their residence on earth, with emaciated children rolling on the street, homeless forever, exiled by the brutality of this city. There are people sleeping on the night streets, on pavements outside the Bombay Press Club and the Congress office, in the little spaces between the huge hoardings of Khilari 786, across road crossings and railway stations where the old, broken switchboards with a labyrinth of wires are eternally hanging on unwashed walls.
Despite the beauty in ‘proper’ Bombay, with its beautiful British architecture and churches and the exquisite old Bombay University building, there is a decay and decline in this financial capital which permeates every nook and corner, like a bad smell, even while the people struggle in their everyday life, like valiant warriors, stuck on a clock. It’s like an epic retold, again, again and again, but the beginning and the end are always the same.
And then you remember the old songs, mostly written by the geniuses of IPTA, and you know how authentic they are even to this day: Aye Dil Hain Mushkil Hain Jeena Yahan… Yeh hai Bombay meri Jaan…
Or, that Sahir classic, from Phir Subah Hogi, 1958, as tragic and ironic as ever:
Chin O Arab Hamara
Rehne Ko Ghar Nahi Hai
Sara Jahan Hamara…