Time travelling in the streets of Mumbai
by Dr Abitha Seshadri
When I was a kid, I fell in love with reading. We had a library near our house named Max Mueller Memorial and it became my favourite haunt. Voracious reading coupled with a budding imagination made me start seeing history related perspectives all around me. Kids are curious creatures and I was no exception. With nothing much to do other than listen to stories and make up your own, I was introduced to the pleasures of imagination. Growing up meant having a lot of important things to do like serious studies interspersed with games, sports, friends, girl friends, matches, dates, fights, and all the usual things. The quiet life of reading, reflection and sustained imagination was left behind. Paucity of time and the business of life made me forget my childhood adventures of time travel and storytelling.
One life, to find...an expression of the meaning, the utility, of Life in its sublime abstraction. This is an existential question that haunts me whenever my plans for life take a beating. It happened last week when something I had hoped for and banked upon went terribly wrong. Distraught, I was wondering about how to come to terms with it when I had this strange idea that I should step out and get some sun. A long walk, a journey back into the days of childhood when the things that mattered were never too complicated. Packing an empty sketch pad, a couple of pens and pencils, into my travel bag, armed with an open mind and an eye for detail, I went searching for my answers.
Walk around in Mumbai and you will have more than enough to write home about Bombay as it was known in the pre globalisation days. In fact, to the photographer who searches for angles, the writer for her stories, and the student of Life for meaning, Bombay always offered itself with open arms, as the ultimate Muse. Here in Mumbai, hardnosed realists discover the romantic side in them and strangely, vice versa.
I travelled to the place where it all began, where a major part of the modern version of Mumbai began its slow growth into the collective consciousness of the Indian people - The Fort area.
Travelling in the Local trains of Mumbai is a prerequisite for the moment of epiphany. All that you need to do is to buy a ticket and the compassionate crowd does the rest for you. Get on the right side of the platform, and when the local train comes, you would automatically find yourself lifted and bundled into the compartment. You could fall asleep and yet manage to board the local, thanks to the human escalators that line up the platforms. Once inside, it is best to move to a corner where you have the cold comfort of some part of the coach that stops you from alighting before you intended to. Having read about the sea of humanity, if one were to carry the metaphor ahead, this would definitely be the rapids of the babbling brooks of humanity. Making it to the Colaba Causeway in one piece is a bit tiring but then inspiration comes at a price.
As the Local stopped at the last stop, I took in the multicoloured hues of people who buzzed in and out of the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus at break neck speeds. Taking the underpass, I crossed over to the other side of the road and looked back at the spires of the CST station and the adjoining ones leading to the circular dome of the General Post Office. I suggest you try it the next time you go there. A sense of history of the place would dawn upon you. It is inevitable and like a shadow it will follow you where ever you journey to. In this part of Mumbai, time travel is something just waiting to happen. It is interesting but inexplicably, the sense of mystery it evoked gave me the feeling that there was something incredibly old and yet vibrantly alive about this part of the world and it was telling me something. What is it about this part of the world?
The fort area with its old markets jutting out into the scene, harbouring the modern crowd unsettles one in the beginning but soon before you realise, it grows on you and you feel you are a part of the familiar chaotic cacophony. Stop for a moment and you realise you can almost feel the pulse of this place. I suppose all places in Mumbai that can lay their claims to history are guilty of overcrowding to some extent. It is not that this is uncommon but somehow the old structures that exist in the fort area along with the new, make one feel at loggerheads with the spirit of the place, almost as if there is a schism in its very existence which reveals itself even as you begin to think about it. Walk down from CST to Lion's gate and you come across the small hawkers selling perfumes and other paraphernalia under the arches of the huge buildings, old cafeterias, camera shops, the Old Muslim restaurants, Old pen marts, banks, The Indian Mint, the Reserve Bank, Café Leopold, Mon de Gar and the exquisite bric a brac at the Causeway that is quoted at ten times the original price and after much bargaining, bought at five times the price, the extra price being the fee for believing that you got a good bargain. What unnerves me about the place is that in a space of around three kilometres, there is so much of the struggling Indian humanity that I see, it makes me feel almost guilty for my easy existence.
Mumbai has something to offer for everyone. Energy brought about by the ceaseless struggle of life around you, all the while, which sometimes makes you doubt your sanity rather than conclude that all else around you are insane. The speed of life, the struggle, the opportunities that open up and close down and open up again in the blink of an eye, does take some getting used to. In one such moment, in one of the hidden corners of this place, I had bought my Parker '51', a fountain pen that is synonymous with quality, in its old fashioned sense. The treasures that exist in the streets of the Fort area are the ones that choose their owners and reveal themselves only when you are worthy of understanding them. The result of getting used to the wonder you feel when you reach the heart of the place, is perhaps, the urge to savour it and soak it in. I sat down at a tea stall near the fountain and just observed the crowd. Some wheels were turning somewhere inside.
I noticed a man, an elderly man dressed to the boot in frayed, well worn clothes, carrying an old tape recorder which was playing some Hindi song at almost full volume, which he had mounted on his shoulder and as he walked muttering to himself, he swayed in tune to it. He was evidently mad but what scared me was that nobody seemed to be bothered by it. Everyone in Mumbai is so busy, very busy...too busy.
That is when it struck me. We are all so busy thinking we are the centres of existence, of our lives that when we start living out of the belief, we lose the plot and things overwhelm us. The smallest of insights can cause a change of perspective, from where things begin to fall into place. Knowledge turns into realisation. I realised, I loved the stories around me. In our lives, Life does the planning and we live to tell stories about it.
I went up to the old man, and asked him, "Kaka, chai?". He stopped prancing, turned off the 'music system', squinted at me, assessed me from top to bottom, looked through me, smiled and said "Aur bun maska bhi?" and sat down. It turned out, he wasn't mad but just in a world of his own.
I learnt a thing that day. The truths we discover when we go through tough times form the stories of our lives and being a braveheart is about discovering our own truths. Bombay aka Mumbai, in its own way, is a city of bravehearts. I suppose this city is my muse, the beginning of my writing ways and what makes me happy is that though I am a nobody, this city tells me the most interesting stories. Time travelling in the streets of Mumbai is fun indeed.