Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"you do good karma, get good karma madam!"- the spirit of the Mumbaikar

Coming back alone from the deserted streets of Mahabalipuram in the late evenings can be a little unnerving when you are only just getting to know the place. Every man recognizes a new face and wants to know where you are from, how long you are staying, where are you staying, etc.  Intrusive and annoying, I'd put it. I mean, can't a man or a woman roaming the streets of a beautiful place be left to their own business?? What rights does anybody have to intrude upon their privacy like this? "Oh... and it's okay to tumble down into a township by the truckloads, scatter into the deep pockets of the neighborhood and invade upon the everyday lives of the hundreds of families living there, eh?" retorts an ear-worm from within. Ok, we'll keep that talk for later. 

Along comes an auto-rickshaw whose driver (surprisingly gently) asks, "Where to madam?" Equally surprisingly he quotes a reasonable fare and the journey begins. Some drivers can get chatty, and the darker it is outside, the more bravado they show. And when I say "bravado" it goes to show how little we think of these people and their professions (no thanks to one or two really shady elbow benders that we each is fated to meet at some point or another), cob-webbed into our own little world of low standards. He asks the usual questions, "where" "what" and "where are you from" and has a ready comment for each answer I give (characteristic of these men; to show how much they know their pettai) I humor him, and ask him questions; with a chatterbox like this one, you can switch-off for long spells, merely tossing question upon question (of course, you'd know the trick..) This guy is from Mumbai, but speaks fluent Tamil.

"I know Russian, Marathi, Hindi, Tamil and English Madam" he says proudly. Russian? I'm impressed. "I've been here several years now. Had a tough time convincing my wife's parents to let me marry her. They thought I'd run away, but they did not understand; I didn't give a serious thought to marrying her until I saw her kids. That's when I felt like I really wanted them to be my family." Raju was merely making ends meet for his family, and also blowing up a little cash on the usual small things, until he decided to marry. Marrying a widow who already has children from her previous marriage is..... Is that common yet where you come from O' reader? We Indians would rather die than bring such disgrace upon our ancestry. Sometimes I feel, we are bent upon reinforcing the fact that we are, in fact, the oldest civilization that lived; always will be..

Everyday Raju and his wife work in different places to fend for their family. Their relations with their parents and siblings are distant, though cordial. Expending all their energy into managing a household of five can be gruelling and sometimes they fight. "Lekin jab apne bacchon ko dekhta hoon, sara tension bhool jata hoon." A new-found respect brims up within for the man, just for the kind of responsibility he shows when talking about his children. "Life mein paise kabhi bhi kama sakte hain, rishtey nahi" How many times I would have listened to that phrase and yet it seldom fails to captivate me when someone says it with utmost sincerity. We chat throughout the ten kilometre journey and there unfurls the spirit of a Mumbaikar- an expressive and entertaining character- one who is always ready to give a helping hand to the stranger passing by, one who will donate even when he's barely got enough for himself, one who cares for you genuinely even though you may be a stranger and not likely to meet again, one who has immense respect for education, one whose partiality and biases are most often restricted only to home cooked food, one who is happy and contented with what he's got and blesses, instead of praying for more.

Who is this archetypal Mumbaikar? He (or she) is that vegetable vendor, the sandwich stall keeper, the autorickshaw driver, the security guard... the kind of people you meet on the roadside, thrown out of their dwellings by repeated slum demolishing drives, thronging the pavements of the uber city, but it's easy to notice that they are the most chirpy, optimistic individuals that you will be likely to meet. A picture that stays finely imprinted in memory. Aye Dil Hai Mushkil Na Hona Wahaan; Zara Hatke, Zara Bachke, Woh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan! Even though I'm taking a huge liberty with the beautiful verses of ...wait, was it Jan Nisar Akhtar, or S.H. Bihari, or Majrooh Sultanpuri?... Anyway, to have tweaked the lyrics of this endearing number is to have spoken what this heart beats for in yearning, no matter what I do. Living a good thousand five hundred kilometres away  from there for at least twenty years now, we used to tease my mother for: (a) her extraordinary readiness to befriend any Marathi speaking person; (b) when in the short few minutes that the TV remote remained with her and she would tune into a Marathi channel and (c) never was a plateful of chaat spared of that inescapable (although ever so slightly so) look of dismissal in comparison to Mumbai's roadside treats of my mother's teenage years. Six months out after a mere two year stint in that city and today I find it hard not to make a reference to it (the city) every now and then.

I love everything about the city, and it may well be because of my noveau fascination for it. But in the face of an alarming sense of insecurity among people  everywhere and an ever ready vigil everyone seems to keep to face the worst, I feel responsible somehow for shouting off the rooftops about the friendliness and safety that Mumbai offered me. And it all came not from having relatives or influential friends to put me at ease, but from that stranger who chatted with me for half an hour waiting for a bus I did not which, the guys who sold t-shirts at Colaba and on Hill Road (Bandra), the fruit-shop fellows who served up a healthy drink with some real and substantial fruit, the sandwich-maker who loaded my hungry stomach with humble but fresh and healthy vegetables, the auto-rickshaw driver who returned one rupee after taking exactly 13 rupees as his metre showed, the ladies in the jam packed local train compartment who told me which was the best place to procure glass bangles and walked up to the market with me lest I lose my way, and the list only keeps getting bigger.

If I were the President of India, I would give the common man of Mumbai a Bharat Ratna for keeping alive the flame of integrity and selflessness. The city is a thing of joy, it touches your heart in a way that no other place can do.


  1. Will I sound like a complete horseshit of a racist if I say that my first thoughts are, "This wonderful man could NOT have been a native Tamilian."
    I have had a problem against the narrow-mindedness of south Indians for quite sometime now. This man, however, came as a refreshing whiff of respite. I want to say "Lucky you for running into such people" but I know I just have to open my eyes to the world around me and I'd find some equally wonderfuls :-)

  2. Now that I finally finished reading the post (alt-tabbing between work and your alluring blog), Archakka! I salute the spirit of the city that can house Kapadias and kabadiwallahs, Dons and dabbawallahs, Tatas and thellawallahs, Ambanis to errr... (OK! I fail to get a metaphor here... But you get the drift, don't you?)
    Indeed one has to give it to an everyday Mumbaikar who can handle anything from Bollywood to bomb-blasts with an ease unheard of anywhere. Life just does not stop. You're right. Rather Majrooh Sultanpuri was right when he sang, "Bura duniya wo hai kehta aisa bhola tu na ban, Jo hai karta wo hai bharta hai wahan ka ye chalan...
    Tadbeer nahin chalne ki wahan...
    Wo hai bombay, Wo hai bombay, Wo hai bombay meri jaan"
    This post took me to Delhi for some strange reason... Could it be because of the affinity factor?

  3. Jai Maharashtra!
    I miss that wonderful city and you too Arch!

  4. Wow! I'm going to mumbai next year, if this is how mumbai really is, I can't WAIT to go there! :)