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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

Recovering lost ground in Mumbai

The first weekend of October is celebrated as World Walking Day. An author writes about his favourite walk

art-and-culture Updated: Oct 07, 2019 18:48 IST
Jerry Pinto
Jerry Pinto
Hindustan Times
The Lalbaugchya Raja of Lalbaugh, Mumbai
The Lalbaugchya Raja of Lalbaugh, Mumbai (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT Photo)
         

Mine is no city for those who walk. The poshest areas—Bandra, Walkeshwar—have little by way of sidewalks or pavements. And because we are the magnet for the Can-do Man from across the country, what little has been left for pedestrians is often crowded with hawkers and vendors and beggars and cows and temples and every kind of activity from the three-card sharp to the man demonstrating the best way to peel a beetroot with this great new gizmo from Guangzhou, only Rs 150 but for you, madam, because you are like my sister, Rs 100, if you can buy, I can sell.

This only makes my favourite walk all the better. It becomes a challenge in mindfulness; you walk with attention because the paver blocks the municipality has chosen to use across the city are minefields for the unwary. They are not set with regularity and so in the rains, a loose block will squirt muck at you and in the heat, they will lie in wait to trip you up.

When I was a young man, I walked to my grandmother’s home every Sunday to see her and have lunch with her. I was given bus fare from Mahim to Byculla but I wanted so badly to buy books that I saved the money and walked. This is a matter of seven kilometres or so but it did not worry me then. I had time and I had incentive and strong legs. It took me about an hour or so but that was more than forty years ago. In reprising this walk, I wondered how long it was going to take legs that have now fifty years of mileage on them. And so though I was sorely tempted to make a detour to Shivaji Park, where the last of the Art Deco buildings in the precinct may be admired before they go down, I walk on, I walk on.

No suspense. It took me two hours. But then it was the day of Janmashtami and my city was filled with Hindu young men who were being trucked around to various sites so that they could reprise the wondrous deeds of Krishna and the pot of ghee. It was also by some quirk of the calendar the day of Ashura, tenth day of Muharram, when the Shia Muslims remember the Battle of Karbala and the terrible martyrdom of Husain and Hasan.

I walked then through the city of my imagining. Where the playfulness of youth and the sorrows of the dead can play out simultaneously. I walked through the city of my memory, Lalbaug, which was called ‘Red Garden’ I thought for the raw red maidans where the great lok shahirs, Amar Sheikh and Narayan Surve, held forth and held court. And when the age of punning came upon me, as it does upon every young man who thinks of himself as smart, I thought Lal had to do with the Communists whose sway over the millworkers and the unions kept the Congress at bay. Then the Congress paid a cartoonist to break that stranglehold and he did; but they had unleashed a tiger and he painted this area saffron. (In all this, it is odd that Lalbaug got its name from a Parsi merchant’s palace, a capitalist who had nothing to do with communism and the socialism Indira Gandhi espoused.)

I walk past the memory of my city as a productive economy. It is now a speculative economy and like all speculative economies it is subject to the whims and the fancies of what is called The Market. None of the people milling around me has much to do with The Market. They may have some savings, they may have some spare money, but they are more likely to park it in gold than in shares. There are also a lot of young people who have walked to see Lalbaugchya Raja, a pandal of astonishing size, even more astounding when so much of the state has been ravaged by floods after years of drought. Such red as is left is on their foreheads where they bear the marks of a successful darshan.

And then my walk ends in Spence Lane, where the crowds are beginning to gather. The story of that battle begins and grown men begin to cry. A young man begins to hit his head, extending his hand as far as he can so that his fingers finally burst and blood spurts over his head. Later, they will scourge themselves with knives and the lane will be covered with blood. I have a ringside view from my grandmother’s balcony. In the other balconies, other young women have gathered. A young man pops his head around the door to ask if he can do namaaz in the bedroom. ‘Of course,’ I say. He withdraws.

My grandmother is long gone but her niece, my Tia Ana Cunegundes is still in residence. She is eighty-seven years old and has seen many of these occasions. A woman who seems to be in her sixties comes along with her son who seems to be about sixteen.

‘Do you remember him?’ she asks.

‘No,’ says my Tia Ana. ‘Did I teach him?’ (She has taught the area’s infants for nearly seventy years.)

‘He was not so lucky. But when he was a baby we brought him here. His father had promised that if he got a son, he would bring him here and have his head cut open. Do you remember?’

My Tia Ana’s eyes fill up with memory. ‘Yes, yes, you brought him up, bleeding like anything from the cut in his skull.’

‘How you ran about to get antiseptic and cotton. How you ran because he was a baby and he was bleeding.’

The boy, tall and gawky, shifts from foot to foot.

‘Yes, but then...’ Tia Ana pauses, caught in the memory.

‘Tell him, Aunty, tell him so he will know.’

Tia Ana begins: ‘You said, “Don’t worry, Aunty, nothing will happen” and they brought water from downstairs, and sprinkled it on the cut and it stopped bleeding.”

The woman nods.

‘Today, he goes down to mourn. He should know that this is where he began.”

When the procession leaves for Dongri, the man at the mike thanks the Roman Catholic priests of Seva Niketan for allowing the cars to be parked in their compound. He thanks the residents of Spence Lane for their cooperation.

I live in a city of miracles. It is a miracle, my city. Unplanned, it makes do. There is no room to walk but we walk. Tomorrow, a group of Gujarati women will come to see my Tia Ana. They will each be carrying about thirty kilos of bedsheets to sell. They will have walked from Dadar to Byculla to save the bus fare.

Most often Tia Ana does not buy but she lets them sit and rest and gives them water and they chat about life, about mothers-in-law and doctors at public hospitals. They will enjoy the breeze from the fan and the sit-down and refreshed and revived, they will go on to work.

That’s my city.

Jerry Pinto is an award-winning writer and translator

First Published: Oct 07, 2019 18:48 IST

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