Spice of Life: Sleepless in the city that never sleeps
Were they not scared of people trampling them while walking on the footpaths or rogue car drivers running over them? What about the vagaries of weather? They lay in sound sleep under the canopy of the blue sky and multitude of stars.
Besides being the financial capital of India, I had always known Mumbai or Bombay through the colourful prism of Bollywood films. Termed the city of dreams and maximum city, Mumbai’s cinematic portrayal encompasses the famous Marine Drive, Gateway of India, its Gothic architecture, crowded suburban trains, nightlife and the underworld.
About five years ago when I was transferred to Mumbai, I got a chance to see the city face-to-face and how it represents a melting pot of cultures. Its heritage is a combination of traditional festivals, multiple cuisines, including street food, music and fine arts. Also known as the city that never sleeps, it is one of the busiest places in India with traffic continuously on the move on all main arteries. The first look at the city and its places made me believe that everything had shrunk to some degree probably due to the paucity of land. For many, Mumbai denotes an urbanism that welcomes everyone but initially I found myself to be sleepless on some days.
During the initial days of my stay in Mumbai when I was putting up at the official guesthouse and living out of a suitcase, I used to go for an after-dinner walk on the promenade of Marine Drive. Ambling down the road at 10pm, I noticed a family of three, a couple with their infant daughter sleeping on a rugged sheet of linen on the footpath near Churchgate station. Their meagre belongings were packed in a bag lying under the head of the male member. The noise of approaching trains and cars couldn’t disturb them. Coming from a small town, I discovered a new facet of the metropolitan city.
Were they not scared of people trampling them while walking on the footpaths or rogue car drivers running over them? What about the vagaries of weather? With these thoughts crossing my mind, I moved ahead towards Marine Drive. It was the same story the next day, too. Sound sleep under the canopy of the blue sky and multitude of stars, I murmured to myself.
One night, I found the family awake and decided to interact with them. “What do you do? Where do you stay during the day?” I said. “We came to Mumbai in search of work. We spend the day at a construction site but the contractor doesn’t allow us to sleep there,” the male member replied. “How do you manage during the monsoon?” I asked. “We sleep under some bridge or any other partially covered place we can find,” he said. I had nothing to offer them except my best wishes for a better tomorrow.
The experience left a deep impression on my psyche. It gave me a sense of enhanced gratitude for all that I had and the constant cribbing about the first-world problems of small rooms, difficulty in living out of a suitcase and cacophony of rush-hour traffic disappeared to a large extent.
Lakhs of migrant workers flock to Mumbai in search of jobs. Most of them stay in shanties, slums and some of even on pavements. Slowly, they amalgamate into teeming millions and their never-say-die attitude proves that nothing can stop the people of the city.
The writer, an Indian Revenue Service officer, is commissioner of income tax in Mumbai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org