Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Magic Realism

It’s how you look at things. The city has instances of magic realism that occur daily — if only one looks out for them.
One just needs to look out for the instances of magic realism that take place in Mumbai, every day. (Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)
One just needs to look out for the instances of magic realism that take place in Mumbai, every day. (Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)
Updated on Sep 24, 2021 08:25 PM IST
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By Malavika Sangghvi

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

A man arrives in Mumbai for a short work trip and discovers he has Covid and has to quarantine.

Alone, ill and isolated for 17 days, away from his family and friends, how does he cope? How does the city treat him? What impressions does he take away with him?

“Since moving to Goa from Mumbai seven years ago, I hardly look forward to returning to Mumbai. Yes, I have family and friends here, but issues of parking, noise, and just the travails of the city are daunting, and I find myself visiting less and less,” says photographer David Desouza, who is currently working on a book to commemorate the 400th year of sainthoods of St Francis Xavier and St Ignatius of Loyola, which come up next year.

Finding himself quarantined in an apartment in Churchgate, after his RT-PCR proved positive, Desouza says he was “super impressed” with the BMC. “They were actual women with cultured voices and clear and precise instructions, who called daily to monitor my progress,” he says. What’s more, he says he was bowled over by the care and concern of kind friends and neighbours who, unsolicited, had offered food and assistance.

“In Goa, we look at Mumbai and think that Covid has been handled much better than in our state. Here it appears that the municipal commissioner has done an incredible feat. And I never thought I’d ever want to credit the Shiv Sena, but I have to admit that Uddhav Thackeray has been statesmanlike. My sister-in-law, who heads the ICU at Nair’s Covid ward, bears testimony to this,” he says.

It’s not the handling of the Covid situation alone that has impressed David, it appears. Before his RT-PCR test during his initial stay, he says he was awestruck at the progress of infrastructure development when he visited a friend in Worli. And driving past the glass and steel skyscrapers of Parel he could barely believe that he was in Mumbai. “Ultimately, it’s not just the rich who will benefit,” he says, “Those skyscraper offices will be populated with the working class and the Metro, when completed, will bring ordinary commuters some much-needed relief.”

Of course, Desouza knows all is not hunky dory. “There are areas in Mumbai that the CM and MC seem to have forgotten. These happen to be localities where very poor people live. If the powers that be look at the needs of all its citizens not just where commissions are greater, this will be a magnificent city,” he says.

But as impressed as Desouza may be by Mumbai, he says he is in no hurry to move back. “Moving to Goa was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” he insists.

Still, his farewell message to me from Goa is heartening.

“Mumbai/Bombay of my youth, you are superb. What you need is a government that takes care of everyone, not just those who voted you in. I’m inclined to believe for the first time you are experiencing that kind of governance. Hopefully you inspire Goa, our magnificent state, that politics is a tool to help its citizens, all of them.”

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the one you see below, is worth more than seventeen thousand.

Yes, at first when you look at it, you will see an ordinary man, sitting on an ordinary plastic chair, on an ordinary pavement in Mumbai, looking (perhaps, a trifle wistfully) at an ordinary white envelope.

But look again. Because, according to me, this is no ordinary man, but a veritable Mumbai hero, deserving of applause and acclaim. A man who, in the split-second real-time that this photograph was taken, was most likely wrestling with an ethical issue that you and I would never surmount.

Consider the back story behind the photograph: At the beginning of every month, the man, who happens to be my neighbourhood fruit and vegetable seller, is supposed to receive payment for last month’s purchases, sometimes by online transfer and other times in cash.

Now, a couple of months ago, I had duly, in the first week of the month, sent him in cash, contained in a white envelope, the seventeen thousand rupees owed to him for the previous month’s purchases. The standing instruction for such payments is that the member of staff delivering the amount, snaps a picture of the person receiving it, so that there is some record of the payment made.

But, due to a minor miscommunication error that month, unbeknownst to me, the amount had already been transferred to him online, by my assistant.

Which is perhaps what accounts for the fleeting wistfulness, which you might notice on the man’s countenance, on receiving the envelope containing an additional seventeen thousand rupees.

Perhaps what is going through his mind is if he ought to pocket the money quietly, hoping no one would be any wiser for it. After all, in the pandemic-induced fog, there could be many a slip betwixt cup and lip. Perhaps what he is thinking about are the toys he could buy for his children, the sarees for his wife, or the much-needed household durables that his family needs...

After all, which one of us is above a bit of laxity, when it comes to a sudden windfall due to someone else’s error? How many of us would emerge, our conscience shining?

But not even a few seconds after receiving the amount, realising the error, my fruit seller had returned the envelope, intact with all the cash inside.

“Tell Madame I have already received the payment online,” he’d said, while handing it back.

Just another ordinary, everyday, Mumbai hero, on an ordinary everyday Mumbai pavement, who’d performed an extraordinary everyday act of honour…

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And if you still need convincing that magic and miracles can be ordinary, everyday occurrences, consider this photograph of an ordinary, everyday Mumbai stray, blissfully snuggled up for an afternoon siesta, in an ordinary, everyday corner of a Mumbai institution.

No magic or miracles in sight, right? Ah, but look again. The institution just happens to be one of Mumbai’s snootiest private membership-only clubs, where the strictest rules and regulations apply, to some of the city’s most celebrated denizens.

So how come an indolent pooch, relishing its afternoon siesta, has been allowed to curl up so resplendently in a corner, unchecked for membership or any protocols?

The answer to that, gentle reader, is revealed perhaps if you look carefully at the words inscribed on the bin the pooch has snuggled happily around. There, in large letters, for all to read, are the words “Ratan. Extra Strong”…

Of course, it could be a happy coincidence, but don’t the words bring to mind a benevolent Parsi philanthropist and ardent dog lover? Someone who has long championed the cause of Mumbai’s strays, some whose very name spells care and shelter for them?

But wait, can pooches read?

Or could this be yet another of the city’s instances of magic realism, that occur daily — if only one looks out for them?

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Monday, October 18, 2021