Mumbai in many portraits and imaginations. What’s yours?
Who would Mumbai be if she/he/it were human? This trail of imagination was set off when a Twitter thread exploded in a nice way earlier this week.
It began with a Pakistani media person quoting the late John Berger on cities. The English art critic, novelist, poet and painter had remarked that “Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman”. Evocative and imaginative.
It set off a thread of imaginations of cities in the sub-continent – Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Gujranwala, Delhi, Hyderabad, Lucknow, and of course, Mumbai. Who would Mumbai be? Mumbai is the stuff of a million imaginations, many portraits. Mumbai is gender fluid, happily unconcerned with age. Of the many which take shape, here are a few.
Mumbai is a tired old woman, impatient with clichés of her resilience and spirit for she has been-there-done-that in every way, held an out-sized family together for decades, her nav-vari sari faded and frayed but its pleats in rhythmic order, making do with ageing arteries from British era, cranking up her mojo every dawn and retiring to bed after the last train leaves Churchgate or Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT). The “Maharaj” added to the name matters little to her.
Mumbai is a bouncy young man, raring to reach his desk job some 30 kilometres away, making do with a swiftly assembled vegetable sandwich when he cannot get his vada pav at the nearest pavement stall for lunch, narrowly missing falling into trenches dug for the metro network when he is not falling into manholes, wondering why the BEST buses are not as frequent as they used to be. The Metro will be unaffordable, he knows.
Mumbai is Soyarabai who came to the city as a newly-wedded wife of a textile mill worker, struggled to make a home in a room in a chawl but raised a family, heard the shahirs, stitched sari-blouses and kurtas for supplementary income, started supplying home-cooked meals for smart young people who came to work in the tall towers where the mills once were, and must now head to Dombivli because her chawl will be razed next. Her husband and she no longer fit into Parel, once a working-class area.
Mumbai is a Dalit man who wants to undergo a sex-change surgery, who lived in Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar but was thrown from that hell hole to a worse one in ward M-East where slabs in public toilets collapse killing the people inside. He/she committed Daya Pawar’s ‘Baluta’ and Namdeo Dhasal’s poems to memory, and read former RBI economist Dr Narendra Jadhav’s ‘Amcha Baap ani Amhi’ (also Outcaste) but cannot decipher the route from Pawar to Jadhav. It does not begin in squalid M-East, he/she knows.
Mumbai is an ambitious young woman in her 20s, awestruck by the razzmatazz that passes off for Bollywood on television and WhatsApp videos in her native Bihar village, who landed a mini-micro-role in an Ekta Kapoor’s web series after two years of struggle but believes she can be the next Smriti Malhotra Irani if she plays her cards right. She has to convince the landlord of the one BHK in Malad that she and her prospective flatmate are “cousins”.
Mumbai is a middle-aged Muslim man minding his shop on Mohammed Ali Road, wondering when the BMC hospital appointment for his mother’s full body scan will come through, struggling between his peer group which advocates burkha for women and his own libertarian understanding of freedom, and reminiscing his life before the 1992-93 violence scarred him forever.
Mumbai is the cantilevered multi-storey home of her richest man, Mumbai is home to 10 million in her slums. Mumbai is Mahalakshmi temple and Mahim church watching the sea inch inwards, nervous about men in power wrecking tidal rhythms for the coastal road. Mumbai is the hiker of Aarey forest who hugged trees to save them from being axed for the Metro car shed.
Mumbai is a portrait in progress.