Sunday, February 19, 2017

Chaos: The spirit of Bombay

“You live in a chawl.”
“No, it's a redevelopment project. It is built in place of a chawl, yes, but it is a housing society now.”
“The people who lived in great numbers in the erstwhile kholis now live by the hordes in tiny flats in your building. Where is the difference? It is still very much the same chawl.”
“Bombay people are accustomed to maximising returns on space, since there is so little living space and so many people vying for it. And my flat is not tiny! It is spread over 500 square feet.”
“And that's not tiny? Oh my poor darling. That's miniscule.”
“You're from Delhi. You won't understand how spacious and posh my apartment is considered in Bombay.”
“You’re from Delhi too. At least you used to be, before you turned into a Bombayite.”
That last part is supposed to be an insult, though I don't quite feel insulted by it. This is how a typical conversation between my mother and I goes over my living situation in Bombay. She insists I live in abject poverty. But I don't get it. I live in a brand new apartment in a decent housing society in a commercial hub of the city. Agreed, over two-fifths of my monthly income disappears in rent, and another one-fifth is spent on food. But I live what in my view is a good life – I eat good food, I enjoy my coffee, and I'm generally much happier than I was back home. And come on, my workplace is only half an hour away from my house. Now, how many Bombay residents can honestly boast of that?

 The quality of your life is judged by how well you're adjusted to your surroundings and how much you like it. I love my house and my location in the city, and I make sure every day I spend here counts for something.
But I understand where my mother's ideas about poverty come from. I've lived in Delhi all my life. I’m used to large open spaces, wide roads, and spacious rooms. And I'm not even speaking as a South Delhi snob – I lived for 20 years in a largely working-class Punjabi colony in a West Delhi suburb. My neighbourhood was populated by lower- and middle-income group families. Yet, there was a sense of spaciousness inherent in public spaces. The kind of narrow roads, rain-washed buildings and overcrowded, tiny spaces I've come to accept in Bombay would be out of place, in fact unimaginable, in Delhi. It takes at least some months of living in this city, along with an open mindset and accommodating nature, to understand and come to appreciate Bombay for all it is.
To be fair, Bombay does have its open spaces, wide roads, and green avenues. I discovered some of these only last weekend while travelling on the Mumbai-Pune expressway to Lonavala. The northern flanks of Bombay are spacious and beautiful, so much so that I was convinced I was driving through New Delhi. Except for the coconut palms lining the road – those always give away my real location. But these areas are not really ‘Bombay’. The spirit of Bombay is in its crowds and trains, its narrow streets and old buildings, its street food stalls and kaali-peeli taxis. These are things that characterise, even brand, Bombay. And these are things you will only find in the South and central parts of the city.

Living in a bigger apartment in the suburbs may be cheaper, more convenient. But it cuts you off from the beating heart of the city – its commerce, its Marathi essence, and its persisting state of chaos. And I would any day pick the latter over the former. I feel content, even lucky, to be living and working where I am – away from the isolated openness and empty spaciousness, and right in the middle of everything that is chaotic, crowded, and characteristically ‘Bombay’. That's the spirit of Bombay, and that's also what I love about this city.