I heard my first bomb explosion at 14. Except, I thought it was a tar drum rolling down a bridge at the time. All alone in class and making out a list for a school farewell party the next day, I pricked up a ear at the low boom and went back to laboriously inking out names. It was March 12, 1993. Half my lifetime ago.
It’s interesting how the human memory stocks up. When the first of the blasts went off on Wednesday night, my gut knew, even as reason laughed at my alarm, telling it to stop being a drama queen. There’s no smoke in the distance and it’s just leftovers from Diwali, I scolded myself. But I knew. And mentally hugged my knees and waited. Two minutes later, another one.
We’re fed to death (sorry, that’s a sick pun and totally unintentional) on what occurred next, so that’s not what this ramble is about. My city, my sliver of the world, it’s wrecked. I’ve lived in 6 towns/cities on 2 continents, but only one was ever home. As a fifth generation Bombayite whose entire family on both sides is born and bred and has lived and loved here (yes, we have exactly two people abroad and only one north of Worli, with everyone else within 10 minutes of each other), my love for this archipelago is irrational. All-consuming, intimate, territorial. I may cuss its traffic and weather to kingdom come, but say one not-so-complimentary thing about it and you’re on my permanent dislike list. We Leos do such stuff. Deal with it.
And now, my stomping grounds have been reduced to mere blips on a map, flashed on international television networks amid raised reporter voices, to the point where I want to snatch them off and say, that, there, is my annual Christmas ritual. Ma and Daddy took us to see the Oberoi tree every year of our childhood. And this year, I was to take a very special little boy to share my tradition. Many happy Saturday afternoons were spent at its arcade café, guzzling strawberry milkshake after Daddy got done at work. I combed its shops this past Diwali, strutting my purchases to my American friends.
And that one over there was my perennial threat from Nana. “If you don’t eat like a lady, how will I take you to the Taj?” And so I fed my face like a well-trained robot lady at 6, because the Taj, as we know, is The Taj, and every 7-year-old dreams of a Shamiana ice cream with a pink biscuit stuck in it. In college, our parent Rotary held its weekly meetings at the Ballroom and we’d gatecrash them on flimsy pretexts so we could devour pastries from the Sea Lounge. It was earlier this month that the Boy and I strolled outside the ‘old’ Taj while I narrated the story of Watson’s Hotel and how an insult founded this magnificent structure.
And then there’s yet that other one, the Victoria Terminus that was our pride as we carted suitably admiring foreign visitors around, reveling in what was ours. The first train in India chuffed off from here we’d point out, as their eyes took in the gargoyles and gothic grandeur. So many bleary-eyed childhood trips were flagged off from its innards. Two minutes away at college, we’d laugh about how every Hindi movie has its one obligatory VT shot to depict arrival in Mumbai. What would we know about arrival, chronic natives that we were.
As a child, a strange compulsion had me pleading with my father to take the Marine Drive route, no matter where we went. “Oh please, Daddy,” I’d beg, “I absolutely must see Marine Drive at least thrice a week.” Thankfully, they realized their little girl had inherited their passion for the city.
For the 5 years that I lived on the other side of the planet, my desktop computer had a wallpaper of Marine Drive. “Wow!” non-Indian friends would say, “It’s like Miami.” And I’d smile smugly knowing that piece of gorgeousness was born and bred mine. The most familiar part of a city that graciously gave me home, family, friendships, education, social responsibility, belonging and identity.
When I returned, South Bombay embraced me like I had never left. The arts, theatre, the cultural scene, the international flavor, the best watering holes, constantly innovating eateries, they were enough and more to keep me going back for my bi-weekly fix. And then, there’s the South Bombay vibe. A feel, an intangible pulse in the air that even lifelong suburb-dwellers admit to. This is not a post about the town-suburb divide. It is a recounting of the geography of all my meaningful years. South Bombay is the bearer of my history. School, college, crushes, weddings, navjotes, birthday parties, music lessons, dates, births, agitations, shopping expeditions, girl guide projects, German classes, street festivals, museum visits, road rage, annual melas, essay competitions, choir rehearsals, dental appointments, exhibitions, funerals, hospitalizations, Asia’s largest marathon…. my hours have been spent in gratitude here.
I’m parked at the Gucci store, I texted on Saturday evening, as I waited outside the Oberoi Trident for a friend. Walking out of the Indigo Deli (situated behind the Taj) later, we were content, confident and oh-so-safe as girls out on the night in our invincible city. Having attended an art showing and photo exhibit at the NCPA on the same day the nightmare began, I am acutely aware that had it been a weekend ambush, this blog would have been silent today.
My view at work overlooks the Oberoi Hotel from across the curve of the bay. And each morning, (cheesy as this may sound,) as I climb the slope with the sea to my left, my heart gives a little happy fillip at my favorite sight in the whole wide world.
I know she’s not perfect. I bemoan the fact that my children will have no parks, no schools, no animals to see. (When I get back to wanting children, that is. Right now I’m too busy questioning why we bring them into this mess.) I know there are too many cars, too few arterial roads and that the underworld-Bollywood nexus thrives like lice on a festering scalp. I know the Love Grove sewer at Worli smells even as the Atria Mall right ahead showcases French and Spanish couture. I know rats run over diners’ feet at the Bade Miyan eatery where the RDX was discovered. And I face despairing parents every day as they jostle for a spot in the limited schools. My parents knew this when they conceived me and their parents before them. But each generation has raised people who love their home unwisely and I know mine will too. And when the sixth generation of Bombayites is ready to hit its beloved streets, my friends, I hope to be here. To see my children and theirs breathe in with delight the polluted, addictive, sacred air of this, my beautiful, beautiful city.