Of Home, Heart and Horror

29 Nov

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.

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40 Responses to “Of Home, Heart and Horror”

  1. Thinking Cramps November 29, 2008 at 12:58 pm #

    OJ, I remember the pride with which you told me at the Kemp’s Corner Crossword that you HAVE TO show me around Bombay. I could sense the ownership oozing out of every word you uttered about the city. And today, this, has given me goosebumps. I am going to re-read this. Not just once. But often.

  2. Mamma Mia! Me A Mamma?!? November 29, 2008 at 2:52 pm #

    OJ, every word written, drips with love. I understand your feelings. I lived in Bombay for just a year…one of the happiest years of my life. There’s still a huge part of me that aches for it.

    May your heart never have to bleed for your city again!

  3. wordjunkie November 29, 2008 at 3:21 pm #

    OJ, that was beautiful. I grew up in your part of town, have set down roots in mine, have simultaneously cribbed about this city and loved it insanely… and am waiting for the day the Imp will discover this strange, irrational love for herself.

  4. wordjunkie November 29, 2008 at 3:21 pm #

    OJ, that was beautiful. I grew up in your part of town, have set down roots in mine, have simultaneously cribbed about this city and loved it insanely… and am waiting for the day the Imp will discover this strange, irrational love for herself.

  5. D November 29, 2008 at 3:54 pm #

    It is your city, and it is my country. I love Bombay not like you perhaps but like I love any part of my country. And my heart bleeds for it.

  6. Orange Jammies November 29, 2008 at 4:09 pm #

    Thinking Cramps: You’re still coming, aren’t you? I never did get to show you around.

    M4: You did? 🙂 Isn’t it the bestest?

    wordjunkie: Having met her, I’m confident she will. In her own tentative, utterly charming manner, of course.

    D: I understand where you’re coming from, but with due respect to your sentiments, it is one thing to have your home annihilated and another to have the same done to an apartment three blocks away. Delhi shocked me, Kashmir has long pained me, Malegaon numbed me, but Bombay–and yes, South Bombay–has wrecked my core in a way I wouldn’t have believed possible. Of course, there are multiple manifestations of love possible, and I am certainly grateful for all the support coming our way.

  7. rajni November 29, 2008 at 4:46 pm #

    That really sent me on a nostalgia trip too.
    I vividly remember the childhood car rides after a movie in “town” followed by bhel & the to die for round Kulfi at Parsee dairy farm & the glittering lights of the Queen’s Necklace.
    R & N are the 3rd generation born here & I hope they grow to love this city as much as we do.

  8. Priti November 29, 2008 at 5:52 pm #

    Being a hardcore Bombayite, I can completely relate to every word that you’ve written.

  9. Thinking Cramps November 29, 2008 at 7:19 pm #

    OJ – you bet. I think by end 2009 we will be back! And this time proper Mumbaikarisation is on the agenda. I HAVE to put down the Ghose & Mukharji roots somewhere. Anando loves Bombay, his office was at the Oberoi, and we really eventually want to be those “outsiders” Raj Thackeray keeps complaining about!

  10. The girlfriend November 29, 2008 at 8:52 pm #

    I know, thank you for bringing some lucidity to a time when words are barely enough. All the conversations I’m having with friends and intellectuals here,all the ‘you’re so lucky you’re not there’ ,I want to be there to watch my home heal- the home I love and will return to… In the meantime, we send you strength and hope and prayer and all our love…

  11. gooddaysunshine November 29, 2008 at 8:59 pm #

    Marine Drive is absolutely one of my favouritest places in the world. The day I left Mumbai, I really wanted to take a walk down the area one last time. But I was working really late and had to rush home..to my absolute delight my flight passed by the area the next morning and I took in the oh so familiar sights, the Air India building, The Oberoi, the cricket stadiums and the beautiful ocean. I’ve never before and since then flown over the area.

    Bombay and indeed South Bombay was such an integral part of the run up to my wedding..for almost a year. I am haunted by memories of the way I’d watch a play almost every Friday evening at the NCPA, take away food from Relish and wait for my boy to arrive in Bombay. And I’d insist to him to make that long trip to Marine Drive from my Vashi apartment just to sit down on Marine Drive..our spot was just outside The Oberoi.

    I”m headed there next weekend…want to make that trip to Marine Drive even more now…

  12. Orange Jammies November 29, 2008 at 9:10 pm #

    rajni: The kulfi, ooh, yes, the famed Parsi Dairy kulfi! 🙂 I was heartbroken when they shut down and so thrilled when the gourmet shrine reopened. R & N will love their home. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.

    Priti: 🙂

    Thinking Cramps: Hooray for these northerners! 😀 Don’t you worry about old RT. I’ll just go sit on him.

    The girlfriend: Now that’s a coincidence. Take a look at my latest Twitter update. http://twitter.com/orangejammies/status/1029451014

    I miss you so much, particularly at this time. Just tried calling you to howl. 😦

    gooddaysunshine: Let me know if you want a fellow fan!

  13. nitya November 29, 2008 at 9:57 pm #

    OJ, andheri was home when I first arrived in Mumbai. and much moving around later, I am still happy to hang around near it because it feels like home…
    Having read you though, I am begining to think more trips to South Mumbai are in the offfing. 🙂 thanks for the great read!

  14. Broom November 29, 2008 at 11:17 pm #

    I SO want to come back.

  15. Chips November 30, 2008 at 1:20 am #

    What a beautiful tribute to your memories of Bombay. I echo your sentiments for Bombay and in particular, South Bombay. My parents have lived there for almost 50 years and it has shaped me as a person. I feel almost reverent towards it.

  16. Thinking Cramps November 30, 2008 at 8:52 am #

    You asked on my blog about the Thapar interview of Zardari. They’ve been showing snips on the main news – baically K.T. follows a simple logic, getting Zardari to first promise full help and then saying “But then why the U-turn on the ISI Chief.” He really pinned him down, by the end of it Zardari was blabbering that he was “defending his country and its future and the future of his chilren.”

  17. sukanya November 30, 2008 at 9:22 am #

    oh gosh OJ, this is a beautiful piece…reminded me of how much I ‘heart’ your city, and perhaps even more now after this senseless blood bath that snatched away a family member.

  18. Orange Jammies November 30, 2008 at 10:26 am #

    nitya: Do come. 🙂 ‘Town’ (funnily, I didn’t realize it was called that until I went to University) has many jewels worth the trek.

    Broom: I hear you, girl. But you have your compulsions. I hope for the day you’re able to move home without fear of punitive action, be it legal or social.

    Chips: Reverent, yes. Sacred, even.

    Thinking Cramps: I turned on the telly and saw it right then. He’s all awesomeness, that Thapar man. I wonder why no one unleashed him on George W. Thanks, girl.

    sukanya: I’m so so sorry. 😦 My condolences.

  19. D November 30, 2008 at 12:02 pm #

    I agree. But I do hope OJ that you can see this as more than just “support”.

  20. Orange Jammies November 30, 2008 at 1:21 pm #

    D: If I had the liberty to choose what I could see this as, I’d first choose support. I know you’re hurt too. I would certainly be upset if Lucknow were targeted. But I suppose we’re all selfish in that we see what we actually need and right now, that thing is support and consolation. And I thank you for it.

  21. brown girls November 30, 2008 at 4:49 pm #

    Bombay is my surrogate home. I moved to the city for love and for freedom and it took me as one of its own. As my favourite part of the city was being battered for three days, I sat numbed in front of the TV.

    Your post made me cry. While I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like for you, I can at least try. Because I have felt the same for places elsewhere, and because – let’s face it – there is no place in the world quite like Bombay. It’s given me some of the happiest times of my life. I mourn with you OJ. Hug.

  22. dipali November 30, 2008 at 10:12 pm #

    OJ, I’m sure the sixth generation is going to love South Bombay as much as you do. Still heartsick, I need to believe in hope.

  23. Mish December 1, 2008 at 8:24 am #

    Ohh thats a lovely post. I know I don’t have such strong ties or memories of Bombay, having spent only a few summers there in the past 5-6 years, but there is something about the air, the vibe of Bombay. She takes each one of us into her arms and welcomes us cheerfully – no matter if we’ve been there for years or months.

    Being an NRI and having lived all around the world, Bombay gave me the home I needed to identify with, to call “home” and to think about on days when I just want to run away from this continent.

    The Boy being from Bombay just makes everything ache more. It is my home. No matter what anyone says, no matter how much less time i’ve spent there and no matter that I might not live there again in the future. Its still my home.

    Sorry for the incoherent comment, I realize I’m rambling…your post just moved me in a lot of ways…

  24. Nino's Mum December 1, 2008 at 11:50 am #

    That’s such a beautiful tribute to a city that is truly unique. And you know OJ, I realised this last week – atleast once in their lives – most Indians, whatever their reason – want to/have visited Bombay. It’s like she’s this great big soceress that we can’t avoid, and she’s so addictive and in a way, irreplacable. I first discovered the city through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – and when I finally visited it, the smells and chaos made my country soul a little hesitant – before I too fell headlong into the smoky chute of love that this city wraps around you. I know it will never be the same for you, but I hope something good will come out of this too.

    Also, read this and remembered you a lot:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/29/opinion/29mehta.html?_r=2&scp=1&sq=why%20they%20hate%20mumbai%20New%20york%20times&st=cse

    warm, tight hug.

  25. Nino's Mum December 1, 2008 at 11:59 am #

    damn, I think WP just swallowed my comment away.
    What I said was –
    That’s such a beautiful tribute to a city that’s truly unique. I realised last week that most Indians – whatever their reason/circumstance of motivation – have at somepoint in their lives wanted to/visited Bombay. It’s like she’s this soceress that we can’t avoid, that’s like one place to visit that’s on every Indian’s wishlist – rural or urban. I first discovered Bombay through Rushdie – and when I finally visited it, the smells and the chaos made my country soul hesitant, even perhaps, a little unsure. And then I too fell headlong into the smoky chute of love that Bombay wraps around you.
    I know it’ll never be the same for you – having your childhood/cherished memories scarred makes you a victim of the violence as well – but I do hope something good comes out of this – for you and for your beloved city.

    Thought of you when I read this:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/29/opinion/29mehta.html?_r=2&scp=1&sq=why%20they%20hate%20mumbai%20New%20york%20times&st=cse

    warm, tight hug.

  26. Anindita Sengupta December 1, 2008 at 11:59 am #

    Beautiful, beautiful post. Oh, and I remember the pink shamiana ice creams too! Can i link to this please?

  27. grimescene December 1, 2008 at 2:48 pm #

    So it is possible for beauty to survive in all this ugliness. Beautiful. Am a little bit closer to understanding your feelings for this city…

  28. Shivani December 1, 2008 at 5:51 pm #

    Can’t think of a more fitting tribute to my beloved city…you rock OJ !!
    Hope with tightly crossed fingers that what your last words come true.

    P.S: Did you also go to MMB for german classes ???

    🙂

  29. Orange Jammies December 1, 2008 at 9:40 pm #

    brown girls: Thank you for your commiseration. I’m glad you could relate.

    dipali: Hope for what, Dipali?

    Mish: I’ve been posting incoherently myself. Ramble away.

    Nino’s Mum: That’s my plan too… tomorrow, the Boy and I visit all the sites and pay homage. Thank you for the link. I picked up Maximum City in December 2004, while on holiday in Bombay, and took a whole year to read it, so I could savor it for as long as possible.

    Anindita: Sure, hon.

    grimescene: That’s good.

    Shivani: Yes. 🙂 Many moons ago. Ich spreche ein bischen Deutsch.

  30. M December 2, 2008 at 3:44 am #

    OJ,

    that was beautiful. I’m saddened by the whole attack and terrified for family that lives there, but the city itself is only a transit stop for me enroute to B’lore (and handy shopping place on occasion). I think I sorta see what my SIL feels though – she’s Bombay born and bred, and hates the idea of leaving, even when her rational mind agrees with all the arguments for a better quality of life elsewhere!

    M

  31. suma December 2, 2008 at 8:24 am #

    I echo, oh i echo…though not born in Bombay, have visited several times…have my cousins- hardcore bombay niwasis and i admire the way they take pride in their city…Bombay does touch you in some way…

  32. dipali December 2, 2008 at 1:44 pm #

    Hope for life being worth living, hope for human values to prevail- hope for humanity to not give up, despite the horrors.

  33. Orange Jammies December 3, 2008 at 12:43 am #

    M: I’m going all cheesy on you to say “What use is quality when your heart’s not in it?”

    suma: I was telling the Boy just this evening that the one thing we’re especially proud of–our sea–is the one thing they used against us.

    dipali: Amen to that.

  34. M December 3, 2008 at 8:27 pm #

    OJ,

    I can understand ambivalence about leaving a city when it affects only you….but when it comes to kids…eh I don’t know. When there *are* alternatives available, (such as a job offer in another city) where the kids will receive certain services or where their health will be better (just an example, not specific to my SIL or anyone I know), I would go for it….but that’s me. (mostly practical, so a lot of touchy-feely stuff sort of goes over my head :-))

    M

  35. Abha December 4, 2008 at 5:54 pm #

    🙂

    gorgeous all the way OJ! Marine Drive was where i first made M hold hands and walk and that was the last place we went to before Cubby was born.

    we want and sat there and it started raining. we got up and by the time we could cross the road, it stopped rainng. but the cement was all too wet to sit on now. and we kept walking till we found the perfect spot where another couple had sat through the rain and left it dry for a fat pregnant woman to sit on! 🙂 the thought and my glee at having found the place still makes me smile!

    town meant watching english movies at sterling, eros and regal! then it meant shopping at Cotton World at the beadwallah who sits at the entrance of that galli!

    thanks OJ for smiles through some tears! 🙂

    hugs

  36. Orange Jammies December 6, 2008 at 1:37 pm #

    M: They call it the blessing of the rootless. Or the madness of belonging. Or similar things that Bombay-junkies make up and truly believe in. 🙂

    Abha: Cubby is Bombay-born? He’s only gracing Bengalooru then? 😉

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