Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Mumbai Diaries

One weekend in Mumbai and its enough to write volumes. In fact this post is all about a morning walk I took and I never regretted not carrying a camera as much as I did that day. Living at Kalanagar, Bandra with Suhita and family, gives access to a nice part of Mumbai not to speak of enjoying the hsopitality of our wonderful hosts Jayant, Suhita and Miskil. After a fairly quiet Saturday, where the most I did was venturing out to buy ice cream for Anjali, came the morning walk on Sunday morning.

I set out by 630 a.m. and turned to the Bandra Kurla Complex which is right behind the Kalanagar wall - which now has a green plastic wall partitioning this colony from the noisy main road. The green wall intrigued me but on enquiry I found that it was installed to reduce noise levels to the Kalanagar denizens. Not everyone gets so lucky in Mumbai and if you think the government is putting up such barricades for everyone you are sadly mistaken. Kalanagar is also the place where the Shiv Sena supremo lives so that explained the barricades for me.

The road was quiet and almost deserted by Mumbai standards and I walked by briskly past some buildings owned by RBI and Central Bank of India. A little ahead a barricade was put up and some cops were questioning early morning auto drivers and their passengers. I made it past them and the road split - one to the left, which looked rather unatrractive and another that headed to magnificent corporate buildings of Wockhardt and several other glass tinted structures. Separating the buildings and me was a small stretch of well-maintained road and I trudged along.

The road passes by a marshy land. First thing I notice is the kind of growth one sees in marsh land - thick, short trees that occupy every square inch making it difficult to see beyond a few feet. One can see the swampy water at the bottom. Pigs, tens of them were out there, grunting and snorting as they played about aggressively in the mud, not far from the road. I saw a rat, split into half by traffic on the road. There was a lonely auto parked by the side of the swamp and I wondered for a moment what happened to the driver, until I saw him, pants bunched up at his knees as he squatted in the slopes that led to the swamp. Don't the pigs bother him? And a few steps further, lining the huge drain, or was it a river, were hundreds of squatters from the nearby slum, lining the swampy trees. Some of them dressed in shorts and t shirts, the type you'd see in any society on a Sunday morning. Some squatters looked on searching for my eyes, for any sign of recognition, some gaily swung the bottles of water in their hand. The drain (or river) was black and thick with some sludge like stuff. that was so dense that it looked like tar. Nothing could survive that. I crossed the rather bleak scenes and came to a part where a team of youngsters dressed in jeans and t shirts and tracks made their way from the slum beyond to some ground on the other side - cricket bats and equipment in hand. I decided to find them on the way back. And then the first incongruity of the morning, a cyclist, on an expensive cycle, all geared up for some cyclothon, helmet and all. Somehow his shorts and gear reminded me of the squatter in the bushes.

Further down and I see some more lower income housing, or rather slum dwellers alternate housing, that pink colored stuff with tons of garbage in and around it. On the pavement lay a family, sleeping outside that colony, a father, a mother and two young children. They were surrounded by all that they probably owned  - pots and pans, aluminium vessels, that rack where you can hang everything on, spoons, mugs and stuff. Whoever they came to meet in that colony refused them shelter perhaps. A few more steps and I see a freshly arrived auto with the women folk standing on the pavement and the men folk somewhere inside the colony searching for their local saviors. I saw a board that said something about a reconstruction society or something. It was filthy as hell inside the walls (outside, close to the shining Bandra Kurla Complex, it was spick and span). But one thing stood out in all that filth - every single household had a dish antenna by Videocon, dusty and grimy, but there. I moved on from these almost filmy settings ahead and the first of the corporate buildings came up.

I walked past Wockhardt and the shining bus stops and the broad roads, the sleepy security guards, a posh petrol bunk with its early morning luxury cars. And then circling the space I found all the big banks India has in some of the swankiest buildings that one has seen - ICICI, Bank of Baroda, ING Vysya, PNB, SBI, SIDBI, NABARD - and I thought that all those aspiring for commerce jobs, the MBAs, the CAs, should make a trip to BKC just to get inspired enough to work in one of those buildings. They looked so good. I saw the ICICI building with its logo imprinted in its face, dusty from lack of maintenance and I breathed in an atmosphere I was familiar with a couple of decades ago when I worked in WTC, Mumbai with the IDBI. I walked around the surprisingly thinly populated area and encountered the security men catching up with one another after yet another night - some hugging each other, some going on with their water bottles to attend to more pressing matters. Some luxury cars, an Audi, a Honda CRV, a Mercedes, a BMW, and some more circled the wide paths as well, sleepy, hungover drivers behind the wheels.

I circled the blocks and came to the open area where the youngsters were playing cricket, all serious and earnest. Beside them were the cycling gang, in their luxury cars, luxury bikes, helmets, sophisticated accents, cell phones, sheets and head phones. I walked past and headed back past the swampy area. I noticed a furtive couple on a bench - the guy was most suspicious of every male glance while the woman could not care less. I turned into an area where some senior citizens were laughing and exercising, old women running around like birds, hands up in the air, one old man looking me suspiciously again, angry perhaps at my intrusion. Here, hardly three minutes form the squatters swamp were well-maintained and good looking public toilets, but perhaps they charged money. I noticed some auto drivers there, and some ladies who walked there, perhaps from the slum. I turned back, found the well hidden path behind the bus stop and was instantly back into the familiar environs of Kalanagar. Safe, secure and full of a self-righteousness that is best expressed in the security guard's eyes. In that one hour I saw the entire spectrum of India's best and the worst, hope and arrogance, resilience and brittleness, poverty and riches in the only place that showcases it best - Mumbai.

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