Friday, May 22, 2009

City Profiles

I like writing about cities. Most people see them as dots on a map or as places populated with urban detritus, but not as an organism. Not the fire breathing, I-will-destroy-everything-in-my-path kinds nor as a gaggle of dysfunctional humans. But as an entity that shapes the environment around it, in all spheres political, social, geographical and mental. It is easy to see a city as a collection of famous buildings or past happenings of importance. It is also easy to see every city having a ‘character’ atry, hep, modern, conservative, heartless and so forth. What is not easy to put in words the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of every city and see it with that perspective.

Consider a piece of lush land between low rounded hills and a shallower inlet of the sea. Miles of mangroves blurring the distinction between the land and water and the whole scene reads like a page out of Tolkien’s epics. In the nineties denizens of Mumbai were confronted with the existence of such a piece of land lying east of the city, on the Indian mainland and they conspired to turn it into a city.

And this momentary deliberation is what makes New Bombay what it is. A planned city with the widest roads in this hemisphere. Railway lines with stations so near one can walk to and from them. Malls, theatres and shops confined to particular areas and homes in sectors. Sectors in nodes. It was all very novel and for the first few years after its conception the city lay barren with pockets of population stranded like some post-communist city. And with time all industries moved to Navi Mumbai (in a cruel mockery of the name change from Bombay to Mumbai, its sister followed suit). MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial development corporation) was established all over the hills, ironically with toxic companies having the best views. Come monsoon and all the unpaved roads become unofficial waterfalls with picnickers reveling in them.

Viewed from the eastern end of Mumbai, New Bombay has an impressive skyline, one that is tall, modern and spans the length of the city. Mangroves, buildings and the foothills of the western ghats in the distance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Anyone who has lived in Bombay long enough can tell you when the rain won’t come. We are experts at predicting when it won’t happen. Come the last few days of May and all of humanity has had enough of the heat and the sweat. And of the dull monotony that stark afternoon sunlight brings. Mangoes have been consumed, the raw ones pickled. Juices with ice cubes floating in them had by the gallons to make the throat sick. The last few days of May are the summer that deprive us the joys of the season without affording its pleasures.

As reports of drizzles come in hopes turn heavenwards. The first of June is awaited with a fervor bordering on the religious, but like all other things Indian, the rains are late. Veterans then remark that the rains never arrive on the first, and that the one time they did come on that day, in the 50’s, the rest of the season was bad. “Monsoon hits Kerala” newspapers exclaim a few days into June and then the real countdown begins. Three Kasargode, five Uttar Kanara, seven Karwar, nine Goa. The wait becomes irresistible, unbearable and the rains seem sadistically within reach but away.

Vacationers will come back with tales of how they encountered a few stray showers on the ghats, or how their seaside weekend was spiced up by the sudden prattle of premature showers. And all we can do is sigh at their luck, and beseech the fan to miraculously cool us faster. A few more days of dogged heat and listlessness and then action suddenly comes to the backyard. “It rained in Uran yesterday” a Port trust official would blurt out, in the manner of revealing a state secret. “My cousin living in Panvel said that it s raining there now”, the bai would chip in excitedly. Reports would come in from seaside urbania all around Mumbai. Pen, Alibag, the ghats near Pune, the Ggats near Kalyan, Vashi.

Tomorrow. The experienced would nod their ascent. And paving the way for the anticipated tomorrow would be a day far stickier than any other day of the season. I never knew if it is really a meteorological phenomenon that makes the day hotter and more fetid or it is simply the minds preparation for a new season. The heat at its zenith, humidity at a naturally impossible hundred and the first could sighted. Like the climax of a movie life then moves in slow motion. The eye impatiently scans the skies for the pregnant clouds, but there are none to be found, and almost magically the clear sky turns murky, the smell of mud assaults long before the first drop wets the earth.

Like a slow orchestrated ritual culminating in a bedazzling climax the rains hit Bombay. As the dispossessed shriek and run headlong into the spray.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I woke up groggy and sleepless. A tangle of arms and legs greeted me. And slowly a head emerged from within. “Good morning beta, welcome home” Appa’s head said to me. Thinking myself to be in a surreal Kafkaesque dream, I promptly went back to sleep. Seconds later a leg landed on me, pushing all the wind out of me. “Sorry, I haven’t quite mastered this asana” again Appa’s head spoke to me. I opened my eyes fully and Amma stared at me, nothing unusual in it, except that she was upside down. Jet lag is funny I thought.

A few minutes later I was completely awake, although my body believed it was still ten time zones away. And I got a feel of the situation at home. “One must be healthy, we aren’t getting any younger you know”. The parents had discovered Yoga. What followed was a bewildered me being demonstrated a series of bodily positions I never believed possible, especially from the ones who had birthed me. Appa effortlessly rolled himself into a series of punctuation marks and enquired to my well being. On the other side of the room, Amma was breathing like a wounded rhinoceros. “Advanced Pranayama...good for the stomach you know” she said.

And the house was in the throes of extreme fitness. Mornings started with a pod of garlic. No wonder the milkman left, and the paper fellow doesn’t come in until nine I mused. Breakfast was a minimalistic fruity affair. Lunch was seasoned with queer strange smelling herbs. Dinner almost did not exist. Hedonistic I balked at such austereness. And craved for ghee dripping form edible surfaces. Instead I am supposed to do crunches. Something about me having a non-flat stomach.

Pah!. Homecoming.

* I am home for a vacation. And this is what happens.