Tuesday, July 01, 2008

All Mumbaikars please stop reading rightaway. I don't intend to offend people I share geographical space with.

Having put that disclaimer in place, I can go on to show how I am bemused by this city. I don't mean the geography of the place. That is pretty clear to me. When I landed in this place, about a year back, I thought it was a maze; until my husband brought out the map and proved that it was just three horizontal columns, separated by two highways, and governed by three railway lines. Then I took up a job, started commuting by local trains, fell off one of these trains onto a station platform, faced total indifference at the said station for my clumsy fall, overheard personal stuff from strangers' lives on some of these trains (stuff that could seriously fuel my writerly ambitions), and naively concluded that these trains run this city.

Now, those kind of simplistic conclusions do no good to my credentials as a student of humanities and social sciences. So, I kept my 'conclusions' to myself and pontificated further. I tried exploring the common myth that it is money that runs the show out here. And there is enough dope to get that myth going. One look at the city-specific pages in any given day's newpaper would prove that -- at least one story on a murder within a family for the ownership of a flat, and surely a couple more on legal wranglings among siblings. Other than that, talk to any local and the sentiment, "there's money in Mumbai", is sure to come out in whichever dialect of English or Hindi that person is comfortable using.

As an aside, Mumbai has some amazing amount of ghettoisation, even in the way the locals express themselves. Other than the fact that people of the same language group tend to flock together, they evolve their very own version of Mumbaiyya Hindi and English! I suppose I will write about that some other time.

Anyway, slowly I was gravitating towards buying into that money theory. Come to think of it every other day the media calls it the "Economic Capital of the Country". Today's unexpected holiday in the middle of the week gave me time to do a rethink. Here's why:

It was raining last night and there was nothing remarkable about a rainy June night in a coastal city of a mostly tropical country. And, we retired for the night at half past midnight. Nothing remarkable about that again. The first unusual thing was that our doorbell didn't anounce the arrival of our maid at 7 am. Well, that being our alarm, we overslept. The husband's subconscious must have warned him for he shot out of bed at 8 am and shouted out that we are terribly late. So, we gave up our morning tea and breakfast and got ready to head to work. I was stepping into my shoes when the husband called from the car to warn me of the situation outside. All roads were flooded, there were very few autorickshaws and nearly no taxis on the road, and there were rumours that the local train might not ply for the day. He asked me to take a call on whether I'd like to risk my life to go to work; with broad hints, of course, that taking a risk would be foolhardy. Considering the students are on vacation and I sit and read all day long in the faculty room, that too in solitary splendour when my more experienced colleagues are busy with weighty administrative matters, I decided to give the adventurous ride to work a miss. I slept some more, read the paper a tad too thorougly and supplemented the standard maid-cooked meal with a chutney. The maid, by the way, showed up a little before noon to compensate for the morning's leave of absence; being the true blue professional Mumbai bai she is! And, I also got to catch up with my local friends who called in to enquire if we were safe at home. They, of course knowing how the city works, wisely decided to not venture out. The husband also reported from his post at work that there were about 3 people at work. Naturally the workaholics, including him, would not let mere Nature deter them from their workstations! But then it occurred to me that Nature did manage to bring the economic capital of the country to a standstill. The trains had to be stopped. Buses were not expected to ply on flooded roads and people were not expected to report to work in such conditions. Moreover, the ones who did report to work were requested to head back home so that the companies would not be held responsible for any eventualities. The brave ones who ventured out did so without the customary lunchbox in their bags, what with bais dealing with flooded homes, and these brave souls had no clue about the means of transport back home.

All the gossipy stayed-at-home types reminisced about 26th July 2006, some of them about stories of rare courage, some others about resilience and a few about melodramatic tragedies. Some other busy souls, stopped by natural conditions, busied themselves at home and got a lot of work done at home. Neighbours used the unexpected holiday to catch up on news about each other instead of the customary nod while handing the trashbag to the janitor.

Suddenly, Mumbai looked very much like a sleepy small town in coastal Andhra to me. And all this because it rained heavily on one night!

I still have not figured out what makes Mumbai go but I have sure figured out what makes it stop in its tracks! Nature does!

PS: I now think the sages were wise to consider Nature the almighty!

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