Scenes from Kala Ghoda

Take a Minute. Look Around

BMC

CST

‘There is so much beauty, but how many of us stop to look around, at our buildings, our history?’ Shraddha, our heritage walk guide asks. We are standing on a curb close to the massive CST building; hundreds of commuters walk past us. Some give us dirty looks for slowing them down. I’d do the same in their shoes. In stead I focus on the architectural details I’ve overlooked all this time: tiny carved animals scurrying around the pillars; flowers, shrubs and trees fanning out on stone; a peacock displaying full plumage; a train engine, a ship, and an elephant and its mahout, etched in place for a life time; rock solid portraits watching over the city, along with an army of gargoyles and lions; delicate stained glass portholes peeking out between elaborate wall carvings. They all have stories to share, if you’re willing to hear them out.

Up on a Rope, Above the World

TRW

TWR 2He is of slight frame. His wears a red turban, yellow kurta and white pyjama. He also carries a long stick, which he holds across his frame. His colleagues are on the ground. One man plays the dhol, another calls out to visitors, encouraging them to watch the show. Each beat, each slogan, sees a foot being place in front of the other on the tight rope strung high above. The man walks with ease where there should be none. There are no safety nets, just a crowd and stone below. And yet he glides across. He lies flat on the rope. He sits cross legged. He rolls from one end to the other on a cycle wheel. At the end of his performance, he accepts applause and any change you can spare.

A Box of Paint, Lots of Ideas

Ants

Dabbawala

There are big green ants crawling about. They have headlights for eyes, and bodies made from retired motorbikes. There is a giant dabbawala, Mumbai’s famed lunch box delivery guy. Dressed in typical white, he holds a lunch box and the city on his tray. There are painted rickshaws, modified vespas, there’s even a shiny coin studded fiat. And in quiet corners, there are paintings, sculptures and other delicate art works. There is talent awaiting new homes, all you need is a bag of money to claim them.

Messages, Statements and Common Sense 

Corruption

Cycle There is a lot being said. Voices rise through colour and artistic expression. There is a plea for change, a demand for improvement, encouragement for those making an effort. Doors are opening, carpets are being dusted and the linen is getting washed. Like the installation says, you are the engine.

A Window Frame along the Old Wing

I can taste the sea; the breeze is trapping grains of salt in my knotty hair. On the water, colourful fishing boats bob up and down, a bit more violently than the slow moving tourist ferries. Far off on the horizon, cruise lines and navy ships eye-ball each other, standing as still as a hot Mumbai afternoon.

It’s looks the way it always has – regal grey stone, red roofing tiles, delicate lattice balconies, stained glass, white trim, and a flutter pigeons surrounding it. At the entrance a moustachioed guard welcomes visitors, his uniform is a crisp white, his turban is red.

The sun hits my eye, forcing me to squint, as I look for the cracks. I see none.

There’s a workman, maybe a carpenter, maybe a painter – a fixer of some sorts, at one of the windows. He has one foot on the window sill, and the other against the side frame, at a 45 degree angle. His clothes look colourless, blending into the stone, but his hair is jet black against the white trim. I can’t see if he has a harness, but he works with the assurance of one. He doesn’t look out even once.

It’s only when I pay (extra) close attention to his workspace that I can make out the new paint from the old. The difference is subtle, and will be lost in a few months of morning smog and a healthy monsoon – nature the great leveller, hiding scars and restoring colour.

When he hops back into the room and shuts the window, I try to trace the lines again, to find the restored window frame along the old wing. But it’s not easy. I find it, I lose it, I find it, I lose it. Soon my eyes hurt so I stop looking for it.

I had wondered if I’d sense a change, physical or emotional, or something entirely new and complex, but it’s how it always has been around this corner –the noise, the sea, the tourists, the crowds – the only visible difference are the vendors on the sidewalk selling miniature commandos – these moving plastic toys are dressed in army fatigues; they crawl on their stomach, their bodies rubbing against the hard ground, their guns pointing towards an unseen enemy.

Postcard Series – Mumbai

I don’t recognize the city in this photo. I don’t recognize the city in front of me. Every day it changes a little bit, changing completely and yet not changing at all.

Everything is jumbled: Everything is new. It’s all the same. I am a stranger. I am at home. I sweat unbearably. I am perfectly comfortable. I want to leave. I want to stay.

In the jumble it all makes sense.

Mumbai, April 2010

*

I’ve taken to writing (myself) postcards when travelling. I’ve this image in my head, of me, thirty-forty years down the line, going through stacks of yellowing postcards, and thinking about the good old days, a cup of hot chai in hand.

Sounds Like Home

It’s never quiet. Never. From the first thing I hear – the piercing door bell at 6am (the morning milk run), to farting rickshaws, crashing utensils, bird calls, hawkers peddling their wares, multiple cricket matches, to the lone barking dogs past midnight, I share the day with constant clashing sounds.

I’ve grown up with these sounds. They take me back to my first summer in India. I was a wide eyed teenager fascinated by the way of life here. That first weekend, there was a man walking around the colony with what looked like a bag of discarded crap. He kept yelling at regular intervals in a high pitched nasal note. I wondered if he was hurt or mentally disturbed. He wasn’t. He was the raddiwala – the guy who takes away your old newspapers and magazines for recycling (you get paid a small sum by the kilo for the pile you give away). My parents and uncles swapped stories of times when the last week of every month ran on raddi money alone, their hardship glossed over with a coat nostalgia. The raddiwala’s cry has been a part of my Sundays ever since.

These sounds have always been around, part of the landscape, blending into the day, like sugar in milk, together and inseparable. But it’s just now that I’m learning to isolate them, holding each one away from the setting, appreciating each sound for what it brings – a constant reminder of life all around. While people can be (and usually are) overbearing, invading one’s privacy without a thought, these sounds rarely are, many a times they even transform into something soothing, comforting.

The last monsoons brought little rain – crops failed, water cuts were put in place, and now a heat wave has come our way. I’m sitting right under the ceiling fan, sweating as it churns the hot morning air round and round. The windows are wide open just in case a misguided breeze comes around. It doesn’t, but a rush of sounds comes barging in. It doesn’t help with the heat, but it makes me smile.

The summer holidays have started and three cricket games are taking place outside. One full of teenage boys, throwing in the occasional cuss words in the midst of cricket lingo. The other games are run by tots; the cricket bats are bigger than some of the kids there. As the heat gets rougher, so will the games and complains. Later in the evening when the live telecast of the local league begins, I’ll hear these very kids screaming and cheering in front of their TVs. In all probability, I’ll do the same.

The screaming kids are interrupted often. From where I sit, kitchen sounds dominate. It’s almost ten o’ clock, breakfasts and lunches are being prepared. I catch the shrill whistle of a pressure cooker and the rush of steam shooting out. Through another window comes the sizzle of spices hitting hot oil in a wok and steel ladles clinking against pans and pots, and the customary crashing utensils (most Indian kitchens use steel utensils, including plates and tumblers. The fancy china is always stored away for special occasions, and no occasion is special enough for the fancy china). It sounds less like cooking and more like a violent attack. I wonder if I am as noisy a cook. I probably am.

Even the birds here are super noisy – usually sparrows and crows – constantly gossiping. The sparrows tweet and chirp, creating pretty melodies. The crows however squawk a constipated tune. If only I had a rupee for every crow I wanted to chase away. When lunchtime rolls around, they’ll sit outside the kitchen window, waiting for bits and pieces to be put out. Of course if the food is not up to their standards, they don’t bother, they chirp and squawk and flap their wings in disgust.

I could write about these sounds for four more pages and then some more, but I have a long to-do list to wade through today, so I’ll crunch them together – crying babies, ringing doorbells, car horns, hawkers, ringing cell phone with annoying ring tones, gushing water, mixers and grinders, cross balcony conversations, music classes in session, TVs and radios, hammers and drills.

Outside, rickshaws rattle along, the engines sound like injured toads. Cars, buses and trucks follow suit. Not far away the brass temple bell rings thrice in its usual patter clang-clang-clang. The bell will ring every time someone steps in to offer a prayer. The last bits of the recession are still around and the exams are just winding up – there are many prayers on offer – clang-clang-clang.

Mumbai 26/11/08

My only memory of him is of a moving figure behind piles of Newspaper.

I’d pull out a copy of the paper I wanted, say it out loud, leave the coin on the stack and walk away, heading for class or towards a train, back home. In the background a railway employee announced train departures and schedules in her rehearsed nasal tone.

On some days (when I was paying more attention) I’d catch a glimpse of his cotton shirt – simple and unremarkable – and a pair of spectacles, if I’m not mistaken.

I search and search for a memory from those six years. At times I remember headlines. I remember incidents. I even remember magazine covers. But I can’t remember his face.

 

He was killed in the attack at CST last year.