Mumbai is for everybody. Like the birthday cake, everybody present at the party gets a slice of it. Whether small or big is a discussion for another day.
I had gone to the harrowing metropolis to test the flight of my dreams- studying in a quality b-school. A profile-based call from SP Jain Institue of Management & Research. With preparation, positivity, and prayers, I took the plunge- first into a moderately neat Oyo in Andheri East, and then on the morning of 14th January, into the frugal campus of SPJIMR. To save you from the excruciating details, and to save myself from spiraling down into unpleasant bewilderment, let me just say, I did well, or at least that is what I thought. But the interviewers were free to think differently. So, they did. Unlike the current socio-political climate in the country, here the interviewers and the interviewee were allowed to have varying opinions.
It’s fine, it’s okay, I kept telling myself seated in a jerky auto not knowing how else to come to terms with reality, and not knowing where to go. Marine Drive was the answer to the latter. The former tornado kept brewing inside me like steam inside a pressure cooker. Only, here I was looking for the whistle.
Traveling, in thoughts and on roads, switching vehicles and altering facial expressions that reflected a flickering soul, I reached my destination. It was five in the evening. The promenade was peppered with throngs of people- young and old, poor and rich, and all the imaginable divisions we have successfully forged in our minds. I walked along the coast on the cemented architecture of the Marine Drive, flanked by- the tapestry of peculiarly designed artificial rocks and the breathtaking view of the setting sun kissing the horizon, hanging tantalizingly above the golden Arabian sea- on one side, and, the wide rushing roads pregnant with Kaali Peelis and noise-eschewing swanky motors, depicting both a man’s needs and desires respectively, on the other side. I for most parts ignored the roads. My eyes gravitated frequently towards my right. Towards the rocks, the people, the sea, and the setting sun.
Perched comfortably on the hardly buttocks-friendly rocks, I was fascinated by people. People displayed to me what people best can- a myriad of emotions! Some of them were floating in love, while some were sinking irreversibly. One could see couples locking hands and smiling shyly but copiously, and also detect with a somewhat sadistic chuckle, romantic overtures being turned down. I started walking again. Like the flashes from the interview, some distant music walked in, floated around, and walked out. I kept walking. I saw families from humble backgrounds clustered closely, munching enthusiastically on jhal muri or vada pav or bhutta and stealing quiet smiles. I was also a mute audience to the various indifferent expressions, swaying coconut trees, teacups- held, kissed and subsequently scrunched, tens of colorful kites adorning an impeccable cloudless sky and gracing the festive mood of Makar Sankranti as well, jeans- faded, straight and ripped, the overwhelmed foreigners. I could also gaze at the towering lights of the Wankhede stadium which were a witness to the vulnerabilities of a formidable Indian cricket team that day. A 10-wicket victory for Australia over India was truly unprecedented.
If my eyes were rich with the ornate and sometimes full of substance sights on offer, my ears weren’t far behind. My ears perceived laughter and whimper. They stood up at honking and revving-up of engines, at words both meaningful and meaningless, at names being called sweetly and sometimes urgently, at the routine somewhat noisy melody of waves crashing at the shore and at the quaint calm of the sea containing those infinite ripples of waves.
With rich eyes and ears, my thoughts were alternating between enchantment and disappointment. The disappointment of the interview, however, was diluting by the passing minute, and yet, the shackles of ‘Why did it happen the way it did’ weren’t completely broken off. I clicked a picture for a couple, who in my mind, were eloping together escaping their fate. But has anybody been successful there? Fate is all too powerful to chase an escape from. At best, we can escape a few moments from reality. Maybe, they were doing just that. Escaping their not so favoring reality, and so I was too. Or maybe not. I was actually feeling life like they were trying to feel theirs. The real-life which is not that bad after all.
I called up my closest companion a few times to show her the staggering beauty my eyes had been feasting upon. She was doubly happy. I felt an unmistakable sense of calmness. I was doing okay, if not great, in this vast world. Yes.
At the peril of hazarding my writing with an imitation of ‘the Great Gatsby’, I was quite truly in that moment, within and without, deeply enchanted and strangely repelled by the unending variety of life. I then proceeded a little further south.
Gateway of India. The sheer volume of people can be frightening at first. But once you join the clan, you become one of them. There’s no difference. Everybody clicks a photo with the magnanimous structure in the background as if GOI was a fancy backdrop in a photo studio. For a moment, as I said, everybody is the same. You, my reader, must be reminded of all those times you went with your family to a studio. That’s a bygone era. The family click in a studio. I digress. I slowly made my way closer to the structure brushing through scores of unknown faces. Photographers in black trousers and white shirts quoted a figure of 50 which on an uninspiring look from the customer, was subsequently discounted to 30. They were generous to even provide you a soft copy of the photo. I couldn’t say no to such an enticing offer. I was elated to be clicked by a photographer after a long, long time. I am using the term ‘photographer’ in the traditional sense. Wait. Who’s a photographer? The one who clicks as a medium to keep stoking his inner fire of passion or the one who clicks to keep his kitchen’s fire going? I am not implying that both need to be mutually exclusive entities. I hope you got the drift. However, it is safe to claim that the term has undergone a paradigm shift in most of the middle-class individuals’ minds.
Look here’s my cherished souvenir!
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is to the Gateway Of India as the podium is to the stage. For many, the stage is accessible. One can reach the stage through dancing, singing, fashion, acting, speaking, presenting, volunteering, etc. If the stage is a medium of expression of inner joy, the podium is its most coveted space. Only the achievers, the stalwarts, the big daddys, the hoarders of the highest wisdom and knowledge are given a chance at the podium. Similarly, the Taj is aspirational while the Gateway Of India is accessible. In the quickly darkening twilight, the Taj in all its grandeur and glory captivated me hook, line and sinker. I was a child, awestruck and gleeful. The interview tale was fast receding to the background, but its presence even in the most minute form didn’t permit me the absolute bliss I so dearly wanted to be cocooned in.
Walking closer to the imposing Indo-Saracenic styled Gateway of India, my vision met a number of small-to-medium-sized boats ferrying tourists for a short pleasure trip. Immediately, I wanted to jump in. One rotund middle-aged man with complexion tilting towards the extreme ends of the dark was charging 70 for the tickets. I queued in. When my turn came, he asked, “Who’s with you?”. “Only me”, I replied. “I can’t allow you. It is people like you, seeming very normal and educated, who jumps off the boat and makes our lives miserable.” “No. No. I have no such intention.” “No. I can’t allow you. The police have clearly instructed us to do so.” Fortunately, two modestly dressed men seeming my age came to the rescue. They offered to take me in. I was more than glad to accept their kindness. We paid 210 to the ticketer. In my case, I had to pay the plump man indirectly through the two strangers, as he was unwilling to accept the cash directly from me. He was almost shivering when I insisted he took the money from me. Like a corrupt government rookie who’s afraid of getting nabbed.
Finally, after the payment hassle got smoothened out, we marched in, then descended the slightly slippery steps of the dock. A small boat offering a capacity of about thirty passengers was anchored to the wall of the dock. We jumped into the boat. The ride was to begin after a few minutes. I initiated conversing with the two kind men. Turns out, they were from a village in Punjab. Their business in Mumbai was to see off their friend who was going abroad in pursuit of a better education. They quizzed me on my business there in the city. I narrated my interview debacle. With an empathetic face, one said, “Surely, in the next interview, you’ll do well. God has some better plan for you.” I nodded while a faint smile escaped me.
I turned to look at the dark gurgling water. It was night by then. The engine groaned its way to ignition, bursting my negative bubble of thoughts. One of the two asked, “By the way, why SP Jain?” “It’s one of the top 10 b-schools.” The other one chipped in. “MBA! Well, have you applied to the best MBA college in India?” I was puzzled. He continued. “LPU brother. Lovely Professional University. All the superstars- Honey Singh, Badshah, the entire Bollywood, come to LPU. The only downside is its high fees.” Initial puzzlement gave way to a burst of inconspicuous laughter. “I will surely apply for admissions there next year.”
It was crazy to think that there I was on a boat gazing at the marvels of Mumbai, steeped in the aftermath of a disappointing interview for SP Jain, cribbing about a lost chance! And then, there were the two of them, big-hearted enough to come this far to Mumbai to see off their friend, to help out a stranger seeking ferry-ride, to be enamored by LPU in such a straightforward way, and most astonishingly, living every moment of the ferry ride, every second of their stay in the huge metropolis. The present mattered to them. The future was to be dealt with in the future, and the past was a lived fact, a bygone experience.
I was mostly quiet for the remaining time. I enjoyed the breeze. The negative emotions of the past were leaking out. As the motorboat kept speeding by, the Taj grew in its stature- a beaming aspiration, the Gateway of India looked contentful as if it was satisfied by all those gazes that hung on it for the purest sliver of a moment, and the breeze continued touching me- absorbing the self-repeating causes of a writhing soul- each time intending to kiss all of my body, but managing to only leave a salty imprint on my lips.
In the next two days, I squeezed in and out of the crowded local trains exploring the city. Ironically, the sometimes overcrowded, scary and often uncomfortable locals are the very life of the city, transporting thousands of people and memories everyday.
Mumbai. Everybody here seems busy. The faces will speak to you as much about hope, passion, and kindness, as they will about hunger, survival, and ruthlessness. All the eyes have a dream in them. It can be the next day’s meal, the lucrative finance role or the next bus to Bollywood. Dreams breathe and leap in Mumbai. Looking at the vast, endless arms of the Arabian sea, I felt like the reverse holds true too. Mumbai thrives in a million peoples’ dreams! The city’s just magical and it’s for everybody.
(Some of my attempts at capturing what I saw: Mumbai)