Thursday, November 02, 2006

High & Dry in Mumbai

The day I left Chennai to begin a new life in Mumbai in late June this year, emails from friends started pouring in. “Hope you’re having fun in the rain - we lesser mortals are languishing of thirst in Chennai.” “All settled in? You must be – with water in taps, what more do you need?” All in jest, but badly timed.

Having lived in Chennai for 16 years, sunk roots, made some deep friendships and dreamt some Chennai-based dreams, it seemed as though it would all end with my move. I detested Mumbai for its alleged squalor, its pace, its distances. But with no option but to move, I steeled myself for the challenges that the change would bring with much proclamations of “You’ll love the place!” from my husband.

Friends tried to dissuade us, colleagues warned us of the fast pace of life there, but in every conversation, I could detect a veneer of envy. I, for one, was beginning to look at the plusses.

No more auto drivers, doing that swift mental juggling of variables to arrive at the rate, in the nanosecond it took for you to say “Airport?”, and him to say “Rs. 250.”

No more undisciplined ‘over-takers from the right’ – one could now peacefully erase from memory, choice phrases like ‘Savugiraki!’ and ‘Veetule Sollittu Vandhuttiya?”

Above all, no more water problems – there would be enough water to warrant the ownership of a washing machine. More importantly, under a shower in the bathroom, one could, at least in some small way, begin to finally fathom why all those film heroines under waterfalls, almost always broke into song.

Gradually, I began to get attracted to the notion of being a Mumbaikar. I was going to become a chilled-out bindaas babe.

Once the move happened at the beginning of the Mumbai monsoon, it didn’t take long for the truth to seep through my cranium.

All that I had fantasized about – water in taps, meters that worked and orderly traffic – it took less than a week for the novelty of these to wear off.

I missed Chennai.

I missed the morning walkers and evening hawkers of Marina Beach. I missed the kitschy charm of Pondy Bazaar. I missed theatres where I’ve watched many a movie alone, without worrying about which letch was sitting next to me. I missed Spencer Plaza, where I spent many lazy afternoons window-shopping dreams of depleting the husband’s income. I missed the discount sales at the various exhibition halls. And friends – no more hot gossip sessions over cups of even hotter coffee. Most of all, being the self-confessed foodie, I missed sambar of the non-sweet kind and coconut chutney. I missed the bajjis, peanuts and sundal on the beach. And my mouth watered at the memory of adai, appam, and steaming hot masala milk.

While I fantasized about the aroma of set dosas in hole-in-the-wall eateries in Chennai, things weren’t going very well for me in Mumbai. The expansive supermarket near home stocked a vast array of nearly-expired snacks on discount, totally useless photo frames and an unusually large variety of car accessories. What it didn’t stock, were those little essentials that we can’t do without – cloth clips, buckets, dust bins. Another revelation was that people don’t make social calls on their friends during the week. And weekends are a parking nightmare practically everywhere. Movie tickets in the more decent theatres costed the earth and parking there, the moon.

On her first day at work in my home, the Bai left the tap in the kitchen sink open while she went about cleaning the counter. As soon as I heard the water, images of our water-starved life in Chennai gushed forth, unbidden. I couldn’t stand there silent, while she let down the drain, the equivalent of an average Chennaiite’s precious bucket of water for the bath. So, I advised her that she shouldn’t be wasting water, when parts of India (Chennai, for instance), was reeling under a water shortage situation. She stopped, as though someone had shouted ‘Statue!’, cocked her head, and asked, “Aaiga! No water? Why?” I wish I knew. How does one explain water shortage to someone who wades through knee-deep water to get to work?

But what changed my perspective on the city, was this. On Torrential Tuesday or Thunder Tuesday or whatever the media is calling it now, life came to a grinding halt in Mumbai.

I’d love to have been out there, battling the surging waters, giving a helping hand to people stuck in the flood – at the very least, I’d like to have participated by being stuck in a traffic jam! But there I was, in the comfort of a 11th floor apartment, watching the scenes unfold on TV – a mere spectator. I was, pardon the term, literally high and dry. The large window of my living room, provided a very dismal view of the rain pouring down, as though some wrathful higher being had upended a large drum of water.

Mobile networks were jammed, telephone lines were down and power was cut off in some of the suburbs. The people of the city showed more gumption and spunk, by taking things in their stride. When taxis or buses broke down, people got off, and started the long walk home, some through over 15 kilometres along roads with water logging at depths varying from ankle-deep to chest-high. Cars, some very expensive ones too, floated about like paper-boats. Someone I know reached home 26 hours from the time he left office. Along roads, in some places, people distributed home-cooked food and drinking water to those who were trudging home. Some played anthakshari while waiting it out at office. Those stranded in cars, passed the time listening to those annoying rain-themed songs on radio. The radio stations got going on transmitting messages from people in search of their loved ones, the TV channels followed suit.

On the one hand, my first thought was that Chennai would be better off with even a fraction of those 944 mm that descended on Mumbai that day. On the other hand, I’m beginning to think that like the infamous Chennai summer, the nemesis for Mumbai is its monsoon.

This much I know, no matter how bad the water problem or the summer heat in Madras, it didn’t ever get to the point of the city becoming paralysed. While in Mumbai, the rain played games with us – letting up for a few minutes just to get our hopes up, and then proceeding to empty more dark clouds. So, today, my husband grapples with how he is going to make sales calls in this water-logged city, while I worry about whether we will get supply of vegetables and milk.

So, before you curse those of us who have moved out of Chennai, remember – the water is bluer on the other side!
(an edited version published in Eve's Touch)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had so much expectations whenever i read his articles.He is a good writer and thinker but my personal experience in a sitting i realised he was biased and never listened to our problems.rather he wished us to buy books and read them. can't he serve this society as a philanthropist not by selling his books but by doing his duty as atherapist,counsellor.