Anguish and Ecstasy in Bombay

For Akshaya, who has a sense of humour, and hence a will to comprehend

———————

For the past month or so I have been in Bombay on a special project assigned to me by my employers. I am put up in a hotel in Churchgate, near Nariman Point. Many would say I am living in one of the best areas in India, and they would not be entirely dishonest in saying that. I only have to open the windows of my air-conditioned room and the smell of the living sea breeze fills my nostrils. I go to the shore often. Couples, families, singles, beggars, old people, eunuchs; all equally share the space. I share a beautiful room with a view with a passionate, generous and ambitious young recruit. He reminds me of what I could have been.

Soon, in a month’s time, I will be leaving Bombay, and I will no more be able to go to the shore.

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As a boy, I used to come to Bombay during my summer vacations to stay at my aunt’s place, in a hospital’s residential campus. It was not exactly an escape from the heat of my native city Nagpur; on the contrary, I liked burning my skin under the sun of Orange City. The much cursed sun was the thing I loved most about the place. I was always jealous of what I was not.

Bombay offered the sea. I was curious about it, having never seen it for real. But whenever I came to Bombay, I had to go to all the famous places along with my family, and I hated that. I could never be alone. Every place I went, there was the burden of a family photograph or some family celebration or ‘something happening’, where loads of people from an absurd civilization and with an absurd taste for suffering came together with an aim to eat, drink, make merriment and offer obeisances to some gods that I could never acknowledge. There was never a dull moment. I was half-greedy to become like them, and half-afraid of killing myself with nothingness. In either case, I would lose everything I had, or I thought I had. They all seemed to love me effortlessly. I have always been incapable of that. Yet, they were alive. They seemed to suffer behind all that pretence of happiness. That was the only semblance of humanity amidst the orgy that was conjured to hide it.

There was another misfortune; I was fat and lazy. Walking a kilometer would make me sweat all over; I would be slimy and smelly, cleaning myself restlessly with a sodden handkerchief. I would demand that a taxi be hired for the smallest of distances. After all, I was a great scholar in the making. Wasn’t I supposed to embellish the family name? Is this how one treats their family heroes? But I was denied all those foolish fancies, and rightly so. Discipline is necessary, I was told, and I quite agreed with them in principle. I should have known I was a black sheep rather than a blue horse. Politicians do not seem to need discipline; warriors do. I was a politician rather than a warrior. I never thought they would actually try to discipline me. They did, and walk I did, to wherever they wanted to take me, all the while cursing the humidity and the stench of mankind. In those days, I never had enough money to hire a taxi by my own. I tried to introduce my parents to the foreign concept of pocket money, and they gave me some, but it was never enough to run away with. We never seemed to have enough money. Or maybe everyone around me felt so. I never wanted to make myself a burden on my parents (with the cunning strategy that they would know what categorical imperative meant). I had as little wants as possible. I wanted books, food, and solitude. I got them all. Since suffering was unavoidable, I wanted a suffering with the least burden. Soon they realised I was not one to be wrestled with and lost the desire to discipline me anymore. Little did I know that I will have to wrestle with the guardian angel of parents.

A middle class family can forget to weep and repent, they can forget to be honest with themselves, but they cannot forget shopping, especially for clothes. I hate the lust for clothes. Not that I go around naked in public, but this womanly business was a little too much for me. The only clothes I have ever been interested in are undergarments. And maybe kurtas and jeans at most. But there seemed no end to what these women who loved me wanted. They made me try out a million dresses, none of which I liked or felt comfortable in. Mothers and aunts and sisters and all of them. I felt like a doll, a puppet, an idol. And they would do this every year. The most painful of all things was, after each dress they would compliment me that I looked good in this one and better in that one. I have always known I am ugly. Perhaps they thought I could not understand that one can be ugly and still love oneself.

I liked painting. I would paint during my summer vacations, and I was happy doing that. Sometimes with sparkling colors, sometimes with water colors, sometimes a sketch would be enough. Mostly, I would go to Bombay with my grandparents, but they are both now deceased. I cannot seem to remember much about them unless I am in exile, where I discover my memory afresh. As they say, out of sight, out of mind. I remember them being the chief cheerleaders of the gang that tried to molest me with love. I dream about them sometimes. They do not seem to suffer in my dreams. I would miss my mother sometimes in Bombay, when my aunt would scold me for being stubborn and impudent, and I would write sentimental letters to my mother about how much I missed her, and how grateful I was to her for everything. Had I known that she would save them up and show them to me later, using them to remind me of my sentimentality, I would never have written them. But I wrote those letters to get over something that I did not understand. It was a purely selfish act, albeit an intelligent one. Those were beautiful letters. I have burned them.

My favorite shopping place was the second hand book market at Fort. They have now closed it for some reason. I loved everything about that place. The smell of old pages, the notes scribbled on old books, a dried leaf thrown in between pages, picking up more and more books to enable cheaper bargains, chatting with the booksellers on famous, or fashionable, or the rare writers. I remember having bought the Harry Potter compendium for a measely four hundred rupees. I finished reading all of them in two days, and re-reading them in another two. I bought my first copy of Catcher in the Rye for fifty bucks. I even found the original French version of The Outsider with English notes. I could not pronounce Camus then.

My father has employed his talents as a writer for B-grade Bollywood films. His producers cheat him out of money. His friends use him. His directors pretend to respect him. His actors make fun of him. He does not seem to be bothered by the apparent lack of dignity in their actions, or his own. He left us one night, many years ago, after my little sister was born, to carve a niche for himself in the film industry, and settled in Bombay. He has a genius with words, and I even saw him cry at my grandmother’s funeral. His sense of humour is scatological. He prefers disease to health, dirtiness to cleanliness, lying to trustworthiness and happiness over melancholy. An ever struggler, he has the strongest spirit I know in any man. I think wrestling with spirits runs in our family. He has been in exile since a couple of decades. With his tremendous struggle, he has won a flat for himself in Bombay and the fondness of many acolytes. In that cave of his, he can keep himself absorbed with his art. After all, he is my father. And as they say, my daddy strongest. Ever since I have come to Bombay on this project, I have not visited him. Also, I do not exactly know where he lives. When my father would take me to the sets of movies or film-studios, I saw all the people absorbed with their own petty work, and I hated them all. They were all ugly, the actors and actresses; a bunch of liars, like my father. I intend to visit my dad this weekend.

What I hated most of all was going to the temples. I saw people paying money to get admission into the temples, some advancing themselves in queues by paying extra rupees, my folks included. I even saw the prasad being sold. I have regard for the credulity and desire of the people to meet their maker; and if this gives salvation, then so does a prostitute. If it were not for salvation, this world would feel no need to love god. Just say it, say it… God is unknowable (uff), but I know for sure that there is a burning need for salvation.

I used to take my examination answer sheets to Bombay with all kinds of praiseworthy remarks engraved upon them, as if with a desire to show them off to my aunt’s neighbours. I would particularly underline my achievements in the field of English language — that supreme unifier of mankind, the divine child of many mothers. I did not want any praise; I only wanted to circulate the beautiful burning sensation of jealousy. I knew I could inspire myself with words; I could praise myself to hell. That is all I have ever been reasonably good at. Once, in a magnificently grand effort of the burning spirit, I tried to memorize the entire dictionary. I failed miserably. I did not even know that it keeps expanding, just like the universe which keeps recording everything, to the last syllable of time. Was this activity profoundly indifference towards itself, or did it reflect upon itelf? I did not know; a dictionary is only a metaphor for the universe. There was no other book that I loved as much as the dictionary.

I told my parents I wanted to be an artist, some days before the results of the IIT-JEE exam were out. We were in Bombay at that time. I don’t think they actually beat me, but whatever they said to me was worse. One could not be just an artist; I would have done better to look forward to the JEE results. A preparatory test series I had joined predicted I would rank amongst the top 100; I failed to qualify. My mother wept, hugging me, deeply pessimistic about my future. Once I achieved second position in school; it was a sad day at our house. Looking at my mother weeping, I hugged her and started weeping. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Some other results were awaited, and by chance, I made it to a decent college, and it later became an IIT. When I did badly in engineering, barely managing to pass, I was told I had spoiled my years. They were all truisms. I had fallen from grace. Nothing but the best, was the unnerving motto of our family, whether we deserved it or not. The charm of what I had understood as success had already started wearing off in Bombay.

—————————————————-

My daily route in Bombay involves a taxi ride from Churchgate to CST, from where I board a local train, against the normal traffic, to Kanjur Marg or Nerul. From either destination, I take a rickshaw to the offices where I am supposed to work. My job requires that I train people in selling cars and implement sturdy systems and processes which can take care of themselves even if manpower is unavailable. After finishing my work, I take the rickshaw to Nerul or Kanjur Marg, from where I catch the local train back to CST. From CST, I walk to the sea, and after spending some time there, I come back to my hotel. I maintain a diary in which I note how much travel expenses I have to claim, and reminders for the requisite follow-up that needs to be done for the world to run properly.

I have befriended some old men at the sea face. Some of them share their sorrows with me; some insist on the lack of sorrow in their life. I like listening to them, trusting them to be themselves. I watch them when they ogle at all the women who come to the sea, their hair styled in all kinds of beautiful patterns, and the clothes they have so painfully selected from amongst so many others, which were also nice. They look happy with their companions and protectors. I look at all those memorable faces, and I fondly remember my foolish attempt to memorize the dictionary. Could I have just one face to myself, having lost mine to shame? Looking at a face can be worship. I ask the old men if they feel any desire. There is one among them, who holds the following opinion: there is a great happiness in witnessing everything and feeling nothing. I can deduce what he might feel if he actually tries to feels anything. He belongs to a royal lineage, has had a harem, has lived a completely cursed life from a middle class moral standpoint, and carries an ego that could well have belonged to Zeus. The only regret he has in his life is that his children do not love him because of the vile truths their mother taught them about him. He has battled with cancer, and has recently undergone bypass surgery. He wants to live more.

My local train journeys take me across various stations; I have never taken any pains to memorize their names or their order. The people of Bombay are very generous with their help and instructions. I can trust them to give the right directions. I like not knowing at the cost of trusting people. I travel by first class, and there are very few people in that compartment; sometimes I am alone. The thought that there could be a bomb in the train never crossed my mind until I overheard someone expressing those anxieties to someone else. The thoughts containing that anxiety hovered over me, and then passed away like a summer cloud. I once saw a Muslim co-passenger chanting in a whisper. A decidedly Hindu man saw him and started singing a bhajan in a loud melodious voice. I witnessed a burning I have known too well. After the Muslim passenger had got down, I smiled a knowing smile at the Hindu passenger; he seemed to know what I was suggesting, and it looked like he was burning to justify his actions. Before he opened his mouth, I looked away; I did not wish to inflict any pain on him. He began to sing again.

Sometimes, I have to travel by the bus meant to carry seventy two passengers. People who can count will find there are more than hundred at most of the times. First, I enter from the wrong side. Then I have to locate the conductor in that throng, who is always generous with patient advice. Usually I find a seat after waiting for a while, since I travel longer distances. The sweat and dust keep me a faithful company. When I get down from the bus, I ask the autowala for directions, and they tell me the truth to the best of their knowledge. It almost never misses the mark. I take the bus to travel to the house of some people I have befriended over the years during my causeless search. A search for abstraction, that has become a search for abstract people. I meet them, spend time with their families, get my clothes washed and sometimes stay over for dinner and discussions. One of my friend’s daughter, all of three years old, calls me Chachu. I play with her, gently surrounding her with my legs and then allowing her to crawl out of the cage. Once I was strolling in a garden with my friend, and she was on her own. It was evening and the moon was rising. She started jumping and started pointing to the moon and began to sing a rhyme she had learnt. She would continue to look up constantly at the moon while walking carelessly, and despite hushed admonitions, she would not watch her feet. My friend noticed that she needed to fall down to understand. Inspite of appreciating his infallible wisdom, I did not want this to happen. How can I be with her all the time? Meanwhile, I left the party and went about to take a stroll in another direction, later catching up with the father and daughter from behind. As I approached the party, I heard her constantly asking my friend: Where is Chachu? Where has Chachu gone? And when she saw me again, she smiled in glee and hid her face, being incapable of deceit.

At an office where I work, a nice young lady greets me at reception when I enter, and as is the right way to behave, I return the greeting formally. Once, absorbed in a detached catholicity, I returned the greeting in a slightly casual manner than usual, and she asked me if anything was the matter with me. I did not answer. Then I saw her lips clearly part in a blooming smile, and she asked it again, asserting that I could share it with her. I asserted that there is nothing more at all. I could not sleep that night.

It rained yesterday. I was at the sea, getting drenched, walking bare feet, dancing to myself. Clearly, I was happy. I found a little girl selling flowers; I bought the entire stock and threw them into the sea. I was losing my sanity. I wanted to laugh outrageously, but I could not. All the words I had memorised became my flesh. The dictionary saved me.

I know quite soundly that I am not the only one who feels the anguish and ecstasy of being alive, nor the last. Over the period of my searching, I have become mostly harmless, like a poisoned vegetable. Exiled in Bombay, my memory has finally caught up with me. I can’t seem to lie anymore to myself. My memory reveals a desire to live more, crawling like a snake up my spine, and a hope to be able to smile back at flowers which have been separated from their trees. Not knowing the cause of either, I have begun to burn again. I have learnt nothing. I have experienced nothing.

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~ by Bombadil on June 30, 2009.

4 Responses to “Anguish and Ecstasy in Bombay”

  1. I had read it then and read it again. 🙂

  2. Well. Now you know. Do you write? There is an information asymmetry which you can help resolve…

  3. its like jumping over a fence… and you dont know when and where you ll land.. you are scared of being in air for too long.. but you are scared of placing your feet on the wrong grounds too…

  4. Well, Anirudh. You see what you like to see. All I would like to tell is that sometimes I have felt happiness… that I have to forget nothing to be happy.

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