‘The wounded city got up and walked on. I did too’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

Bengaluru is the city of my heart, I would tell anyone who knew their Pamuk. It really was, not just for that tree-lined street evocatively titled Hundred Feet Road or the coffee shop inside a heritage building or its always-perfect weather but for the people who were gentle beyond compare and accepting beyond understanding. Living and working in Bengaluru was something I had long dreamt of doing and once within the dream, I had no intention of leaving.

And so, when marriage to a man I couldn’t quite let go of brought me to Mumbai, I was not just a little resentful, I was prepared to dislike it with all my being. The air was too warm, the people too cold. The distances too vast, the spaces too little. The food was too oily and well, what really was the fuss about the vada-pav? Filth stared at me wherever I went, filth and poverty and plain wretchedness. Everywhere I looked, scenes of misery met my eye. This is what human vice can bring us to, I would tell myself.

There was no way I can shut any of it out, I would complain to my husband at the end of another exhausting day. It’s our karmabhoomi, he would reply and so it was. Our stressful jobs, the numbing commute and the unending working hours were only making holes in my homeless heart. I dreamt of a time when I would move away from it all. I attempted several times to do so but nothing seemed to break my uneasy ties with this city.

Years passed. In 2005, I waded through chest-high water on a dark street, rain lashing my body, not knowing whether I would survive the flood or not. I did. So did she. Both of us woke up the next morning and it was business as usual. I looked out of my window and saw people holding hands and walking through a river-street. They had probably walked all night in this human chain, desperately trying to reach home. the city looked grey and weary, as if it had had too much. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw the same pallor on my face.

Another year went by. One afternoon we heard blasts tearing through trains not too far from where I worked. Dead bodies were carried out from the stations, blood dripping from their injured limbs. the wounded city got up and walked on, looking shaken and ashen. I did too. What choice did we have?

Another morning. Another piece of news. This time some people with arms had landed on our shores and gunned down a few hundred people, as they rested or ate or chatted with friends in restaurants. Among those who died were a carpenter who was out buying wood for some new work he had been asked to do and a sweeper who had just finished a meal. Once again, bodies were brought out as we all watched in dread. I felt it crumble a little bit that day, this city of mine and I mourned with it.

I wouldn’t say that I am a convert. I don’t sing paeans to the indomitability of the metropolis. I don’t get into Delhi-versus-Mumbai debates. I don’t run marathons that celebrate it. True, I do read every book that is written on the city but I still don’t quite get the vada-pav. My children were born here and they are quintessential Mumbaikars, not finding anything amiss in their playground being the parking lot of the building we live in. My husband still calls it our karmabhoomi. My mother leaves her quiet apartment in Gurgaon and visits us just to bask in the buzz and movement that defines it.

As for me, the home-shaped hole in my heart has finally been filled by this city. We talk sometimes, as I look at the sea that marks its shores and like old friends, we have an understanding silence between us.

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