I wrote this piece for my friend ( the very competent editor of Lokmat's Deepotsav 2013) Aparna Velankar.
As an impressionable and highly curious young girl aged 10, who had moved from Delhi to Mumbai rather abruptly, I was entirely unprepared for the culture shock that awaited me in this throbbing, insane, electrifying city that actually belongs to no one. Bombay (that later became Mumbai), is very much its own person – and that is both, its strength and beauty. And perhaps, the reason for its downfall, too. Whoever tries to own or control Mumbai, eventually faces defeat. Which is why, Mumbai continues to exercise such an overwhelming influence over me. And I suppose, also over all those who call it home. Mumbai always reminds me of a wild, untamed, gorgeous mare, galloping across rivers and mountains, as greedy bandits chase her fruitlessly, even as she remains permanently outside their grasp. Mumbai has a hypnotic effect on the unwary. Nobody ever leaves Mumbai. It is like a drug, and we are all addicts who are not looking for a cure! So, when I was referred to as a Mumbaichhi Bai recently, I took that as a supreme compliment. Of course, I am a Mumbaichhi Bai – thank you, very much!
The first Mumbaichhi Bai I ever met, however, was a Koli woman who’d come to our home at Churchgate every Saturday morning to try and sell her catch of fresh, plump pomfret fish. In Delhi, pomfret was not easily available. And we were not a die hard fish eating family in the first place. If the fish per se held no fascination for me, the fiery tempered woman haggling with my aie, certainly did. She was an asli professional. A true-blue working woman of Mumbai. Remember , this was over 50 years ago. But I recall being awestruck by this pomfret seller’s super confident attitude. She worked hard and long, carrying a heavy basket of fish on her head. She was her own marketing manager and P.R.person. She operated in a highly competitive field. Her sales strategy and pricing had to be bloody good for her to stay ahead of the rest. To cap it all, she also looked fabulous! She was strong and fit without going to a gym. Her skin glowed minus botox and facials. And she had more style in the way she put herself together than several city socialites wearing Sabya’s latest ensemble. She didn’t need a designer handbag – her money was tucked into her ample bosom! As for her wealth – she wore most of it on her person! At least half a kilo of solid gold adorned this Kolin. And I can assure you, she had more jewellery than my own mother. But beyond the dazzling display of gold, and well beyond her colourful language peppered with choice Marathi abuse, it was her no-nonsense attitude that left a deep impression on me.
Then there was Tulsi – a middle aged widow who worked as house help in our home and supported a family back in the village. Not only was Tulsi a reliable assistant to my mother in the kitchen, but she also doubled up as a weekend electrician , carpenter and plumber. There was virtually nothing Tulsi couldn’t do! At one point, when my sister Mandakini was learning how to drive, I was sure Tulsi also wanted to take a few driving lessons. That would have made her the only driver clad in a nine-yard kashta saree! Again, it was Tulsi’s indomitable, never-say-die spirit that I grew up admiring. Tulsi would prepare my Bournvita at 5 a.m. when as a young athlete, I would leave for my intensive training camps at dawn, often when there was little or no light outside. I’d be wearing shorts and a t-shirt, my hair tied neatly in a pony tail. I would walk to Azad Maidan a kilometer or so away from home, close to Dhobi Talao and Metro Cinema. The streets used to be semi-deserted and silent. Yet, I never felt insecure or afraid. Getting back, I would see hundreds of women emerging from Churchgate Station and heading to work. It was such a familiar sight, I never stopped to actually think about its deeper significance. I took it for granted from that age itself that women in Bombay worked hard and were entirely safe in the city. The vision of the original Mumbaichhi Bai, in that sense, remains intact and unchanged even today. Yes, even after the horrific gangrape in the Shakti Mills compound..
In all honesty, I cannot say my confidence wasn’t temporarily dented after the incident. Perhaps, not for myself, but certainly for my daughters. I have tried my best to conceal my anxiety from them. I don’t want them to be disillusioned, either by Mumbai or their own ambitions. I want them to continue to believe they can get ahead in life – the same way, I did. Without looking over their shoulders for potential rapists or assaulters carrying blades /acid / broken bottles. Why live in a permanent state of fear suspecting every second man? What good is panic in an emergency? But, one part of me warns : “ Don’t be so idealistic, unrealistic and impractical. Mumbai today is not the city you grew up in. Mumbai has changed. It is brutal and uncaring ”. The other part dismisses such negative thoughts and says : “Cities may change, but people never do. Our Mumbaikars are different. They have fellow feelings. They care!” Sometimes It’s hard to convince myself. So, imagine how much harder it is to convince my daughters.
As a Mumbaichhi Bai I owe it to myself and to society at large, not to give up. To keep dreams and hope alive, despite the daunting, depressing developments I see around me.Tough times demand tough solutions. I don’t possess those solutions right now. But that doesn’t matter. Mumbai has indeed been rudely shaken up. The rest of India is looking at our city and jeering : “See! Mumbai is no different from us. Working women are targeted here as well. There’s no need to continue fooling us that Mumbai looks after its female work force. That women can travel freely and safely at any hour of the day or night. That a woman can dress the way she wants to. Eat and drink , dance and sing. Enjoy life on her own terms . Just like men. Forget it! Mumbai is like any other city in India – dangerous. And women are the softest targets here. They should stay home and keep their mouths shut. Or else….” I would hate to write Mumbbai’s obituary. For by acknowledging that the old Mumbai is dead (murdered by anti-social elements), I will also be admitting that the Mumbaichhi Bai is conceding defeat. Over my dead body!