Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Truth about Maanjars & Kutras

Some trivia I read explains the expression ‘raining cats and dogs’.

In ye Englande of olde, simple folks used to pitch hay on to their rooftops, it was a good place to store it, as it also kept the house nice and warm. All domestic animals were shooed out in the evenings, and they climbed up on the slanted roofs and burrowed in the hay, to keep warm.

Well, if it rained, the hay would get wet and slippery, and the cats and dogs would come sliding down the roof and fall down! Hence the expression, ‘raining cats and dogs’.

Well, on a dark and foreboding evening in 1999, those maanjars (cats) and kutras (dogs) fell down in Mumbai.

I was a consultant for an ad agency in Mahim, and had just bought a new car. Unbeknowest to us, who were in the confines of a fully-enclosed and air-conditioned office, it had been raining like hell. I had a date that night, and had invited him over for some wine and pasta. Being pretty organized, I had kept stuff partially ready at home. But I needed to pick up some ingredients for the next day’s menu.

I stepped out of the office at 5.30 in the evening and was stunned. The whole of LJ Road, Mahim, was chock-a-block full of cars! Sometimes even a piddling shower disrupts traffic in Mumbai, so walking through what was then a light drizzle, I bought a coconut and a bunch of fresh coriander and got into my car.

Being a smart-ass, I decided to go home taking the back road, that is, Tulsi Pipe road, which runs along the railway tracks and meets up with the highway.

Worst mistake I made. There are no shops on the highway, no petrol pumps, no phone booths, no rest rooms, no facilities. It took me forever getting onto the Western Express Highway, and I found mayhem and pandemonium and delirium tremens. The entire stretch of road was submerged under water – a sight I have never seen in my life. I found myself traveling like 10 feet an hour.

I looked at my watch – it was 7 o’clock. One and a half hours that would normally have been done in under 10 minutes! It started getting very dark, and I started getting very alarmed.

As I proceeded at a snail’s pace, my eyes popped wider and wider. It looked like a war zone. Cars abandoned by the side of the road, and a huge exodus of people walking down the highway. Then it started raining like mad. I was scared, I was alone, I was incommunicado, and I wanted very badly to pee.

Hold on, I told myself, cursing men more than ever, them with the ability to stand and pee anywhere, even in public.

My watch said 8.30, I said, hold on. The pee-factor started getting more pronounced. I looked outside in the dark. No bushes to go behind. Another half hour went by. I got a brainwave – I will just wait for it to start raining again, get out of the car, and pee in my clothes, which will automatically get washed, I thought. Would you believe it, it did not rain.

There was a sudden knocking on my window. I rolled it down, and a panic-stricken man said, “Memsaab, my maalkin has fainted in the car. Do you have any water?” I didn’t, so I gave him the coconut and told him to break it and give her the coconut water. Several others came up to me and asked if they could use my cell-phone. I didn’t possess one, and cursed myself. I was in a panic not being able to talk to my date and tell him what was happening to me. Wild thoughts ran through my head. I will just squat in the middle of the road and pee. No one knew me anyway. No, I said, hold on.

By this time, my insides were being eaten up by hunger. I reached into the plastic bag and pulled out the coriander. I ate it, mud and all. I decided I would crouch down in the car and pee in the plastic bag. No, I told myself, hold on. It was now 10.30 and I was not even half-way home.

I really wanted to die – but not before I had my pee. By that time, I was so desperate, I thought I would just sit and pee in the seat. No, hold on, I told myself.

This went on and on. Do you know what time I finally managed to get off the highway and home? 3.30 in the morning. The watchman told me my friend had arrived and gone away. I somehow made it up to my front door. I unlocked it, and dragged myself in. I was in tremendous pain and I must admit, I didn’t make it in time to the bathroom. I had held on for 10 hours.

The next day, I found out that people who had taken the other arterial road to the suburbs, had a better time. They were also stranded, but Muslim families along that road, had been handing out cups of hot tea and snacks to people, and letting them use their toilets, irrespective of if the stranded people were Muslim or Hindu. This was one of the areas where, just a few months earlier, there had been rare Hindu-Muslim riots. And that evening had been the worst deluge ever in the city.

But that’s Mumbai. When there is a crisis situation, all become one. The most wonderful thing is that, after the trials and tribulations of the previous night, everyone was back at work the next morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at 9.30 in the AM.

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Monday, October 11, 2004

The Paan-Beedi Shop

A minor but harrowing experience after landing in Delhi last year made me so grateful I belong to Mumbai. Despite the decision to travel light, my toothbrush was the one thing I forgot.

Thinking how I would not be able to sleep that night without brushing my teeth, I ventured out of the hotel (no, they didn’t keep toothbrushes), sprang into an autorickshaw (driver fleeced me, of course), and went to Connaught Circle. I am not familiar with Delhi at all.

It was evening, and most of the shops started shutting down (jeez, 6.30 in the evening is closing time???), so I walked around, looking for a paan-beedi shop. Not in sight. I went around in circles, in Connaught. ‘Indian-lady-wandering-alone-in-the-city’ got me capital stares (in Mumbai, I have walked alone from home to the Shiva temple, 10 mins away, at 4AM. Only dogs barked at me, and when I whistled at them, they stopped and wagged their tails). I didn’t care. All I wanted was to brush my teeth. At long last, I espied one. Horror of horrors! This paan-beediwalla had only that (well, he also had cigarettes).

Where can I buy a toothbrush, I asked the guy. From a chemist’s, he answered. That sort of blew me over. Did I now need a prescription for a toothbrush? And where would I find a doctor to give me one?

As he had no idea where I could find a chemist, I wandered down my lonely road, more determined than ever. I walked into a clothes store (actually open), hoping they might help me out. They gave me the same gyaan about chemists. They looked blank when I asked about bania-shops. Quite tired by this time, I pretended interest in their wares, and after about 15 minutes of looking at some ghastly salwar-khameez ‘suits’, I casually asked if they could send anyone to get me a toothbrush. Thinking they had a ‘bakra’, they were most helpful, and sent a gopher out. They did not ask me what brand, hard, medium or soft, what colour, straight or angled, etc., etc. I did not want to push my luck so I kept quiet about these intricate details. The guy came back with my toothbrush, mission accomplished, and I promised I would be back the next day to make my purchase of the ghastly ‘suits’.

That’s when I was so grateful I belong to Mumbai (told you I would get to that). I mean Delhi may be the capital and all that, it’s got stretches of beautiful road, and is a zero-garbage city - but compared to Mumbai, it is a hick place. Sorry Delhi-ites, this is war. Naana-naa naa naa-naa.

In Mumbai, chances are, if you close your eyes and chuck a stone in any direction, it will hit a mallu paan-beedi shop (OK, I exaggerate. Throw a vada-pau). Now when I say ‘mallu’, it means Malayalee. No disrespect or offence meant to anyone here, it’s not an insult, it’s just how we refer to different folks here in Mumbai, it being so cosmopolitan and all. Over the years, Mumbai has developed its own language (not to be confused with ‘Hinglish’). For example, Punjabis are ‘punjus’, Gujaratis are ‘gujjus’, Marwaris are ‘maadus’, Parsis are ‘bawas’, Sindhis are ‘vadi sai’, Catholics are ‘maakapaos’, Muslims are ‘mossies’, Bengalis are ‘bongs’, UP-ites are ‘bhayyas’, South Indians are also all clubbed together as ‘southies’, Sikhs are ‘serds’ (an English friend of mine calls them ‘turbanites’) and Maharashtrians are ‘ghaatis’ (that’s me). Despite this name-calling, and the occasional rioting (not necessarily connected), there is general bonhomie, and the bottom line is, we all forget communal differences, and are proud to be ‘Mumbaikars’.

The mallu paan-beedi stall is quite a phenomena, these guys have shown great enterprise and Mumbai cannot do without them. They have sprung up on the roadsides and there is no ‘pukka’ structure. Just a tiny counter with just about enough standing space behind for the mallu (wearing a shirt hanging over folded-up lungi), a wooden ‘cupboard’ behind. Here’s what you are most likely to find in a mallu paan-beedi shop (don’t ask how all these things fit):

Cigarettes (Indian and imported), may even have Havana cigars
Disposable lighters, re-fuelling service for ‘disposable’ lighters, matches
Chocolates and candy
Packaged and unpackaged snacks
Gutkha (though banned) and supari
Fresh bread and eggs
Soft drinks and club soda (kept cool in an ice-box)
Sanitary napkins
Stamps (including revenue stamps) and envelopes
Sachets of shampoo and conditioner
Talcum powder
Hair Oil
Crocin and other OTC medicines
Mosquito repellant
And yes, toothbrushes - with a choice of brands, bristles, colour, angles, etc.

Don’t get confused. This is a paan-beedi shop (the signage says so)! For serious groceries, there are grocers. And for serious medical supplies, there are chemists.

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Flower Power & Love in Kala Ghoda

Mrs. Khanna, owner of the arty Samovar restaurant, Jehangir Art Gallery, had a problem. Not because the barefoot Husain and other artists chilled there, but because stoned kids made it their adda.

One entire length of this fav watering hole opened out into the garden of the Prince of Wales Museum, and the kids would take chairs from the restaurant, and camp there, tripping on peace, Woodstock and hash.

Samovar or Sams, as we affectionately called it, is where I first saw M. I was sitting there with a friend, instead of on a bench in college, quietly minding my own business. We had just seen some great art at one of the exhibitions at the Jehangir, and came here for a coke.

Then in walked M, with his gang. He was the most beautiful guy I had ever seen in my life. He swaggered through and straight into the garden. He and his gang started rolling joints. “That guy is mine”, I told my friend, and she gave me a strange look that said, “As if”.

Now if I make up my mind to get a guy, I get him.
By next day, M was mine. I was very happy, sitting behind him on his bike, hanging onto him as he tore through town, my face buried in his neck, our hair – his was longer than mine - getting tangled up and streaming behind us. Melanie Kafka’s ‘Candles in the Rain’, ‘Court of the Crimson King’; Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Dylan, Doors, Tull, Deep Purple, Jefferson Airplane and others, became my life.

After getting a whole load of complaints from the other straight guys at Sams, and from the Museum authorities whose land it actually is, about the stoned kids hanging out there, Mrs. Khanna put a wire fence across and stopped access to the garden.

So it remains till today.

But it was good while it lasted. M, his friends and I also spent many hours sitting on the steps of the Jehangir (after some time they told us to get out of there, as well). We split in a couple of years, and I did not see him again. Until recently, when he came back. But that’s another story…

Today, the Kala Ghoda area has officially become Mumbai’s art district, and its pride and joy. The Kala Ghoda Festival Committee hosts its festival of art, craft and music here once a year, for a couple of weeks, in the Jehangir and several buildings around, as well as in the streets, which are closed to vehicular traffic during that time.

Outside the Jehangir, along the pavement, is the open air Art Plaza, and many new and upcoming artists can exhibit their works here. Which is great - one has to wait maybe years to get a booking at the halls inside the Gallery.

Across the road, the heritage structure formerly known as CJ Hall (across from my alma mater, St. Annes High School) has been transformed into one of the best venues for displaying art. With its high dome and beautifully designed interiors, it was perfect for Picasso’s works, exhibited about a year ago. I had come away from there, humbled by the experience.

The Wayside Inn, legendary for its steak and onions, has closed down. Rhythm House, where one spent many afternoons enclosed in one of its cubicles with a stack of LPs, is now unrecognizable and keeps CDs and DVDs. Bullock Cart, one of Mumbai’s first discos, has gone through many changes and is now the Noodle Bar. Khyber restaurant, taken over by a member of the Mumbai glitterati, rocks. The near-by Café Royale, once an Irani joint, became fancy and Bill Clinton had lunch here with a few select Mumbaikars, including Sanjana Kapoor of Juhu’s Prithvi Theater. Chetna restaurant and art gallery has survived.

And the Kala Ghoda statue, which gave this area its name, is nowhere to be seen. Horse and rider are probably chilling in some forgotten godown, but not without contributing to Mumbai’s glory.

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Jhankar Beats

After being born in South Mumbai, and living off Marine Drive, it was a bit of a culture shock moving to the suburbs in North Mumbai after I got married. I knew practically nothing beyond Worli and the Haji Ali masjid in the middle of the sea, and the few forays made into the boon docks had been like an occasional picnic.

Fate is known for her cruelty, and I was back once more, close to the very place I had got lost in at age 2, in Juhu. Even at that time, downtown property prices were unaffordable. I could not believe people actually lived in Juhu full-time and big-time.

Culture shock because people were so darn different. I came down to earth with a thud that reverberated all the way back to Mahim Creek, the official divider of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

For one, most did not automatically speak in English, they spoke in Hindi. They did not have the townie spit and polish, either. The ones who did speak, invariably said things like, “What men, you bloody bugger you. I will tell my mudder and fadder your name, next time I won’t aks you to come for a flim wid me only”, and lived in places like Shirley Rajan Road in Bandra, with their mudders and fadders and Uncle Cedric.

The ones who tried vainly to break into English said things like, “Just off the fan, the chicken-bicken is getting thanda. Then fun won’t come”.

But my totally worst nightmare has been The Auto-rickshaws and their Drivers.
These guys rule in the suburbs. Not allowed beyond Mahim Creek, they take revenge by hurtling down suburbia, full throttle. Most look like they are in their teens and have bribed the RTO officer for a license.

On things about these guys. In traffic, they have to be first. And they are fearless and arrogant. If you are in a car, they will sneak alongside and butt in, in front of you. If they manage to get the snout in, the rest is easy. You, being more concerned about your precious car, will let them go.

Their chariots have names, proudly displayed on the rear. Pinkal, Jeetu, Babban. There are also dedications like ‘Baby I luv U’, Don’t Kiss and Aai tujha aashirwaad’.

The insides are gaily decorated and festooned. And most have music blaring, with the same T series Jhankar beat … ‘dhinchak, dhinchak, dhinchak’. If you ask them to switch it off, they actually get offended, they thought they were giving you a good time. But its too much to listen to Jhankar while being thrown all over the back seat and trying to hang on for dear life.

It’s been some time, and I am still not used to all this.
I want to go home.

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Lost in Juhu

My earliest memory of Juhu Beach is when I was age 3.
I was in a Montessori school, and we lived in Colaba. There was to be a school picnic to Juhu. I had no idea where Juhu was. In fact, I had no idea what a picnic was either.

My brother, who had passed out of the same school 4 years earlier, was sent along to chaperone me despite the bevy of teachers. He was warned to look after me.

I have no memories of what I did the whole day, what I ate or what games I was made to play. I just remember my brother doing all those things and having fun.

When it was time to go home and all the kids were in the school bus, they did the usual thing of counting heads to make sure everyone was there.

One was missing. Mine!!! And all hell broke loose, only after that.

And that’s all I remember:
Sitting on the beach all alone and bawling my head off because I could not find my shoes and no one around me looked the least bit familiar.

I still shudder to think what would have happened if they had not counted those heads!

My next memory of Juhu was a few years later, when we rented a cottage for a couple of months during summer vacations. My grandmother had come to Bombay for treatment of her varicose veins, and was asked to wade in salt water.

The beach was just across the road from our cottage. I don’t remember anything about that time either, just my grandmother telling me they had bought me from a fisherwoman. I never questioned that, and believed it till I was about 8 or 9. I think someone in school asked me my mother’s name, and I said I did not know, she was a fisherwoman. I came home and repeated this, and promptly got thrashed.

So I cannot really talk about how much Juhu has changed since then, I can only talk about how now, the entire Mumbai suburban population, as well as busloads of tourists land there on weekends and public holidays, in their Sunday clothes and wedding finery, for a walk on the fabled beach, a horse-ride and some bhel-puri.

Foreign tourists, from their 5-star hotel windows, take pictures of the natives.
And it is hell trying to drive past.

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Hands-Down Bollywood Experience

All I wanted to do during that school Diwali vacation was to very slowly and deliberately, kill those boys in the building across my house. Skinning them alive with a blunt knife was actually my goal.

Off Marine Drive, this was my parent’s third house. The earlier two had been at Colaba and Churchgate. I read somewhere that Mumbai’s Marine Drive has the second largest number of art deco buildings grouped together, in the world (I think Barcelona has the first?). All rounded edges and frills and flamboyant flounces, one long graceful arc from Nariman Point, stopping 3/4th of the way to Chowpatty while the Queen’s Necklace continued. It’s like the Arabian Sea didn’t need the tetrapods to stop it, it stopped by itself, in astonishment, to gasp at them. At the far end of the bay, there is the Governor’s Bungalow, with it’s own private beach. Still very pretty, though some of those buildings are badly in need of a coat of paint. Plans for the promenade makeover keep getting made. So far, nothing’s happened.

At that time, Nariman Point did not have the additional landfill, only the famous fragment of abandoned road pointing out into the sea, and leading to nowhere. There was no Air-India building, no Oberoi, no skyscrapers. And beyond that, there was no Cuffe Parade, no World Trade Centre, no skyscrapers.

I loved this house, and lived there for many years, till I got married. It was on the 5th floor, with a huge terrace-like balcony, and one could see the sea and the promenade. One could also look straight down into the enemy house, 3rd floor, in the building across.

This stupid boy Harish lived there, and every day he had this other stupid boy Chintu visiting him. They both went to the enemy boy school near my girl’s convent school. In fact, it was my brother’s school, and Chintu’s elder brother Daboo, who was huge, with green eyes and a shiny, red face and he were in the same class.

My immediate concern was to annihilate Harish and Chintu from the face of the earth. My friends hung around my place all day, and we would have cross-balcony verbal fights with the creeps. Those days, the worst words we knew were ‘stupid’ and ‘idiot’.

Soon we girls started using phatakas as missiles. Later, they were banned, but we had great fun with those hand bombs while that lasted. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with hand bombs – they were small packets, tiny pebbles mixed with, I presume gunpowder or something, and then wrapped up in shiny silver paper. You had to fling them really hard on the ground, and on impact, they would explode with a deafening noise.

All Harish and Chintu had to do was to step out of the building to be bombarded by our hand bombs which would send them scurrying and yelping, like girls, for cover. This went on for days and days. When we stepped out, we took the servants (sworn to secrecy) along with us for protection.

Well, ultimately, Diwali was over, the vacation was over, the shenanigans stopped. Life sucked, - then I got sucked into the years that followed. I don’t know what happened to Harish, I think he went off somewhere for further studies, but I did run into Chintu once more after that, and never again. I had just about morphed into an adult and was at a filmi do (Moi? At a filmi do? That’s another story). His brother Daboo had married this girl called Babita who lived with her sister Meena and their dad in my earlier building, at Churchgate.

Growing up in Mumbai does strange things. My old enemy and I were actually delighted to confront each other again. We swung on a swing in the garden, holding hands, talking excitedly and laughing about the hand bomb days as if we were friends.

Mumbai has this strange quality of putting your life on such a fast track, you forget who your enemies are, and why they were your enemies, in the first place. Yup, a lot had changed. For one, people had started calling Chintu by his real name, Rishi Kapoor.

I am no Bollywood freak. In fact, I hate Bollywood. But Bollywood is synonymous with Mumbai, and after having lived here so many years, I guess one can’t but help have some ‘connection’ or the other. There have been many more – some social, some personal, some professional. It would not be ethical or proper to make all public.

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