I’m not your average New Yorker but I come every two three years to sniff your city, to feel the warm, balmy air, to become the most beautiful person for that one time. I wonder what’s that ‘it-ness’ that makes me tizzy. Maybe it’s the collective, charmed, calcified images one has ingested over the years. The vociferous energy of its people; the boulevardiers, brown stoners, scenesters, gallivanteers and fashionistas, the grandiose majesty of its vertical lines, the kindness of complete strangers, the mountain of books I’d never navigate in this life or the feeling that I could be day tripping coz I’ve just seen a monk trapeze in Central park, heard some effusive buskers using floydian looping techniques and that I might have seen Sting ride the subway and all this without acid, and that said and done, New York does feel like acid on a good trip.
These clichéd vistas are the requisitory ‘must have’ experiences but after having formed four trips now, it’s the internal changes that have occurred more than the physical. Of course I’m bedazzled by the sequestered experiences, but after a period I feel lighter , even calmer and it’s not because the air is less polluted or the streets comparatively empty but it’s the only place now where I can truly be myself having just deserted the oppressive energies of my native city some fifteen hours back. And just then, for a few minutes my mind goes back. It goes back to a time when my city was just as free as New York; where culture thrived in little ghettos, pockets, slums, theatres, galleries, museums and streets. When you could catch a live Jazz band just around the corner, slam dunk some Shakespeare at a poetry meet, play street cricket with jovial school kids, have poets like Nissim Ezekiel guest lecture you into the benefits of LSD, attend full moon parties in Madh island, dance with movie stars in suburban clubs till early morn.
My city has changed from more ways than one and it’s come a long way since the time it was christened from Bombay to Mumbai. And I’m taken aback sometimes, even alarmed by the exotic notions so many Westerners have about Mumbai. Thanks to globalisation and Slumdog millionaire , Mumbai captured the world imagination with its raw, grisly city portrayals and suddenly became ‘envogue’ with its garish Bollywoodised images of looming townships, topical call centres, high street malls, local trains, roadside ghettos, gated communities, congested slums and smelly sweatshops.On the surface, it appeared young, vibrant, energetic , alive, even cultured to an extent and one could say Mumbai is like New York, the face of the young, urban shining India, the hot spot in the vast global imagination, the place to BE. But it’s not. Not in the recent or even distant past. There’s not much freedom left anymore. Residents feel rushed, hurried and scared at most times. Mumbai makes me feel ugly with its gaping holes, its provincial outlook, its half there, half decent life. It feels like a humongous sweat SHOP where people jostle not just for space but everything, even words; There’s constant jostling for self expression , POVs, opinions where one is forced to choose each syllable with care, precision, derision speaking very consciously with much effort, without trying to sound offensive because if you blurt your honest thoughts today, you could ask for some real time trouble.
What happened between then and now? Circa 1999. The Mumbai I loved was the time when it was Bombay. Economically, the city had never seen better times. The country had just opened its doors to globalisation and Mumbai quickly transformed to that asp rational society that would later be referred to as ‘The great Indian middle class’ with their Hyundai cars and Samsung mobile phones. The country had just woken from an old boring socialist structure into a dynamic vision of a new India. During this period, the immigrant population witnessed a huge exodus from small towns and cities. There were migrants pouring in from every direction every day, all hoping for that one slice of prosperity. There was always a sense of belonging once you stepped out of the railway station or the airport. No one asked deplorable questions , ‘Where are you from? What is your father’s surname?” I’m not sure when and how but someone pulled the plug, turned off the music and one fine day, the local cops were arresting couples for ‘immoral’ behaviour on Valentine’s Day.
There was plenty of moral policing going on where girls were banned from wearing shorts to college, sing in bars or work very late at night. Suddenly there were patrols everywhere, checking and stopping random cars and passerby’s, asking them to show ‘proof of identity.’ Even referring to the city as Bombay or any other name other than Mumbai was considered controversial, resulting in emotional outbursts sometimes of a violently political nature. There was huge backlash against the ‘outsiders’ who were apparently coming in to steal local jobs. This transition from becoming an outsider to an insider happened many times during the course of a day. All of a sudden, Landlords refused to lease flats to unmarried tenants sensing a single woman could incite some form of ‘flesh trade’. North Indians were shunted out and asked to go back to their native states, religious disharmony prevailed amongst many seasoned clubs and bars shut at 1 am. Following this regressive pattern, as of now , the city has not evolved into a world class city and for that reason New York still feels like the only refuge for free spirits, minds, bodies alike.
My first visit to New York was after 9/11 and I met many New Yorkers who vehemently agreed that their city has changed, that it’s boiling with crazy, neurotic paranoia, the sense of ownership an immigrant feels towards this city has long dissipated. ‘Its closing up now, it’s not like it was before’ was the common refrain. The insider has become the outsider. Perhaps I’d not experienced NYC in its fabled times, in its halycyonic days but I’ve devoured writings from Jay McInery, Bret Easton and HM Naqvi all sharing their myriad perspectives of their favorite city and I like to imagine and believe it’s still the same that nothing has changed and hope to God it never does for all we know New York is that last spot on this planet where there’s as much sanity as there’s madness, where the internals are not churned in the bowels of the earth but in some grimy club in Hells Kitchen, where the burgeoning cafes of its villages and counties still welcome the outsider with a warm smile, never asking him ever where he’s from and always assuming he’s one of the guys who looks like someone he knows. And I might be wrong and could land in trouble for blurting some blasphemous stuff but I do believe there’s some method to the madness here. 9/ 11 may have changed a few clauses in its wake, but there’s not a shred of doubt that the outsider becomes an insider, participates as a local within few months of being stationed here.
Currently, the mood feels muddled and muggy and I take off my jacket to take a stroll. I’ve peeled the first layer, one of the thousands hidden within. I walk past a deliciously in love gay couple who can’t keep their hands off each other and as I smile I’m instantly transported to a similar space in time. Recalling that strange day when I was fined by local cops for kissing my male friend in public and being reprimanded for ‘immoral’ behaviour, or recoiling in horror whilst travelling late past midnight when I was reminded by a female cop to cover my ‘modesty’ and similarly much later having the landlord scrutinize my friends, warning me that no ‘gay types’ are allowed. Yes, my city is not the same anymore and I mourn and yearn for the Bombay I knew, where life was just as free and great as any mega city in the world, where I felt beautiful each day just like I do in New York.