Bombay, meri jaan

It’s the city of opportunities; the financial capital; the land of migrants. The phrases fall woefully short of describing the chaos that is Mumbai – forever jostling for space, claimed, reclaimed and stretched to the seams by inhabitants on the run, trying to leave an imprint on a square foot. Bombay, Meri Jaan tries to capture the many facets of the city and its dwellers, harking back to the good ol’ days when the rage of the “Marathi manoos” had not compelled a change in nomenclature and attitudes.

Edited by Jerry Pinto and Naresh Fernandes, the anthology features writings by a diverse set of authors. As a dweller, it’s easy to walk with Pico Iyer as he shuffles through the streets of South Mumbai, calling sidewalks “a bubble-filled cartoon strip, in which every building, car and little shop chatters away at you…” Paromita Vohra’s story on Mumbai’s impossible real estate hits closer to home. The sharp piece chronicles the changing face of Andheri East. It’s her personal experience battling rats and neighbours alike in keeping boundaries though that could as well be the story of the city’s multitude in search of low cost housing. Lower down the ladder, at the chawls, Kiran Nagarkar’s water wars have already begun.

For those up the class divide, Adil Jussawala’s and Dilip Chitre’s pieces tug at the heart. Of his three uneasy pieces, Jussawala’s following lines are hard to forget.

The men who carried loads

Up there

Building my abode

Up there

Got hit by trucks on roads

Down there

Got their 18th floor blues.”

Among the more interesting pieces are Salim Ali’s tryst with birding and Gavaskar’s with cricket. The apathy of government officials in Naipaul’s prose is still relatable, unchanged to date, no matter the city’s name. Suketu Mehta’s story on the Hindu-Muslim tensions after the Babri Masjid demolition makes for a grim read. “The rubble from its mosque swiftly provided the foundations for the walls that shot up between Hindus and Muslims in Bombay. A series of riots left 1400 people dead.” The sense of bravado of the perpetrators, bent on cleaving Bombay on religious lines, evokes anger at a failed justice system. But, the author comes back to the local as the lifeline that depicts Bombay, where hands are always stretched to accommodate an extra person – where those stretched hands have no caste, class or religion just a common destination.

Supplementing the anthology are pieces on mill workers, the stock market, Elephanta, Parsi plays, Muharram proceedings, underworld, encounter specialists, Shiv Sena among others. Despite the array of works, the anthology as a whole feels underwhelming. It’s a trudge through; some pieces especially seem heavy on names than content. It’s not that it fails completely, there is plenty that stays with you long after you have laid the book aside. The anthology is just not evocative enough and takes a level of persistence to turn the pages.

That said, it encompasses various styles – verses, scripts, diary entries, extracts, even a recipe for the Bombay Duck and the earworm “Come to Bombay, Come to Bombay, Bombay meri hai.” But it’s Arundhati Subramaniam’s verses that stay with you.

I live on a wedge of land

Reclaimed from a tired ocean

Somewhere at the edge of the universe…

…City where you can drop off

A swollen local

And never be noticed.

City where you’re a part

Of every imli-soaked bhelpuri.”

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