“Where are you from?’ they ask. People I have just met, wanting to place my origin, my accent, my personality. Mumbai. Bombay. Maximum City. I say this even as I feel a twinge of sadness because there is an apartment in Mumbai where I grew up but there is no home anymore.
Here is something I wrote on a visit to Bombay during the monsoon season, after making my home in other cities and countries.
I was in Mumbai last week. The sky reflected a profusion of dull moisture-laden clouds in the puddles that lined the streets outside terminal 2. The vigorous wind blew my hair across my face as I struggled to find my name on the signboard held by the chauffeur who would take me to the hotel that offered a complimentary airport pickup. The sky was the monochrome grey of freshly poured concrete, interspersed by frequent showers, drenching commuters who hurried to dry shelters. The view from my window was depressing, the under-construction metro flyover coming up within touching distance of the hotel did not do much to improve the ambience. I wondered if foreign business travelers would continue to patronize this hotel once metro trains roared outside their windows.
Monsoons in Mumbai have always been a time of pleasure and pain. The rains signaled the end of summer holidays that seemed to stretch endlessly and marked the beginning of a new school year. The skies poured liquid relief on the residents hassled by a long, unrelentingly humid summer. New books, uniforms, plastic shoes and slick raincoats. Catching up with friends, braving the lashing rain that made crisp book covers into soggy messes and ensured everyone had a bad hair day. Reaching college completely drenched and leaving the umbrella in the back of the classroom to dry. With 100% atmospheric humidity, neither the clothes nor umbrellas would dry and another deluge would accompany us on the bus ride home. Home would be a warm and welcome place where you could strip off your dripping clothes and unload unsuspecting creatures that had hitched a ride with you – earthworms, small frogs and gods other creatures that visited us annually.
My brothers and I would sit around enjoying hot food or steaming cups of tea, exchanging war stories about our day and how we scored a victory (or defeat) over the rain gods. The monsoon, like a crazed lover, has been a constant witness to the millions who make this maximum city their own. Learning to live with and in spite of the incessant rains, is a rite of passage that has shaped all of us who consider this place home, even when we do not live there.
I am not sure if I can become a resident of Mumbai once more. In its crazy growth the city seems to have forgotten me. Or is it me who has been banished for leaving its comfortable folds, I who once knew the bus routes and train stations on the western and central railway lines? Even as I observe new flyovers, connecting roads, buildings of glass and steel that were not around when I was a little girl, Mumbai still feels like home. And I continue to wonder at the feelings that come up when I witness the awe-inspiring Mumbai monsoon.