BOMBAY HIERARCHIES- Between cruelty and normalcy
There is a nasty, aggressively authoritarian side to Bombay that long predates its Mumbsenafication. An old alloy of the Marathi fetish for rules and regulations and the hardest Gujarati stinginess produced, many decades ago, a steely under-hoop of pomposity and petty cruelty around which the city still drapes her changing skirts of shiny material. It's something that hits any Calcutta alien immediately. Hailing from a town where every expenditure of oppression and violence is tempered by lethargy, it alarms one to see so much relentless official energy being devoted to hurting people just for the sake of hurting.
I feel the edge of the under-hoop as soon as I climb into the prepaid Fiat yellow-black at the airport. The sticker on the glove compartment proclaims the new rule: "Smoking in taxi cab is an offence! Fine Rs 300!" My lighter freeze-frames on its way up to that first, desperate, post-flight fag. But the driver is not a Bambaiya taxi-walla for nothing. "Arre peejiya na sahab! Havaldar dikhega toh hum bol denge, nichey kar dijiyega (Go ahead and smoke, sahab. If I spot a cop I'll warn you and you just lower it)."
I thank my benefactor and the floodgates open. He guesses that I'm neither a Mumbai-cur nor a Ghaat-tigger and starts off. Who can object to someone smoking in one of these traffic jams, that too with open windows? This law has been made to enable robbery, officially 300 or bribe-wise at least 100. Don't like working in Bambai, but what to do, it doesn't let you go, this town. Effortlessly, he changes the gears of his UP Hindi to rhyme. Iss sheher mein sab rotaa hai, koi sotaa nahi (Everyone cries here, no one sleeps). Rehne ke liye yeh sheher hai, lekin zindagi yeh zeher hai (For living this is a city, yes, but as a life this is poison). Then he turns to the local ethnic-cleansing industry:"Hain woh kuttey, lekin kehna padta hai ki, haan bhai tum sher ho (Actually they're dogs, but you have say 'Oh yes, you are a tiger')." "Kaam kuchh kartey nahin, biwi ke paise pey jeetey ho, lekin tum sher ho (You do no work, you live off your wife's earnings, but yes, you're a tiger alright)." The Ghaat-tiggers get away with it because they come in mobs to pick on lone Bhaiyas driving taxis or auto-rikshas, otherwise they are no match for us. We go through a scenario where all the Bhaiyas have abandoned Bombay. Who will drive the taxi and trucks, who will shift the goods, who will do all your dirty work? Finally, the man from Faizabad cheers up. Delhi is making great progress, as it should. That will take clout away from this city. "Balki Gujarat bhi inki achchhi tarah sey bajaa raha hai! Woh bhi achchha hai! Duss saal mey inn saalon ki kaun poochhega (Even Gujarat is making this town squeal. This is also good. Who's going to look at these b*****ds in ten years' time)?"
A couple of evenings later, I certainly find myself looking at Bombay and marvelling at the other phenomenon that cuts across all classes and holds the city together — the way normal hierarchies become suspended in some pockets. On the surface, it's nothing remarkable: a non-fancy Goan bar and restaurant in Bandra, busy on a Saturday night, every table of the small establishment occupied. Look again and you see that half the tables consist of upper middle-class women customers, women with no accompanying men. Perhaps they are here primarily for the food, you think, but no. There's a two-seater with a bottle of wine and some peanuts in a bowl, two young women settled down for an evening's drink and quiet adda; there's another table with four women, two in their twenties, two a bit older, noisy, laughing, ordering yet another round of beer and cocktails, no sign of dinner. Other tables, couples, men and women, some flirting and courting, others clearly 'just friends'. Conversation, merriment, drink, xacuti and cafreal, happiness. Coming from a city where most middle-level bars still refuse to serve women without male companions, I feel a pang of envy at this normalcy.
Getting to the restaurant, I've seen another facet of this hierarchy-suspension. Our auto-riksha man is young, big built, with a '786' chain bracelet on his wrist. Driving from the highway into the crowded innards of Bandra he has almost replicated a chase scene in a James Bond movie. Somehow he has hurtled — there is no other word — through a steel mesh of traffic, sending people skipping out of his way, missing other autos by millimetres, ramming on to the wrong side of the road, going nose to nose with shiny, armoured-car sized SUVs with blackened windows, not caring whether the vehicles might contain dons or billionaires. "Bhaiya, we need to get there alive," my terrified friend has wailed. Without looking back at her, spilling out from both sides of the driver's seat, our young pehelvan has grunted. "I need to drop you and get this gaadiback to the owner. Time is up, I'm late." There is no hint of apology in his voice, just a statement of flat Bombay fact.
"Didi, mi udhya naahi yenaar. Mujhe woh form bharney ko jaana hai (I won't be coming tomorrow, I have to go fill in that form)." There is the same lack of apology in the mixed Marathi-Hindi of the woman who cooks for another friend. My friend glowers at the bai, but you can tell it's in mock anger. "What can you say?" she asks rhetorically after thebai leaves. "This woman does everything, comes, works, goes back and feeds her kids, and even handles the damned form-bharoing! Her man sits around doing nothing." I think back to my taxiwalla and the grudging respect in his voice when he said, "Haan, yeh zaroor hai ki unki auratein jumm ke kaam karti hain (It's true that their women work really hard)." When I ask, my friend agrees. "You can't oppress these Bombay bais the way you can servants in Delhi or Calcutta. The great thing is they just will not take s**t from employers."
Outside my friend's 16th floor apartment, the vertical arrondissement of Lokhandwala stretches away, canyon upon cliff upon cascade of concrete, Diwali lights blinking on high balconies, semaphores being sent into the universe, many of the towers in darkness, the flats unoccupied in the current real estate glut. Just below us is a group of buildings primarily populated by Muslims. I've heard the morning azan and noted it to be quite tuneful. As the evening azan begins it's clear that the assistant mullah has taken over. Fighting through the pounding crackers his voice rises, exactly mimicking a large jetliner taking off, reaching out, no doubt, to the huge crowds of Haj pilgrims camped under pandals outside Shivaji International.
Inside, two people working in The Industry have joined my host. Scurrilous stories criss-cross the dining table. One is about a top star who we shall call Gallu. "So the thing with Gallu is he's really nice when he's switched on, but you can't go to his trailer and wake him for a shot. You can only disturb him when he's awake and he sleeps a lot. So there is this poor assistant director whose sole job it is to sit on Gallu's trailer ke steps and wait. What they've done is made a small hole in the drainage pipe from the trailer loo and this guy has to keep looking under the trailer. Only when he sees a leak from the pipe does he know ki the big man is awake, after which he can knock."
I remind myself this is Bee-o-em-bee-o-vaay, Bombay-meri-jaan, where nothing should be taken at obvious face value. So, quasi-semi-egalitarian, yes, in many ways not to be found in the rest of the country, but deeply hierarchical too, in rare and bizarre ways. Just before I leave, I visit my aunt on Altamont Road. Outside her apartment building I notice that a piece of sky I've been used to since childhood has now gone missing. Antilla, that Mother Godzilla of all Bombay buildings, now zigzags up from the trees. The news is that Ambani hasn't been able to move into his infamous pile because the vaastu has been found to be wrong. Thinking about it, I'm sure one Dhirubhai Ambani never worried too much about stuff like this when he was driving through the Indian economy like that Bandra auto-riksha driver. I think about my friend's bai missing a day's work to apply for a kholi in a slum. I think about the continent of blue tarpaulin-covered slums that unfurls under the belly of the plane when you fly into Bombay from the east. I think of all the people who cry in this town but don't sleep, who struggle through each day despite the fact that the vaastu of this whole city is quite clearly wrong.
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2 months ago