Thursday, August 18, 2005

The new breed of Bombayites

On my last visit to Bombay, I took a walk through the station road which is among the busiest of places during a weekday evening when people are returning from work or shopping at the market. Ended up feeling like an alien... all lost and clueless... completely vulnerable and clawless against the normal junta which pushes, spits, gropes, swipes, mutters, curses its way out. But the feeling was only momentary. The 1st few minutes were the most difficult because I was still in a different frame of mind and was yet to wear my 'bindaas' mask. After the realisation struck... I stopped in the middle of the road and shrugged my shoulders, arranged my face in the forbidding and don't-u-dare-mess-with-me look and then walked on, this time even my gait had changed. Gone was the aimless, carefree sauntering I had been doing... I was now walking faster, grinding the earth beneath my feet, keeping my ears twitched to the slightest of things, my sixth sense sharpened and the eyes in the back of head, wide open. This time I was aware of who was walking upto me from behind and trying to grope me or who was walking from the front and trying to bump into me. I was now avoiding them with the ease of a maestro conducting a concert. I was also cutting my path through the masses of people and cows and dogs without any effort. While before I had been muttering polite excuse me's and going unheard, I was now being given way without having to say anything. It was as if, earlier the people on the streets had ignored me, knowing I am a stranger without the slightest notion of how to make my way through the crowd and now the same people were suddenly aware that I was one of them and hence not to be messed with.

Bombay streets can be particularly frustrating for a non-bombayite to walk on. They are full of people in a perpetual hurry even if they are only taking their habitual morning/evening walks. Nobody ever saunters or walks slowly. If you do dare exhibit such daredevilry... you also need to be prepared for the curses and angry mutters that will come in from all sides and at times even rude pushes to get you out of the way. Here people don't walk like that even in parks... everywhere, everytime, everybody is always in a hurry... to get somewhere, to accomplish something.... even if it is a peaceful morning walk. And if you are a Bombayite... you have been groomed by the city to be 'like this only'... you don't know what a slow, leisurely walk means, you don't know the meaning of the word 'slow', you don't have the time or the ability to understand it. You are always in a hurry... to catch the 9:05 fast, to get the bus to Seepz, to get to office before it is 9:00 to get the 6:35 fast back home, to get home in time to pick up the kids or to watch your favorite serial or even to just be home... you are always rushing towards every moment, hurriedly, headlong, ceaselessly.

And this attitude I took with me (as if I had a choice or knew any better) when I took up my 1st job in the Infosys development centre at Mangalore. Now Mangalore is a sleepy little town in the south of India. It is beautiful, green and unhurried. Life there goes on at a pace a lot slower than in Bombay. People sit around on their huge verandahs drinking their morning cuppa coffee or tea and reading the newspaper or gossiping with neighbours over the low wall separating their house from their neighbour's. After dinner or on weekends I would go for long walks with my friends. There too I would keep darkly muttering at people walking ahead. They were always too slow for me. I would even yell at times... 'If you want to walk so slowly, why can't you go to a park. You are blocking the way by ambling around like that.' My friends would slink far away from me and look around guiltily. They would later laugh at me and remind me that we were only taking a walk and not in a hurry. I would look indignantly and in disbelief that they seem to think that the whole incident was my fault.

Slowly the place's charm rubbed onto me. I found myself walking slower, behaving patiently when the person being served ahead of me at the chemist's had a 20 minute long small talk with the chemist discussing mutual cousins thrice removed or the weather we experienced last week! From yelling at them to hurry up, to simply fidgeting and stomping to then even listening in attentively, my transformation was complete on the day I confidently butted in and added my two paisa worth! I was horrified... had I been non-Bombay-ized!?! Sis laughs at me and tells me how I have been ruralized and now am a gaon ki ladki... no longer the urban smart cookie... no longer the in-your-face Bombayite. But I disagree... I think I have mastered the art of playing both roles with aplomb. I can now, when in Rome do as the Romans do, I no longer wear my Bombayite attitude on my sleeve or shake it like a fist under someone else's nose. Yet everytime I go back to Bombay, I don the bindaas-ness of Bombay and it becomes me, even comforts me like an old pair of clothes which have been worn so many times and for so long that they feel like second skin. I now pat myself on my back for having achieved this selective behavior. I can hum and saunter luxuriously, stop to chat with an acquaintance, sit at my window and watch people pass by and not feel guilty or uncomfortable. At the same time I can walk confidently in a rude busy mob of thousands, listening to my MP3 player, nodding at an acquaintance without stopping or slowing down and not feel lost or threatened or hampered in the crowd.

I wear my many hats with suaveness and confidence. I am a globalized, ruralized Bombayite... and there are many like me. We don't look lost or out of our element when taken out of Bombay and put in any other place. We borrow our attitude from that place and roll up our sleeves or let our hair down as the place dictates. We are at home anywhere and everywhere and yet count on Bombay as home.