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Stranger in Mumbai

Note: This blog is about a stranger in Mumbai, and it has nothing to do with Mumbai. Maybe this is the case with most strangers in most metropolitan cities in India.

It was a dreary Sunday afternoon where the anxiety of the upcoming Monday was let down by the strict lockdown. I was rolling around the bed, dampening my mind, which was struggling between a movie and a nap.

Just when the nap began to take the upper hand, courtesy the draining mind, a stranger rang me up asking if I would be interested in buying a plot which a few hundred kilometres away from my present residence.

My semiconscious mind could not do justice to the crime he had committed, and he was let go without any punishment. I couldn’t look back at the bed as I know it would be an open invitation to mid-day headache.

I pulled out my tab and decided to go for the first recommended Netflix movie without wasting any more time. My eyes fell on the movie “Lunch Box “. This movie stirred up my curiosity even before its theatrical release; however, its trailer was a total let-down.

I felt the trailer gave away too much, especially its negative shades under the disguise of curiosity. I let it pass that time, and today it appealed to me for different reasons. The first one was that I could stop it anytime; second, it can get me back to bed without a headache. The third reason, it can still surprise me after all.

Boy, the third reason came true. It not just surprised me but got me nostalgic about my days in Mumbai. There is no taking away anything from the performances of the leads, namely Nimrat Kaur and Irfan Pathan but the mood which was set throughout the movie was heart-warming. Starting from the train journey until the late-night smoke, everything was quite convincing.

If there were something from the film which I had to pull out to show the brilliance of the director, then it would be the office employees eating bananas on the busy roads all alone in a hurry.

It could be the lunch dessert for them or a light lunch, yet consuming it in a hurry in solitude somehow tells me how detached they are from each other and how flat their lives are. It’s a feeling which is hard to put it in words, and yet when get to see a glimpse of it, the chemicals in your brain goes crazy. At least mine did.

I am not sure if Irfan gets to think more because he gets to work in these profound masterpieces or he chooses them since he thinks more in the first place. Irfan’s death was a significant loss to the art world. He was not just a natural actor but also a human who never stepped back to express his emotions. His thoughts superseded the limitations of race and religion.

I might not have connected that much with this movie if not for my stay in Mumbai for six full months as a stranger, all alone. I had to give my Viva for my class IV shipping papers, and the Chennai centre did not have a good history of viva results, at least for the first-timers. So, I embarked on my maiden journey to Mumbai, to save time and to gain some adventure on the way.

Mumbai didn’t test me much neither excited me on my journey by a cab to my flat in Mulund. My uncle had handed over the keys of his old unoccupied flat, which was awaiting its turn to get sold.

The real excitement started on my maiden local train journey, which got my emotions on a turmoil. I got warned that getting on board the train would be my first test of survival in Mumbai. I was on the platform awaiting the train without realising a big uprising behind me.

There was the noise of the upcoming train, and I could see people hanging out before seeing the actual train. As it neared, I decided to wait and let the people get down. Little did I realise that I was running along the slowing train as I was pushed along by the moving crowd.

As the train stopped its noise, the people started theirs. There was a push and pull in all possible directions, worse than an American football drive.

I was floating along with the crowd equally pushed together into the train. I wanted to let go all and become a saint and yet I couldn’t take a single step back. Maybe this is what Mumbai does to you, makes you run with it, no matter what your choices are.

I was standing against an older man pushing him towards a corner. I felt like sinning and yet that was the norm irrespective of anyone’s age or size. I took my own sweet time to understand Mumbai trains and the possible ways to manoeuvre them.

During this course of travel, I realised that the Mumbai train is a separate world by itself. People have a different set of hobbies, friends and even food choices during this short span of time, which makes them splurge their time, the rarest commodity for a Mumbaikar.

The movie “Lunch Box” succeeded in depicting the life of a mediocre Mumbaikar, working in a boring job, travelling in a hectic train and doing the daily monotonous chores without a break. I was a stranger in Mumbai and was all alone. I had ample time to move around and grasp life. I don’t know if it was my solitude or something which obstructed me from making peace with the place.

People always seemed to be in a hurry, and there was an instance when I noticed people rushing over a dead beggar’s body. I called for police and continued to witness the people chasing their life over the dead body. I want to go back to that place today and see what an invisible virus had done which a visible dead body could not do.

Living in a flat was something very new to me at that point. To me, it was like families living in boxes just the way employees work in their cabins. Secondly, I was all alone for six straight months, and it irked me more. I did get some readymade smiles from the neighbours, but it ended up flat there.

As they say, you can never remember a person with all the details, but you can still remember how he or she made you feel. I was young and naïve living alone in that Mumbai flat. I don’t know much what all I did, but I can vouch that the feeling wasn’t good most of the time.

The one good thing I remember was the Friday movie time in the nearby small theatre which hosts the show irrespective of its empty seats. The only seats that get occupied are the ones near the fan on each side.

“Lunch Box “didn’t just showcase the monotony of a predictable life but also exposed the guilty pleasures that get evoked when the norms get broken. Some of the examples include the Husband of the hardworking housewife having an affair, an old retired government dreaming of a life with a young woman and much more.

I understand that it happens everywhere, but I had assumed that it happens more in a metropolitan place like Mumbai, which is on its toes.

The guilty pleasures need not be always wicked. The excitement of reading the letter in a tiffin box, the fun of exploring new food in a new friend’s place does add warmth to the plot of the film. Qureshi, who got portrayed like a villain in the movie’s trailer was never close to it in the real movie.

There were some scenes in the movie where the director exposed some unsaid emotions. The Heroines mother cursing her Husband on his death was her cry for liberty which she got deprived of.

The scene in which Irfan khan observes the painting displayed outside speaks volume about the life he lives. That little painting sparked a joy for him, and nothing else did. Was that simple painting that special or was the rest of his life that sad?

A person’s outlook depends on his situation and surroundings. The flat system was an alien box to me, but to most of the people, it was a cocoon of joy which they celebrate once their hard day is over.

I am sure that not everyone is running in Mumbai. There could be someone who might have born, lived and died in Mulund or any other place in Mumbai without trying to move out of it. In fact, for Mumbaikar, every local station place is a universe and every flat, a mini-universe.

Finally, the day arrived when I got the real sense of Mumbai. It was 25th July 2005, and I could hear lashing rains outside as I continued to sleep through the night. When I woke up, there was some blunt silence all around. I could listen to no horns or engines.

I opened my window and realised there was water everywhere. The parking lot and the first floor were underwater. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I don’t know what to anticipate next. I had my viva appointment for the next day, and I had no clue what to do.

It was the first time in my life where I was so close to a disaster, and it took a while for me to sink in. Later on, in my life, there were quite a lot of instances where I coexisted with a disaster. I was at sea during the tsunami, I got stuck in Chennai floods, and I was flying around with my bike during the vardah cyclone.

Someone knocked at my doors. It was the neighbours. This time they carried some food along with their smiles. They got to know me and my plans for my Viva the next day. With zero signals on the mobile, I was clueless about the schedule change for my Viva. I geared myself up the next day. I packed my interview clothes along with the essentials in a plastic cover and ventured out on a journey.

What a journey it was. I saw dead bodies tied to the pillars so that they don’t get carried away. There were two points where I had to swim to cover my distance literally. I reached the railway station only to realise that it had turned out into a free food service zone. Despite all the calamities, the one thing which didn’t change was the Mumbaikar attitude. Always on the run, this time it was not for themselves.

I got a lift in a truck and then in a bike. I realised there was no way anything good can happen for a month, and this included my Viva too. I was correct about my Viva which got postponed by a month, but I was wrong about Mumbai.

The city sprang to life in a week. I noticed people reaching out to others in this time of gloom. The Selfish became selfless in the times of calamity and yet remember their family came first, their society next and in the end their city. This marked their revival.

I was a stranger, in a stranger place. However, after significant trips later on to Mumbai, I realised if you continue to be a stranger, you will be left out. If you explore it as you belong to it, you will find your calling. In Mumbai, be a Mumbaikar to get that stranger in you to dissolve in you. Still finding it difficult, start your talk with Aamchi Mumbai, you will be redeemed. It’s “Aamchi Mumbai “.


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