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Lovely Rita

There is something about approaching the Bandra-Worli sea link after rush hour that makes me feel like I’m about to go on vacation. It’s a bit like the feeling you might get after clearing immigration at the airport — the sweaty, huffy nitty-gritty are behind us. Now we just need to get on a plane and arrive post wine and nap in a whole new place.

For the six minutes of sea link, you kind of feel free of Bombay — no traffic, no stifling wait, none of the hardship of the melting pot’s underside.


illustration/Amit Bandre

The other morning, though, the toll booth presented a typical Bombay sight. Handing out the ticket was a young woman - the kind I always think of as a quintessential Bombay Lady. Brisk, composed and dressed with a minimal but definite smartness — pressed salwar kameez, matched dupatta, gajra, small earrings. It made me smile and predictably, hum Lovely Rita, meter maid to myself — although yes, of course I know, that one really should use gender neutral terms like toll booth attendant and shrug as if it’s perfectly routine.

And it is routine, but still special to this city. We have always seen such Bombay Ladies around us. The toll booth was just a new, less common location, something we’ll get used to the way we’re getting used to seeing female traffic cops at solid traffic junctions like Chakala. According to friends of mine who drive, these mamas are better than the other maamas, because they don’t cause as many traffic jams by imposing rigid order on the co-operative chaos of city traffic. There’s no confirming that, so let’s just stay in gender neutral gear and say it’s nice to see them even if they contribute to traffic jams just as intensely as their male colleagues.

Actually, it’s not so much nice to see them, as to be able to not look twice when you do, which you would in most — though not all — parts of the country.

Bombay Ladies have particular characteristics. They are matter of fact about being out and about, about getting the job done wherever they can, and about being well-dressed in a specific way. This is most strongly visible in the local train where you see government clerks in starched saris with precise pleats and orange gajras, their practical rexine bags gripped tight under their arms, mashed up against burqua girls whose black tunics are stylishly embellished with turquoise and fuschia sequins holding on to their file and Christian ladies in bright skirts, matching shoes and step-cut hair. You see them on the way to office and as neatly turned out on the way back, as they famously cut their veggies, or nowadays, get their eyebrows threaded on the train. You see it on buses, where the ladies who work as household help may own only four saris, but wear them with matched blouses and the occasional gajra and gleaming bangles. There is such a self-possession in this kind of working-woman. Their no-fuss smartness of dress is emblematic of their sense of entitlement to be in public, be part of the public.

I have always rolled my eyes when people say politically correct things like - I only dress for myself, because if we dressed for ourselves we may spend many days in faded pajamas, really. But looking at these Bombay Ladies makes me understand what that phrase really means. They dress for a day of being out in the world as individuals with purpose and remind you that you don’t only have to be on the sea link to feel free.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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