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Past Forward

Meher MarfatiaThe Rajabai Clock Tower just made me smile. Not only because of its fine recent facelift. Mumbai’s own imposing Big Ben brings back a motherhood memory I’m still surprised by.

It involved that simple question posed to children: What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s always greeted with the usual flurry of answers, ranging from footballer, cricketer or actor, to doctor, lawyer or teacher. But picture my astonishment to hear my kindergartener’s response. Not missing a beat he said, “I’ll be the man allowing people to go up Rajabai Clock Tower.”

I’d gulped. Baffled, bemused, we were thrown back flat by the offbeat reply. It suggested little more than chowkidari. Then I thought wow, now that’s a thought. He’s going to end up an admirer of heritage buildings, I told my husband. Who laughed and said, we hope.

Don’t we all? Hope kids grow up with a stronger sense of the city than what’s suggested by the sore sights that meet their eyes every day. Wish they can look at the larger picture — seeing beauty beyond those potholes jerking the school bus, those spit pools pocking the streets, those high-rises scraping polluted skies. Time tells. Inheritors of an ageless legacy, children will engage with the future of any city depending on how they perceive its past.

Warts and all, Mumbai magic still surfaces in our urban landscape. The young need help to locate it. Children love being literal. They enjoy matching the moment to a mood. Once, shopping for paints my eight-year-old wanted from a Crawford Market store, I found myself across the road from the JJ School of Art. That very day she was clutching a favourite book underarm — a 1919 pocket edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories a grand-aunt had gifted on my 10th birthday. It came stunningly illustrated by no less than the author himself, whose wooden bungalow stood on the JJ School grounds right before us. This was where John Lockwood Kipling, teacher of architectural sculpture, brought his family when stationed on campus through his son’s earliest years.

We surrendered to serendipity. Sitting under a mango tree at that spot, I read aloud The Elephant’s Child story (about how he got his trunk), set on the banks of the grey-green Limpopo River in Africa. Soaking in the happy coincidence, my daughter excitedly wanted to wander over the historic precinct. Luckily I knew it a bit better after becoming a signed member of the Bombay Local History Society. Even trundling along on its guided walks nine months pregnant!

Some suburban charms apart, the island city especially has much to offer. Again, it’s personal experience that makes shrines, temples, dargahs and churches come amazingly alive. The lovely spire, Porbunder stone apse and stained-glass windows of St Thomas’s Cathedral continue to inspire awe in the smallest admirers, centuries after its doors opened on Christmas Day of 1718.

Almost 20 winters ago I shared one of its pews with my toddler son, waiting for a concert of carols presented by the Paranjoti choir to begin. He soaked in the soft candle lit interior of Bombay’s oldest British church, its sole buttressed structure. Wide-eyed, he leaned to my ear. Asking in a whisper: “Mummy is this heaven?”

Meher Marfatia is the author of 10 books for children and two for parents. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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