A city that no longer exists

Updated: Oct 26, 2019, 07:17 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

The older I get, the harder it is for me to reconcile today's Bombay with the almost mythical place I grew up in

Local markets have been pushed out of our collective consciousness by malls offering produce in air-conditioned aisles Pic/Istock
Local markets have been pushed out of our collective consciousness by malls offering produce in air-conditioned aisles Pic/Istock

Lindsay PereiraNostalgia can be an awful thing. I find myself slipping into it a lot more than I used to though, which presumably happens to us all the minute we have something to feel nostalgic about. For me, this usually involves Bombay. This morning, it was a chapatti of all things that flipped a switch somewhere, taking on the role of Madeleine to my ageing Proust. Biting into it, I was suddenly confronted with an image long buried in my consciousness, involving a burly man covered in flour.

He was the local flour-grinder, a magical creature who would take our bags of wheat, back in the day, pour them into his magnificent electric grinder, and stock the warm flour in steel tins that belonged to his many customers like us. I remember walking to his flour-covered shop somewhere in my local market and watching him appear and disappear through clouds of white smoke. It's hard to explain to young people long weaned on supermarket-bought sacks of wheat and rice flour because I'm sure the occupation has long been rendered obsolete.

My local market was another place of wonder I started to think about. It has been decades since I last visited it, a once colourful place that would undoubtedly assault all my senses if I were brave enough to now make that trip. We tend to be more forgiving in childhood, stepping over fish guts and cats brawling over pieces of meat without horror, walking through markets that have been pushed out of our collective consciousness by malls now offering us produce from around the world in air-conditioned aisles. My market was a place of wonder, where shopkeepers and customers argued and discussed local politics, and where everyone knew about the personal lives of the fishmongers and butchers who worked there.

So much of what made Bombay undeniably special appears to have disappeared, in much the same way I expect other Indian cities have changed. Real estate prices and the process of gentrification has left no corner untouched, swallowing trees and covering ancient landmarks with gated properties. I recognise how inevitable the process is, but struggle to accept it, given the knowledge that we have lost more than just dusty streets.

I hate the idea of a 'spirit of Bombay' thrust upon us whenever the rains destroy our highways, or a building collapse claims lives. It means nothing because it doesn't exist. We have only become more apathetic as citizens because we have had the fight taken from us by successive governments who exploit our insecurities for votes. I hate that we have been pushed into rat races, not of our making, and turned into human beings who simply struggle to earn enough to own property we can hide in. Our interactions are primarily online, which only makes things worse.

Cities are ultimately about the people who make them, and so much of what is lost has to do with what we have allowed to let go of. When Bombayites from all walks of life took to the streets a few weeks ago to fight the government on Aarey, it felt like a memory from another time, when we still cared enough about our city and each other to step outside and do something. Those moments are now flashes in the pan, rare instances of breaking out of the stupor we have long sunk into. It was glorious while it lasted though, and reminded me of what we used to be before we were turned into the docile, beaten people we now are.

I miss the idea of Bombay as much as I miss what the city used to be like because this was never the kind of place that would roll over and die without a fight. Today, it seems as if it has.

Nostalgia can be an awful thing, but I like to think it can also compel us to try and recover what we have lost. We may not have the streets we once walked on, or access to the friends and neighbours we once grew up alongside. What we do have is a collective memory of what this used to be, long before the road rage, crumbling infrastructure, relentless noise and ugly politics took over. There are bits of old Bombay still inside millions of us, and I like to think that those bits will survive long after we do. It is a foolish idea, but those are always the only ones that make life worth living.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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

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