Last evening, I was called out of my house to help out with one of the biggest emergencies a Mumbaiker can face — looking for a house. An old school buddy who just moved to the city needed to get off his friend’s couch and find a roof for himself — I was enlisted to okay the options. The phone rang as I stepped out of my gate — “They’re going to announce his death in half an hour, get indoors.” the caller said, and hung up. My homeless friend, a journalist as well — was checking the messages on his phone at the same moment, and looked at me with a mildly hysterical grin — “Shall we brave it anyway?” he asked.
It wasn’t chance that had brought some of my closest friends to Mumbai. I spent 26 years in New Delhi before I decided I needed to escape. One of my favourite colleagues tells me that I need to get over the paranoia of grading every city based on how safe it is for women, but I don’t see how that is possible. Living in New Delhi, I despised the fact that I needed to call a male friend to pick me up or drop me every time I wanted to get out of my house at night. I hated that my mother spent sleepless nights worrying about where I was, the day’s news playing in a loop in her head. After I wrote this story for Tehelka on rape, I knew leaving New Delhi was important for my sanity.
Mumbai might not be the safest or the easiest city to live in, but it is certainly the most stimulating. It respects work. The centre of commerce has more to worry about than what you’re wearing or how many male friends you have. Yes, I still worry about the news — Mumbai isn’t too far behind Delhi in crime statistics, and Bandra is becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to live in — but this is the city we chose. This is the city that chose us.
And now, we were damned if we couldn’t find a way to survive it. So we hailed a passing auto, calling everyone we knew to relay the warning. We waited for a broker to show up, told our driver to wait (he left anyway, taking no money, since he’d heard the news as well), raced through a house checking its furnishings and hurried back home. We remembered to pick up some whiskey.
As of the past 24 hours, three friends, a Lhasa Apso and we were under house arrest — thanks to the lack of public transport following Thackeray’s death. When we finally left the house, auto and taxi drivers refused to ferry us — saying they didn’t want to travel because they feared damage to property, than out of any sign of respect to the deceased. We walked en masse for three kilo meters to feed a friend’s cat who’d been alone all night — and picked up water and cigarettes from stealthy and enterprising shop keepers on the way. A man made us wait on the other side of the road and drop some cash, before walking past us, picking up the money and replacing it with a packet of chips — all while pretending to be on the phone.
A news anchor (originally from Mumbai) had tweeted the night before — “When Delhi netas die, a city doesn’t shut down out of either fear/respect. Mumbai does. What does that say? Gnight”. For the three people from Delhi walking down that road, Mumbai was telling us her side of the story. Yes, five lakh people had shown up at Shivaji Park to mourn the death of a man whose politics were essentially divisive, who wanted outsiders like us to stay out of his city. But 50, 000 Mumbai policemen had also managed to keep the city calm in spite of it. Commerce had halted, thanks to a city-wide bandh, but people looked for ways to help each other, to survive the system.
We’re might still be in crisis-standby mode, checking the news every few minutes, texting to make sure everyone we know is doing okay — but something tells me we won’t lose our cool. We’re Mumbaikers now.
(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)