Thousands of shrines of varying sizes reside in the streets of Mumbai. These shrines act as markers of new settlements and localities. Most of them represent and embody the identity of the people who brought them here. But more often than not, they hold together the hopes and aspirations of migrant communities as they navigate the precarity of the life worlds that a city like Mumbai generates. The shrines act as magnets, drawing together people with shared backgrounds and attracting sometimes a set of new believers. They belong to different streams of faith, ranging from organized religions to folk, tribal and occupational forms of worship. Many of these are exclusively cared for by women like the Velankanni Matha shrines. On the other hand, roadside Hanuman shrines seem to be a favourite of young migrant men who live alone or in groups in the city.
I lived for a decade in Chicago, where I could only walk in the Midway Plaisance—a wide boulevard with a fat-bellied, grassy middle—in Hyde Park. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition was held in Hyde Park and the Plaisance was a covered walk with concessions and private entertainment decked around it: markets from Algeria and Tunis, an ‘Indian’ village, an Oriental (Chinese) village and theatre, an Indian bazaar, a Moorish palace, a street in Cairo. The official guidebook told the white ‘walkers’ that they should expect to bump into an ‘Indian’ family making their bread or a Pathan sepoy waxing his moustache. Franz Boas, later to lead Columbia’s anthropology department, was the main force behind the 1893 Chicago Fair and had been hired by Frederic Putnam, then director of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum.
Different parts of the city hold different meanings for those who come to live in it. The footpath to a bus stop in East Delhi, the view of Purana Qila from a mudrika, the first ice cream at India Gate, a market, a park, a housing colony, a route or a stop accumulate to make the city for us, and in strange and invisible ways also make us. Yet, we continue to exist in ourselves and in cities in this constant play of the visible and ever-changing present, jousting constantly with our memories and our present navigating through a place.
Can the new be experienced in all its dizzying and excessive newness, or do we continuously fall back on the crutches of familiarity, no matter how inept or even obsolete? Is it inevitable that we carry the burdens—of our familiar selves, homes and not-quite-homes, cities and lives—when we walk the path that can lead anywhere because we haven’t walked it ever before?
I notice the night jasmine in front of my house in Bhubaneswar, after many years, when it gets infested with termites. The insects have woven a second skin around the tree. I hate termites. They eat books. I break a twig—as long as my forearm and as thin as Rumi’s little finger—from the guava tree that grows just beside the night jasmine. I don’t remember whether I planted the night jasmine or if it has grown on its own.
On the face of it, Patparganj’s apartments appear to be small islands, each holding together a set of people with a shared social background. And there are apartment dwellers, who manage to unlook and avoid the sea of life the islands are surrounded by, through the blinkers of their class and aspirations, shopping for vegetables and eating street food from the evasive confines of their cars or seeking the ‘happening city’ elsewhere. Yet, life here, as I have come to experience over the years, does not inevitably have to be one of isolated living confined to the apartments.
If it is indeed the same chuha, it is back with a vengeance. Its earlier avatar was well behaved. It would stealthily come out at night after Hunny went to sleep and would rarely leave telltale signs of its dinner, except sometimes half-eaten bananas. This one does acrobatics through all times of the day, leaping over masala jars and knocking them off, smashing Rooafza bottles, scurrying over the bookshelves, chomping on electricity bills and doing cartwheels on the sofa. It eats everything … potatoes, lids of Tupperware boxes, newspapers, phone chargers, books and unopened biscuit packets—you name it! It prefers to shit on the bed or on freshly laundered clothes. And it is BIG.
What is it about the olfactory sense that seems to hint at absences as much as presences? Why does one recollect so many peripheral details about ‘that particular smell’ but not quite the odour itself? Perhaps smell forms the base, the foundation, for our sensory memories, sending out tentacles into visions, hearings, giving then nourishment, yet ultimately laying hidden, subterranean. It is only when, for some reason, one does not use a particular sense organ that one gains faculties related to the others. This seems especially true for the sense of smell.
This piece is the first in a series of reflections on and conversations with interpreters who have embedded themselves in the city they translate to others. Their imageries and imaginations provide ways of seeing the past and present of the city as also forms of caring about the city to future generations of interpreters.
‘So you want to know who Maya is?’ he breaks the awkward silence. Trying not to look frightened, she clears her throat and manages to mumble a ‘Yes’. ‘The problem with you youngsters is that you don’t know the stories that rule this city. Never mind … you’re probably the only one of these people dying to meet me who’s not interested in some quick-fix solution for health, prosperity or love. You may not be aware, but you’ve come searching for a story … and I’d love to tell it … it’s been such a long while since I've told a story. But I have a condition.’ ‘What?’ she asks. ‘You cannot interrupt my storytelling and you cannot ask any questions after I’m done.’
Vasu was off to a great start today. She was ready for office, well in advance to relish a steaming cup of chai and eat two parathas at an appreciate-each-morsel pace. On most days, breakfast was a paratha–jam roll, gobbled on the march to the bus stop. Today she had fifteen opulent minutes to reach the bus stop instead of the usual eight minutes that commanded dusty shortcuts, hasty footsteps and frantic waving to stop the bus. If only any of that had made a difference.