“Hamare mehman, Mumbai ke naojawan aa rahe hai” (Our guests, the youngsters from Mumbai are arriving) a man shrilly announced using a loudspeaker. Yes, we had arrived. The four of us, students of social work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur, had come to Navalgaon, Khurkheda in Gadchoroli district of Maharashtra. Considered to be one of the most backward districts in the state with a heavy Naxal presence, it was not the safest place to go for your fieldwork. Surprisingly, none of us felt the threat of any looming danger.
Out of the four, two of us were from Mumbai, a fact that excited a lot of people and something that helped us get access to a lot of homes.
There are hundreds of questions, beliefs and stories that people have about the city I was born in but a few obviously stand out. I would like to share those with you today.
“You can be who you like if you are from Mumbai”
“If you are from Mumbai, you have access to the best. The best schools, the best infrastructure and the best of everything. Even beggars in Mumbai know to speak English”, said my watchman, a young man who had recently shifted to the city in search for a job. “I came to Mumbai, got down at Bandra, was fooled by an auto driver, I learnt how to become smart and see where I am today. I have a uniform and a monthly salary. If an uneducated person like me can get a job in weeks then imagine the opportunities you will get if you are from the city itself?”
“Lagta nahi hai aap Mumbai se ho” (You don’t seem like you are from Mumbai)
It was the first week of my Master’s degree and I was still getting used to living in my hostel at TISS Tuljapur, Osmanabad. One of my classmates said you don’t seem like you are from Mumbai. Puzzled, I asked why did he think so.
“Well,” he answered, “you don’t wear shorts, you don’t go out and party, you don’t even eat non-vegetarian food. People from Mumbai are so glamourous, I have seen on T.V.
“Aap Mumbai se ho? Apne Shahrukh ka ghar dekha hai? (You are from Mumbai? Have you seen Shahrukh’s house?)
Anjali, whose birthday is five days after mine, excitedly asked me. I was in a small village in Madhya Pradesh and the minute her mom told her that I am from the Mumbai she came running to meet me. Initially shy; she became a chatterbox once I told her I have passed Shahrukh Khan’s house several times in the last 25 years that I have lived in the city. You should have seen her face all lit up in excitement as she asked the other Bollywood stars I have met.
“Apko badi building me darr nahi lagta hai? (Are you not scared of those skyscrapers?)
“I came to Mumbai in the 70’s” said the old man sitting on the charpoy at Pandhrigota, Gadchiroli. “I used to live in Moheem. You know Moheem?”
“Yes, yes, Moheem. I stayed there for a few months but those buildings and factories scared me. I was a coward and I came back to my village. If I had stayed back, my son and daughter would be memsahib like you. But I am scared of those tall buildings. Aapko darr nahi lagta?”
“Mumbai me toh sab make up karke ghumte honge na?” (Everybody applies makeup in Mumbai, right?)
“You are too plain”, my Kaki (from the host family) in Penan village would say. “All Mumbai girls apply makeup every day even when they are buying vegetables. I know. I am telling you no. Come let me apply some kajal (kohl) in your eyes at least.”
I can’t help but smile when I hear these stories of aspirations, hope, glamour, Bollywood and even defeat when it comes to Mumbai. You don’t call her the city of dreams for nothing now, do you?