Covid times, else Colaba Causeway would have been chattering with street side bargaining and hustling. It has been years since I needed to go that way. I was in Bombay again and decided to head out to town. From the northern tip of the city to the southern most, it was a drive tracing familiar spots and watching the gobbling up of land by looming buildings and other such development plans along a depleted coast.
The Western Express Highway has been undergoing a long labour of the metro line. It is beginning to take recognisable shape now. Hopefully, once done, it will ease the commute of the city’s dwellers but perhaps the need for it may not be as much as anticipated? It used to be common to spend a couple of hours inching along the highway during prepandemic days. I’d joke that it was faster to travel from Pune to Bombay than from Chembur to Borivili. These days, travel is faster although interrupted by nakabandis. It is good to see structure though with a neat canopy for the police force manning the barricades along with a well lit sign that lets people know the reason for the tardy flow of traffic.
The flyovers built over the years have made it a breeze without the usual density of vehicles. The Bandra Worli Sea Link brought back memories of my first Bombay Marathon. The event was one of dismay as a participant. After having run solitary all along, being corralled with nearly 20,000 people was claustrophobic. The ride on the bridge saw an intense desire to be back near the ocean. The sea is beautiful in all its seasons, its raw violence during the rainy months, the almost placid nature through tropical winter days and choppy waters on moody ones. And just then, there is such a deep longing to be living by the ocean, always with the call of its deepest heart. It is a dangerous beckoning at times, with it almost hynotic welcome. I could walk in and become seafoam.
The Sea Link ejects into what is South Bombay with its prime real estate and iconic landmarks. The ride had a surreal feel to it with empty roads, empty beaches and downed shutters. The Queen’s Necklace is now the site of rapid work on the coastal project. I can’t help but feel a sense of dread, we’re eating into the sea. She will extract her price.
I pass by places from long ago wanderings. Churches, art galleries, colleges, old residential buildings and hotels, libraries, heritage structures, large grounds and parks. Metro Cinema, Parsi Dairy, New Yorker, Air India building, Eros, Sterling, University, Kala Ghoda, Sassoon Docks, Afghan Church, US Club and a host of other spots that scream Bombay were part of the day’s meandering. It was a day when I was a tourist in the city of my youth. These were places I roamed on foot as a cash strapped teen, now I watched from the comfort of a car. Covid 19 has taken over the landscape not just in absences but also in the ubiquitous signs on hoardings, buses and even apps like the map. Covid hospital boards, screeching ambulances and vaccine drives make up the balance of the pandemic’s establishment in a cityscape.
We return via the bylanes of Bandra, cruising along the promenade. Bandstand, Chumbai, Carter Road, Khar Danda, Juhu with many images of different times. Bombay seems to have shrunk even as she has grown gaunt in the dizzying heights of her skyscrapers. She appears like a fading superstar, glittery yet tired. Maintaining a youthful facade is easy but you feel age in your bones, they become brittle. I see the cracking up of her hillsides, washed down in inelegant landslides that take a week to clear. But life still goes on, regardless of damaged property and lost lives.
The colony I grew up in still has trees, many of them around from my childhood. Just that morning, I watched a tableau play itself out, a squirrel running on a compound wall as a butterfly fluttered about. A crow sat on the gate and sun filtered through the canopy of a pipal tree. The pipal tree itself was slowly becoming sanctified even as multiple images and idols grew around its base. There was a shivling, a Sai Baba and an assortment of Saraswati and Vishnu pictures. Baby mushrooms were beginning to sprout in some of its crevices and the tree had all the potential to become a temple. Most people walked past oblivious to a drama that had so many actors. I love the sense of theatre in these unfoldings, it is almost as though I am the only one in a vast hall.
Mornings in this bustling suburb are full of birdsong, audible even over the AC’s humming. A pair of crows stop by for breakfast and sometimes return the favour with a piece of rotting fish. Houses in cities as these don’t leave much in terms of privacy and there is a studied ignoring even as every one is aware of activities in neighbouring apartments. Old men and women are efficient as watchers with an eye on the comings and goings of the neighbourhood but the extent of their endeavours extends to just the human species. And almost just as easily, I slip into the shadows, trying to escape those eyes. Vestigial habit.
Driving back home, the highway gave rise to an intense longing to be out on a long road trip. It is almost like walking as the slow changing scenes and almost cruise mode allow for the shifting mindscapes to spread themselves out rather luxuriously. It is strange, the pandemic has seen me pile on the miles more than any other time. I suppose the reason is having access to online classes, the physical ones kept me bound for 11 months a year. Another reason is a curious self realization which took over two decades to be apparent. Solitude is a great place for awakenings.