Friday, March 02, 2012

Life in the City - Cheap Comforts

Chapter 4: Mumbai survival 24x7

I am a gypsy at heart- to date no city -across the world- has screamed HOME enough to make me dig my heels in, thrown my anchor down and declare that I have a city to call my own. The truth is now I have several and like a global citizen holding multiple passports, I make multiple claims depending on company and context as to which city I'm loyal to. 

The reason is, in the thirteen years since I first left the home I grew up in (the distinction is made deliberately) I have moved cities eight times. In all fairness, I must admit that Mumbai and Kochi have seen me return a couple of times, my love-affair with the other cities have been rather brief and fleeting at best - a year and a half being the longest period of dalliance.

Looking back at what took me back time and again to Kochi and Mumbai, meant facing some uncomfortable truths. The logic with my love for Kochi is simple. Home is where parents are, however old you grow. When I go to Kochi, I go for pampering. Amma would certify to the embarrassing fact that I have never lifted a spoon or done my laundry while 'at home'. Also, psssstt...I have bundled several of my whites (I have an obsessive compulsion to buy them even if I can't maintain them)back to Kochi while visiting so that between Amma and her maid, it can turn sparkling white again. ( If Malayali daughters are obsessed with buying whites, Malayali moms have this obsession to launder and bleach them brutally till they surrender their yellowing selves and turn pristine again!) So there, in a nutshell, Kochi is about regressing back to a time when parents did the 'taking care' and you exploited it for all it's worth. 

Now Mumbai...Mumbai is another story altogether. Why is life in Mumbai so much simpler? It's something I mooned and moaned about the first time I picked up my bags and traipsed off to live in Brighton, England.( In case, you are interested in that post, click here). 

All the reasons why many people consider this city to be unliveable, I must admit, are all valid and VERY TRUE. It is a nightmare for anyone not used to the Mumbaiyya kind of life - all about living by the clock. If your clock goes awry and the alarm didn't wake you on time, your day can be screwed in ways you can't even imagine. Everything, just about everything happens by the clock. 

The kachrawallah rings the doorbell at dot 6.30, the cook walks in at 8AM and the maid at 10.15AM. If the cook does not walk in at dot 8, she gets late for the next household that anxiously waits her arrival like I do and my sister gets late to leave for office and consequently if she loses more than half an hour extra on the road in traffic, she loses a half-day leave. 

The traffic chaos in this city might mean losing several hours, but that's not an excuse for arriving late for a meeting. Instead, you also factor in an hour extra if you are travelling at peak-time. Indian Stretchable Time, as I have come to fondly refer to it while in the UK, is least applicable in Mumbai.( I must add the 'least', because Mumbai is after all in India and all the characteristics of Indians across the country do tend to get reflected here too, however rare) 

However, what has me enthralled is that the city works 24x7. The maids in Mumbai don't believe in union-baazi ( working by union-stipulated hours). Work schedules are flexible provided adequate notice is provided so that they can juggle their work-charts around. Everyone is contactable via a mobile phone and they are very happy to share the number with you ( none of the Brit-snootiness when it comes to divulging a personal number). So on my phone, I have convenient categories - three Brokers ( or call them Estate Agents), two electricians(one also doubles up as a plumber), stand-by maids if mine decides to take unexpected time-off and has not brought in her aunt or cousin or sister or daughter to work till she gets back and two istiriwallahs - one who does my regular ironing and another when I need some urgent pressing done and assorted numbers for beauticians who swing by to help you look less wild. I have a category for just about everything and they are all filled. Efficient, no fuss, disciplined enough to pander to my weird form of OCD. 

And it is not just the people, the services provided in this city are also equally appreciable and in a way that respects their time and mine. The kirana store delivers just about everything home and also brings in the required change, if you want to pay for a packet of crisps and diet coke with a 1000-rupee note. You can decide on the menu of what take-out food you want to serve your guests after you have set the plates on the table. In the time, they have had their first glass of wine and warming up to eating, the delivery boy would be at the door with food wonderfully packed to keep it hot. Even the ice-cream outlets offer individual ice-cream scoops, packed cleverly and not just family-pack of ice cream slabs as home delivery. Sunday is just another day, unlike in my red-state Kerala where everything including the neighbourhood stray dogs take it as their rightful day off.

The work-ethic of Mumbai is admirable - prompt, very polite and rarely shoddy. Yes, money power does hold sway like in any other metropolis, but isn't that a universal truth? 

For a single girl in a big bad city, this one is a blessing. The nights aren't unsafe, the comforts aren't back-breaking expensive. It affords you your little corner, even if it is no bigger than a handkerchief. 

Mumbai is home today, I'm not sure if it will remain that tomorrow. As I grow older, the need for space and for a more relaxed way of life is growing too. But this city has kept me young, alive and on many occasions soothed, healed and put me back on my feet. Wherever I go, irrespective of my criticisms of its dirt, dust and dinginess - I shall remain a loyal Mumbaikar. This city has character- flawed or otherwise. 


  1. Mmm. What a wonderful post. I felt like I could identify with you. Being a gypsy, going home with white laundry, falling in and out of love with cities...

    Thanks for this post. It will stay with me for a long time.

    1. Thanks, Marita! I am so glad you could relate, I think it is the story of all single, still-pampered at home girls who love to believe they are 'independent'..:)

  2. I believe your feelings are very human. I have been on the road for over two decades now. There were times when I used to feel affiliated to certain places. But places are all about people and possibly your favourite restaurants, theatres or tree-arched lanes, are they not? And when people are gone and most of the favourites haunts disappear, you just don't belong. The last place where I used to feel like home was my native town, but with the departure of my father it also just looks askance at me. That, I managed to live there only 3 years, doesn't help matters. I have lived in Mumbai for 7 years now. Although your world is entirely different from mine, I do feel contented in its exacting, precise, professional yet relaxed atmosphere.

    That is a nice post. You have well summarised the spirit of Mumbai. I liked the bit about impeccable whites.

    1. Thank you so much USP, as always constructive comments inspire new lines of thought. In fact, come to think of it, I think the way we see Mumbai, try to know it and relate to it is far different from how someone born and bred here does.

  3. UK, Dad's own country, Mumbai, where will you take us next?
    Beautiful Word Sketches on Mumbai, nice series, this life in city. The question about Writer's stumble, you have more than answered that with the series (Though I find it surprising that there was only a handful of posts last year) And the little part about Kochi reminded me of home sweet home as well (excellent laundry an added perk).

    PS Indian Stretchable Time perfectly describes the "elastic" nature of IST, good one
    PPS You might want to check out what time zone your blog is in, I guess we are stretching the IST too much here

    1. Analyst: Wonderful to hear from you after so long...I must admit I have been pretty tardy too, but seeing comments from familiar bloggers feels much like a homecoming. :) This Mumbai series will be followed by a Kochi series. I'm kind of building up towards a disciplined writing mode so that I don't stumble about too much.. :)Psssst...tell me how to alter blog time-zones...:)

  4. Have heard so many good things about Mumbai and always wondered why.

    Now I know.

    And welcome back Deepthi :-)

    1. Lovely to see you here, Purba..:) do keep reading, there's more of Mumbai coming up.