Last Sunday, I returned to Mumbai from Delhi after spending a week with my parents and girlfriend. After two years, my brother and I were home for Diwali and after a long time, my family felt like how it used to be in the good old days. My mother complained about my father, my father complained about the chess App on his iPad and my brother and I finally got time to bond with each other like adults. A day after Diwali, my girlfriend came over to take me to her place. My mother fed her with food and she fed my mother with reassuring gossip from my life.
A day before I left for Mumbai, my girlfriend woke me up from my afternoon slumber to break two news items: Ponty Chadha and his brother had killed each other over a small piece of land; Bal Thackeray had passed away. I sprang out of bed to watch TV. I wanted to know how two industrialist brothers could shoot each other. But it was tough getting any news on Ponty on any channel; the entire news apparatus in the nation was singularly obsessed with the natural demise of Thackeray.
Every channel was saying the same thing: Thackeray no more, Mumbai on high alert.
Why was Mumbai on high alert, my girlfriend wondered. There could be trouble, I said. But why, she persisted. I decided not to answer because I realised I was speaking like a reporter de-sensitised by years of cynicism.
She was right. The death of a popular and loved politician was no reason for anyone to stay at home and expect the worst.
This is my fifth year in Mumbai. When I first came here in 2008, I used to tell people that I was from Delhi and wondered at what point after moving to a city does one begin to call it home. I was never fond of Delhi. It was only when I moved to Mumbai that I realised what I had left behind. A city is like a woman; one begins to miss it only when one no longer lives there. In my mind now I am a citizen of Mumbai which is why I felt a tinge of shame at what I saw on TV.
I chose not to answer my girlfriend’s questions and blamed everything on the media’s need to create fiction from facts. That did not stop her from worrying. How will you get home from the airport? What will you do for food? How do you know things will be alright when the police are requesting citizens to leave their homes only if there is an emergency?
It was only after the plane landed in Mumbai that I began to get worried. The airport was deserted. Everything was shut except the runway and the conveyor belts and perhaps the bathrooms. The counters for car rentals, hotels, travel agents were shut but there was a man sitting in the booth for pre-paid taxis. “No taxis or autos are plying today,” he told me. “Didn’t you see the news?”
The city had been shut down. I stormed out of the airport angrily and waited at a bus stop for half-an-hour in vain. I finally found a taxi; the driver agreed to take me home for Rs500. I agreed. The driver was stopped three times by cops and generously slapped for having broken the law. I was scared.
To me, it looked like there was a curfew. At 8pm, the taxi seemed to be traversing a dead city. I got home and paid the driver an extra Rs100 as compensation for the violence he faced. I checked the food supplies at home. I could live for more than two days without having to step out. But I could not stay in. I left my house and walked the near-empty streets of Bandra for hours.
I saw people queuing up outside shops selling essential supplies through a crack in the door; people buying milk powder, biscuits, bread, butter, water and medicines.
I had not seen the city so terrified even on 26/11 when by the third day Taj Mahal hotel had turned into a tourist spot.
What was going on in my city? I returned home after some hours. I was shaken. But I had my answer. A city becomes home when one feels a sense of guilt for what’s happening to it and a deep sense of shame for not being able to do anything about it.
Mayank Tewari is a writer