September 2005:I am in Pondicherry for the day enroute to Mumbai. The drive to Pondicherry has been beautiful as the highway curves along the seashore. One is hypnotized by the undulating coastline stretching endlessly in the horizon only to be brought back rudely to earth by the bus driver and his fondness for the pressure horn. He has been relentless in his approach ever since we set out early morning, eagerly blasting aside any vehicle coming in his way. In the past fifteen minutes he has successfully overtaken two police vans, I am impressed with his egalitarian approach towards any opposition to his progress along the highway. Doing a Rajnikanth, he flicks a cigarette mid air and lights it even as he swivels animatedly in his seat arguing with the bus conductor and the occupants of the bus over the most expedient route to my destination. Pondicherry is taking a languid siesta when we drive into the town. The red pill box hats on the police men on the street are a reminder of the French presence in the area in the last century. We debate for a while what South Asia would have been like if the French had beaten the British in colonizing the region intensively. Better food definitely, however one shudders at the model of governance that would have been followed. Today Pondicherry is famous for the neighboring model community of Auroville and the non existent taxes on liquor. I walk through the local sights namely a light house, the one-room town museum and police uniforms on display at the local police station on rues (streets) that still carry their French names. Even during the brief time I am in the town, I miss the gritty ‘edge’ that signifies the rest of the country. As locals doze in the afternoon sun, a swarm of European tourists sip their cocktails on balconies overlooking the sun bleached beach. People start drinking early in the afternoon. Pot bellied visiting business men partake of the cheap rum in numerous pubs bordering the bus station as they watch European league football on the TV screens. The town’s young plaintively cry about ‘nothing being here for us’ and share their dreams of making it to France one day.
The contrast to Pondicherry is obvious as I enter maddening Mumbai, a virtual sea of humanity envelops you the moment one steps into the city. I am amazed at ‘what the body remembers’ as I successfully allow the early morning commuter traffic to carry me into the local train at Dadar. Think of yourself as part of a wave, I tell myself. Eight years ago I had watched apprehensively from the sidelines, taking some time before I figured out how successfully to throw oneself into the throngs boarding and descending the local trains. Suketu Mehta in Maximum City had seen the local trains as the one ray of hope in the increasingly polarized city of Mumbai. Every day the hands reaching out to help haul in the commuter rushing to meet the train extend regardless of what caste or religion the other belongs to. They stretch out with the mutual understanding that the other is a harried worker apprehensive of missing his train and not making it in time to earn a day’s living. As I edge closer to the door an elderly gentleman sporting a fiery tilak gestures me towards a vantage point from where I can approach the platform with ease.
The skyline of the city has been taken over by the Times of India’s larger than life hoardings for the Ganesh Chatruthi celebrations. The media company has successfully exploited the Maharashtan’s in general and the Mumbaiker’s in particular great love affair with Ganesha and media celebrities. A doe eyed Ganesha peers down at pedestrians from above with the wacky slogan of Kaun Bangega Indian Idol scrawled across his tusks. Apparently the Times of India is running a competition for the most popular Ganesha pandal and readers can vote in their favorites. The pink-stoned Shiddhi Vinayak temple devoted to Ganesha is the site of the Ganesh Chathruthi celebration hosted by Times of India one evening. Full page ads in the newspaper target the city’s young and stylish with many a talented artist like Shankar Mahadevan being featured as performing. The Shiddhi Vinayak temple, the richest temple in the city, has been popular with cine and TV stars for a while. A Jaya Bachan two decades ago had walked barefoot to pray for her husband Amitabh when he was injured in a freak accident on a film set. Today Ekta Kapoor, creator of the saas bahu serials on satellite TV walks diligently every Tuesday from her home to the Prabhadevi suburb hosting the temple. She will be conducting the aarti for the Times of India festivities. Pooja who is accompanying me for the day gossips about how she saw Aishwarya Rai lining up outside the temple, early one morning, during the Salman Khan tapes controversy. The mix of celebrity culture and religion is alive and kicking here. The opulent temple lives under a constant security threat; somber police officers frisk devotees even as the mile long queue passes through metal detectors. As we peer from behind the check posts, workers are setting up the stage and audio equipment for the evening celebrations. Later as an ornate wooden carriage bearing the idol inches through the crowd of devotees, DJ Suketu is ready to perform. He belts out Atif’s Woh Lamhe even as the horde prepares to tearfully immerse the Ganesha in the seawater. The confluence of the sublime and the surreal is bizarre.
The only ‘media star’ that overshadows other sites on the religious tourist directory is the shrine of Haji Ali. A significant feature of Mumbai’s landscape, it has been a devotional site for the city’s inhabitants long before a generation of seventies film mothers miraculously regained sight or speech as they cried copiously at the shrine. Haji Ali had forsaken his riches to undertake a pilgrimage he dreamt of one night, many say his coffin had come up floating in the seawater one day. Family members buried him on a narrow land corridor mid-sea meeting his last wishes. As the tide switches from low to full, the shrine becomes a virtual island at particular times of the day. The walkway to the shrine is a mini carnival as stalls sell the ridiculous and essential. Devotional prayer books, plaques with religious verses, fake gold jewelry, plastic toys, incense sticks. A man in polyester trousers pompously escorts his plump paramour, she is one of the (now disbanded) bar dancers the crowd whispers. Her long hair flying loose in the hair, she has overloaded herself with the fake gold jewelry. Families picnic on the boundary wall behind the shrine, some gingerly climb down to face the waves pounding the rocks, an old man laughs out as the surf hits his hennaed beard. The silver ceiling inside and some of the structure outside have seen better days. The city administration has finally given the go ahead to the department of environment to go ahead with renovating depilated portions. Pooja points out landmarks on the Mumbai skyline rising behind the shrine. The high-rise gym where the city’s rich work out as they look intently at the sea, heritage properties owned by rich Gujratis, a blue domed mosque built by the infamous Haji Mustan. It remains a remnant of earlier times, easier times, when a Mumbai don was more of the friendly neighborhood Robin Hood than the terror that plagues the city now.