Originally published on Medium.
On weekend mornings, the maidan reverberated with the cries of children. The soft thud of cleats banging against football, the sharp crack of a leather ball hitting bat or wicket, and the booming voices of a herd of elderly uncles on their daily constitutional. At 9 am, the sunshine would momentarily blind as I stepped out of the building, drawing perspiration almost immediately as the humidity of the coastal city coalesced around me. I ambled along the boundaries of Cooperage football ground, feasting my eyes on the wilting green grass and trees, slowly making my way to the sandwich-wallah at Nariman Point, the only breakfast option open on weekends within my budget. 4 slices of white bread (no organic or whole-wheat!), Amul butter slapped on one slice, and mixed fruit jam on the other, the whole deftly wrapped up in a neat paper packet, to go! A cup of tea from the chai-wallah a few meters away completed this humble breakfast.
It was 1999. The world was on the cusp of a new millennium and I was poised at the edge of a new career. Like thousands of other single women (and men), a paying guest in what had clearly been the servant’s quarters of a large apartment. My home was a narrow dwelling of approximately 12 ft by 6 ft, containing a fan, a couple of naked bulbs, a narrow bed, and best of all, an attached bathroom (which also had the only window!) For these luxuries, I shelled out the princely sum of Rs 6,500 every month, an amount which left a big hole in the budget after paying for the education loan payments and sundry other essential expenses. So much for the well-paid post-IIM job!
But, as they say, location is everything. Unlike my contemporaries, I did not have to wake up early to be squashed in a crowded train for an hour’s commute. Nariman point was an easy 15-minute walk in one direction. In the other direction, Colaba Causeway was a hop skip and jump; passing on the way the intriguingly-named Wodehouse Gymkhana named not for the famous author but for a past Governor of Bombay Presidency. Circumscribed by Marine Drive, Fort, Gateway of India, and Cuffe Parade, it was a paradise for anyone who enjoyed art and culture, shopping, and eating! To be mesmerized by the sophisticated bustle and pulsating energy of the metropolis was a given. The pseudo-intellectual pleasure of experiencing a high brow play or string quartet concert at the NCPA was rivaled by the gustatory delights of the bhelpuri on Churchgate B Road, and a big bowl of strawberries with cream (very English!) at Bachelors in Chowpatty.
In that first year of near-disillusionment with the corporate world, good friends at the office kept my days filled with fun and laughter. Shereen was my age, a Parsi girl and blue-blooded “Townie” who was horrified when I suggested that do some shopping in Bandra (she refused to venture north of Worli). As I entered the office every morning and headed towards my desk, we would make rapid eye contact. Seconds later, my desk phone would ring so that we could update each other on the happenings between last evening and this morning (which, in my case, would be nothing-much-to-report). At around 11 am, we would rendezvous in the ladies' restroom, to touch up our lipsticks and exchange office gossip, sometimes joined by one of the many secretaries. Come 1 pm, we would join other colleagues for a meal in one of the many eateries that dotted Nariman point, our loud and boisterous exchanges adding to the general lunchtime cacophony. No one was in a hurry to return to their desks, and invariably someone would suggest topping up with a big glass of fresh mosambi or watermelon juice, thereby extending the lunch hour by a few precious minutes. Every now and then, this camaraderie would spill over after-hours, and some of us would head to Marine Drive for some fresh air before having dinner together. One conscientious and chivalrous male friend would insist on safely walking Shereen and me to our respective homes, before starting on his long train ride home to Chembur.
Shereen’s family was part of the South Bombay social circuit. Her evenings and weekends were busy with cocktail parties, and lunches and dinners at various clubs. Ever so often, she would drag me to her Sunday family lunch at the Cricket Club of India, where her mother would imperiously ask the chef to make a vegetable dhansak especially for me.
What carefree times! Nowhere to rush to, no chores waiting to be done, no responsibility, and all the time in the world. On weekends, I would board a train to go to either Prabhadevi, Versova, or Napean Sea Road, where friends and family lived. For two days I would be a part of humdrum domesticity, going grocery shopping, assisting in the kitchen, or catching a movie, before returning to my solo life on Sunday evening.
In spite of a fairly eventful social life, there were many moments of loneliness and homesickness, and always, the sense of being in transition. I felt like Trishanku, suspended between the occasional forlornness and precious independence of my Bombay life and the uncertain future, approaching closer with every passing day; marriage and a different life in another city.
When it was time to leave, relief at moving out of this transitory state, was the overwhelming emotion. Bombay was (and Mumbai is) intensely alive with its unique brand of enterprise and pizzazz but in the end, it overpowered and intimidated me. It was the perfect city to take my first steps towards true independence, but I couldn’t picture myself living and working and raising a family there. Even as a raw 25-year-old, I recognized in my unarticulate way that what I yearned for was a slower gentler pace of life, preferably in a bucolic setting!
Bombay, in that year straddling the new millennium and the old, was a place of liminality. From the high-rises of Nariman Point to the chawls of Jogeshwari, it juxtaposed the mundane and the exotic, the rich and the poor, the old and the new, the hyperlocal and the global. As for me, I existed in that liminal space where two worlds collided — the person I was, and the person I was on the verge of becoming.
How many, like me, would have taken their first tremulous steps towards self-sufficiency here! How many would have been charmed and dazzled (as I was), or maybe later disenchanted and dejected? In this city of dreams, anything was possible.
I remember one memorable walk on Marine Drive at the peak of the monsoons. That Monday morning, I had boarded a train from Dadar to get to work, only to be blindsided by a heavy downpour as I exited Churchgate station. With no umbrella, I was soaked to the skin in seconds. Fortunately, a colleague spotted me and offered to share his cab. I shivered in wet clothes all the way to the office and spent 30 minutes in the restroom trying to dry myself. By the evening, the rain had stopped. All along Marine drive, a mass of humanity strolled along, enjoying the temporary respite from the rain and seemingly in no hurry to head back to the teeming suburbs. Lovers canoodled in their own private world, and small boys jumped along the black rocks in a dangerous fashion. Food and drink vendors steadfastly turned their back on the Arabian sea — they had no time to daydream when there was business to be done! My friend and I strolled along the promenade, not saying much. A brisk sea breeze buffetted my hastily-acquired umbrella, threatening to spin it out of my hands. We laughed, for no reason (as twenty-somethings are wont to do), and just for a moment, I felt touched by the very edge of happiness.