Bombay Serenade

I had an interesting experience in Bombay. I started a journey in Juhu Beach, one of the wealthiest areas in India, and ended it on a train, in sleeper class, bound for Ahmedabad. My first day had purpose. My second was aimless. I want to tell you about that second day. It is a rewarding experience to passively let society play out, either in your favor or misfortune.

I was only in Bombay for two days. Bibhu, a colleague from Bhubaneswar, recently returned from a trip in Europe and brought some things that I left in Bhubaneswar. We met to see each other, talk and exchange. That consumed my first day. But on my last day I went to Colaba, around the old colonial part of the city. I hadn’t booked a return ticket. So, my first order of business was the reservation office of Churchgate Station. Done. Next, I wanted to go to the Oxford University Press Bookstore. After navigating a few narrow streets I finally found it. Done. Next, I had to find some free wifi. Starbucks at the Taj Hotel: cup of coffee and wifi. Done.

After this it was getting close to my train’s departure time. I left Colaba on the local train to Andheri Station, then auto to Juhu Beach. I got back to my friend’s house, collected my things, had an auto called and left. I had less than an hour to get to Bandra Terminus. In Bombay traffic this is a more nerving experience than it sounds. I felt compressed. I couldn’t miss this train. I will admit I have a dream of arriving at the station just in the nick of time and forced to chase down my train—certainly a dream courtesy of Wes Anderson’s romantic India in The Darjeeling Limited. In any case, I made a deal with myself and fate that I would let whatever happens happen. I refused to tell my autowalla to hurry. I refused to command the moment to my will. I let it play out. In this journey my autowalla took back roads and shortcuts. I assume he tried to avoid the traffic, but in Bombay this is a fool’s errand.

Along the way I saw a boy swatting at rickshaws, he seemed were determined to knock his mother down, with an empty 7Up bottle that showed wear indicative of a recycled water bottle. I saw a sizeable delegation of off-duty security guards, still dressed in their authorial uniforms, congregating on top of pile of rubble, literally higher in social visibility than those on the street—either claiming space for individual defiance or gathering for the necessity of social interaction—and strangers passing through (like me). I couldn’t help but think of the Foucauldian subtleties of power in production and put to work in that situation…but who has the time to understand such things? I saw a young Muslim man dressed in a white kurta and tagiyah resting in the subway of Bandra Terminus. He stood next to two wooden crates, catching his breath and mopping the sweat from his forehead, before the long ascension to Platform 3 via ramp tiled in vanilla monotony.

I couldn’t help but think in experiences such as these that ‘society’ and our ‘image of the city’ is constructed in all its reality by our simultaneous reactions to it. I recall Herbert Muschamp’s impressions of Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, “We are workers, producing our own factory just by walking down the street…”. The city in its absolute and multiplicity is constructed in everyday interactions and our interpretations of them. The city is perhaps the epitome of a tense “multivocal serenade” (a phrase taken from Robert Orsi. He spoke in the context of urban religious performance and display). He expands that this serenade is comprised of ‘diverse ontologies’. I do not think it’s a stretch to add, ‘mythologies’, ‘imaginaries’, ‘perceptions of the past’, ‘political ideologies’, etc. The city is bathed in our image. We both construct it and  engendered by it. The city is perhaps humankind’s greatest artifact, and humanity: its perpetual lab rats…

There is a notion out there that a city is dominated by spaces of visibility (spaces to see and be seen) and anonymity (spaces where we can be lost in a crowd). In between there are spaces for habitation, sex, food, entertainment, remembrance of the past, etc. Categorizations always pose limitations. In my short experience in India, I have noticed that the border between spaces is more porous. Space for habitation, disposal of waste, sleeping, entertaining guests, transportation are thrown together in one multilayered theater of social negotiation and, at times, contest. As a social nomad, I love exploring these winding and elaborate theaters. This is perhaps the most salient reason I am attracted to studying the urbanization of India.