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Saying bye-bye to a Bombay girl

On nurturing the feeling of not-belonging

Women in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda area. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Women in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda area. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

I have always been a vocal cheerleader for Mumbai in the “Why Mumbai is better than Delhi" debate. Marine Drive, sea breeze, films, migrants, the only Indian city with a skyline, a proper public transport system, and one where women inhabit public spaces with the same ease as their male counterparts day and night. The only truly Indian city, if you ask me. More importantly, I’ve spent more than half my life in the financial capital and how can any other place compete with so many good memories? Mumbai was where I saw my first film in a movie hall (Mackenna’s Gold). I started my journalism career as an equities reporter after a lifetime of skipping the business pages of the daily newspaper. The city nurtured me to adulthood and laid the foundations of my feminism. It taught me a solid work ethic that you still don’t see in any other part of India. How many non-Mumbaikars understand the concept of punctuality, for example? (If you’re in the Armed Forces, it doesn’t count.) Plus, it’s just a drive away from Goa.

After marriage, we flitted between Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, with the 17 years divided almost evenly between these places. I kept my Mumbai fangirl face.

The first few times we moved house between Delhi and Mumbai, we followed that classic American model of going wherever the next work opportunity presented itself.

It was harder when I left Delhi the second time because I was saying bye to the city that gave me Babyjaan and one where I got my first few lessons in parenting. We had celebrated Babyjaan’s first birthday (a pool party) with old friends and new friends we had never met except on Twitter (back then Twitter was a different place).

Even if I did miss the early morning walks in Humayun’s Tomb set to the soundtrack of stirring kirtans that emerged from the historic gurdwara nearby and reverberated through the red sandstone, I didn’t vocalize my love for this historic city. Delhi was the perfect base to explore quaint country manors and refurbished forts every weekend. New Delhi at least was India’s real garden city. Present residents can’t see beyond the smog, I know, but back then we prowled the parks and archives hungrily. Delhi taught me resilience, a trait that I hadn’t required in all my years in south Mumbai. My admiration for Delhi women grew tenfold.

Bengaluru only presented itself as an option when we decided it was time to work on our own terms, and not link our home life with our pay cheque.

India’s Silicon Valley took some getting used to. After Delhi, the “do not step on the grass" warnings in parks that remained shut through the afternoon were a shock. Here they added tomatoes and grated carrots and pomegranates in “Bombay bhelpuri". People were helpful but aloof. We stayed firmly away from the gated ghettos of software engineers and desperately looked for a piece of old Bengaluru that the husband claimed he had known intimately a few decades ago.

Eventually we parked ourselves on an avenue of rain trees that had watched silently as Bengaluru changed. Wandering souls who had once believed they would not tie themselves to any geographic location bought an apartment. Time passed but it didn’t feel exactly right. Was this home now? Not yet.

One musical evening three years ago, Babyjaan met her first bestie. She started school and this became the city where she would log her many firsts. I wept bitterly when her first teacher died. The rain trees in front of our apartment building suddenly felt as comforting as Mumbai’s banyans. You can’t stay sad in Bengaluru for too long. The sequentially blossoming trees planned by Bengaluru’s famous arboriculturists—purple, orange, pink and mauve—were clearly designed to whisk away the worst black mood. Besides, those “perfect weather" tales are all true. You can go for a morning walk at 11 and still catch the Bengaluru breeze.

Now every time I visit Mumbai, it seems too shiny (though Bengaluru has its share of politicians who reportedly spend Rs500 crore to celebrate a daughter’s wedding). My once perfect glittery cocktail saris are out of place in Bengaluru. Recently, when I attended a cousin’s mehndi function in Mumbai, I was the only one wearing a ByLoom sari. My mother couldn’t believe her eyes: “You’re wearing cotton to the party?"

In 2017, most of my friends and relatives in Mumbai have two heroes: Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. They’re both good for business, apparently.

Once this city was the birthplace of the Quit India movement, now all the billboards are cheering on the Jio movement. Back then, even fancy buildings had down-to-earth names like Samudra Mahal; now nothing less than The Bellagio will do.

The conversations are always about making money, saving money or spending money. Even modest eateries in Dagdi Chawl like Lakhpati restaurant advertise their owner’s aspirations. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess—if you’re not going through a there’s-more-to-life-than-money phase.

I think I’m finally ready to admit that I’ve shed my Bombay girl identity. I’m no longer sure where I belong though I know it’s not a place I’ve lived in yet. Bengaluru is lovely but glass and concrete are fast replacing the rain trees. Delhi is no place to bring up a child.

Who knows where I might feel at home next? Last year, I fell in love with Lucknow and Srinagar. One of my friends, who has lived in Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, swears by the last. It’s been ranked the best Indian city for two years in the Mercer “Quality Of Living Report". Then there’s always that dream of living in Goa. Maybe I’ll explore the rest of the world. Or maybe I’ll just nurture this feeling of not-belonging.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.

Also Read Priya’s Mint Lounge columns

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