100 Steps To Solitude

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100 STEPS TO SOLITUDE

WORDS BY ANIRUDDHA MAHALE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

A busy Walkeshwar street.

Just after noon. A fly whizzes past. The clouds hang heavy and low – it’s a balmy afternoon, and the sky has no qualms about it.

“Where is the tank?” I ask a toothless fruit-seller. He’s shooing away flies from his bananas, and he looks up expectantly. “Down this way,” he points to a series of steps disappearing into the depths of the city below. I don’t buy any bananas. I’ve never really liked them.

Climbing down these wide steps, through a boulevard of single-storied homes and convenience stores, I see snatches of everyday life as I count the steps leading down. Ninety-seven. Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine.

A funeral proceeds in the background, but this is a part of the routine here – a marriage of life and death, water and stone, man and beast, chaos and peace.

A hundred steps, and you’re in a different world. A large expansive tank, the Banganga precinct is one of Mumbai’s few surviving historical spots. It’s over nine centuries old, and yet it’s one of the city’s close guarded secrets. You won’t see throes of sweaty tourists or college stragglers here. Instead, there’s a constant string of whispers. Suddenly, all you can hear is the white noise.

A funeral proceeds in the background, but this is a part of the routine here – a marriage of life and death, water and stone, man and beast, chaos and peace. It’s as simple as shelling peas, only more brutal.

Local legend states that the water tank sprung when Lord Ram, the exiled king of Ayodhya, stopped at the spot while in search of his kidnapped queen. Completely exhausted and overcome with thirst, he asked his brother Lakshman to bring him some water. The erstwhile prince shot an arrow into the ground, and water gushed from the ground all the way from the holy Ganges thousands of kilometres away.

There has to be some truth to the story – even though it’s mere meters away from the sea, the tank is spring-fed and the water is sweet. The water now is a murky green, stagnant and full of miracles and apprehensions – caked with a layer of dead flowers and other such residue of rituals – yet the squealing kids are carefree. Free from school and out of their uniforms, they jump in and out of the reservoir like ducks, their squeals working musically in tandem with the chants of the faraway priests. It’s only common, considering the 140-odd temples that dot the peripheries of the tank – they believe in keeping the gods happy, all 33 crores of them. There’s a temple for Shiva by the paan thela, another one for goddess Kali by the palm tree, an idol of Ram right across the grocery store, a large idol of Ganesha besides the steps leading down to the pool. It’s like a game of Where’s Waldo: The Temple Edition. Can you spot the one that I’m talking about?

The stone contrasts with the glass, the solitude with the cacophonic din of traffic all around.

The tank is a complete paradox to the city that engulfs it whole, sans the ducks in the background (note: make sure you don’t feed them. The locals say they are like gremlins, only without the green mottled skin and the sharp fangs). The stone contrasts with the glass, the solitude with the cacophonic din of traffic all around. But still, it fits into the fabric like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle – it’s out-of-this-world but not out of place. You can see the Governor’s house at a distance, but the open latrines closer home speak greater (and stronger) stories. The precinct blanks out all the smells and your problems.

People speak wistfully of trips to far-off mountains, soul-searching journeys (often hallucinogenic) to the valleys and beyond – stories of self-discovery and epiphanies, of giddy bus rides and nights spent laughing around the bonfire. You don’t need to go to the hills to find yourself. There are no buses, let alone any bonfires here. I breathe in, then I breathe out. The ducks quack in unison.

I am at peace.

Banganga, Walkeshwar Road, Malabar Hill, Mumbai 400 006