GROWING UP BOMBAY
WORDS BY ALOK HISARWALA
It was the year 1991, and after 10 years of battle, my mother had won. My father left everything in Hisar. With help from friends and family he started a small transport business in Bombay. Soon after, he managed to buy a tiny apartment in a new residential colony called Lokhandwala. Our conception of Bombay, built over multiple summer holidays, was always of Santacruz. So, as we got in the taxi from Bombay Central after our chair-car Rajdhani journey — sitting at an awkward angle for 16 hours, brimming with excitement over our new life — we were in for a heavy surprise. Well, more a shock.
It was mid-June, and Bombay was railing with the first big wave of monsoon showers. The taxi passed through Mahim and shortly afterwards crossed Bandra and Santacruz. Beyond this was a territory I had never heard of. My father allayed all building fears. “Just another 5-10 minutes, and we’ll be there”. Ten minutes passed and soon turned to 60. My mother and I knew now that this was not Lokhandwala in Andheri. We were going to stay in the new Lokhandwala in Kandivali East. A vast barren suburb at the edge of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park with a large Mahindra Tractor Division factory and the second largest slum colony after Dharavi — Hanuman Nagar.
The new buildings, imitating the skyline of Singapore and Dubai, emerged as towers in the smack middle of nowhere. We could climb to the 21st floor of the tallest buildings for the suburbs at that time and not even see Andheri. We were really far. We were not in Bombay. We were trapped. We were fully cheated by my father.
As time went on, we settled into our new life. Every wing — the alphabetic A, B, Cs each with its own Otis elevator — was an independent microcosm of pan-Indian diversity. While we were the new immigrants to Bombay, old ‘migrants’, who sold and separated from family homes in South Bombay, also moved to Kandivali with their share. The old guided the new in the ways of Bombay. We each found our mentor to the great city, and mine was Murtaza.
After two weeks of struggling in my Marathi class in school, Murtaza finally deigned to sit with me. He opened his note book and let me copy the entire test. He had a neat, cursive way of writing in complete contrast to my scrawl. We soon began to sit, travel to school, do our homework, and spend all our time together. Despite our handwriting, we had much in common. We both did not like sports. We loved hanging out with all the girls in the school. We loved talking for hours and dreaming of the future — away from Kandivali. They were our formative years; we were teenagers teeming with hormones and new feelings we didn’t know how to communicate to each other. We just knew that, however different we were to the world outside, we were the same to each other.
Murtaza’s mother was from a small village in Rajasthan and mine was from Haryana. We ate vegetarian, and his mother made the deadliest shami kebabs. I ate my first non-veg meal in his house, and Murtaza learned to make the perfect rajma from my mother. We were both deeply attached to our mothers as we watched our middle-class fathers struggle with life. His father had lost his small corner shop in Kuwait after the Iraq invasion and was trying to reinvent the magic in Kandivali, while mine was struggling on his own. We loved our fathers, but they offered little hope to us then for the future. Our future had to be away from Kandivali and hopefully together.
The new buildings, imitating the skyline of Singapore and Dubai, emerged as tall towers in the smack middle of nowhere.
Until then, Kandivali shielded us with an enormous sense of community. Lokhandwala was our little bubble. We went to tuition at a Jewish-Konkani woman’s house, played carrom with our incredibly handsome Cantonese-Indian neighbour, celebrated Ganpati with the entire building, and played and won every dandiya contest. In that way, Murtaza had helped me graduate into a Bombayite. I began to celebrate everyone’s festivals as mine. He taught me how to get excited for Christmas, Diwali, and Id. It was only when my grandmother came to visit me for the first time, and asked me why I was hanging out with a Muslim person all the time, that I foolishly realised that Murtaza and I as Muslim and Hindu carried a bigger weight then everything else that happening to us as teenagers.
My grandmother, who had witnessed the partition first hand, was forever terrified of the other and carried that fear her entire life till she came to visit us. But for Murtaza and I, teenage priorities took precedence over all else in the world. We had an action plan to escape our lives: pass with the best marks in school, get into Xavier’s, score an advertising job, move to Bandra, and find love, or maybe many lovers.
Just like my grandmother disapproved of our friendship, Murtaza’s father, now doubly scarred by the Bombay Riots, where they spent a week hidden inside a neighour’s flat, had a totally different escape plan for him. With a year still left for us to finish school, Murtaza’s father packed him off to Kuwait. I had never felt a sense of loss before that. He left in a cab for the airport one rainy night. My face was wet, but there were also tears. I knew I would never see him again. Except for advertising, I crossed everything off our list, albeit without him. I lived our life for both of us. Sometimes you just have to.
Kandivali for me is the memory of my teen years, where I grew to be a strong person. So strong that while I managed to challenge and come out of all my demons, I buried the very memory itself, and Murtaza with that. I secretly stalk him on Facebook now, just as I secretly look up from my Kindle when my car crosses Kandivali on the Western Express Highway. And each time, I notice with great fascination and love, how Kandivali flourishes. And I hope so does Murtaza as a grown man with his wife and children.