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Why I make the journey back to 'My Mumbai'

By Girish Rishi
December 26, 2008 17:06 IST
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Over 22 years ago, I read the words Urbs Prima in Indis at the Gateway of India. I was visiting Mumbai as part of a school trip, which eventually led me to move to the city for college.

Once in Mumbai, I read those words over and over again as I loitered around watching colourful boats set sail for Elephanta Caves. But, I never bothered to explore the meaning. Till November 27 this year. In the midst of terror events unfolding, I typed the words Urbs Prima in Indis on Google and the response came back -- The First City in India.

This week, I head to Mumbai to offer condolences. As I drop clothes in my suitcase, I can't help but remember my time in the city.

On June 19, 1986, after being delayed in Benaras, I finally arrived in Mumbai at midnight. Mr Sarwahi, a colleague of my father, offered to take me along to the plush Oberoi Hotel on Nariman Point. I was a small town boy who had grown up on the hillways of the Vindhyas and ill prepared for the big city, especially at such a late hour.

The drive from the airport through inner Mumbai on to Marine Drive culminated at the hotel in front of a tall, colourful Sikh with a wide smile. In the hotel room, I stayed up all night impatient for daybreak. With the rising sun I strode outside, my bag in hand, Rs 5,000 tucked away and a crumpled piece of paper with the name and phone number of a cousin I had never met. I crossed the street towards the sea, looking at both sides of the traffic, as impressed upon by my mother.

I stood on the ledge of the raised surface on Marine Drive and watched the surf collide with the orthogonal rocks. I was about 20 days away from my 17 birthday and Rajabai Tower was somewhere behind me, waiting for me to present my academic credentials. With a smile on my face, I told myself, I had arrived. The distance traveled by my hometown icon and Bollywood film star -- Amitabh Bachchan, seemed to have shrunk.

It was a time of great hope and expectations. Every day held new experiences. For one, I perfected the skill to minimise studying to a level so low that making it to the next year felt like jumping buildings, Bond style, and barely making it.

In college, as a young man, with an accent and etiquette basted in the hard sun of Uttar Pradesh, I had my travails securing a date. I quickly learnt to expand my sample size and watched probability work in my favour. Yes, there is strength in numbers, I learnt.

I took it all in stride and hoped to work and live in the tall buildings of Nariman Point. Nothing seemed impossible and there was no fear of the untoward. Life was about discovering. I was my own Robinson Crusoe deserted on a crowded, decadent island of film stars and beggars, of fast cars and crowded trains, of restaurants and tea stalls.

But the events of 26/11 have played havoc with those vivid memories. It has brought doubts and insecurity to the First City in India and to those associated with it. The terror events need to be responded to. But, I save my own propositions for another time.

This week, I make this trip for those who perished on 26/11, but the trip is meant for me as well. It is intended to revive in me the belief that Mumbai is for the innocently optimistic amongst us. The belief, that even today one can catch the last train from Churchgate to Andheri and assume safe passage.

Once in Mumbai, I do not plan to go to the Taj, or to the Oberoi or to the rail station that was a site of carnage. So far, I am not prepared to see symbols of my boyhood bruised and fractured.

Instead, I plan to start at Mumbadevi, a temple that the city is named after. Once there, I will watch the sunrise, hear the bells toll; incense soar, loud chanting deafen one's ears and flower petals descend on the feet of the goddess.

I will then catch a taxi to Haji Ali. That jutting land with the mosque keeping the Arabian Sea at bay shall be a stop for me. At Haji Ali, I will feel the continuum of water and free air mix with the call of the muezzin as tall buildings stand humbled by the sight ahead.

After leaving Haji Ali, I will head to the congested roads of Dadar, and to Portugese Church. It will be a time in the day when the cool, quietness and structure of the church will be a break from the chaos outside. There I will spend a moment watching Madonna clasp the baby in her hands. After lighting a candle, I will head to Sion Koliwada.

At the gurdwara in Sion, I will listen to the peaceful hymns recited in Gurmukhi, the script of the Sikhs. My pilgrimage that day will end at the Magen David Synagogue in Byculla. There I will have time to think of the smallest community of India that the world came to know of on 26/11. And that to me is the message of Mumbai -- people of different faiths and background can live anonymously, harmoniously for centuries.

In no place that I know of in the world can one experience the journey that I just described. In no city in the world are so many faiths represented as a way of life as they are in Mumbai.

For most of us, the abject terror of a month ago in Mumbai is difficult to understand. But, as we seek answers and action, I believe we cannot stop looking at the good amongst us. The good in Mumbai, which I learnt as a 20-year-old, was that Mumbai is for all and does not delineate by any thread that separates us. And thus, my respite comes by not visiting just my temple but by everyone else's.

As the old fishing town of Mumbai rose many centuries ago, it took in anyone and everyone in to its belly, at times to its chagrin. And so, there can never be a Mumbai that wards off peace loving people who arrive by water or air and even those who take the train from Benaras in pursuit of a dream that awaits them.

Urbs Prima in Mundis, writes Suketu Mehta in his book, meaning The First City in the World.

Mumbai. Yes, my Mumbai. Your Mumbai. Amchi Mumbai.

Girish Rishi works for a Chicago-based technology company.
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