— Shweta Ramdas
There are two places that make me aware, in a very visceral way, of just how many people there are in this world. One of them is Tirupati, the other Victoria Terminus in Bombay. I step onto its dusty platforms everyday, and everyday I jump into a moving train, numbing for a moment, that part of my brain that says “watch out!”. This throbbing mass of a city makes you gasp – for time, and for space.
Bombay reduces you to one body in a multitude. Arms, faces and entire torsos are flung without thought into within a few inches of your skin as you shrink away, aghast. Later, in calmer environs offering more room for thought, you realise that it’s merely the natural order of things. The only way to live with the absence of space is to ignore it. Unlike its other populous counterparts across the country, the city doesn’t objectify or stereotype you; it is merely oblivious to your existence.
You learn to live with it yourself. Without realising it, you’re most at peace while staring out the window, squished between two sweaty ladies in the filled-beyond-capacity compartment of the Bombay local. Such a sense of space doesn’t come by very often, and you guard it so fiercely you refuse to let the world in, and refuse to be swept away by the human side of Bombay, the side that makes you a friend to tired mothers-of-two in train compartments who will soon confide everything to you, if only you weren’t so intent on shutting them out in favour of your book, your iPod or your thoughts.
The enormous gap between resources and people who need them etches itself starkly on a Mumbaikar’s life and influences behaviour like nothing else. It turns life into a zero-sum game, and everything you do, from jostling the lady next to you at the station, to running towards the auto stand to get the last available auto is done with one thing in mind – the fear of losing out. You wonder, with admiration bordering on amazement, at how this enforced need to be selfish manages to sit at ease with the graciousness and easy camaraderie that characterize the average Mumbaikar. “Fear of missing out” is perhaps the wrong term; more accurate would be the knowledge of how easy it is to miss out, an acceptance that makes you shrug and brush failure off, an acceptance that banishes fear. It’s what journalists, in times of duress, call the “resilient Mumbai spirit”, even if this is a more mundane manifestation.
It’s a difficult city to live in. It makes you play by the rules (unless you’re Mukesh Ambani with a personal helipad), makes you play dirty, and it makes life as much about ticking off days to the weekend as about relishing each one. And it leaves you speechless when you catch sight of the beautiful Victoria Terminus against the twilight sky and know you’re home.