I write this for the first time in a state of panic. It is not the skittish panic of a newborn foal that’s heard a gunshot, but the slow burn of someone who is watching a wheel turn.
My parents were refugees. Partition scattered them like storm-tossed sparrows and they arrived in Bombay to perch on whichever twig they could find. It was the ’50s. The city was kind. In Juhu, they found a community of like-minded people — actors, writers and poets who welcomed them to their fray. They lived as paying guests in Bandra. An Anglo-Indian spinster rented them a room with a table fan and meals thrown in. Most nights, they would eat beef stew with pao bread that was baked locally.
Later, when they had found steady jobs and the family grew, they managed to rent a small apartment in Juhu from a wealthy Goan family. Below them, lived a famous Muslim screenplay writer and across the landing a Maharashtrian pilot with the state-owned airlines.
Every week, someone would be celebrating a festival or two. Their landlords across the compound would butcher a fattened pig almost every month and send dishes of vindaloo and sorpotel across; from below, the Muslim writer’s family would do the same during Id with the meat of the fattened goat that had been tethered to their door.
Is nostalgia’s hazy gaze making this memory more idyllic than it really was? Was it really such a love-fest?
No. I recall my parents noting in irritation the god-awful racket made by the squealing pigs as they met their sorry end; and there were nightly brawls that broke out between the ascetic Muslim writer’s household and the rambunctious Catholic landlords for peace and quiet and the cessation of their drunken rendition of “My bonneeeee lies over the oceannnnnnn”. And in one shameful instance, a gang of self-appointed colony busybodies strode across to the home of a famous family of Muslim actors who lived down the lane because they suspected that it was signalling enemy planes during the war!
But none of this seemed life-threatening or made a passing dent in the otherwise even tenor of our existence. And if anyone told us that we were not welcome in the city and it would be best if we returned — believe me, we didn’t notice.
But, of course, change was taking place at the bottom of the pyramid. If in the beginning the shakedown of Bihari cab drivers and UP artisans and south-Indian accountants was a distant rumble, by the ’80s the clamour of the sons of the soil became more agitated.
Unspeakable things happened to people in the ’90s. Riots. Bomb blasts. Purges. The changing of the city’s name was the last nail in the coffin. Yesterday, I attended the memorial of a well-known Mumbai gallerist in one of the city’s best-known galleries. He had been a man who had championed the modern art movement and stood for human rights and civil liberties on every occasion. The hall was full of people like him: artists, writers, commentators and poets.
But when I looked around, all I saw was a community under siege. I saw the last bastion of people who stood for the city that had invited my parents in. It looked like the last dance before the city I had grown up in disappeared forever.
And though it is hard for me to say it and I do not want to, I have come to terms with the fact that there may be another migration in my family’s history.
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer