The Kindness of Strangers

By NONITA KALRA

I am constantly asked why I persist in calling my city Bombay when it has long been renamed Mumbai. A rather articulate but annoying French academic even attributed inherent anarchy to my dissension. “If everyone called cities by the names they preferred, how would anyone know where they are?” I opted out of the argument. I would know. I would always know. With my eyes wide shut. Mumbai may be a zip code, but Bombay is my home.

I grew up in the capital city of New Delhi. Ruled by hierarchy, political power, and nepotism, the modern-day caste system not only is very rigid but can be breached purely by powerful matrimonial alliances. I never fit in. I found it hard to play the role of privileged princess, even though I enjoyed all the perks. I longed for a place where I could be free. Anonymous. I dreamed of a time when I could lock my front door, die in an accident and remain an unclaimed corpse. Jane Doe. Particularly dark thoughts for a twenty-one-year old? I guess so. But it’s important never to question the angst of a fledgling existentialist.

The first time I landed in Bombay I was escaping heartbreak. My first love was getting married—a tiny detail he had forgotten to mention to me till the very last minute. I knew I had to be elsewhere, to heal. I arrived sort of unannounced at a friend’s aunt’s home. This lovely couple whose name I no longer recall didn’t know what to make of me. They figured I was sad, so they did their best to fix me, the good old-fashioned Indian way: with generous dollops of food. Lavish Army-style breakfasts, elaborate lunches, dinners fit for a king. But it hurt to swallow.

And then I stumbled across Café Mondegar (“Mondies” to the locals), near Regal Cinema. Right at the start of the Colaba Causeway, this iconic Irani café served beer on tap. One of the few permit rooms the city can still boast of, it had one wall dominated by the cartoons of legendary Bombay illustrator Mario Miranda. Back then, even though the sketches were beginning to fade, you could clearly see the liberal heart of the city. The starring attraction was—and remains—the jukebox. In spite of its penchant for playing nasty Bryan Adams songs over your clearly selected U2 numbers. I liked the licentiousness it implied, the permission the permit gave you. For a start, it allowed you to state you needed alcohol to maintain your health. In my case, my mental sanity. I would end up here every evening, challenging perfect strangers to a game of bottoms-up—if I could beat them, they had to pay for my drink. I won a lot. Made a lot of friends. And when I returned to Delhi, I was a little less wounded.

By then I had realized that Bombay was more than a city. It was a state of mind. So two years later, I moved there with two suitcases, on a wing and a prayer. With no place to stay. As a result, I moved. A lot. Seven times in the first twelve months alone. But it didn’t matter. I was a Bombay girl now, and as long as I had my spiritual home of Mondies, it didn’t matter where my bags found a landing place.

Did you know that strangers talk to other strangers in this city? In fact, the stranger you are, the more friends you are likely to make. It is a peculiar trait, this complete lack of social strata or class consciousness. You won’t find it anywhere else in India, or in the world, I would like to believe. I was so drunk on that knowledge, I don’t think anyone was safe around me. If you sat next to me, I had to know you. I like to attribute this openness to being by the sea. Perhaps it is because the city comprised seven islands at one time and with the conjoining came an air of susceptibility or receptiveness? Or perhaps I have a terribly romanticized notion of home? I do. But this is a love letter to my city. Bombay is the lover I have never cheated on. It has my heart. No other lover has come close.

I spent my first year lost. Not figuratively. Literally. Lacking even the most basic sense of direction, I could not get into the rhythm of the city’s supremely efficient public transport. There are secret codes, for instance, only Bombay wallahs know—like the weird fact that the routes of buses 132 and 133 are the same. They just change numbers as they circle the city, first clockwise, then anticlockwise. I wasn’t overly concerned about these minor technical details. Every time I jumped on a bus, when things started looking unfamiliar, I would ask someone if I was headed the right way. I never was. But people took the time to stop and set me off on the right course. Whether they held my hand to cross the street or flagged down the right bus, it was all in a day’s work. It is business as usual, helping lost souls in Bombay, all without missing a step.

I guess I had started taking it for granted until the time things got ugly. Almost. One lazy Sunday afternoon, when the city was down for a nap, I decided to head to the ATM at the bank, before reporting to my newspaper office. Alarm bells went off when a young man darted into the building behind me. He was too close, his intent too belligerent. I knew I was in trouble. When an older gentleman followed soon after, I figured I was going to be mugged, or worse. Suddenly the first man turned tail and took off. It seems I had been stalked from the time I boarded the bus. Something about my aggressor had caught the attention of this quiet, forty-something man who had been staring out of the window. This stranger, a man I had never met before, could have used the thronging crowd of the city to remain anonymous, to stay detached. Instead he stepped up. And out of his comfort zone. He took it upon himself to confront my demon(s). The next thing I knew, I was bundled into a taxi, and we were heading to work. When I tried to thank him, to introduce myself, I was stopped. My personal bodyguard, my Good Samaritan, warned me that I should be more aware—I was alone in a city that wasn’t always kind.

He was wrong. I was safe. I was home.

He was the living proof of that. The embodiment of the city that I love.

Dressed in a simple white bush shirt and black rayon trousers, the uniform of Everyman, he didn’t look like a hero. He definitely didn’t think he had done something extraordinary. In fact I suspect he was annoyed with himself for having to look out for me. And yet he did, instinctively.

As I stepped out of the taxi, I was feeling strangely vulnerable. My office was right across the road from the majestic and savagely beautiful Victoria Terminus (it’s been renamed now; naturally I don’t subscribe to that change.) A symbol of the city’s past, it’s also the most vital link to its present. VT is the headquarters of the Central Railway, with close to four million local commuters passing through it every day. The numbers may vary—mostly upwards, since it is one of the busiest train stations in the country—but what doesn’t change is how this mass transition works as the city’s inhalation and exhalation. Its daily raveling and unraveling. As I looked across at the gargoyles that define this imposing structure, I had a quiet moment of realization. The strange and wonderful truth that the physical world had been transcended. For me, Bombay was now an emotion.

Nonita Kalra has over two decades of media experience, in print and television. She was the editor-in-chief of ELLE India for nearly thirteen years, where she was an influencer in fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. She writes columns for ForbesLife, The Economic Times, and the DailyO website.

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The Kindness of Strangers

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