The first time I came to Mumbai on a visit in 1969, I was still a teenager and leadership skills meant something to me. I stayed in a beautiful, old building that used to be a palace, close to the sea, and marveled at this city where everything seemed so orderly, the public transport was actually used, roads and sewage systems worked, and you did not need a fan even in high summer.
It was May. It was also called Bombay. I thought I had discovered something no one knew about, a place where a young girl could feel completely safe away from her family, unlike the Hindi belt, where, on the rare occasions you walked out alone, it was with folded arms. I took it all for granted.
Then a few years later I actually moved here and stayed in Prabhadevi and I was a little embarrassed to tell people my address because it sounded so vernacular. We were like that only, in Patna we talked about Fraser Road, Exhibition Road, Hardinge Road and the Bankipore Club, and by the time I grew up I couldn’t wait to get away. I took it for granted that I would. That’s one “for granted” that I have no regrets about.
How long ago did I actually come to this city? Well, think about a fish filet roll loaded with mayo, mustarded to perfection, from Paradise in Colaba, costing a princely Rs 1.50. An ice-cream sandwich from K. Rustom on Veer Nariman Road also costing around the same. I took all that for granted. Now Paradise has shut down and before it did, I think you would have to have forked out close to Rs 300 for the same roll. And it would have still been value for money. I took all that for granted.
The first time I took a walk along Marine Drive, there were no tetrapods, just some boulders, and the sea never looked really threatening. The seasons stayed firmly in their places, a mildly hot summer, lashing rains and a mildly cold winter during which we laughed at real Bombaywallas who took out their moth-eaten sweaters, shivered and wore them with pride. In my luggage stashed on top of cupboards, there was an entire winter wardrobe that was never going to be needed again. I took it for granted that I wouldn’t.
Living in Prabhadevi, we occasionally went to the Salvation Church of a Sunday and we flagged a taxi where the minimum fare read Rs 1 and that is what we paid. If four of us shared it, we forked out 25 paise each solemnly and equally solemnly, the taxi driver took it. No fuss. Okay, I expected fares to go up, that was the law of economics.
What I took for granted was that our taxi drivers would always stay the same, dependable men in khaki uniforms who took you anywhere you wanted to go, based upon the meter reading! That I definitely took for granted, the way I expected all watchmen to stay Nepalese, strong, silent figures who were actually watchful.
All were referred to as Bahadur, never pejoratively. Over the years, they have transformed into drivers and waiters and purveyors of Chinese food sold off the carts. In Nepal, they are not as welcoming towards us as they once were, that early mildness of temperament converted into a watchful resentment of Big Brother across their southern border. I wish we were not seen as arrant, hectoring bullies. On my last visit to Kathmandu, our leader was referred to as a nautanki budda.
When I was growing up, a political leader caught in an outright lie was a massive embarrassment. Now it is a basic qualification that demands our constant evaluation of news into fake news, misinformation or truth. I cannot believe we took it for granted that the Press would forever play the role of watchdog of democracy and speak Truth to power.
Excuse me as I lie on the ground weak with laughter. This has been a week when a shady real estate mogul, who happens to be the current leader of the free world, actually claimed he had been asked to mediate the Kashmir problem and sections are going mad actually discussing how to get him to apologise. See, I took it for granted that we would never be that stupid.
I took common decency, basic goodness and a desire to live in harmony with all communities in this wonderful, marvelous, wounded country for granted. I took it for granted that lynch mobs producing “Strange Fruit” would remain a part of America’s ancient, violent history, that it would never come here.
Taking so much for granted is itself a long walk into a past that will never come back.