I have often thought of Mumbai as a mythical creature, a lustrous Siren with ocean waves for hair and rocks for toenails, crooning to adrift sailors and seducing ships to her shores. I’ve been born in the arms of this Siren and I have lived my life to date – a little over two decades now, matching my heartbeat to the rhythms of her songs as well.
If this city were an ordinary piece of land, or some arbitrary markings at the hand of a careless geographer, would it be called Mayanagri, or the town of illusions? Would it be the subject of a country’s starry-eyed dreams? Would it find in its hustle-bustle a never ending stream of migrants, many carrying less than a bundle of material possessions, but thronging nonetheless, possessed themselves by the Siren’s song?
I have loved this Siren like many others before me and those who will come after me. I have marvelled at the pearls that adorn her neck at Marine Drive and hurtled along her unbreaking spine as the local trains would whizz past her body. I have heard the shrieks of childhood laughter in tandem, with the crashing of the tides at Chowpatty and strained my ears to catch the hopeful mumbles at Lokhandwala cafes that double as Bollywood casting dens.
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I have seen her ugly underbelly too – the pockets of slums collapsing onto one another, the tedious queues at government hospitals contrasted by the Starbucks at the glamorous Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital of Versova. The begging children and the lives made zoo creature-like by Dharavi’s poverty tourism.
Mumbai is an unequal mother, not all are fed equally at her bosom. Yet her charm still remains, it is persistent, unfading. Or so I thought. The pandemic has pulled the curtain on her illusions and like a magician caught shoving a bunny under his hat – the Siren has been denied her microphone. Her song has stopped, her unloved children form socially-distanced lines outside police stations seeking clearance to board trains that will take them home.
Socially disadvantaged locale after locale find themselves lit up on unfeeling bureaucratic maps marked in colours reminiscent of traffic lights. The constant buzz of traffic has paused too, cars parked away and kaali-peelis gather dust. Bollywood doesn’t peddle its dreams anymore either, set after set burns at Film City as costs rack up against an ‘unforeseeable future’. TV screens catch memories now, reruns from the ‘90s levy a constant cycle of repetition, interrupted only by adverts for handwash and PSAs telling you to stay home.
With its borders shut and many within it trying to leave, the city’s Siren song has come to halt. Mumbai is a ghost for now, empty and ephemeral, fading just as you try to catch a glance. The eclectic beats of constant footsteps have frozen, replaced by the summer breeze and the swishing of leaves that no one has swept off the pavements yet. Its perpetually hurried residents are cautious now, eyes darting as they brave a few steps to buy milk or feed the local strays.
The city that never sleeps has just put its head down for a nap – and the silence is deafening.
Azania Imtiaz Patel is an urban narrative researcher and a Rhodes Scholar (India, 2020) enrolled in the Modern South Asian Studies program at the University of Oxford. She recently concluded her undergraduate degree at NMIMS Jyoti Dalal School of Liberal Arts with a specialisation in Literature.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty