Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Communities, Mumbai

“Table join-madi,” I requested, delighting the Chembur roadside restaurant waiter with my fluent Kannada, and he hovered around for more, eventually disappointed to find that there wasn’t any. Partly it was the way I casually stretched out that “join”, but mostly it was the word madi, a handy and flexible connector with strong cultural and philosophical undertones that enables one to string together words of practically any other recognizable language, and distinguish oneself as reasonably-versed in Kannada.
It’s true of every city, but more particularly true of ours. Distinct subcultures – tight, village-like communities – coexist in painstakingly carved-out domains. Some are conceptual, and circumscribed only by their own peculiar rituals and culture. But locality, of course, is the most common determiner of community: for years I have thought of Colaba as my village, with familiar faces dating back thirty-five years and more. Back then, I was an ethnic minority so rare that there were only two of us, my brother and me. Our lives had a sheer backdrop of pain and isolation, unable as we were to shelter in any of the community niches of our compatriots. But today, along with exponential choices in areas as diverse as fizzy drink, career and Internet vendor – choice of community too abounds.
Occupants of the same carriage in the local each day are subject to hidebound, time-bound hierarchy and sacrament of great significance which set them apart as a unique entity. Members of Mensa have all the uppercrust edge of Brahmins with five-thousand-year old traditions. Those who met and married through the TOI Matrimonials will have a fellow feeling for others who did the same. Beggars at each separate traffic light have distinct territory, vision and mission, and (unwritten) industry best practices all their own. Even intelligent-looking women who sniff disparagingly at buffet tables, dismissing them as “press conference food”, will pass each other on the street with a certain cosy familiarity of attitude. It’s this fundamental sociological reality that gets you the very best idlis in Matunga, and, if exotic pure-veg concoctions in world cuisine figure on your scheme of things, you will surely take your NRI visitors for a meal at Shiv Sagar.  Every minority group – religious, sex-related, educational, privilege – follows its own set patterns.
Threads link individuals, (as madi did the waiter to me), forming a link between their communities, and this integrates the whole. In the case of Mumbai, despite the staggering different categories, there is a well-defined and easily distinguishable amalgam. This stereotype describes us as brisk, business-like, goal-oriented, action-oriented and completely no-nonsense. It goes on to flatter us as highly adaptable, and with a high tolerance for discomfort but a low tolerance pretence or posturing.
And yet, each little microcosm characterizes a whole host of different habits and rituals which engender a vital sense of belonging. Everywhere we go, we bump into others of our particular ilk, and this, despite the teeming multitude, gives rise to the illusion that Mumbai is actually quite a compact, well-knit place.  It’s all we can do to keep regulating our various faces to retain our rightful places in each community while maintaining the sanitized front of a Mumbaikar. Or, as we say in Kannada: “Adjust-madi”.