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Posted at: Jan 14, 2018, 1:43 AM; last updated: Jan 14, 2018, 1:43 AM (IST)BOOK REVIEW: AT HOME IN MUMBAI: STORIES FROM THE CITY’S LIVING SPACES BY CHANDRIMA PAL.

The soot beneath the stars

Aradhika Sharma

WHAT gives life and character to a city? It’s probably an amalgamation of the cityscape, the living spaces and the inhabitants that would give a town its unique personality and energy — both of which are plentiful in Mumbai; a city known for its brave and quirky nature. 

Home to locals and to people from ‘outside’, the metropolis shows different facets to different folks — friendly and welcoming to some — but to many people, unfriendly and alien even though they may have lived in the city for long.  Mumbai embraces everyone — but whether the embrace is a warm one or a stranglehold depends on personal experience and attitude.

Chandrima Pal’s second book after The Song for I personalises the city of dreams.  She brings Mumbai to life by diving into spaces and lives that she explores through a series of interviews with people she either seeks out or comes across unexpectedly. She admits that while writing the book that started as a ‘weekend project”, she got obsessed with the “subtexts and understories” while she reconnoitred the relationships between people and the spaces that they inhabited. 

Of course, every city has undertones and its own stories to tell, but there’s something about the frenetic, hungry energy of Mumbai that titillates the imagination of storytellers.  It is the glittering city of contrasts — of unreachable Bollywood stars; of hugely successful businessmen who live in residences like the famous Antilia; of chawls pulsating with people and dance bars and Dharavi slums and old, conservative, ultra-vegetarian neighbourhoods coexisting in the precincts of the city.

Pal divides her book into non-geographical sections that are more driven by the differing lives of people that live there. The book is sectioned into nine parts — The House of Stories is a nostalgic piece about the disappearing ‘heritage’ bungalows of Old Bombay (Carmichael Road, Altamount Road, Cumball Hill) that are being razed to the ground to give way to high rises. Here she meets up with Jamini and Maithili Ahluwalia, the founders of Mumbai’s exclusive Bungalow 8.

The section, Fine Lines, deals with the divisive boundaries between the two major religions practiced in Mumbai after the demolition of Babri Masjid. As an aftermath of which, the city went up in the smoke of communal riots, changing the ethos of the metropolis and triggering the ethnic cleansing — pushing people who pursued the different religion out of the city precincts.

In the section labelled the Outsiders, the author talks about the lives of people who have come in search of employment from other parts of the country and their varied experiences. Shumon Bhattacharya from Kolkata, for example, loved the apartment he lived in at Yari Road. But he had to move out when he got married. But in the end he finally gravitated right back to it. Amit Khosla from Delhi, on the other hand, felt that he had been “uprooted and replanted in a new environment” in Mumbai.

In the section Life, Loss and Livelihood, we meet Ishrat Ahmed, an auto-rickshaw driver from Kanpur, who shares his pokey little room with five other men. We are also introduced to the bar dancers who were tragically deprived of their livelihood when the chief minister arbitrarily decided to shut down the dance bars. 

The City of Stars is perhaps the obvious choice for the last chapter in the book about Mumbai. Talking about the famous bungalows, Aashirwaad, Mannat and their celebrated owners (Rajesh Khanna and Shah Rukh Khan) and the two expensive properties that Kangana Ranaut owns, Pal says, “A house for the Bollywood stars….is a trophy they like to gift themselves….that tells the world that they have arrived.”

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