‘You’re on a date with her’ – I was nonchalantly told by my friends who unilaterally decided that we’d be good together. I quivered a bit, for obvious reasons. I had never met her earlier, and to go out on a blind date at midnight wasn’t exactly a very comforting thought. The only bit bringing some relief was the fact that I knew her elder sister for the past three years. We spent quite a few moments together; and every time we met, she came across as one of the most kind, placid and down to earth beings I have ever met. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for siblings to be diametrically opposite. I could already feel a bunch of little wings in my belly as I marched closer to the rendezvous point.
One look and she gave her bloodline away. I would have known she was her sister even if I was not already told – except that she was even more beautiful. While her sister was always an embodiment of subtleness, she seemed to be a bit feistier. Unlike her sister, she had long eyelashes, duly highlighted with dollops of mascara. Luscious, model like lips oozed glamour while her hi-fashion stilts made no bones about the fact that she was out to make a statement tonight. Now I am no monk. In all honesty, I did steal a glance at her posterior and was pleasantly surprised to witness a bit more excitement there as well. I chuckled within my mind, trying my best to not let the wickedness translate onto my face. Tonight’s gonna be a good night!
As I closed in, I figured that she was not alone. There was whole bunch of guys and a couple of girls with her, dressed in a manner befitting a drama troupe. By the look of it, it wasn’t quite going to be the tranquil little evening that I just envisioned it to be. Her friends, dressed in some of the oddest attire I have ever witnessed, seemed to be in a mood to paint the town scarlet. Any attempt to back off would make me a chicken now. In any case, she was just too nice to let go of for anything.
‘Hi, I am Rampyari’ she chirped loudly, extending her hand even before I could approach her properly.
‘Hi, I’m Amit, pleasure meeting y…’
‘And these are my friends’, she barged in. My vision followed her palm and fingers, pointing at a multitude of maniacal characters, of a variety hitherto unseen by my visibly popped out eyes. On a normal day, it would have taken the entire night only for her name to have sunken in. And here I was, trying to deal with a whole army of visibly deranged mortals at this godforsaken hour. May god bless me!
Just so you don’t think I’m exaggerating things here, let me tell you what her alleged friends looked and behaved like. Leading the bunch was this unimaginably short, but surprisingly well-built fellow with a shaven face and finely trimmed moustache who called himself ‘Chulbul Pandey’. I mean, who in the name of all things holy calls himself Chulbul without having pierced his veins with a needleful of illicit medication. And just as a certificate of double degree in buffoonery, he was wearing a police inspector’s uniform, replete with the peaked cap. For all I knew, all of them may have dropped acid before stepping out that night.
Then there was this fellow with bulging biceps, long, unkempt hair and a few dried leaves in the name of clothing trying hard to shroud his dignity. The boor thought he was Tarzan, and that’s the name he introduced himself with. He was chased away even before I could respond by streets dogs, who totally alien to the jungle, were visibly violent at his shabby sight.
There were other characters too – an odory guy with an incredibly thick coat of body hair and a big moustache. Like that big furry blanket over his body was not enough to fry him alive in the sweltering Mumbai heat, he donned a hat and had a stained, wrinkled blazer put on as a fashion statement. He also wore some watch-like gadget on his right wrist, and called himself Mr. India. He probably got the award last year for being the smelliest human being alive in the country. To add to the mix, there was this oaf with an enormous nose, who couldn’t speak a word without stammering. For some reason he kept turning towards the road every time a vehicle passed, assuming a camera was flashed.
As I wondered what was wrong with him, he closed his eyes, spread both his arms out, bent his knees, and then started raising himself back again, looking at the sky. As he rose in slow motion, thinking of the light emanating from BEST buses as cameras flashed by paparazzi a bird splattered his colossal nose with her excrement. He completed his act unabashed –‘Haar ke jeetne waale ko baazigar kehte hain’, he asserted, stammering.
A lady named Victoria 420, dressed like a Countess looked the sanest of the lot and kept a low profile. I quite liked her except for her over-the-top dress. She may well have had travelled forth in time for all I knew. With this bunch of characters, nothing could be written off as an improbability.
So, which restaurant are we headed to? I asked innocuously. Rampyari giggled uncontrollably, throwing her head back. “This city’s soul, my dear friend, doesn’t dine in the high-street bistros. It loafs on the streets, sells balloons as a beggar kid, travels two hours one way to work in a local and has vada-paav for all the nutrition it needs. Tonight we shall celebrate that Mumbai – the real Mumbai” she announced.
“We shall be the spirit of this restless metropolis in its slightly laid back moment. This city, this mystical, mysterious city, with a dark, smoke smudged face has a golden, gooey heart. But it chooses its friends carefully. You won’t be able to see beyond the stench, the labor, the pain, the struggle and the misery unless you decide to take a moment out and love this urban being the way it loves you deep within its enormous heart. Put aside your sleep for a night, forget your appointments for the next day, try losing your way through the streets of this gracious entity in a languid hour, and it’ll peel its insensitive mask off to give you the warmest bear hug you may ever have experienced in your life. Your date tonight, chum, is not with me. Your date is with this mega conurbation. And my friends you see here, are, but some of the most recognizable representatives of this melting pot of ambitions, aspirations, successes, letdowns , joys, miseries and a million such feeling and emotions which together precipitate some of the strongest creative potions in the world. Let’s, tonight, immerse ourselves into the very essence of this city. Let’s, tonight, pay homage to the inexhaustible fountainhead of creativity that this city always has been. And what better exponent of the city’s creative spirit than the vibrant film industry the world knows as Bollywood. Let’s relive the legendary celluloid moments visiting the monuments and places most celebrated by Bollywood. Let’s, tonight, pay homage to Mumbai – Bollywood ishtyle’.
I paused for a moment. Took a deep breath, trying to take in a tiny bit of this insurmountable splash of emotions I found myself drenched in. Rampyari did not sound like a laughable name anymore. And for all my disregard and ridicule, this bunch of peculiarly dressed mortals didn’t quite look as moronic as I had imagined earlier. Surprisingly, I really was looking forward to this night out now. We stepped out, Rampyari holding my hand, both of us following Chulbul Pandey, the stocky little fellow, with a confident gait, resplendent in his immaculately ironed Khaki outfit.
As we set out, scaling the streets of Mumbai, I tried observing Rampyari more closely. In the first look, she didn’t appear as composed as her sister. She had a bit more character and spice thrown in. A more outgoing personality with a sharper sense of dressing and a more expressive face; inclined a bit more towards touching her face up before stepping out. Her sister, on the other hand, as I remember, was pragmatism incarnated. Never did I saw her putting on make-up, and yet she managed to look serene, winning many-a-heart for her understated simplicity. And she was talented – her adroitness having won her innumerable awards and accolades. She had won more recognition than any other female I know for her extraordinary gifts. Rampyari had more oomph, but take that makeup off, ask her to keep quiet for a bit, and she would easily pass as her sister’s twin.
But deep beneath that extrovert attitude, I saw stillness, thought and depth. She wasn’t shallow by any measure. In fact, she imbibed all the qualities of her elder sister, and then she had her own zing. In essence, she was still the same large hearted, practical, talented and benevolent girl, great as a company without any frivolous pretensions. In all honesty, I liked here even more than her sister.
Mumbai is beautiful by the night. Anyone who has ever roamed through the streets of the city past midnight would agree. Streets which are infested with humans in the shining hours are flushed out, and are yours for the taking as darkness takes over. The strangulating cloud of smog evaporates, letting in relatively fresher air. The Victorian architecture peppered across the old town, easily overlooked through the day presents itself to you in all its glory, brilliantly lit up, with no distracting elements around it.
And even though there aren’t any traces of the maddening rush, you’d never find yourself marooned in the afterhours. No street is forsaken, no alley abandoned. Every pathway you walk has mostly invisible, but wide awake people around you, irrespective of the hour. They work through the night, oiling and mending this gigantic machine, preparing it for another tough day – surviving here isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Too many people stuffed in a tiny space isn’t always a bad thing – and Mumbai proves it so magically in the nocturnal hours. You’d never be stranded here.
As we approached the Bandra-Worli sea link, the newest addition to the city’s uncountable landmarks, I realized that Rampyari had another distinction over her sister. She had a quicker, more spirited and assured gait. I did, sometimes get a little annoyed by the overly relaxed pace of her elder sibling whenever we went out for a walk. She took her own time loosening up, making me slow down unwillingly. Not Rampyari though, she’s quick as a gazelle.
As we approached Haji Ali, we witnessed the distant lights of the shrine twinkling, as if synchronizing to the tunes of the timeless melody ‘Piya Haji Ali’ dished out by the music maestro A R Rahman. Divinity is seldom experienced better than sparing some moments at this much revered tomb of Sayed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari – the saint who gave all his wealth away before setting out on a pilgrimage. Apart from being a place for spiritual relief, the dargah is also an exquisite example of Indian Islamic architecture.
After sharing a quiet hour in the lap of holiness, we proceeded towards Marine Drive – the Queen’s Necklace. Hardly anywhere else in the country would you find such a pristine neighborhood. Smoothly laid out tarmac, beautiful bungalows overlooking the majestic Arabian Sea, with the promenade forming an arc around the bay – the place has a sense of immaculateness, generally not associated with India. In the night, the streetlights together form a glittering necklace around the bay. Marine drive captures the essence of Mumbai. It’s arguably the most identifiable piece of tar in the city, which goes to explain why it has been used innumerable times in Bollywood movie sequences.
Marine drive is flocked by Victorias. Huge horse driven buggies decorated ostentatiously and meant to ferry tourists from one end of the road to the other, letting them experience the city’s grandeur in a royal fashion. Bidding the refreshing seaside a hearty goodbye, we turned towards the legendary Flora Fountain, another monument used in umpteen Hindi movies, Parinda and Aamir being two of them. Chulbul was loafing here in the attire of a Bodyguard a few months back, Rampyari told me.
Taking our journey through the heart of Mumbai forward, we passed by Taj, the most revered luxury hotel in town, a historical monument in itself. It’s a symbol of the city’s resilient spirit. It braved explosions and gunfire at the hands of terrorists and stood unshaken, thumbing the nose on those with evil plans. There’s commotion outside the main entrance of the hotel. It’s the wedding reception of Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, two of the top billed actors of Bollywood. Fans have gathered in hordes to catch a glimpse. Some distance away in the backdrop, Gateyway of India stands tall in all its splendor – such occasions are an everyday sight for the grand monument. There is no count of films which have used this monument’s footage to represent the city. Gateway of India, without a shade of doubt is the most identifiable feature of this glitzy town’s glamorous face. No wonder then, Mani Ratnam’s Award Winning Bombay had its posters showing the monument, not the stars in lead.
A big group of fans outside Saifeena’s wedding Reception at Taj
It was well past 2:00 am and we were sitting on the stairs leading up to the Asiatic Library, also known as Town Hall. The structure, as we looked at it from a distance, made for a perfect setting to represent a political or judicial establishment. Throw in a few guys in white shirt and black aprons holding a bunch of files, and you’d have your stereotypical Hindi Movie court. Put a few white HM Ambassadors with red spinning lights on top in the foreground with some sheepish characters inside in white aboard, and you have your state assembly. Hell this could even pass as India’s very own White House for those low-budget C-grade movies depicting the protagonist saving the world from annihilation. Quite a few witnesses must have been shot here prior to appearing before a judge in movies, I thought to myself.
The night was now inching closer to dawn, and we were beginning to feel a little worn down. As our final destination for the night, we approached the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, known previously, and to the purist locals as the Victoria Terminus. Not many people know that this epicenter of commuter activity for all of South Mumbai is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The immaculately engineered and intricately ornamented architectural masterpiece is also a railway station which serves as the headquarters of the Central Railways in Mumbai, India. The grand building is the first thing that most newcomers witness as they put their first step forth in the City of Dreams. The station, thus, has been used countless times to represent the first footfall of the protagonist into the town, in movies where he, more often than not would eventually become an incredibly successful businessman, superstar or a mafia don.
You’d be lucky to spot stars in a Mumbai sky, for most of them have already descended down to live a human life. Some others think it’s because of the pollution. Whatever the reason, the rare few which were vaguely twinkling away in the distance had gone dimmer. Agents of light seemed to have begun tugging the dark sheets of light. Soon, there’ll be mayhem on these tranquil streets. It’s time we headed home, for a few more hours, and these wide, vacant streets would be chock-a-bloc with vehicular and human population. Mumbai, in a few hours from now will shed its affable, easy-going skin to adorn a demonic attire – intimidating, uncomfortable, separating the frivolous from the fit, letting only the truly deserving ones to survive and flourish on its territory.
It’s time to say goodbye to Rampyari, the pretty young lady with a big heart, a thinking mind and an easy going demeanor. There could hardly ever be a better companion than her to tread the city streets, I thought to myself. I am sure she would be equally soothing and fun on a trip out of the town too. We shall meet more often, I proposed – to which she promptly agreed. We hugged each other and parted ways. I watched her as she gracefully treaded the way home with her graceful, assured gait. I watch her until she’s lost in the distance. And then, I wave my hand to one of the many omnipresent cabs for a breezy ride back home. Tonight’ really been a good night.
PS: The piece above is a figurative representation of Ford’s Midnight Drive with the New Figo, held on 16th of October. A proper, technical review should follow soon.