Aman moved to Mumbai the same year that I did. He had turned 9 that year, I was 22. I’d moved because I’d just got my first job- a fellowship at an NGO, where I was expected to teach less privileged kids. Aman had moved because his dad used to drive a rickshaw here and had saved up enough to bring his family to the city from a small village, somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. They lived in a chawl in Goregaon- a tiny room, shared by the family of four, and he’d often be late to school because there was a queue at the community toilet that was a few minutes away from their home. I lived in my cousin’s flat in Lower Parel, where I had a room to myself and was kept up at night because the party-goers of Todi/Kamala Mills didn’t shut up.
I had moved to Mumbai after spending 3 miserable years in Delhi. I had hated college. I was lonely, depressed, homesick and just tired by the end of it. I was determined that I wouldn’t spend the next couple of years being unhappy. I had chosen to do the fellowship, even though my parents would have preferred it if I’d just done a masters. Coming to Mumbai was my own choice and I had to make it work. I would not give my parents and the rest of my family the satisfaction of saying “I told you so”. I wouldn’t quit my job. I would be confident. I would be happy.
Mumbai of my dreams
Mumbai was my chance to feel better about life. I promised myself it would be as beautiful as they show in the movies. Ranbir Kapoor had convinced me that I’d love Mumbai and the baarish. Konkana SenSharma made me believe that there’s nothing like being a “new girl in the city” here. And even though I wept copious tears every time I reread A Fine Balance, I had somehow come to accept that this city, with its overwhelming poverty and way-too-many people, would become my home.
I also had it easy. I didn’t pay rent the first two years and I travelled outside of rush hour. My school timings were 11 30 AM to 6 PM. Because I didn’t have to wake up early for the morning shift like many of my colleagues, I could afford to stay up late at night. That allowed me the privilege of attending plays and comedy shows, frequenting cafes in Bandra, and meeting friends whenever I could. I also had cousins here- two different houses to welcome me, hear me whine and feed me Bengali food on off-days.
I moved to Mumbai in July- in the middle of the famous baarish. The NGO I worked for encouraged us to go visit the kids’ houses, to meet their families, see how they lived and interact with them outside of the classroom. All my illusions about the romance of the Mumbai baarish dried up as soon as I had to walk around in those gallis and step on the puddles and mud.
Chawls I had never before seen
To get to Aman’s house, you had to walk through the narrow, cobbled streets of Bhagat Singh Nagar II. Near Inorbit Mall, this area was as far removed from Inorbit as it possibly could be. The lanes had rooms constructed precariously. Entrances often had a rickety ladder, which you had to climb up if the family lived “upstairs”. Some families were lucky enough to be able to rent both the portion upstairs and downstairs, most weren’t. Each room had a designated area for cooking and a place to wash hands. In those two years, I visited exactly one house that had managed to carve out a bathroom for themselves. That family had three teenage girls and the mother didn’t want them to keep going out of the house everytime they needed to use the washroom. It was common for a family of 4 to occupy these spaces; most families were larger.
In class, the kids were loud and active. They fidgeted constantly and would refuse to be in their seats. Even if I offered to come to their desk to check homework, they’d prefer to jump up and run to me instead. My manager and co-teachers told me kids were just active. I had to get used to it. But I only really understood it when I visited their homes. For a child who could barely move at home, the classroom was as good as a large, empty playground.
I often wonder what Aman made of Mumbai that first year.
Government schools and inequality
School couldn’t have been easy for him. The school, on paper, was an English-medium school and Aman, who had never studied English until then, had no idea what was happening. According to the Right To Education rules, he was put in 4th standard, as per his age, but no one had bothered to check if he would be able to keep up with the rest of the kids. Thankfully, Aman was smart. He was good at math- fractions remained fractions whichever language you were writing in, and that gave him the confidence and the motivation to work hard in other subjects too. He stumbled but mostly managed to keep up. Most kids weren’t that lucky. My classroom had kids who could barely read the alphabet at all while others read Ruskin Bond and Harry Potter perfectly. Some could do division, fractions and equations; others struggled to write numbers till 100. It wasn’t an extraordinary scenario at all. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find classrooms in government schools that are different.
In Mumbai, you can’t escape the overwhelming inequality wherever you go. What does it do to children, I wonder, when they experience that inequality so closely. On the way from Aman’s house to school, was a gigantic, expensive private school, complete with fancy uniform and large playground. I never went inside but I imagine they had enough desks and chairs for all the students. My students knew exactly what they were missing out on.
Do these kids become resentful and bitter? Are they motivated to work harder, dream bigger? I don’t know. I try to imagine but I can’t.
When Mumbai became home
I finished the fellowship two years later. I could have chosen to move out- in fact, I even got into a few colleges outside Mumbai. But by then, I had decided that Mumbai was my home. I had friends here, I had fallen in love and it didn’t make sense to be unhappy somewhere else, when I could be happy here.
When people ask me now, what I like most about Mumbai, I always say something basic- the sea is an answer that’s easy to give and easy for people to accept. I tried to articulate it once while walking home with a guy I’d met through a dating app. “Nobody cares here, you know…”, I tried to say, knowing as I said it that it sounded wrong. I never met that guy again.
But, I think what I tried to say is that Mumbai offers you a kind of anonymity. No one’s really interested in your life (unless you’re trying to rent their house). I know it’s precisely this (apathy? Lack of empathy?) that makes so many people feel lonely in Mumbai. Isolated. I love it.
My classroom was a little microcosm of Mumbai. There were kids from all parts of the country, and all of them were bright and ambitious. The classroom was small. Half the time, either the tubelight or one of the fans wouldn’t work. There weren’t even 40 chairs and desks for all the kids. They’d have to squeeze in, share with each other, sit on the floor sometimes.
Fight to survive
Secretly, I hoped everyday that some kids would be absent so that the ones who were there could sit comfortably. The kids were aggressive. Living in Mumbai had taught them that they had to fight for everything- water, toilet, a desk in your classroom. They were also street smart and cheeky. They always had a retort to anything I said. Most days, I felt they didn’t care about me at all. But, like the city, sometimes, they could be unnaturally kind. They never fought with each other if they could see that I was unwell. They shared their food with me when I was sad. (And even when I was not, who am I kidding. I loved their tiffin boxes and they knew it.) And they once almost fought with boys 3 times their size because those boys had whistled at me and made a comment about my breasts, I think.
The kids taught me to be empathetic, to listen, to be kind. I became more confident every day I spent with them. I spoke to parents, the school principal and even the municipal ward academic officer without stumbling. Away from them, I became more comfortable meeting new people and making friends. I was less shy, less scared, much less sad.
My kids and their families came to Mumbai chasing happiness, much like I did. I don’t know what it is about the city that from a distance, you feel like you’ll be happy here. No photo, no account of Mumbai suggests that things work out for you here (unless you’re Shahrukh Khan). Yet, here we all are.
I like to tell people it’s the sea.
- Mumbai civic body initiative to help school kids cope with mental health issues
- Desperate move to retain students in BMC schools