The young well-built lad swung his bat ferociously making an unmistakable connect with the swinging white ball, which traveled up in the air some 15 meters and crashed into a window pane of a third floor apartment. Miraculously, the glass did not shatter. Instead, the ball bounced off the window pane and floated down to the ground sluggishly where 3 able bodied fielders vied with each other to catch it. They laughed and screamed, jostled and pushed each other for a vantage position. It was as though they were making space for themselves in a crowded Mumbai local train by digging into the ribs of the person next to them. All of them had their hands cupped to receive the ball, as though they were about to receive offerings at a temple. All of them wanted to be the catcher that had dismissed the burly batsman. The ball, though, had other ideas. It popped out of their collective hands and landed on the ground making a tinnish sound; the sound a table tennis ball would make.
The batsman received a reprieve.
This was a match that took place under lights on Tulsi Pipe Road in Dadar, Mumbai in a paved courtyard, about 15m wide and 30m in length. This floodlit cricket ‘ground’ was enclosed on one side by a tin industrial shed and on two sides by tall apartment blocks. The cricketers played with a special, light ball which ensured that windows would not get broken. The lighter ball swung much more than a normal cricket ball would.
The batsmen played with immense skill and strength and thrilled the large, wild audience that watched and cheered as they played. The boys, all from nearby dwellings, cried, shouted, laughed and thumped each other on their backs as they sweated their way through this sticky Sunday evening. We stood there for a while, appreciated and applauded the fun as well as the skill that was on display.
To me, this was the Mumbai I had known and loved as a young boy who had spent many of his summer holidays here. A Mumbai of people from Dadar, Byculla and Matunga, the Mumbaikars who make the place what it is; the sort of people that do not venture much into the Bandra and Worli sea-face locations of Bombay that is inhabited by Bombayites. The Mumbai I knew and liked contains stories from Byculla, Matunga and Dadar and does not include fancy lights, nightclubs, fashion shows, bling and Bollywood. The Mumbai I feel, smell and appreciate is a hub of dizzy activity where people get by, survive and maybe – just maybe – get ahead.
It is this Mumbai that I wanted to feel and experience when I went to Dadar a few weeks ago with my wife and a few friends. We had no particular objective or destination in mind. We just wanted to walk, smell and feel the Mumbai we all loved. We started our exploration at 6pm on a Sunday afternoon from Tulsi Pipe Road at the cricket ‘ground’, walked up to Shivaji Park and back.
We crossed a permanent makeshift – yes take that paradox and cope with it as I do, everyday – market under a flyover on Tulsi Pipe Road. A police van stood by the side of this dimly lit market to ensure that the improvised temporary stalls were appropriately lasting. There was a surreal sense to the irony and I could only smile as I walked through this under-the-flyover market. Smile I did until something harshly corrosive in the air made me simultaneously rub my eyes and clutch my throat. The acid in the air may have been released by the constant trampling of vegetable leaves (probably radish), marigold stems and green chilies. The air was pungent, yet the vendors shouted out loudly, announced their wares and advertised their prices. The pungent air did not trouble them at all. Each hawker sold the freshest produce at least price. Around them, people walked busily and briskly towards an unknown destination.
There, an old man slept peacefully in a bed made up of two slabs of stone, his head rested on one stone and his feet on the other; his torso, suspended in between. He slept, completely oblivious to the strong, sharp air and the frenzied chaos around him. He didn’t even move as a motor bike honked its way through this crowded market, missing him by just a few feet. ‘How did this bike even get there, leave alone maneuver through it,’ I thought.
We exited from this hyperactive and busy market and spilled into the main Dadar market to see a sea of humanity in front of us. From where I stood – a slightly elevated part of the road – all I could see was a sea of heads. 'Surely the people were stationary while the ground moved underneath them,' I thought. How else could we get through this human mass? We did, occasionally receiving a nudge in the ribs. Mumbaikars are adept at moving in small spaces; they dodge and weave lithely through even the tiniest of gaps.
Sometimes I would exchange a glance and a nod with other people, but mostly everyone was focused on their individual destinations. I could not ascertain if people were happy, content, sad, tired, busy or dejected. It appeared as though all of them had a job that had to be accomplished and what I felt was intense industry in whatever people were doing.
This sense of industriousness included Ram Chand, a vegetable vendor, who smoothened his mustache proudly as he announced his produce and shouted out the price of his merchandise. He said to one of his prospective buyers that he would not entertain any bargaining and twirled his mustache flamboyantly as he said so.
We walked up through the markets and walked around Shivaji Park and saw people – many people – walking, laughing, talking and relaxing.
Out in the maidan itself, we saw kids play cricket and soccer in fading light. All these kids had proper cricket kits and played with cricket balls that thudded against well oiled bats. A few of the netted cricket pitches were floodlit as young bowlers charged in – in whites – to bowl to well-protected young batsmen. “Get behind the ball. It is all about technique,” a coach shouted in Hindi at the recognized nursery of Mumbai’s cricket. That was exactly what the lads were already doing at the Tulsi Pipe Road ground against a lighter ball that swung maniacally and unpredictably in the air.
It was close to 10pm when we returned to where we had parked our car after dinner at Prakash Hotel. The market was still a hive of activity. The police van still stood there. The men inside it cast a protective eye on all the temporary stalls. The acid hung around in the still air; it would perhaps stay in the air until the trampled and crushed leaves could be gathered and taken away. Vendors still shouted their prices. Ram Chand continued to twirl his ostentatious mustache The cricket match continued in the paved courtyard on Tulsi Pipe Road.
The sleeping old man was gone though. In his place were two young girls, one each on the two stones that had propped up the old man. They were probably ten years old. In poor dim light, as their parents sold vegetables or food nearby, they read from an English text book. Their heads bobbed up and down as they tried to learn their lessons, probably for their school exams the following day. I stood there, mesmerized, as they recited their lesson. I could not make out what it was they were memorizing. Perhaps it was a poem. Perhaps it was a story, an essay. I did not want to pry, so my friends and I smiled in appreciation and turned away slowly. I do not know why, but I was filled with hope...
The cricket players on Tulsi Pipe Road shouted one last time. It wasn’t clear who won. But everyone was happy and amidst much back slapping and mirth, the flood lights were turned off. Elsewhere, in an apartment, another light came on in this city of industry: home to several million hopes.