“You know what is the best thing about this city?”

“The fact that it lines up against the sea?”

“Yes. That’s what makes Mumbai so special. I’m not sure it would be half the place that it is if it weren’t for the Arabian Sea,” I said.

I was with a friend at Marine Drive. She doesn’t hail from Mumbai, but she has the positive charm that is the pulse of this city. I’ve seen her down, but she bounces back soon and has the smile that could light up a room. It’s remarkable, really; how a city can embolden what a person becomes, and how a person can embody a whole city. I have lived in Mumbai all my life, and everything that has been said about this city of dreams in articles, books, movies, and in conversations is all true. All of it. So much so that it we could repeat it a hundred times, even in this post, and you’d still be happy to read it. However, saying is not the same as feeling, and at Marine Drive all love for this city consummates and that’s why I took her there.

“My friend has seen Ratan Tata in a Ferrari while waiting for a signal here. He waved out to him, and Mr. Tata waved back,” I told her handing out the tid-bit of faintly exciting trivia that I knew.

“Really? That’s so cool,” she said, helping me not look like a wannabe.

“It is. I am really in awe of that man. He exudes such class.”

We were sitting on the parapet, newly-renovated for people to look into the horizon, and eating chana zor garam (beaten, spiced chickpeas). I love chana zor garam. This snack is spiced with red chilli powder and salt, and with a little lemon juice on it I’m always transported to heaven. Gulzar saab once mentioned in an interview that the name chana zor garam wasn’t actually so. This particular snack was called something else. A poet once called it chana zor garam in a poem and the name caught on. Gulzar saab believes that by giving this name the poet had changed the way we looked at this snack, and therefore influenced many people’s lives. That was the power of good writing and poetry, he said. I have never looked upon at chana zor garam the same way since then. It’s a snack sold for 10 or 20 rupees at the sea side, railway stations, and even outside Vashi malls, but it’s such an important agent of change. We often overlook the little things. My friend and I looked into the distance as almost everyone does at Marine Drive. It’s an encompassing feeling. A few college kids were on one side, and some other people were a little further away on the other. The kids were talking about Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai Dobaara and how they would watch it on the Independence Day weekend.

“Do you want to see the movie too?” asked my friend.

“Not exactly. I think the way Ajay Devgn can play a Don, no one else can. In Bollywood, I mean. Of course, then there is Al Pacino of The Godfather,” I said.

“Oh yes, The Godfather. What is it with men and The Godfather?” she gave me an incredulous look and smiled.

I laughed. “You’ve Got Mail? I’m so glad you asked me to see it.”

“It’s such a happy movie. I love it. It makes me feel all nice inside.” Her eyes shone when she said it.

I smiled her infectious smile. “I loved Meg Ryan in it. There is a quote from the movie that I loved, which I forget now. Let me recall, I will tell you.”

The kids were now mouthing dialogues from Once Upon a Time in Mumbai mimicking the don. Laughing and guffawing, they went on. I use Hindi movie dialogues in real-life conversations all the time. I hadn’t consciously noticed it until someone pointed it out to me. It’s like what Ramadhir Singh (the villain) in Gangs of Wasseypur says, “Saale sabke dimaag me apni apni picture chal rahi hai, sab saale hero banna chah rahein apni picture me. Ee saala Hindustan mein jab tak cinema hai, log c****ya bante rahenge.” It’s true for me to a certain extent. I may believe that we make a lot of crass movies, but what Bollywood can churn out – the typical candy floss, escape-from-reality entertainment – is pretty exciting. Sometimes, I use modified versions of dialogues. Like, ‘Tumne kya socha tha? Sameen khus hogi? Sabaasi degi?” I mean, why not say this kind of stuff in real-life? It’s so amazingly dramatic, bringing more grandeur to our lives. We need it.

“You know, I was here some time ago,” she interrupted the sound of the waves crashing at the rocks, “and I met this really old couple at the railway station. They said they were lost and they had baggage. They wanted money to go back home. At first I was scared cos they suddenly just came up. But then, I gave them some money cos I felt bad for them.”

I tore my eyes away from the crabs that were climbing the man-made rocks. “Ah! I believe you might meet some other couples like that. I have encountered so many of them.” I had. Even in where I live a bedraggled-looking couple once came to me and asked for money.

“Really?”

“Yeah. I am not sure if it’s a trick or what.”

“But then, how many people can be lost in the city?”

“I wouldn’t like to believe we’re really being duped.”

“But of course you are!”

“I have stopped handing out money to anyone who asks me to. In fact, I would hate to give my money to the government as well,” I said irritably.

It was her turn to laugh. “You should have seen yourself while filing your returns. You were like a small child being asked to donate her piggy bank money.”

“Well, it is my piggy bank! I am amazed at how much the government swindles, and then has the audacity to ask for more.”

“We’re all in it together, Sameen. You know that.”

I sighed. I knew what she’d say. In fact, we had spoken about it already. About how we’re a part of the corruption, and how we’re responsible for what goes around. I knew what she said was right, however, the idealist in me still hated the government for demanding money from me. I travel on the Sion-Panvel highway as a part of my commute and it can put a ride in Essel World to shame. That is why if I had a chance, I wouldn’t pay taxes. Alas, I did.

The air was thick with salt and the breeze blew into our hair. Slowly the blue receded and gave way to a gamut of colours; like dyes being poured slowly out into the watery sky. We spoke of many things; the meaning of meaning in life and work; the hot spots of the city; her favourite movies which inevitably were not The Godfather and Pulp Fiction; the complexity of human nature; the frightening thought of being married; the books she had come to love, few but important, and the books that I had come to love, many and popular; and the reason why the Chalta Hai attitude of Indians must die a necessary death; all while munching chana and moongphali.

“I couldn’t bring myself to carry on reading Empire of the Mogul,” she said while we got up to leave. The sky turning a blush shade of purple in front of us. It was purple, I kid you not. I could have plucked a little of it, and dabbed it onto our cheeks for the black night that lay ahead of us.

“I think that’s my case with Game of Thrones,” I confided. “I have no clue if I’ll be able to get to the end of it. The size of it is daunting. I’m pushing myself to read it.”

“That’s what happened to me with Shantaram. It wasn’t as engaging, but I kept at it. I kept telling myself I could read it. Finally, I was done with it,” she said.

I chuckled, “In that case, I’m not reading Shantaram.”

We walked back and went into a famous bakery nearby. Golden lights shone upon us and the night air was infused with a vibrant, positive energy. Green potted plants housed us in and a spread of choicest snacks lay in front.

“I’m going to eat all I can. I am famished,” I said.

“Is food all you can think about?” she smiled.

Just then I saw in near the light, a brown butterfly. A moth maybe, but let’s call it a butterfly.

“Oh yes, the quote. I remember now,” I started.

“What quote?” she said looking confused.

“The one in You’ve Got Mail?” I tried to remind.

“Oh yeah, tell me,” she said looking at me.

“You know when Meg Ryan is narrating her written letter and she’s in the tube. She’s telling Joe about a butterfly. She says that she read about a butterfly in a train, who got out at a station and went to buy a hat which was all wrong for her. I mean, wow, think about it a butterfly buying a hat!” I said it all too fast my words tumbling one on top of another like they had too much to drink.

“Huh?”

“Oh okay, I killed it. Forget it. Let’s have some rolls.”

My friend laughed a little and we went on to eat.

As Mumbai busied itself around me flashing its orange and purple lights, warming up because of the number of people on the street, and getting comfortable for all those thoughts that people were putting out into it, I ate to my heart’s content. And I laughed while I could. But yes, I did not buy a hat. Maybe next time.

There’s still time to be a butterfly.

***

“Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway, and today, I saw one! It got on at 42nd and off at 59th, where, I assume, it was going to Bloomingdales to buy a hat that will turn out to be a mistake, as almost all hats are.”
– Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail