Book Excerpt: Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories by Anuradha Kumar
Title: Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories
Author: Anuradha Kumar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Year of publication: 2019
Links if any: Speaking Tiger
Pooja: The Evening of the Immersion
The bulldozer moved over the uneven road, lurching over potholes, and scattering the broken stones. Pooja heard the sound fleetingly, muffled by the rain drumming outside. It was a bit after twelve.
Pooja stood in the darkness thinking over her recent conversation with Gauri Tai. Tai had been hesitating, as if she was trying to hide some anxiety.
‘Tai.’ The stove near Pooja sizzled.
‘Do you know where Mahesh is, Pooja?’
‘Mahesh?’ Pooja felt a blankness descend on her. For some days now Mahesh had become someone she didn’t know and now Pooja found she couldn’t conjure up his face at all. All that came to her, almost with the force of the blinding sun, was her shock at seeing that gun under his pillow. There it lay, a neat brown-black thing, its imprint marked on the sheets and still warm from the pillow over it. The gun had seethed with menace and all those secrets she had never wanted to know about Mahesh.
‘Do you know?’ Gauri Tai’s agitated voice sounded very close. Pooja hadn’t known before about the gun, but there under his pillow, on the bed they shared, it looked as if belonged there, more than she did. Mahesh had caught her looking at the gun and then reached for it. For security, he said importantly, his eyes evading hers. Then he had flung the towel, the one he was using to wipe his tousled hair, aside, and rushed away. Moments later, she heard the rev of his motorcycle outside. Pooja had not seen him since then.
Barely weeks ago, she had heard the news of Sneha Desai’s death. Suicide, it was said. And Vasudha had added more detail: Sneha Madam had been driven to it. Hadn’t Pooja, of all people, seen Ghatge’s Mercedes-Benz parked in the lane leading to her clinic, so often, at an odd hour too? To Pooja, the gun seemed a reminder of Mahesh’s association with Ghatge. She did not want to know more.
‘No, Tai. I thought he was with Ghatge Sahib.’
‘With Sahib?’ The cracked note in Gauri Tai’s voice didn’t come from a bad connection. Pooja knew Gauri Tai had not expected this.
‘And Sahib, where is he?’
‘Tai, I haven’t seen him in a while.’ Then she heard the phone click shut.
That had been two hours ago. Now behind Pooja was the door, and she saw the corridor lights on outside. Outside, beyond the unchanging rhythmic fall of rain, she thought she caught someone moving.
In the lane leading to the chawl, Vasudha was moving cautiously, negotiating every puddle, her umbrella held high, moving often whenever the rain became too forceful. Then the lone streetlight showed her up as she stepped over an overflowing gutter. Pooja recognized the zebra-striped umbrella and shook her head. All that business of clearing Sneha Desai’s files had become, for Vasudha, a near obsession.
Soon she would turn into the gate. Her gait was heavier but she moved with a slow assurance. Pooja admired everything about Vasudha. All those times, all those years, and all those questions about her own childlessness, Pooja had never learnt a way to answer. Her childlessness had made her want to hide away. Vasudha, finding herself pregnant and unmarried, had pooja: the evening of the immersion stood up proudly to every question, even those unasked. ‘So, I am not beholden to the world, am I?’ she’d said.
Vasudha moved slowly, but the way she held the umbrella meant there was something else in her hands. Something she was holding onto tightly. As she took the first step into the chawl compound, and Pooja leaned closer, she heard voices. Richard too had been waiting outside. Now she heard Vasudha laughing, the swish of her squelchy slippers on the floor, and then the pause before her own door.
‘Pooja, already asleep?’
Pooja opened the door so quickly that Vasudha fell back. Looking out, she saw Richard lounging against the column, wearing those crazily designed T-shirts he had taken to doing of late. But it was apparently getting him good money too. ‘We are in business in strange ways, Pooja,’ he’d said, half-proudly but even a little embarrassed by his showing-off.
‘I’ve to tell both of you.’ Vasudha held up a plastic blue folder covered by another plastic sheet. She brushed the rain off, and a drop caught Pooja in the eye. ‘This is a prize catch. Now you two just see. Things may happen sooner than you expect.’ Vasudha looked at them both, a wild feverish excitement in her eyes. Then she turned her head, listening intently to something.
‘Can you hear it…? Hush, and you will.’
Pooja heard it more clearly then. Through the rain came the trundling and slow rolling sound of the advancing bulldozer. The rain had lessened but not relented. The three of them, standing by the veranda, heard the grunt and roll, the splash and crunch as wheels rolled over the unevenly tiled road and the rain-marked puddles. A few minutes later all became quiet, the rain gentled and then the wind picked up.
‘There will be more of those in the morning. Bulldozers, I mean. So early that we will never know.’ Vasudha was talking in her breathless quick voice, tripping over her words, and slapping her soaking wet sandals against the veranda. She tore off the loose scarf and ran her fingers through her tangled hair.
‘What’s the time?’ Richard asked.
‘Well past twelve,’ and Pooja yawned in emphasis. Tomorrow she had to begin early. She had placed more buckets in line before the municipal tube well and hoped the other women wouldn’t pick up a quarrel. She needed more water, for there was that school function she had to provide breakfast for. An enormous order of sabudana kichdi, shrikand and modak for an international school that wanted its exchange students to learn about the state and the city they were in. The nuns from the school had especially recommended her.
Now she wondered aloud about putting a couple of more buckets in the line, just at the end. Richard jumped in to offer his help, as if he knew Pooja would turn him down and he wanted to pre-empt her. Vasudha watched them both with an interested expression, before she gently chided Richard. ‘You should help me out more, see my condition.’
‘I have a long day tomorrow,’ Pooja snapped, finally at the end of her tether. ‘I must begin early.’ Later she would remember this day, just as well as she would the one that came after it. It had rained so very heavily. Almost as if it had washed Mahesh away forever.
About the Book:
In Parel’s Jupiter Mills chawl—one of the few remaining in Mumbai—live many long-time residents. Among them, Pooja, restless and trapped in an unhappy marriage, who finds joy in her flourishing dabba service and attempts at learning English, even as her husband Mahesh flirts with the underworld and dreams of zipping through the streets in his boss’s yellow Mercedes-Benz. Pooja’s friend, Vasudha, a scheming single mother who hopes to give her daughter a better life in the treacherous city. And their upstairs neighbour, Dr Joshi, a famed artist, who has hidden away two paintings—one of a murder he witnessed, and the other a striking portrait of Pooja.
In the parallel Mumbai of high-rises that loom over the city’s slums and chawls live the affluent few: Suhel, a confirmed bachelor, who finds himself falling in love—first with a portrait and then its subject, Pooja. An upcoming politician of dubious repute, Mahesh’s boss Ghatge, whose devious intentions could destroy the peace of Jupiter Mills. A young and disturbed journalist Raina Gupta who opens up old wounds when she interviews veteran activist Neera Joshi about the mill-workers’ strike of the 1980s and her scandalous affair with its assassinated leader. And Dr Sneha Desai, a successful but lonely radiologist, fighting to restart her sex-education classes for adolescents in a municipal school.
In the Mumbai of mills and malls where everything—especially land—is at a premium, the chawl becomes the target of greedy real-estate barons and sleazy politicians, thus bringing together this interconnected cast of characters.
As vast and diverse as Mumbai itself, Coming Back to the City draws us effortlessly, completely into the lives of the people who animate the maximum city, even as they are consumed by it—people caught in a web of unexpected love, desperate ambition and endless, addictive optimism.
About the Author:
Anuradha Kumar is the author of eight novels, including Letters for Paul, It Takes a Murder (2013) and two works of historical fiction written under the psuedonym of Adity Kay: Emperor Chandragupta (2016) and Emperor Vikramaditya (2019). She also writes for younger readers, and contributes to Scroll.in, Economic and Political Weekly, thewire.in, theaerogram.com, and other places. She was awarded twice (2004, 2010) for her stories by the Commonwealth Foundation, and has received awards from The Little Magazine and Hindu-Goodbooks.in.
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