It was a late afternoon in June. The white Honda Civic was waiting for us at the lobby. R and I were supposed to take the car and reach Bandra West . At “4:30, sharp!” – was what the Bee (the British punctuality bug personified) had left us with in the morning.
It had been 7-days since we had arrived in Mumbai. The Bee’s new company had put us up at a lavish apartment, with the bedrooms and the drawing-room opening into balconies overlooking the Worli Seaface. Monsoon had just set in, so while the Bee was away, the sky, the Arabian Sea and its lashing waves kept R and me busy. I also tried to effectively engage the brat in some writing and arithmetic to cork her young greys cells from rusting with excessive televiewing.
This particular day was the first day of our house hunting in Mumbai (and no, we hadn’t fussed at all about shubh muhurat, tithi, nakhshtra – but coming to think of it now, may be we should have!).
The Bee, who had better knowledge about Mumbai (having been in and out of the city on countless occasions) ruled out the possibility of living in town (hold on!) if we didn’t like anything decent between Napeansea Road and Mahalaxmi or stretching it a little more, in Worli. Also out was living in a suburb like Chembur, which “is literally closer to Pune than Mumbai”. So we pinned our hopes on Bandra West and Pali Hill.
That afternoon, riding through the happy by lanes of Bandra, I felt more and more at home – like I had on my earlier visits. The bustling restaurants, rocking pubs, neat rows of haute couture outlets and designer galleries with a healthy sprinkling of art galleries and theatres – all amply hinted at a “hep & happening” suburban life and promised a robust social life. The sights, smells, sounds of Bandra had me spiralling downwards in love already, now I fell in love with the windows, balconies, doorways of Bandra as well. I made mental notes of names of apartment stories – to urge the real estate broker to fetch us one.
The car halted bringing my daze back to consciousness. Our first stop for the evening was ‘Sunflower building’, the wiry broker in a much worn shirt and trouser and a worldly-wise smile told us. I had already started to walk into the large-ish wrought iron gate with a uniformed gate man whose hand was also in mid-air in a salute to greet me.
“Madam, this way please.” The hand in mid-air dropped back to its earlier position of guarding the gates from intruders as I gazed past the gate into an innocuous alley. The apology to a sunflower, Sunflower (building) stood hidden from sunlight (permanently) in a dark alley between two large condominiums. Have you heard the sound of your hopes crashing around you like broken glass? Well, I’m sure everybody standing around me that day did! The three of us looked in utter disbelief at each other and then in unison at the broker.
The Channel V “brought to you Bai”, oops, the wiry, worldly-wise broker couldn’t have hurled the reality back at us any better than “Itna paise me itnaich milega!”
Suddenly the multinational HRA seemed a pittance and we rode on the fastest slide down from feeling “upper middle class NRIs” to “lower middle class Mumbaikars” in the shortest span of time.
“Yeh pahela wala hai. Naya TDR building, niche char mala bangla tha, upar se pillar dal ke bara mal banaya pichhlasaal”
“Are rest of the buildings you are showing us today the same?’ I dared to ask.
“Itna paise me aisaich milega.”
“Itna paise me aisaich milega.”
By the time evening came to an end we had wizened with the ways of the Maximum City:
We could, with the HRA we were proud of only a day ago, live in a 850 sq. ft flat in Bandra, or a TDR building, or in rundown apartments assigned to MPs in Worli!
Living in South Mumbai, that is between Cuff Parade and Malabar Hills meant paying a rent of anything between 3 lakhs and 5 lakhs. “CEO log bahut raheta udhar?”
The rentals seemed to dip slightly between Mahalaxmi and Prabhadevi – a “reasonable hai” amount between 2.5 lakhs and 3.5 lakhs. That takes one to Bandra, and Bandra being Bandra was hopeful to fetch anything between 1.5 lakhs and 3 lakhs depending on the super built up area, not the carpet area!
By the time we reached the outer perimeter of Khar and almost crossed into Santacruz, the rentals seemed to have come within the outer fringes of the HRA. So why not Khar?
Khar had wonderful houses with an old worldly charm, renowned neighbourhood schools, a brimming Sindhi population and … erm … and thus vegetarian housing societies (!) where a whiff of anything that moved before it got cooked called for an eviction notice.
And we didn’t want to chase the goose down the Western Express highway from Santacruz past JVPD all the way to Andheri, Goregaon, Kandivili. So we switched expressways and started looking in Chembur, along the Eastern express highway. Between Worli and Chembur? No!
Chembur – the heartland of Tamilians in Mumbai. Green, quiet, some predominant Sindhi societies but also some good old Bangali societies (so we could have continued being carnivores), it promised fish markets selling Bangali fish and “true blue” Bangali vegetables like “Mocha” and “Thor” – so why did we move away from Chembur? The neighbourhood boasted of a fine educational institution which shut its window on my face (literally!) after bawling out a tirade of “no admissions available now!”.
And ever since that seemed to predominate our search. Looking for a school before we found a house. “But what will happen if we do secure the admission in a decent school and do not get a decent accommodation in the vicinity?”, we wondered aloud – the egg and chicken game was in play already.
I admit that we were also difficult to please. We wanted a 3 BHK of 1700 sq. ft, preferably on a higher floor, balconies, good view outside the window and not shanties, preferably in a new building, a big lift for the packers to deliver our belongings (which lay sealed in a container on the other shore of the Arabian Sea, waiting for an address) with ease and least damage.
And we made unreasonable demands – walking into a house fitted with wardrobes, we wanted them removed to fit in ours, in a house that had purple and yellow “designer” walls we demanded pearly white walls, a house that came complete with bare CFLs jutting out from sockets in ceilings and walls we wanted them to be covered with shades, we wanted our paintings up on bare walls, in short “sonar pathorbati” – loosely meaning a marble bowl of gold. Baffling!
A little over a month into this quest for the Holy Grail, we came to a new turn, the 2000 sq. ft guesthouse on the 12th floor facing the Arabian Sea, very politely pointed out that our stay was nearing its expiry, the company only stipulated for a month. In most cases, they also pointed out, the employees find a house, car and school in this one month. We were sure that this held true for simpler folks with simpler demands…
On one of those days, riding through a busy street in town, the nomadic life seemed unbearable. I wanted to be there, in the midst of life, where there was so much happening – Kala Ghoda, Fort, Colaba, Leopold, Sterling, Tea Centre, – I wanted it all. We were approaching the Mahalaxmi Race Course by then, a steel and glass tower showered fire from a welder and I looked skyward in an earnest prayer, wishing for the impossible to happen in Maximum City. I desired for a home nestled in the clouds, overlooking a wide expanse of water, with enough space to hold us along with our tables, chairs, sofas, beds, pots, pans, books and greens. To this absurd wish list I added the wishes of a decent neighbourhood, a good school for R, a park, a promise of ‘life worth living’ with enough shopping and dining (hmmm…) a corner bookshop and of course a respectable gentry, phooof!
And one of those days, after the packers had left, the dust had settled and I had sent the Li’l R off to her school, I finally put my feet up and sipped my coffee. Then it struck me! We had landed ourselves a 32nd floor perch, an enviable address, with a wonderful view of the lakes in the hills (of course one has to crane the neck out at a 33 degrees angle from the extreme right hand corner of the drawing-room french window) and a handful of shopping and dining. But in my impossible list which was just made possible (by some universal conspiracy) I had forgotten to mention two essential elements of everyday life – “a house in town” which was “near work”! Silly me! How I wish I had wished with a little more foresight!