When a Familiar City Becomes a Eulogy of Loss

Being born in Mumbai, I inherited the syntax of its distinct vocabulary. The undulant range of people as vibrant as the thrum of the Arabian Sea, smells of mogra, gulab, and champa from Dadar market, and songs of fishermen as Marine Drive gleams with the first light of dawning. I lived in the city for a solid twenty-seven years, before the living-out-of-suitcases life began.

When you live in a city for a long time, its topography begins to assimilate into your bloodstream. The everyday becomes a repertoire of meditation, which frames itself in your eyes. During my early to mid-twenties, I began close reading the change in landscape. Often, I would observe that trees were cut to be replaced by billboards overnight. I could not leave unnoticed the under-eye strain in every rickshawala or bazaar vendor—nor that the Mithi River was turned into a sewage pond. The anatomy of a familiar city became a nostalgia, as if a hairpin bend, or a curve of dissonance. Mumbai was a city of wings despite the lurking solitude. Now, there was sound everywhere—as though the decibel were an apologia for something else.

­­ Mumbai is the city where I first encountered grief in close quarters, after my mother’s passing. I do not know if she, too, spent over two decades silently exploring the decay. My father arrived in Mumbai as a young man on the brink of a half-lived boyhood. The eldest of all sons, he set out to make a livelihood for his family in a village in south India. He often alludes to places with the old name of a theater or school in proximity. Senior taxicab drivers give him a glimpse of familiarity—but the younger generation ask for directions with an unfamiliar gaze. At those junctures, I intervene to utter names of more recent establishments as a synecdoche for the area. We lived out the atrocity of intergenerational knowingness, of recollection, rewriting, and erasure.

During my sophomore year in college, I began visiting St. Michael’s Church in Mahim. I made a ritual of visiting the church only when there were little or no people—after the muffled prayers of crowds gathered for mass had been left to echo in the condensation of night. I went while there was a stoic silence: when I could envision the outside as being a firm rim of concrete and sounds were interlocked in the tainted windows. The city had begun to hold numberless people without real care for any, and my apartment was an oasis of temporal solace. In hindsight, the church was one place where I could measure the length and breadth of space. Where do the loners walk if not in the space between graveyards to lurk among the parabolas of silent things?

When I was a young girl, my parents often visited a temple from where the Arabian Sea was visible. I accompanied them only to look forward to the few moments where sea mist and a widening orb of space juxtaposed. I stood on one corner in the courtyard premises of the temple and stared at the sea for a long time. It was a place where the noonday sun reflected on our brows, as gusts of wind eased the soaring temperature. Those things made me familiar with the muzzle and heft of what it means to be a part of a place. The city where I was first acquainted with divinity—where the refract of sky between its open-mouthed invitation had been slowly turning into a paradox of ecological dwindle.

It was the city that gave me work to earn my first livelihood. I worked as the youngest subeditor with a newspaper. I reported the 26/11 terror attack live, walked the streets as though it were a home that needed fierce protection. For the duration of that day in November in 2008, I had a feeling of an expanding in my lungs, as though overshot with oxygen, as though something in me was waiting to burst. I wanted to hold my city in my lap and cradle it like a mother would comfort a weeping child.

I was twenty-five when I first thought of leaving the city. I left for Europe when I was twenty-six. I knew I was leaving behind a city that had begun to turn into a dark tunnel. If cities are animals, Mumbai was a howling tiger in a cage, in need of escape. If cities are birds, Mumbai was a koyal in need of water for its parched throat. If cities are forests, Mumbai longed for photosynthesis and evergreens.

There was a time when I lived in Mumbai, during the last five years, when all I saw around were funeral processions, or embalming offices. The deaths were a larger reckoning of scarcity. My last memory of the city is of encountering another dead body on the street. There are so many people in Mumbai that the loss of one person, or a few people, is not thought of as being a loss. I thought of how a beloved city can transform into something intangible, akin to the grief we hold in our bodies.

What remains of a body lodged in a city far too long? I have lost people often and can imagine the mourning. The length and breadth of plenitude, and the subterranean sorrow on everyone’s face. When I first began living alone here, I was sure this was the only city where I could be. Every time I got out of my apartment, there was a vastness of the sea—or the prospect of something familiar.

If you stay long enough in a city, it reverberates inside you as both a celebration and a mourning. I traveled out of the city and have stayed away too long now. When memory is a veil of exposure through which the fullness of tides is visible, I can still sometimes smell the radiance of flowers. I have argued with friends that Mumbai does have seasons—if one bothers to watch closely. Now I trace the months on a calendar like a distant call, the sound of a train whistle or fog that engulfs before the onset of rain to participate in a collective mourning.

Sneha Subramanian Kanta is the recipient of the inaugural Vijay Nambisan Fellowship 2019. She was the Charles Wallace Fellow writer-in-residence (2018-2019) at the University of Stirling. An awardee of the GREAT scholarship, she has earned a second postgraduate degree in literature from the University of Plymouth. Her dissertation concentrated on a comparative literature study exploring postcolonial ecocriticism in the works of Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh. She is the founding editor of Parentheses Journal.