Big city nemeses

I get asked a lot of funny questions especially with regards to my name, my heritage, and people I know. Today, for instantce, someone wrote to me with this: ‘Always wanted to ask you this: Did you know Persis Khambatta personally? She is from a place called Khambat and Persian and all that. But died of a heart attack sadly. Mumbai does that to beautiful middle-aged woman. Look at what happened to Parveen Babi and Nafisa Joseph.’

The answer is no. I don’t. I responded, however, with this:

‘Do I know Persis Khambatta. Now my friend, that is like asking me if I know everyone from Khambhat – close to impossible. Or every Persian, even more mind-boggling. Or every Parsi. Highly undesirable. So no, my dear, I do not know her. I think I do understand why you said what you did about Bombay killing beautiful women… I would go a step further though. I think that every colossal city has the power to destroy individuals. If not literally, then certainly at the soul.


Bombay does that millions each day. It kills dreams. It shatters illusions. It engages you in a vicious cycle of EMIs, be it your next electronic buy, or your own sense of failure. You’re always borrowing from better to get better; to arrive, and you only end up poorer.

It forces you into a slavery of despair and isolation. And really, all big cities are themed on loneliness. That, is what finally gets us all. If it comes to you well before death does, you are as good as gone. Pack your suitcases and wait at the station. And don’t forget to take a big book. It might be something of a wait.’

Yesterday I tweeted, ‘Death is beautiful because it is the only real certainty there is. An absolute. An assurance of an end. A non-lie. Our one great truth.’ I must have sounded like I was on a suicide mission and just out of sharp knives at the moment. But it is this precisely that I was speaking of. An ultimate release from our inner and outer hell. I really don’t believe in hell at life. I believe in life and I suppose they are the same.

As an aside, I know that there are many Bombay folks as well as scores of other big city dwellers who will be up in arms with what I’ve said here; this, ‘blasphemy’ of sorts, as it were. But I am actually looking forward to what everyone has to say.

It’s a conversation. Let’s talk.

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12 thoughts on “Big city nemeses

  1. even when they destroy you, and you leave, you can never get it back. small towns where people have returned are medinas for broken zombies. once you are broken, nothing is restored. band-aids are not healing. stitches are not healing. you are infected by loneliness, its a part of the nervous system.

    1. It’s true, then isn’t it, we are all part-broken, part-whole. We are all looking to begin again. Always looking for beginnings, running away from incomplete, half lived existences. Unable to deal with endings. Running again. Always a little broken. Never entirely whole.

      1. it’s the running that causes the fractures to begin with. The monks have known this for aeons, but we don’t listen to them because we have material ambitions and think those are greater than renunciation ambitions.

      2. I was going to say something but “It’s true, then isn’t it, we are all part-broken, part-whole. We are all looking to begin again. Always looking for beginnings, running away from incomplete, half lived existences. Unable to deal with endings. Running again. Always a little broken. Never entirely whole.” hits the nail on it’s head. Couldn’t express this in better words even if I tried.

  2. I don’t know Mumbai, and so can’t speak to the particulars of living there. But having been born in the big city of Seattle, my mantra is: Give Me the City. Sure, I’ve been lonely here, sometimes for long stretches, but the public places – parks, bars, movie theaters – have always kept the four walls from devouring me. And one’s chances of meeting people with whom one has affinities are greater in a large population center. There’s more tolerance, more education, more culture – this is where the light and life are. Living in the country is the last thing I would choose for myself.
    Sure I’m part-broken, but I think a provincial life would have ended me long ago. Here I’ve managed to hold onto my identity and a decent portion of my soul.

    1. I spent part of my childhood growing up on a farm. Hell, it wasn’t even part, it was maybe a year. And then there were summers. I love the country. I love the rude lifestyle it offers. I love that it gives of itself so unselfishly; the clean air, the quietly tumbling waters, the indifferent squawking of birds and bellows of heifers. And the uninterrupted stretch of field, waiting to feed us. Cities steal from me. I have felt robbed in one way or another, be it my health, my sense of identity, or even my need to keep up. Education is not only in schools. For tolerance seek out the animals that make their peace with your presence and share their land with you, and as for culture, why where do you think cities even evolved their cultural centres based on? It all began here, in some way or another and all I am thinking of now is, how do I go back to the start?

  3. Bombay scared me… it was too many people and too little space.
    Big cities are dissociative.. they have split personalities..Some people I met wanted to “settle down” in the US. Some wanted to go back to where they were born.

    For some it was addictive.. the people.. the noises. They could not sleep in their chawls if there were no noises next door.They never wanted to leave.

    I was born in Delhi, but have never felt quite at home here. Mumbai became too lonely a spot after some time. But after staying in a big city, you cannot stay anywhere else. And so you are left struggling trying to get a sense of belongingness for the rest of your life.

    1. Home is a big question mark for me. I am not sure of where exactly I come from or where I belong to. Bombay was a blessing; a boon that became a bane. I first found and then lost myself there. The loneliness, the cyclical doom, the impermeable stench of despair… I left. It’s not for me. And now a few years down the line, I see that no large city can contain me. Like Jonah in the whale, I feel consumed whole and yet struggling, stifled and desperate for escape.

  4. That is a beautiful post. And very true. As much as big cities are alluring with their opportunities, they are also dangerous for our souls.

  5. So true, so fucking horribly true.Suddenly you wonder, the cost of your dreams,friends, lifestyles and family.And then one day,the family you call your own goes beyond blood ties-some lonely distressed soul who found solace in a similar situation like yours, turns out to be a friend who then attends every small function tht your family does.A world of our own, a home of our own, we need to build , live in, and it exists for us even if we were seeming insane to the world. That’s what Big metros do to you soul :).

    PS-I love everything you post 🙂 And @angadc is a hero 🙂

  6. Dear M,

    well, am from Bangalore…ofcourse, you knew that. I have lived here all my life. I grew up watching my uncle/neighbor catch his bus to HAL at 5am and he’d be home by 2. In time to help his wife with the veggies, for coffee in tiny steel glasses. to help with homework, to teach veena between 5-7pm. life then was much simpler. He started his career with HAL and retired there. in 40 or more years of being employed, he bought home a mixer, and a semi automatic washing machine. well, they still use it and use it well. he is in-effected by EMI’s, car loans, credit cards, Malls. why do I tell you about this? I’d like to believe that B’lore is big city but there is hope. I recently met them and now they live with their daughter and nothing much has changed. There is so much beauty in the relationship they share between eachother. I envy them, i wish for a simpler time, I wish I can live that simpler life. Now, how many of us can work with semi-automatic and public transportation. You could say his aspirations were low, not competitive, didn’t make it big, no car? wtf! Hell, I’d say that too. Then this frail lady walked out with coffee in tiny steel glasses and he plucked out curry leaves from their “kitchen garden” patch. my “wishlist” dear M, was put to shame. this city didn’t feel so big after all.

  7. Every place has an inherent power to destroy – cities and villages included. One can be destroyed even when in the company of the best intentioned people around you. It’s not only about what places give to and take from us, it’s also about what we give to and take from places. Places grow on us, within us. We grow on places, within places. Our engagement with places is pretty akin to our engagement with people – the initial excitement of the introduction, the exploration of personalities, the finding and hoping of common ground and interest, the need for acceptance, the fights for acknowledgement, the trembling yearning for and wanting to be solely ‘owned’, the cries for plea which ‘ours’ ignore…the tears when relationships end. If you feel cities have stolen from you, have you not done the same, or gained in some way?True, education in not only in schools. People who thinks are bloody myopic fools. Education in is in every minute of life….So, how does one get back to the start? By starting where one currently is. Easier said than done, but that is the truth. The “start” is a mirage, a relative goal post. How do you go back to something that is constantly changing and emerging into the new? The start is “now”, but wait…it just became the past. Stay true to yourself wherever you are, who ever you might be and in what ever you are doing. That is how you stay in,at and away from the start.

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