"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City
three. orienting & venturing.
the other morning while at the internet cafe I aural-spied on a couple from new york – documentary filmmakers – as they tried to make arrangements to meet with interviewees for their film. it wasn’t really spying, as you really have to yell to be heard on the payphone there, which means conversations are public events. at one point she sighed with exasperation to her husband: “it takes four times as long to get anything done here!” I was both disdainful and sympathetic at once – I know what she means, but you have to learn to love, or at least accept, this aspect if you ever want to really be in this city.
learning to be here. I have thought about the experience of falling hard in love, and the past few days (still less than a week?) have not been dissimilar. the excited uneasiness. the complete viscerality of learning about someone. becoming comfortable here has been one of the most physical experiences I have ever had – the heaviness of the air, the constant near brush-up against the speeding vehicle, the jostling, the waiting, the dangling out of the train car to feel air rush by on my face. I have discovered the trains, and thankfully I feel invigorated about my proposal. walking the length of the churchgate station platform the other night almost made me burst with joy -- so many bodies so quickly, it was like being in a river where the current sweeps you along. one of the closest things to wilderness I have yet encountered in an urban environment, the movement of people so insistant and necessary and utterly…unglamorous. like water – which knows not to be beautiful, but just is by virtue of its compulsions. although I have not ridden the full extent of the lines I have incorporated them into my early explorations, which have allowed me to venture further and further north into the city. which is huge. colaba is a weird safe haven of travelers – you’d never know that on day one, when even colaba feels like a jungle. after a couple days of truly getting lost, finding myself in alleys and streets with my compass in hand (literally. my most trusted guide has been to head due west at times – thanks for the tip, jc), I feel more physically absorbent. I’m not tripping on every other torn up sidewalk brick. I can walk with more confidence. find that ambiguous safety zone between opposing lanes of traffic. I’m learning to wait to buy my ticket.
each informal exploration I have been on – and it’s only been three or four, hard to imagine – makes me feel like a child learning a new language. I have never learned so much in so little time. the way everything is compressed and layered one upon the other – in a city of 15 million space is of the ultimate. space beneath highways, train tracks, rights of way, medians, EVERYTHING is inhabited. walking along marine drive a couple of nights ago: even this most cosmopolitan and famous of promenades where the city’s joggers can be found is squeezed. within a 200meter section you have moved from the overcrowded train line and it’s garbage-ridden tracks, across a cricket field, 8 lanes of traffic, an overpass, and a promenade, to reach the edge of the sea. further along, the highway off-ramp squeezes the promenade, and houses a restroom underneath. the lengths of all the rail tracks are inhabited, oddly becoming solitary spaces for people using the bathroom, or simply wandering. even as a crowded train rushes by there is anonymity in speed: everyone sees but no one can stop. the water’s edge too becomes a field in touch with the infinite, again for personal business or the contemplative, depending on the area of the city you’re in. the way bodies and machines come so close to each other here: stoplights are heeded but the cross walk is irrelevant. the horn rules the street, the foot wide median not so much to prevent collision but to provide the (sometimes known as) jaywalker with a stopover point between this-side and that-side. cars are a nuisance to pedestrians as much as pedestrians are a nuisance to cars. people jump off trains before they’ve stopped, nearly skidding onto the platform; they lower themselves into the track trench to cross over, rather than going all the way around to get to the opposite platform. there is little sense of the spatially sacred or off-limits. it makes me wonder: all those “danger: electric third rail” signs we find in the u.s. has anyone ever tested to see if they’re real?
and this machine-body proximity & boundary irreverence is the least of it. as I spend more time here and the shock of constant overstimulation gives way to a more sustainable frame of mind, some things become much harder. the luxury Taj hotel and the half-alive malnourished, the cab driver who must make sure not to run over the feet of the small naked child who stands in traffic, sucking on mango skin. this co-existence is devastating. but I also second guess this shocked reaction – not to the gross disparity between the haves and have-nots, but to the way in which one is not hidden from the other, as so often happens in other, more comfortable cities. it is as sarah said the last night at dinner: there is something more honest about nothing being hidden, as distressing as it is. and. IT. IS. typed on a laptop acquired at an unimagineable sum for many who live here.
to be here one must go with the flow – and the flow, I am finding, is a raging river, which both intoxicates, and breaks.