It’s been months since I stepped off a train and on to Mumbai station. As my train pulls into Victoria Terminus, I am confronted by the bustle of the pulsating crowds that swarm the station. I stand on the mucky platform and watch them for a few seconds, a motley of faces, voices, dialects: until one of them pulls his wheeled bag over my little toe. I cringe in the jolt of pain that shoots through me, but he has already walked on. I suppress a smile of recognition. I missed the unapologetic flurry of this city.
Unthinkingly, I stroll out of the station, and begin to walk. I look more at my shoes than at the city around me, and it takes me half an hour of walking to reach Strand and make me realize that I haven’t forgotten everything after all. Another twenty minutes, and I am in a part of town I had not bargained for. Rows of tall, embellished glass doors confront me–glinting temptingly in the morning sun. They blind me, attract me, frighten me, invite me; all at once. Bags, shoes and coats shimmer at me from behind the clear glass of each store–an inexplicable force drawing me closer to them by the minute.
I shake my head in amusement. I never will understand what goodies lie in stores like these. My intention is to walk on, but it seems my brain has other plans. What I do next is uncharacteristic and absurd. I have not been able to wrap my head around it to this day.
I take a long, deep breath and brace myself for what I’m going to walk into, and then swing the door open. The breath was in vain for I cannot hold back the gasp that springs to my lips–I let it escape me.
Rows of bags, shoes, hats and clothes adorn the warm, cream walls. The room is conditioned to just the right temperature. The staff smiles with just the right degree of conviction. It’s all just right. Louis Vuitton. Heaven.
My star-struck gaze wanders over every inch of unflinching glamour that is the store, till it finally settles on the floor-length mirror before me. The antithesis to it all. My jeans are worn, t-shirt loose (warranted: it’s my dad’s) right down to my favourite orange sneakers. The ones I wear with everything.
‘Can I help?’ the man is politely engaging.
‘No thanks. Just looking.’ I smile.
He returns my smile indulgently and then returns to the woman and a pair of black leathers he had been coaxing her to buy.
She is dressed in all the appropriate kind of twinkle-town garb. Her feet, though, are bare; they rest on the velvet carpeting, patiently allowing her to dress them with shoe after painful shoe.
I take a long saunter around the store, flaunt my unbeknownst Louis Vuitton knowledge till everyone is sufficiently impressed, then settle for examining a single pair of ankle-high, cherry boots.
As I continue to stare, like a voracious, albeit maniacal raptor, the man with the all-too-indulgent smile taps me on the shoulder and holds out a pair of the boots. ‘Your size.’
I slip them on in silent wonder: they fit perfectly. And look gorgeous.
Then, I stand up.
My toes feel like Nazis are shoving wooden splinters under the nails. I smile for the cameras for a couple of minutes, then slip them off, as nondescriptly as I can.
A minute later, Miss Appropriately Dressed buys a pair in her size. She winks at me on her way out–says she wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t put them on. I grin, tell her she’s lucky I have nice legs.
I grin at the manager, too, and walk out a second later.
Once out, I suck in the salty air, walk for half a kilometer, before I realize I’ve forgotten to tie my shoelaces. So I stop, and tie them like I had been taught as a child–a knot, bunny ears–one loop around the other. It’s a meticulous task, I give it its fair share of time. In that time, I take a minute to reminisce about my childhood in these very streets. How long it has been, since I could call Bombay home. How long since I could navigate around the city blindfolded. How long, since I grew up.
I secure my last loop and start to get up when I notice how tall the Colaba buildings are; how far the sea really stretches. The six o’clock crowd comes bustling out of their offices, and all of a sudden, I am engulfed by people.
For a split second, I forget where I am, where I want to go. I think of home. Of safe, comfortable Pune, where everybody knows my name.
Bombay, I decide, is like those red leathers–glamorous, seductive, alluring. She used to be home, but before I knew it, she was metamorphosing into the mistress. And the transformation was complete. She makes me feel like I can fulfill my dreams, and be desirable, and beautiful, and everything I want to be.
Pune is like my sneakers. She’s comfortable, and cozy, and has the exact amount of ennui to make life just right. She will always be home, regardless.
Then, I wonder, is Bombay’s nausea and fear-inducing glamour worth its salt?
But before I can give it another thought, I see the lady with her new Louis Vuitton bag–and she stoops to tie her sneakers.
And I know. I know that she, Bombay, is worth every grain.
Even with a really bad shoe bite.
Illustration by Zainab Varawalla