Pleased to share Chapter 1 of my book-in-progress “The Wooden Eggs: Memoir of a ten-year-old Mumbaikar“. It’s a story of my childhood days as narrated to my boys giving them a glimpse of my past life. I hope you enjoy reading it too!
Please feel free to share your inputs in the comments section to make this chapter engaging and entertaining.
Mumbai is a great city, not because I live here, but because it feels like home. My family is originally from Kerala, the southern part of India. We moved to Mumbai for better prospects like most people who were migrating in those days.
I was born in Kerala and when I turned three, my parents decided to move to this city, and by this time I also had a younger brother. It was heartbreaking for me to leave my hometown, my grandparents, uncle & aunties, and especially my dog Jimmy and a goat who were my close buddies.
In Mumbai, we lived in, what’s popularly known as, chawls. A chawl in those days were housing units occupied by lower-income but gainfully employed migrant families. It was quite obvious that people living in chawls had very little privacy, and due to close proximity with other families, trivial news and gossip traveled quickly, almost everyone knew about everyone else and would always linger in one another’s home. Yet, these factors were conducive to a friendly atmosphere, with help and support always available whenever needed.
People generally would keep their doors open throughout the day and close them late at night, which means there would be neighbor/s walking into the doors anytime during the day. My Mom took a while to adjust to such a lifestyle but I think I liked it that way for the most part. Of course, there were instances when I also needed some space for myself.
Sadly in the first couple of days after moving to this city, I realized that people in my neighborhood were more fond of my younger brother than me. They would either ignore me or push me aside, and this continued for a very long time. Now, you must be wondering why did they do that to me.
I know this sounds silly but the fact was that compared to my younger brother, my skin shade was way darker. My brother had a light-skinned complexion and he was healthier too. So, since he was more attractive than me, our neighbors showed him a lot of favoritism. Gradually though, I got accustomed to this biasedness and buried the feelings of rejection deep within.
They say Mumbai is a city of dreams, that is why my Dad came to work in this city right after finishing his SSLC. We’ve heard that story a countless number of times, Dad never gets tired of telling it over and over again.
“SSLC was equivalent to graduation those days” Mom would tell us whenever we inquired. His education earned him an apprenticeship job in a reputed company as a tuner and fitter, but within a span of two years he got a job in the gulf, and as it is the tradition with most Malayalees, he grabbed the opportunity and left abroad. My Mother who hardly knew Hindi, the main local language, stayed on with two boys to look after.
The kind of chawl we lived in was long-stretched row houses, laid next to the other, and divided by a single brick wall. Since the walls were not too thick, we could hear almost everything happening in the other two houses.
Our neighbor to the left was a Muslim family, the Bukhari’s with 6 children, two boys, and 4 girls. We shared a very complicated relationship with them, in the sense, sometimes they behaved very kindly and polite but other times, for no apparent reason, they acted quite indignant and cross.
The head of the family who was popularly known as ‘Chacha’ in our locality, was a very strict and disciplined man. He appeared to be someone who knew about a lot of things but would always mock others for their silly mistakes. I was a bit afraid of him and would avoid getting too close.
Right in front of our house was the road (a narrow lane), which was our playground! Cricket, marbles, tag, hide and seek, lagori (a game from the Indian subcontinent involving a ball and a pile of flat stones, generally played between two teams in a large outdoor area), aba dubi (a game where a chaser will run behind you and hit you with a rubber ball, almost crushing your spine, at least, that’s what it felt like) and football were some of the regular games we kids played on the road.
While playing these games we had to be extremely careful that we don’t cause any nuisance and the ball doesn’t land in the Bukhari compound because if it did, there was a strong chance of not getting it back.
Chachi, the wife of Chacha, is a sweet lady in my opinion. She is very friendly with my mother but much afraid of her husband.
Munna, his second son, and I are of the same age and I am always compared with him.
“Look at Munna studying”
“Look at Munna helping his Mom”
“Look at Munna caring for his sister”
“Look at Munna …” soon became a slogan for me, and after a while, it didn’t bother me as much.
In the house to the right lived a bunch of bachelors from Kerala, some of them were drunkards and smokers. Every other day we would hear fights and abuses from their house. As we were from the same State, we found them to be good-natured with us. However, my Mom strictly prohibited us from entering their house.
Generally, though, these men would mind their own business. They worked in mills all through the day and would come home to spend the night.
Our colony was known to be quite notorious in those days, especially because of a gang leader called Rafiq, who lived two houses away from ours. He was a good looking, well built, young man, who was infamously known for corrupt activities. I didn’t know exactly what he did but on the outside, he appeared to be a friendly guy.
They are a family with many children and one of his brothers, named Imran was a friend of mine. We used to play marbles and other games together.
I heard rumors that their family-owned around nearly 100 swords and knives. Riots were a frequent scene in our area because of the crime committed by gangsters. Once I witnessed with my own eyes, Rafiq’s mother and sisters distributing swords to men who came to collect it from them to engage in gory assaults with their rivals.
To be honest, ignorant as I was, I thought it was sort of cool to own a sword and dreamt of becoming like Rafiq when I grew up, a don whom people feared. Bollywood movies in those times influenced me to pursue such a goal.
But one day that dream came shattering down when we heard of the news that the gang leader, Rafiq was shot dead in the middle of the road by one of his enemies. Even now I clearly remember that day; I was returning home from school with my brother but the lane was overcrowded with people who come to see his dead body that we had to find a narrow passage close to the sewage pipes to reach our house. We were so relieved to get home safe.
Right in front of our house, on the other side of the road, lived a Maharastrian family; the Patkars. Out of all the families in our neighborhood, we were closer to this family. The couple had three daughters and a son, all of whom were older to us. We used to play carrom and a whole lot of other games together. They even took care of us when Mom had to go out for some errands.
So, even though we lived in a big city with 8 million people at that time, for our family, the colony we lived in and the surrounding area was our world. But there was a part of me that longed to discover what lies ahead beyond these borders.