The Itinerants of Mumbai

February 6, 2009

David and Charmayne de Souza’s book is a tale about Mumbai and the numerous roads that connect it to the rest of the world. Through the turns and twists of life, the city once seen as a refuge from nomadism, an heir of sedentary agrarian life, becomes the most vibrant stage for itinerants from everywhere. A stage vividly alive with other worldly songs, dances, colors and stories, which invites us to dream of hitting the road, leave all things behind, rely on providence, put on a colorful dress, paint one’s face, tattoo this bodily vehicle of ours, and dance our way through. Like madmen who have finally recovered themselves not by sitting back in an illusory normality but by engaging fully with their fantasies, using imagination, myth and tradition as weapons for survival.

With the rigor of a scientist, David catalogues the itinerant species of Mumbai. He abstracts them from their context and captures them in their most heightened spirits. His photo gallery of characters is reminiscent of our old biology labs, where obsessive professors kept exotic creatures in formalin. Charmayne sets the subjects of David’s photos back into movement through poetic inspiration. Her writing reminds us of the mythical dimension of itinerant life, which is present in every civilization. Sedentary societies have indeed always had an ambivalent relationship to the people of the wind, as Japanese villagers call them. Itinerants have been perceived in turns as indispensable trading partners, threatening agents of change and as objects of desire. David and Charmayne’s images and words bring to life some of the multiple avatars of that nomadic spirit that all of us carry deep inside and which refuses to leave.

This is probably why, turning these pages, even those of us who chose or inherited comfort and security cannot help but sigh at the thought of these untied lives, which seem to be fed by faith and magic more than anything else. Of course nomadic life, as intense and meaningful as it can be, is usually driven by necessity more than choice. But for an instant, it is liberating to believe that most of the people in this book would never trade itinerancy for routine and standardization.

Itinerants have by definition traveled through all kinds of roads and crossed all kinds of bridges. Poverty, subjugation, creativity, freedom and spirituality have proved to be the most difficult and slippery terrains, where one easily slides from one state to the other. And yet, evolving on these edges, itinerants have unsettled feudal political regimes more than any democratic system ever could. All through history, they produced heterodox spiritual kingdoms and challenged caste and tribal identities.

In Mumbai, itinerants are at home. This is after all, a city in which the street is king. It is here that the rules of urbanism seem to bend backwards, where the streets stop being just thoroughfares, where the evolutionary linearity of hamlet, village and town become fuzzy and where the home and the road become, quite literally, one and the same.

The itinerants of Mumbai are of many different kinds. Several of them may well have discovered the thrills and perils of the road only on arriving here. A large number could have moved from the world of subjugation to that of freedom on reaching here.  A fair amount would never consider their lives enviable and would be actually quite willing to trade it for middle-class comforts any day. Most may want to escape the streets altogether. But none would deny the fact that, if there is one place that is paradoxically reminiscent of the freedom that forests provided in the past to all those who wanted to escape, it is this city.

Every morning in Mumbai’s urban jungle, the multitude wakes up before the sun and chases the night away. Bats, rats and cockroaches go hide underground and the magnificent buzz starts. Those who have slept on the streets wake up to the blaring horns of taxis and buses. They find little niches in between buildings and by-lanes to use as washrooms. They open up boxes on pavements and transform them into stalls, enshrine trees with fresh flowers and incense, serve chai to the early crowd. Very soon they are dwarfed by the millions of commuters who march in rhythm to the city’s arcane industrial work ethic. While salaried men and women commute from home to office, from office to the supermarket and back, itinerants go nowhere. In the street only the sedentary kind must move, if possible in an AC car. The nomads are at home, right then and there, and everywhere.

The urbanite is often quite uncomfortable with this city’s most idiosyncratic citizens. That is because they seem to be so at ease in his landscape. Before he sees it coming someone knocks on the car window demanding a few rupees in exchange for a prayer, a flower or a book. Somehow it always feels wrong to refuse the trade, as if it the hawkers were actually asking for nothing but their due. The sedentary car user comes to terms with the nature of reversals, brings the window down and makes a deal. It is encounters like this one, multiplied a million times, that saves this city day after day. For all its shortcomings and in spite of a recent rise in nationalist politics, Mumbai has proved to be an urban oasis for many migrants and travelers ever since the first fishermen settled on its shores. It is the capacity of Mumbaikars to accept a high level of promiscuity with strangers that has made it so safe despite the vertiginous divides existing between castes and classes.

Itinerants become human connectors in an increasingly divided yet interdependent world. As much as the pathways and signals mediate roads and neighbourhoods, itinerants constantly connect the city’s many different dimensions to one another. They are the x-factor that allows this exuberant unpredictable city to function day after day. It is these ever-present encounters that make us realize how full of mad contrasts the city is. Where one brushes shoulders with ipod listening teenagers one moment and the very next, faces a tribal ritual masochist doing a thousand year old dance. Further down the lane, one come across the last of a dying breed of water carriers using ancient goatskin pouches walking past piles of used mineral water bottles.  One can hear a knife sharpener’s wheel screaming, next to a well-stocked shopping mall selling everything under the sun,

David and Charmayne’s ode to Mumbai’s itinerants makes the reader aware of these contrasts through their own distinct approaches. The portraits isolate them in the stark environment of the studio while the poems re-connect them to their contexts like light, near invisible strings.

They wake up the sedated jaded urbanite who turns away from their incongruity but has registered their presence and at the end of the day is actually blessed to be connected to the world wide web of the mystic, astrologer, eunuch or beggar. They provide that touch of fantasy, that glimmer of otherness that saves him from that very urban brand of autism proliferated by global media and consumerist culture. This coalescing of different moments, eras, epochs, and state of minds is what makes the streets of Mumbai so special. David and Charmayne remind us that their exhilarating unpredictability is predicated as much on run-of-the-mill disorder, civic mismanagement and individual idiosyncrasies as it is on the genuine love of unpredictability of the city’s inhabitants.

Itinerants wind up embodying the roads they inhabit. Not just its smell and hues but also its edginess, roughness and straightforwardness. This can been seen most sharply when the context is erased. In a photographer’s studio, which invisiblizes the city, the subjects in sharp focus become just as disconcerting as an empty, silent city on a day of curfew. Paradoxically, this evacuation of context only makes us understand the affectionate relationship of the street and its myriad squatters even better. The street is to Mumbaikars what the sea is to fishermen.

The book builds on several such reversals. It successfully generates the impression that it is not the reader watching these personas but the other way around. The itinerants look back amused at our child-like fascination as we gaze at them. They come with their pride and smiles and snap at our faces, waking us up for an instant from our sedentary somnolence.

They unsettle us for many reasons.

They convince our resistant minds that that the man with a painted face, outrageous dress and clinking necklaces is in fact truer to himself than the suited man driving by on his way to office. Is there anything more discomfiting than a head on confrontation with the self-conscious celebration of nomadic life and its exquisite liberty? Is there anything more transformative than the realization that the beggar and the hooker are actually richer than their patrons? Is there anything more radical than accepting the fact that the greatest perceived victim is actually a fearless master of his life?

David & Charmayne de Souza’s book “Itinerants, the Nomads of Mumbai” is available in all good bookstores.  In case you cannot find it and would like to purchase it contact us and we will put you in touch with them.

6 Comments »

  1. What a well researched book it seems. Delighted that some one has taken so much trouble to document these colourful migratory birds who add a dash of some forgotten moments of our childhood.

    Comment by sudeshna Chakraborti — March 17, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

  2. [...] From airoots. [...]

    Pingback by itinerants of mumbai « coromandal — April 22, 2009 @ 6:02 am

  3. Thanks for sharing these gorgeous photos! David is an amazing photographer! I know Charmayne and know how glorious her words can be. I would like to have seen the accompanying poetry!

    Comment by Martha Hales — June 4, 2009 @ 4:45 am

  4. Excellent concept!

    Comment by Rajiv Mathew — June 18, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

  5. The book sounds absolutely fascinating!! I will look for it. And loved meeting these itinerants again after all these years away from Mumbai…

    Comment by Sushmita — October 2, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

  6. Amazing research, hats off to Mr. David.
    he’s an amazing photographer…
    Mr. David I lost your number it would be great if I get that again. please contact me if possible. I’m the guy who you hired at the launch of this book in New Delhi. remember I’m Sagar.
    please contact of on 9891052561. thank you.

    Comment by Sagar Arora — May 5, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.