Sounds of Skylines

Part 6/13 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.


Even though I have never lived in India, being here feels safe to me. In the last 24 hours, I ventured out of Colaba and visited several other places in the city. Marine Drive, a strip of land which hugs the coast, and affords a view of the Mumbai skyline (or rather, one of Mumbai’s skylines) and the Arabian Sea. Here, I encountered the Indian coast for the first time. Facing West, I thought of all of the places that one would encounter along the way if they were to travel to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea from here. The Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, West Africa, not to mention the vast underwater life along the way. Couples and groups of friends sat along the shore, talking and joking and watching the gently lapping waves. A wedding party celebrated on a nearby street, and the drums they played were clearly audible. The music, though distant, went well with the vibe on Marine Drive. It all felt very colorful and open, and something in me smiled. If anything has defined my experience of the world’s coastlines thus far, it is that vibrancy, eclecticism, and sea air tend to go hand-in-hand.

From there, we visited Malabar Hill, a verdant, though populous neighborhood where my mother spent her teenage years. The sights and sounds here were enhanced by the memories she shared as we drove through the area. Given that I continue to divide my time between the two neighborhoods where I grew up, I wondered what it must feel like to return home after fifty years away. Amma observed that her old neighborhood is far more crowded than it used to be, but it nevertheless struck me as a very tranquil place to live. Trees line the streets, offer their shade, and give the place an aspect of peace. It is amazing how trees and shrubs can do that. We noticed a couple of parks that were not there in the 1960s, as well as a number of buildings that were not there, either. This city is changing rapidly, we are frequently told. And yet, compared to cities like Bangalore, which have grown at a hair-raising speed in the past couple decades, Mumbai seems relatively well-equipped to handle its own size and prominence.

Perhaps. In truth, I actually don’t really know.

After Malabar Hill, we traveled to Cuffe Parade, where the family home of one of my closest friends is located. Cuffe Parade has the serenity of Malabar Hill, and then some. Wide boulevards are flanked by long rows of densely foliated trees. The ability and tendency of this city, like any other, to house a wide range of lives is becoming clear to me.

Colaba, Marine Drive, Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade are all located in South Bombay. Further north are other neighborhoods, other lives. Inadvertently, this morning I was able to see one such zone: Dharavi, one of the largest and most infamous slums on the planet.

I would not have noticed that we had entered Dharavi had our Tamil-speaking cab driver not pointed out that many of the billboards and shop signs around us had suddenly switched from Hindi to Tamil (one of South India’s major languages, and my own ancestral tongue). He said that this was a clear sign that we had reached Dharavi. Many Tamil people come here, he explained. This was a surprise to me, because this was really the only place in Mumbai in which I had seen Tamil influence of any kind. And here? In a slum (or an informal settlement, or however you prefer to describe it)? I had always thought of slums as places that were local in the most brutal ways. People do not move here from afar, I thought. Nor do they return. This is not Malabar Hill, after all.

And yet it seemed as though Dharavi was caught up in the currents of migration and social change as anywhere else. The Tamil section stretched on for quite a while, and afterwards we found ourselves driving through a Muslim area. The adhan, not to mention the sudden switch in the script of the signs, told us so.

I heard as much as anyone possibly can when sitting in a car. But I was able to see more than I heard. Perpendicular to the thoroughfare that we were driving on were many small, dusty alleyways. They began by the roadside and rapidly disappeared into shadows. I saw multi-storied buildings, some of which seemed held together by massive sheets of metal. I noticed an older man standing upon one of those sheets, his hands blood red with dye — annatto, perhaps. And two children played, with two helium balloons.

What are the musical cultures within Dharavi? Does the musical landscape of Marine Drive extend far deeper than the wedding that I overheard? How do different regions of the same city understand themselves through music, through sound? I cannot say that I have an answer to these questions. But I am learning something else — that while being able to perceive soundscapes is important, it is also important to deeply understand the context — the landscape, perhaps — within which we hear in the first place.

Goa, next.

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