I started reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children during my first year at junior college at the M.H. Saboo Siddik Polytechnic in Byculla, Mumbai. It was July 2012 and buying books from Amazon or Flipkart wasn’t as commonplace as it is today, so I picked up a dusty paperback for INR 80 from a roadside bookseller. At over 600 pages, it was a brick. My enthusiasm to read Rushdie and wade through the thicket of those pages was driven partly by the many controversies surrounding him and the polarising opinions people had of him. Owning a Rushdie in a Muslim-majority college filled my 15-year-old soul with the sweet scent of adolescent rebellion.
I’d board the 7:34 AM local which started from Bandra station armed with my tome, a black paper container and an engineering drawing drafter. Amidst the drab days of my mechanical engineering diploma course, Rushdie’s vivid descriptions of a lost Bombay made me belong. On the face of it, I had nothing in common with the narrator Saleem Sinai. I wasn’t born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, I wasn’t bestowed with any magical powers by virtue of a special birth, nor did I possess a long nose that was the subject of ridicule at my school.
There was just one common, compelling denominator between Rushdie, Sinai and myself—we were the children of Bombay. Rushdie first learned to walk in the streets of Bombay which were still resonating with the cheer of a freedom hard-won, while I was being cautiously raised by my parents who were still reeling from the horrors of the Bombay riots in 1993. On days when I felt extremely isolated in a college that wasn’t for me, studying a course that I knew wouldn’t know what to do with me, I sought solace in the Bombay adventures of Sinai.
I cherished the depictions of Sinai going to the iconic Metro Cinema in South Bombay every Sunday for viewings held especially for children and falling in love with strangers. When I’d walk to my college from Mumbai Central station, I would soak in the kitschy Bhojpuri posters plastered across telephone booths, the distant but glowing nucleus of Kamathipura that seemed like the pressure valve of Bombay, and the cluster of abandoned vehicles behind a dilapidated Art Deco building.