At a staggering count of 12.4 million people (as of 2011), Mumbai, the most populous city in India, probably holds more than it can contain. Maybe that’s the reason behind the city being “stuffed like its pao” — not with a mix of potato and spice, but with equally tingling stories of its people. And what better place for romance to bloom in than sweaty compartments of Mumbai locals and time-worn tourist attractions?

Combing for and documenting such stories are Mumbai-based journalists Kusumita Das and Benita Fernando. ‘The Pao of Love’, an Instagram page capturing how Mumbai likes its romance, has managed to squeeze stories out of the city’s promenades and back alleys, packaged as one-minute-reads for a social media-dependent readership.

The first story, titled ‘The Pao of Love’, was posted on 6 April, 2019, but took place in 1984 in a bakery. Eight more stories followed and made up the first season, ‘Spring Turns Into Summer’. As warm and fuzzy as the pao itself, the nine reads laid bare romantic, not platonic love, because "the Pao is only about romance," Das says.

The duo met as colleagues, and after endless cups of tea, concluded that they wanted to map Mumbai through its love stories. "We realised that the kind of stuff we like to read, we couldn’t find it on social media handles. So our brief to ourselves was to write what we’d like to read," Das explains, adding that both of them are wary of the term 'micro-fiction'.

Once they knew that they should focus on a single defining moment that sits at the heart of a story, rather than scramble for an end and a beginning, Das and Fernando set out to find an illustrator who could bring their creative interpretation of the anecdotes to life.

When Sairandhri Raut first met the editors, she winced at the name of the series. “I’m not particularly fond of puns,” she says. However, their individual visions soon collided with Raut’s, who then walked the precarious line between what had to be painted and what needed to be veiled for the readers to unravel. Drawing inspiration from nature and architecture, her illustrations are easy on the eyes and borrow from a certain vintage. "It’s part-metaphor, part-representation of Bombay city sights; all together tumbling into a colourful whimsy," she says about the aesthetic of the artwork for the page.

Now in its second season, ‘May is for Hope’, the page features crowd-sourced stories contributed by named and anonymous writers.

Although some submissions are about love that is as wounding as comforting, it is stories of romantic love that hold the series together.

However, despite being deeply rooted in romance, there are hardly any syrupy outcomes. After navigating the thorny terrains of intimacy, the series often leaves a lingering sense of hope behind, sometimes meditative, bereft of the initial bitterness of heartbreak. “A Pao story is not about that raw anger or that feeling of betrayal or a moral dilemma, but your takeaway from it at a calmer time," Fernando says.

While a balance between the saccharine and the unfiltered is integral to The Pao of Love, objects and experiences typical of the city have found a place in the bite-sized stories as well. “You know, clichés, for whatever amount of eye-roll they induce, it’s hard to imagine the world without them,” Das says, maintaining that there is no point avoiding what is already known.

And as a result, stolen glances in a Borivali local, a shared cup of tea in an Irani café, a trip to the museum, or the beguiling aura of an old-school dance club brimming with single youngsters — all come together and pack the ‘paos’ with dollops of delicious encounters. But one must remember that the city is not all poetry. It’s also the place “where you go to sit by Marine Drive, but may walk away when the stench hits you.” But, “with some love, a lover, a love story or a love song, it becomes easier to bear,” Fernando signs off.

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Pao1

THE PAO OF LOVE

I could feel your eyes following me as I walked my siblings to school. Your attention both thrilled and irritated me. I was a haughty little miss – I didn't think you were good enough for me. But, I would watch you as you stacked paos on the trays. You wouldn’t be looking at me then. Your red shirt flashed like a beacon through the window of the bakery you worked at. You always wore red.

Every evening I would line up at the counter for my family's usual order: six paos for dinner. You wouldn’t be around at that time, to my relief. That day, I paid for the paos and had walked some distance home when you came running after me with two more paos wrapped in a newspaper. You told me I had forgotten them at the bakery. I had a proper look at you for the first time. You were smiling and my god, you were beautiful! I quietly took the paos from your hands.

There were seven paos for dinner that night. Inside the eighth, a note said: Will you meet me at the bus stop at 9 tomorrow?

Bombay

September, 1984

Contributed by: Sandra Almeida Thevar

Pao2

BMC NOTICE

The thought of an empty house on a Saturday was irresistible. You cautiously ask, “Do you want to come over?” I hesitate. Not because I am coy. If Saturday happens, it would be our first time and perhaps our last too.

Yet I ask for a half-day at work and slip into my favourite skirt. Outside your building, which looked like it could succumb to a sneeze, I stop to read the notice pasted on the wall. It was the BMC asking residents to evacuate or continue living there at their own risk.

I climb four floors. You quickly sneak me in, hoping that your neighbours – the three that remained – hadn’t seen me. We go into your room – a balcony converted into a tiny bedroom, which precariously jutted out of the building. Should anything come tumbling down, this room would be the first to go. And if someone tried to dig us out of the rubble, they would know exactly what we were up to.

The shaky ground that we were on, we think of taking it slow. That didn’t go according to plan. I sometimes wonder how the room survived us.

Andheri West

February, 2005

Contributed by: Anonymous

Pao3

FIRST KISS

Between us, there was a cup of chai and a distance of 14 years. Just 10 minutes ago we had stepped out of Metro Theatre — me, hating your guts for having held my hand through the movie, and you, triumphant that you could. When you suggested we go to the Irani café at Crawford Market, I said nothing. Mai had asked me to behave. “He is going to be your future husband,” she had said.

Now here I was, staring at the chai awkwardly as a fan whirred over our heads. Who was this chai for — me or you? You said moments later, as if reading my mind: “You first”. The cup tottered in my hand, hesitantly touching my lips. My nervous self would have sipped it whole, had I not been interrupted with a grunt. “Aren’t you ordering more tea?” I asked, the words tumbling out quickly. You smiled and reached for the cup, sipping whatever little that remained.

Years later, that’s how we’d recall our first kiss — a cup of chai, our first unholy communion.

Crawford Market

May, 1944

Contributed by: Jane Borges

Pao4

‘SMILE FOR ME’

On our way to Goa, we made a quick stop in Bombay to visit your brother. He gifted us a Bombay Darshan tour. We took the bus from Gateway to Hanging Gardens, and then Babulnath to Fashion Street. Everywhere we went, you would ask me to pose and smile. I soon realized that it was impossible to enjoy the view in peace, with you busy trying to capture me. I was sure that you felt more attached to the camera than you felt towards to me. I thought that was because the fancy automatic camera wasn’t yours — you had borrowed it from my uncle.

Back from our honeymoon, you went to return the camera to my uncle, taking the photo album along with you. After going through the album, he asked you to keep the camera. I suppose he saw all those photos of me smiling, for you. And he saw you, in love.

Malabar Hill

December, 1984

Contributed by: Anonymous

Pao5

AGLA STATION

I am squished inside a Churchgate fast among people who will do anything to report to work on time. I go over the day's to-do list in my head. My hands are cramped in such a position that I cannot even pull out my earphones. I am just going to wait this out.

Expecting to see nothing interesting, my eyes fall on you through the dividing bars in the adjacent compartment. Your tall frame, smooth skin, curly hair, glasses... Your eyes had a piercing gaze.

I stare for a few seconds and then look away. But I don’t stop stealing glances every now and then. “You’re married”, said the voice in my head. “I’m just looking,” responded another. "Agla station, Dadar" - the announcement puts an end to the debate. I prepare to get pushed out by a human wave. But, I manage one last glance.

Once on the platform, I begin to feel the cramps from the ride. As I start walking, I wonder, did you see me too?

Dadar Station

September, 2016

Contributed by: Dhwani Pandya

Pao6

BLIND DATE

It was raining like snow when we stepped out of that Chinese restaurant I always wanted to take you to. You had flown ten hours to make it to our first date. I don’t remember if we had purposely forgotten our umbrellas. But, if we had unwittingly set ourselves for a rainy romance, the downpour seemed adamant to play the bad guy. These were not those gentle showers that turn you into a poet. In fact, they were determined to elicit phrases suggestive of disturbing, incestuous relationships.

We couldn’t see a cab. The rain poured over our high-power glasses, soaking the last dry patch on our clothes. We had nothing to wipe our spectacles with. We held on to each other and took uncertain steps ahead. The sea roared beside us as we kept walking on the promenade, while fighting an imaginary case on how somebody needs to make spectacles with wipers. I had never known anyone who shared my passion for the cause. We couldn’t see a thing. After a point, we didn’t feel the need to.

Marine Drive

June, 2012

Contributed by: Anonymous

Pao7

PAPER FLOWERS

It was summer and, as always, the city’s bougainvillea were bursting with their paper flowers. Caught in sunlight, it looked like the magenta flowers had caught fire. You loved taking photos of them, and, having known me for a week, you had sent me a photo of a bungalow in Navy Nagar with a lovely bougainvillea growing by its side. Something Spanish about it, we both had said.

That summer, you continued sending me photos of bougainvillea, falling off balconies, springing from terraces of high-rises, flowers in their many hues - orange, yellow, pink, white…until the day came when I sent you one and said: Bougainvillea reminds me of you. And, the whole city is full of them, so imagine how often I think of you.

You replied: Why do you think I send you pictures of them?

Navy Nagar

April, 2018

Contributed by: Anonymous

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