The city of Bombay (rarely Mumbai) is more than any city in the confusion called India, one of an endless stream of contradictions. A city I landed in for the first time over a year ago, still continually puzzles, entertains, tantalises, disappoints, delights.
Touchdown. Though there are many ways to enter this city, including the famous Gateway of India, the one I choose most commonly is that resort of the elite, flying in. The newly updated, luxurious airport is nestled cosily in the middle of Dharavi, at one point of time, the largest slum in Asia. The word slum, however, does not fully express the diversity and vitality represented in this area bustling with energy. The area is divided into different industries, different specialisations all representing the degree of effort and enterprise required to stay alive in this city of glimmering lights sparking off shards of crushed dreams.
Bombay has many facets, and as with all cities, each person creates their own – yes, Mumbai being a huge part of it too. This article frames mine. From the iconic Gateway of India and Victoria Terminus to the crowds at Linking Road, Crawford Market, Fashion Street, Bombay is always crowded, always alive. Through India, it comes closest to the moniker of the City of Lights, the City that never sleeps. The expansively beautiful Marine Drive creating the immense Queen’s Necklace creates an endless feeling of peace, a place you could sit and reflect and lose yourself forever. Less introspective? The city prides itself on its many cultural activities, from the intellectual arts at the Prithvi Theatre in Juhu, to the many venues for live music, ranging from rock at the Hard Rock Café and Blue Frog to quieter stuff at Not Just Jazz by the Bay. In a more gastronomic vein, the eponymous Vada Pav and Pav Bhaji give way to lesser known snacks from every region of the country, Sindhi and Parsi delicacies that are near-extinct in every part of the country except here. Cheerful multiculturalism is an everyday part of life, not remarked upon until another one of those contradictions rears its ugly head, in the form of attacks and prejudices against those from regions far away. In my experience though, these are the rare exception, the city is full of people willing to help and to show the way.
And this shows itself in the multitudinous hordes that pour in day after day, trying to find themselves a foothold in one of the most expensive real-estate markets in the world. The attraction is the promise of freedom (for women, the city is easily the safest in India and public transport is easy and cheap if somewhat overcrowded), the multifarious economic opportunities, and yes, the siren call of glitzy Bollywood.
To state the obvious, people are both the strength of Bombay and the weakness. The insane population creates a population density of over 20,000 people in a city of barely 700 square kilometres, forcing builders to rise ever higher, with property prices matching pace for pace. To witness a local train at rush hour is pretty much hell on earth, Juhu beach is a desecrated mess (though to give credit where it’s due, it’s much better now). But this imbues in its people a sense of confidence, an air of cosmopolitanism and self reliance unmatched by that created through experiences anywhere else in the country. And the dirt is matched only by the unbelievable beauty that it occasionally masks, occasionally frames. The stunning architecture of the most humble buildings in the old city inspires (the Municipal Office, Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus, the High Court) and the sun, setting quietly over the horizon, opens the day for some while shutting it for others.
And I wonder if I’ve found a home.
[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brajeshwar/113413705/]