If 80s was the decade of the Taj Mahal for Indian tourism and 90s was that of the Kerala backwaters and Rajasthan forts, the 2000s surely belong to Mumbai. With Gregory Davis Roberts’ book Shantaram becoming a bestseller and Slumdog Millionaire making it big at the Oscars, Mumbai has never before enjoyed as much limelight as it does today.
My visit to Mumbai (I don’t know why I still feel like calling it Bombay) was not supposed to be an out-of-the-world event. It was not my first time in the city. I’d been there for sleepovers twice before, on my way to other destinations. There was nothing touristy charted out for this trip, since there’s only a limit to things you can see in a city really. I was looking forward to a relaxing holiday at my sister’s place. Well, very relaxing it was, but, at the end of it all, I realized that Bombay really doesn’t let you feel like you could be in any other city of the world. There’s something electric in the air, something about the winding dirty lanes, the throngs and throngs of people, the rush-hour traffic and the unbelievable energy in just about anyone I came across that charges you up too.
My friend had once told me, in Bombay, you need to be THE best to survive. Even a vada-pau waala (street fast-food vendor) needs to have enough competence to be selling his stuff on the streets of Bombay. Very true! The second most populous city in the world is home to 19 million people, each fighting for his pay, his livelihood and, most importantly, his own space under the Bombay sun. This truth is as evident as is the never-ending traffic and the swank malls that dot the city everywhere. When BBC made its list of the cities in the world with the fastest walkers, I was surprised not to find Bombay in the top 5. But now, I know why. It’s because people in Bombay don’t walk, they run!
But first, coming back to how Bombayites are the true survivors of the rampant mayhem that urban living often causes in the developing world. The monsoon season in Bombay is famous all over India for its volume and brutality. With the Arabian Sea on one side and the Mithi river on the other, Bombay is perched on a sensitive water table that can give way to floods the moment the clouds decide to get generous. Along with the rains comes dangerously strong breeze. Since I was visiting in July, the peak of monsoons, I got ample chances to get up-close-and-personal with the phenomenon. I had heard and seen photographs of Bombay monsoons before, but what I wasn’t expecting was for street vendors to remain put where they were, storm or sunshine. Under wildly-swerving fragile umbrellas fixed to their carts, they continued selling their wares; some making vada-paus, some covering cigarette packs from getting drenched and some, nonchalantly taking in the chaos around them. They would just remain right there, braving hours of ruthless rainfall and waterlogging, because they know Bombay is a city that never rests, and even in such harsh weather, there might be a drop in, but never a dearth of customers.
Local trains are the lifeline of Bombay. In a city that has its roads always clogged with traffic, the trains are the fastest and most reliable means of commuting. There are multiple lines running in different directions, intersecting at certain strategic stations. Trains are spaced out within a maximum of 5 minutes, and there are fast trains that jump stations. There is a separate compartment for ladies and a first-class compartment for people willing to pay more. But for a pakka Mumbaikar, the embellishments of a first-class compartment mean nothing. The push-and-shove at the train doors, three people on a seat of three noiselessly making place for a fourth fellow-passenger, a guy playing pathetic film songs on his phone at full volume, groups of youngsters hanging their torsos out of moving trains to get some air (and to impress the girls) – the second-class compartment of the local trains is where the activity is. And if you are settling in for first-class comfort, you are missing out on the Mumbai magic. I was amazed by how people would rather struggle to get into the most crowded train than wait for the next train that is due in 3 minutes! It surely says something about the eternal hurry to get to the workplace (or to get home), the story of travelling long distances from a personal space under the Mumbai sky to a professional one. Or maybe it’s just the kicks they get out of being able to enter any train at all, no matter how many people are in it. Once in, all passengers are comrades. They help to keep others’ bags on the luggage shelf, help you with what the next station is, which side the platform will appear on, what you should do once you get off. You don’t even need to ask! They have an eye for newcomers. It can be unsettling at first, to know that you are being watched and tracked. But a couple of train rides, and you are already feeling secure that this multitude of unknown people are making sure you don’t end up lost.
Interestingly, even though local trains are the lifeline of Mumbai (I’m trying hard not to slip into Bombay), the train stations happen to be tucked into the remotest of locations. You will have to traverse through lanes and by-lanes, vegetable markets, old tailor shops, rundown temples and a dozen stray animals in order to find your way into a dilapidated entrance. There is clearly no time for glamorization, no time to pay attention to unnecessary details. There is work to be done, mouths to be fed. One day, when I walked out of the Goregaon train station and it began raining real heavy, there was such a “traffic” jam of umbrellas in the narrow lane outside that people decided, by a unanimous tacit consensus, that it makes more sense to simply keep the umbrellas folded. So there we all were, brothers and sisters-in-arms, bravely walking in the rain and high-jumping over gigantic puddles, drenched to the last centimetre. It didn’t feel bad at all! In fact, it gave me so much food for conversation once I got home. If life were to be the same everyday with nothing new to talk about, wouldn’t that be boring? Well, now you know what keeps Mumbai going – the myriad stories that you gather in your head everyday to come back and share with your nears and dears.
There is no substitute to having a sea by your city, and Mumbai has many such sea-faces. Be it the Marine Drive or the Juhu beach or the Worli Sea-face or Chowpatty, you can always sneak out for a gush of fresh air and a little wet touch of the waves on your feet. The government has done a good job of cleaning up the beaches and I was impressed by how much more beautiful they looked than the last time I’d seen them. The sea made me miss the pleasures of open-air fun, and the big fan of sea-breeze that I am, I could simply sit there for hours “watching the world go by”, as they say.
Night-life in Mumbai rocks. It’s better than Delhi, because it does not carry the extra baggage of attitude that Delhi painfully drags along with it everywhere. You could be in a dhoti-kurta with paan in your mouth and yet walk into a club and dance your way onto the floor! In Bombay, they all mind their own business. The fun they have is hard-earned, and they don’t want to waste time analyzing and finding faults with people around them. I desperately wanted to dance to Hindi music (the only type of music in the world you can dance to impromptu and yet end up looking like a professional). I’d heard complaints from Bombayites about how DJs are angrezi babus and only play English music. But the DJ at Red Light (in Colaba) must’ve guessed I was coming, because all the time I was there, he played all the latest Hindi hits while I danced myself into a trance. And then, at 1:30am sharp, the lights suddenly came on and we were all caught in our half-dancing positions. Funnily, people remained like that for a few seconds, waiting for the lights to go off again. But sadly, they didn’t, the reason being that the police (Pandu hawaldars, in Mumbai slang) had arrived to close the place down. The legal time for ending the party had been 1am!! Well, we all got our alcohol poured into paper Coca-Cola cups and walked out in a single file. A tipsy guy even went to the extent of saluting the cops. Then we had our own little party downstairs on the street, while we finished our drinks.
For a Hindi movie buff like me, Bombay means far more than just a city. It means a city where the dream factories work overtime everyday to feed into imaginations of people like me. In spite of the filth, the slums, the poverty and the struggle, it is in this city that the most popular, and sometimes, the most superior, form of Indian art is created day after day. It is in this city that some of the biggest stars, whose posters adorn hoardings and hang from the walls all over the country, slept on platforms and travelled in local trains to get where they are today. For movie-crazy people, the air in Bombay, the smells of Bombay, the colloquial slang of Bombay, the names of places in Bombay; everything is familiar and yet new because I’ve seen and heard all of this on a 70 mm screen before my senses seeped into the Bombay fabric. And even though I came away without seeing a single celebrity (not even a small-fry, can you beat that?), I felt like a celebrity myself, boarding the flight from this never-sleeping alive dynamic eternally-charged city.
Bombay is not about walking around and taking photographs (well, you could do that, but only for a couple of days). Bombay is not about visiting. Bombay is all about living, and even as a tourist, you have to make sure you live in Bombay. You gotta ride in their trains, you gotta walk on their promenades by the sea, you gotta eat their vada-pau on the street, you gotta pray like them at the auspicious Siddhivinayak and Mahalakshmi temples, you gotta be on the lookout for people whom you can help find their ways… and then, my friend, you’ve known what it is to be a Mumbai manoos.