Within minutes, you know you’re in a big city – the real thing, I mean. No pale imitation, no wannabe, no fading erstwhile glory. A real, live, breathing, thumping, bumping big city. The kind of big city – they exist all around the world – that takes your breath away, the kind we all want to live in, bask in, struggle in. Bombay – everyone in India calls it Bombay, you’re told, only foreigners call it Mumbai.
There are several signs that you’re officially in a big city. There’s a public transport system that works, and one that almost everyone uses. You see life unravel on Bombay trains – communities of commuters, riding the same train at the same time for years, every year, every day. Women with children. Men rushing to their next business meeting. Someone reading on a Kindle. Someone holding their hand out to you, asking for money, baby tucked under arm. Boys and girls flirting. Dressed up, dressed down.
You know you’re in a big city when you see ‘Missing’ notices in public places – train stations, mostly. Beautiful faces, mostly of girls, smile down at you from these notices.
You know you’re in a big city when the cityscape is familiar even though you’ve never been there before. Bombay is home to and inspiration for India’s thriving film industry, it is both the Hollywood and the New York City of India – it’s where everything is created and also where everything in the movies happens. Every disaster, every foiled love affair, every terrorist and/or monster attack. Every plot, every crime, every scheme, every family feud. It’s on these trains that heroes woo their heroines, it’s on these streets that children pickpocket and run, it’s these slums that have inspired not just Indian writers and film-makers but so many from other shores, too.
It’s this grime that person after person has tried to bring to life – this very unique Bombay grime. Bombay has enough grime, has enough stories in that grime, to last several lifetimes, because you can tell Bombay is an old soul – an old city. It has lived long and prospered. It has seen things fall and new things rise in their place. It has lived through change – it has transformed, time and again. It has been lived in, used – not always well – but used nonetheless, and loved.
Parts of Bombay are like any old beautiful city in Europe. It is picturesque; its old Gothic buildings stand tall with their proud facades and doorways. The streets here are clean, spic and span, and as you sit in some lavish, beautifully decorated, well thought-out cafe or patisserie, you could be in the best parts of Amsterdam or Paris. The other parts of Bombay are spilling over; there are people everywhere. And as you are swept up in some sea of people heading in some direction, you feel tangibly that you’re in an overcrowded place. You think ‘OK, there are too many people here.’ People live under bridges, on the sides of railway tracks – everywhere possible. Everywhere there is a little space. Not one person, but entire families, communities. People, lots of people, live in cramped apartments in tall, blackened buildings with lovely old lattice on the window-frames, their former glory still visible through that grime, and even though you’re scared to think of what disaster awaits these buildings and those in them, you’re still glad they’re there. These parts of Bombay are just full of that grime – oh, that incomprehensible, unique sort of Bombay grime. So hard to penetrate, so difficult to live in, yet so endlessly fascinating, I know. Yes, I get it now – why so many have tried to capture this city, that feeling, but I can also see why so many have failed. It’s endlessly layered and just when you think you get it, it surprises you.
Bombay is truly cosmopolitan; not just because there’s an abundance of music and art and not just because it insists on having a nightlife and a cultural life, not just because it has claimed its piece of glamour, and not just because young women smoke on the streets and can wear whatever they want without getting harassed either – though those are all good signs, great signs. But it’s mostly because like in any real big city, most everyone comes from somewhere else. Everyone has a story about why they moved to Bombay, when they moved to Bombay. Most everyone chose this place – and everyone has a different reason why. Everyone who doesn’t live in Bombay talks of living there, and everyone that lives there pays a lot of money to live there. But almost anyone who’s made Bombay their home – at whatever cost – says they could never live anywhere else.
It’s true, that thing that they say; that people are nice in Bombay. The taxi drivers are friendly and polite – unheard of in other Indian cities where ‘auto-rickshaw’ drivers and taxi drivers are notoriously awful – and when someone bumps into you, quite often you’ll hear a sincerely apologetic ‘Sorry!’ before they rush along.
Bombay is a city that evokes emotion in you, it moves you. It has been through stuff – hard stuff. It is a city hanging by a thread in many ways, swept under by the tide of its own messes and disasters, being crushed under the weight of its population. It is the nation’s pride and joy, but also one of the most complex members of its family. It is the kind of place in which things that could never happen anywhere else happen. 2 million people spill out on the streets on the day of Bal Thackarey‘s funeral. These people are from all walks of life – the working classes clamber up trees and bridges to get a better look while Bombay’s elite fan themselves in the heat of the pyre. They are there, some because they loved the man, some because they feared the man, many just to catch a glimpse of what they all know is a historic moment. And when Bombay wakes up to find that Ajmal Kasab was hanged in secret, the city doesn’t know quite what to do with itself. It clambers about with its day, and impressively, never gives into nauseating triumphalism – that would have been easy. When you see the Taj Hotel through The Gateway of India, it tugs away at your insides; when you stand there and think, ‘They marched into this great big city right through here, the city’s most popular tourist area, always crowded, always busy, so brazen, with their guns. So sure.’ When you think, Kasab was born just the year before I was (1987), and their siege of Bombay claimed 166 lives, and now he’s dead too – what for? What for? Yes, this city has had its fair share of hurt. And it’s still mature about it.
Bombay gets along. It may have regressed under the saffron robes of the Shiv Sena and may be a little quieter now that it considers itself a city at war with terrorists, but it gets along.
And at night, when you can gaze at the reflection of its bright lights and lit-up skyscrapers in the ocean, you think, ‘Yes, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I get it.’
Bombay commemorates the 4th anniversary of the Mumbai 2008 attacks today, on the 26th November 2012. I bow my head to you, great city. Good luck moving on.