July 5, 2013

They say Mumbai is the city of magic.

But when you (and I) and head out of the international airport and into the muggy city, the first thing that hits you (and if you ask your olfactory senses, hits you quite literally) is the smell: Mumbai, quite frankly, has the distinctive odor of stale pee. Combined with the stench of unwashed bodies, garbage-of-every-description as well as the grimy green smell of moss which pervasively attacks every available surface of this concrete jungle. And a jungle it is. Crowded with an extraordinary amount of people splattered across the city, sharing tiny spaces with stray dogs, cats and an assortment of vermin. Tall, newly constructed high-rises dot the city’s landscape interspersed with dirty slums that defeat all architectural principles by continuing to withstand this city’s torrential rains. Shopping malls with shiny Zara outlets compete with shady-street-vendors and China-made-everything sold in wholesale markets. Frankly, if you view the city objectively there doesn’t seem to be much-magical about it.

Except when you walk down the streets of Mumbai, wincing-slightly-in-disgust as passing traffic splatters dirty water from street puddles on your freshly-manicured feet, you begin to feel a curious sort of fascination at how this kaleidoscope of humanity seems to exist in a complicated organic mechanism of this sprawling city. People of all shapes and sizes thrive together in these crowded, bustling streets. Somehow, as you observe the crowd, you realize that as you walk down the street you are – as is everyone else – strangely interwoven into a patchwork of differently colored hopes and dreams. For this is the city of raw, unashamed ambition. The metropolis where people from small backwaters across the country flock to work towards a glittering, golden future. And even as they slog ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day doing menial-labor and dealing with overbearing employers, wherever they sleep at night - be it in a makeshift tent on the side of the street, in a dingy one-bedroom apartment in a creaky building next to the slums, or in a funky little shared two-bed place in Bandra – they will happily dream of a star-studded future.

The traffic during the day,is truly horrible. Double-decker busses compete with taxis and bikes (of all shapes and sizes) in a game of who-can-honk-the-loudest-and-most-persistently). Even as you look around you (somewhat judgmentally) at the choked scenery suddenly one drop of rain falls on your head, then two and then two hundred. As a sea of umbrellas unfurls itself all around you, you watch as the air suddenly clears out and becomes fresh and vibrant with the salty-sweet smell of rain-near-the-sea. With clearer eyes you now begin to really ‘see’ the architectural beauty of the old buildings donated by the British to the city of Mumbai. Like the majestic Victoria Terminal (VT) Station, for example, or the solid black bricks of the Bombay High Court, or the Gateway of India. As you walk down the rain feeling suddenly inexplicably free of all kinds of burdens, you given in to the urge to put away your umbrella, put your face up to the sky and get happily drenched in the rain. Maybe you do a little happy dance. And you look around, and no one has blinked an eye-lid, because chances are, they were doing a happy dance too.

Perhaps during your meandering you may wander towards Marine Drive, or Worly Sea Face, or the Bandra-Worly Sea Link. Maybe you might consider a short detour to the pavement by the sea, where you will sit down and join the throng of eager-beavers dangling their legs towards the sea watching the waves break down along the long-long shoreline. You will admire the majestic skyline that you suspect in a few years (if not already) rivals that of any big city that you have had the opportunity of visiting. You may also decide to have some chana-chaat, or drink a cup of chai handed to you by a happy youth on a bicycle. Soon, you will realize that you are very much at peace.

 As the sun-sets you might find yourself driving down the streets of Mumbai looking for a place to party. Without a doubt you will soon find yourself in a club, or a pub or a lounge filled with the vibrant, electric energy born of good music and great company. If you enter into a conversation with any of the yuppies you encounter you will realize that they work very hard – and party even harder. The vibe of Mumbai-at-night is contagious and soon you will find yourself dancing on table-tops to the beat of house-music interspersed with bursts-of-Bollywood. Whatever else the night brings, one can almost guarantee that you will enjoy yourself. And go home thoroughly exhausted, but still restless for more. It’ll probably be late-late night (or early morning) as you drive across Mumbai. Lit by soft-yellow-streetlights the city appears changed, almost. People sleep prone across the pavements, dogs slumber alongside the road. Not a soul stirs as you pass by. There is an envelope of calm that encloses the city, which is a fascinating change from the craziness in the day.

 They say Mumbai is the city of magic.

 I think perhaps it really is.


Shankar K. Eham said...

I loved this. I've always wanted to visit but never got the opportunity even though I've known many from there. Someday.

Anuradha said...

IT IS, OMG IT IS. Lived there for sixteen years.

How do we know said...

And Delhi??

I lived in Mumbai for some months. never could like the place, and the new found xenophobia does nuffink for the city. maybe it works for some ppl. doesnt for me.