Mumbai- Published in Kalnirnay International Edition

Quite Simply, Mumbai.

Voila, here’s a city that needs no introduction. Call it by any name, Bombay, Mumbai, Bambai; its essence remains just the same, a city that compels a response. You can either hate Mumbai or love it, but you cannot be indifferent to it. Technically, the capital of Maharashtra and the commercial capital of the country, Mumbai has a very impressive headcount of about 18 million over an area of 440 and this headcount is increasing by the day as people pour into this city in search of the elusive pot of gold.

To begin with, Mumbai was inhabited essentially by the fishermen or Kolis who continue to retain their domain even today. Named after their goddess Mumbadevi, Mumbai after passing through a series of hands, ended up with King Charles II in 1661 as dowry from Catherine De Braganca. He in turn handed it over to the East India Company in 1665.
The East India Company, quick to identify the potential of the island, developed it into a port and soon Mumbai became a center of flourishing trade. Commercial activity increased, attracting people from the surrounding areas. The Gujaratis and Parsis initiated industrial and trading activity. To man this, came labour from the adjoining regions of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as well as from places as far off as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Soon Mumbai became a cauldron of diverse communities and their cultures. This coupled with the requirements of surviving and adjusting in a city where all activity is directed towards economic prosperity, gave rise to the “Bombayite” who is truly original and distinct in character.

Bombay is a city that is at once, both famous and notorious. There are many things Bombay is well known for. Dalal Street, where the Bombay Stock Exchange, India’s oldest stock exchange, is located, is probably the most well known landmark of Mumbai, in both the literal as well as the metaphorical sense. It is here that fortunes are made or lives ruined. The other great symbol of Mumbai is the Bombay film industry or Bollywood, where stars live and die from Friday to Friday. Bombay is also famous for its cricketers who have rewritten the record books. Talk of the binding forces of national integration and these three rank high. The city is also famous for its own “beautiful people” who can give a run to the most seasoned international socialites; the educational institutions which uniformly churn out superior talent in such numbers (thanks to the intense competition) that they no longer remain novelties or rarities, the Bombay University, which is known for the various uncommon courses and disciplines, etc.. The list is quite long.
Then there are those totally mundane but terribly important things that Bombay is really famous for – things that form the very fabric of the existence of the Bombayite. Like the beaches of Bombay and the bhelpuri, panipuri, ragda pattice, pav bhaji and kulfi sold there. So typical of Bombay are these, that elsewhere in the country, they are sold under the generic name of Bombay chat and Bombay kulfi. No Bombayite can ever outgrow these fiery combinations of pulses, puffed rice, tamarind and green chilly chutneys, served with the most vital ingredient that probably makes all the difference – a generous dollop of Bombay dirt. And how can one forget the Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsavs. Their pandals dot virtually each street for nine days resulting in a riot of light and sound, after which on the tenth day, even the administration bows down to the sentiment of awesome crowds converging on the beaches to submerge this patron deity of Maharashtra. There is a kaleidoscope of shopping found in the crowded lanes and by lanes of Bombay where one can find anything from the humble pin to the state of art in technology, especially in the grey market. No where else can one find the very harmonious co-existence of the clones of international labels and brands as well as their originals showcased in glittering shopping malls. One can also enjoy the sheer variety in food, right from the newest in Korean cuisine to the simple bun maska and chai at the dear old Irani restaurants, their ancient marble topped wooden tables still going strong. From the time tested idli wada sambhar around the corner to the Gujarati thali cheek by jowl with the wada pav and usal of Maharashtra, you can find them all here. Bombay is regarded as the ultimate trend setter in most things, right from the small housekeeping plastic accessory to the larger aspects of lifestyle statements. Bombay is ultimately larger than life.

But, and this is the big but, Bombay is also notorious and Bombay bashing is an age old pastime or should we say industry. There is little that is left unsaid about the unsavoury aspects of the city. It is crowded. It is filthy. It stinks. It is polluted, living in Bombay is the same as smoking 20 cigarettes, they say. It is a city of inordinate long distances. Commuting is a labouriously long and sometimes unending torture. The city is bursting at its seams. People live in match-box size houses, slums and drain pipes. Bombay has the singular if dubious distinction of housing the largest slum in India, Dharavi. The people, they say, are self-centered and self-seeking and the city is impersonal and dehumanizing. It is a city where is there is a flourishing and thriving underworld whose links spread up to the establishment.

Yet deep down is the knowledge that this is the city of opportunities. That the city provides tremendous exposure and innumerable avenues, both traditional and non-traditional, to earn one’s place under the sun. That the city compels one to give his best or else lose the spoils to his closest contender whose number is legion. That this is the city where the rags to riches story repeats itself over and over again and where the pursuit itself of financial well-being imparts tremendous self esteem long before the mission is accomplished. A city deeply polarized by haves and haves-not but where the have-not are almost proud and definitely not defensive. Deep down is the knowledge that there are many things taken for granted in this city, like its abundant power supply and the fine public transport system, both rail and bus that is coping with the staggering yet growing population. The Western and Central railways for instance carry approx. 2.6 million passengers per day which is half the total population of Bangalore or Hyderabad. What is also taken for granted is that this is one of the safest city for women and it is not unusual to see them boarding buses and trains alone at odd hours. This is the city that values time and a city where multi-tasking and optimizing use of time chinks are ways of life. For instance, it is not uncommon to see the Mumbai woman shelling peas in the train on her way back from work so that even the commuting time is not wasted. It is a city where apart from a few serious communal flare-ups (that may be attributable to reasons other than pure communal tensions) there has been a fairly harmonious co-existence of even diametrically opposed communities, because here one is first a Bombayite and then a Gujarati, Parsi, Madrasi or Malyalee. The original city that never sleeps, it is said that while you can leave Bombay, Bombay never leaves you. It is a city that is an online statement of the triumph of human spirit over tremendous and overwhelming odds.

As a Bombay watcher put it “the only thing alive in this city is the spirit of Man”. Well, what else does one need?


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