Mumbai, the troubled city I love

A couple of days ago, after a performance in London, an old schoolfriend who had come to my concert offered to drop me at the station. He had come to listen to me sing — and to show me how to operate my first MP3 player.

Music, which had brought us together when we were growing up in Bombay, had continued to be a common interest even now; and our exchange of songs and information went back to when we were privileged, tie-wearing, precocious schoolboys.

The one thing, naturally, we never did then, and we always do now when we see each other, is talk about the city we still refer to as Bombay; it has taken on a retrospective, definitive meaning for us, but it has also burgeoned unimaginably in our absence.

As usual, our conversation on the subject registered gentle disagreements: we both admitted to still loving the city, but I said I was increasingly disturbed by its present incarnation.

A few years ago, a taxi driver had told me that someone dining at the exclusive Indigo restaurant could spend in a night what he earned in half a year. On a subsequent visit, I had noticed, not far from Indigo, a woman and her children sitting on the brightly lit road, vacantly absorbed in their own universe.

The disparities in Bombay had always been crude, but liberalisation and the free market had legitimised consumerism and spending, and made it seem, in the metropolis, more effective than social work.

It was essential to splurge at the Indigo for the lot of the woman on the road to change: the thread connecting one to the other may not be obvious to the passer-by, but it was apparently undeniable.

The Indigo is only a five-minute walk from the Taj Mahal hotel. In the past 12 hours, I have been watching pictures of the Taj: trapped guests leaning out of windows; the top storey burning; swathes of smoke covering the majestic dome.

I have also seen pictures of two very young men with AK-47 rifles, one of them in a T-shirt with Versace printed on it in large letters. People have mentioned 9/11 and New York, and I suppose there is a comparable degree of strangeness in these attacks. The comparison also possibly arises from the joy-loving nature of both cities, capitalism and the new world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union having transformed them both decisively — New York into the world’s first city, Bombay into India’s great metropolis.

My parents moved to Bombay from Calcutta in 1965, when I was an infant — they stayed at the Taj for two weeks while the company found them a flat.

This was the beginning of Calcutta’s decline, companies and professionals fleeing labour trouble and relocating at this optimistic seaside metropolis in western India. It was a charmed life.

From at least two of the flats we lived in when my father was finance director and then chief executive of Britannia Biscuits, flats in Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade, the city’s two richest localities, you could see a skyline that, with its lissom, tall buildings (Bombay is the only Indian city to have had an obsessive romance with the vertical, the skyscraper), approximated Manhattan in some ways; in its sunniness, its palm trees, its disguised but obvious carnality, it echoed what we knew of California from films; and the gothic buildings were remnants of the old history that had first brought together these seven fishing islands.

From these two flats, the dome of the Taj (the ‘old” Taj, as it came to be known after the arrival of its neighbour, the Taj Intercontinental) was visible, as seemingly stationary as a low cloud.

Like Calcutta, and unlike Delhi, with its Moghul and Sultanate lineage, Bombay had no great historical or religious monuments; its landmarks, in keeping with the fact that it was the progeny of an almost innocent-seeming colonial modernity, were secular ones — hotels; cinema halls, such as the Eros and the Regal; grand, untidy railway stations such as the Victoria Terminus.

To call the Taj the ‘old” Taj was to deliberately indulge in a flagrant misnomer and a reminder of Bombay’s willingness to rewrite history in terms of the urban, the kitschy, the comic: it was as if the ‘real” Taj Mahal in Agra had never existed except in those most incredible of objects — school textbooks.

A great deal changed in the early Nineties, along with the name. The politics of Bombay itself became intolerant in the past 25 years, but the city, discovering its true metier with liberalisation, became more heterogeneous than I can remember, partly because its old centres of wealth had to disperse and scatter from within as property prices rose unthinkably and offices moved to the less salubrious suburbs.

As Bombay expands and shrinks, and you take the new routes and visit the relocated offices, you are struck by the architectural marvel it is: the thrilling juxtaposition of churches, mosques and small Hindu shrines, the genteel, suburban residential houses, with flowerpots and swings, that you had never before noticed.

No city I know, certainly not New York, has this variety of life, except perhaps London. Its principal difference from these two cities, which, in many ways, it surpasses, is its relative intolerance of the learned, academic classes: it has ceased to have a great university.

When, in a traffic jam, you look at the faces in a car near you, you do not see anyone — whether it’s a trader or a corporate executive — who is lost or unfocused, who is not engaged, in some sense, in the final, unifying, daytime activity of money-making.

Yet, for all its opacities and daily injustices, it is impossible to think of Bombay without a quickening of excitement and pleasure, and not to recall that quickening with awe and confusion at moments such as this one. —

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