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The city of dreams

chandigarh Updated: Mar 05, 2013 09:35 IST
Hari Chand Aneja
Hari Chand Aneja
Hindustan Times
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"This will ensure the safety of my luggage at night," I explained to Chandrakant the ticket examiner, who observed with amusement, as I passed a thick metal chain through the handles of my trunks and the bedroll and around the wooden leg of the train seat before I padlocked it. I had taken a new job in Bombay in 1955 and was travelling to the city by the Frontier Mail from Delhi. As the train chugged into central station, Chandrakant told me: "Welcome to Bombay, city of dreams."

The first few months in this great metropolis were stunning, tantalising, and sometimes frustrating. Bombay was a pretty city of seven fishing islands forged together in 1845 by stone and concrete. I was baffled by the broad, clean roads, large black and yellow taxis, the vast expanse of sea and the salty breeze. The vexing part was that apartments were difficult to find and expensive to rent.

When you commence your career, salary is never enough and one practices frugality. We could not afford a car, so we travelled by local train, bus or tram. There was no refrigerator at home, so we scampered to buy ice to serve cold water to guests. However, living was joyful. On Sundays, we strolled at Shivaji Park, Dadar Beach or Marine Drive, admiring the glimmering yellow lights that formed the Queen's necklace.

In the 1950s to 1970s, people were warmer and friendlier. There was no television, laptop, or iPad. Friends met to talk. Now they watch movies on TV and chat on computer.

Back then, everyone chased a dream. Lala Omprakash, our neighbour who came from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, dreamt of becoming the leading sugar merchant. He did. Prabhu, from a village in Maharashtra, who mopped our floors, chewed tobacco all the time, hungered to become a factory worker. He did. Raja, driver from a village in Tamil Nadu, who lived in the sprawling Dharavi slum but aspired to own a private taxi, did.

Many other people found gigantic places in the sun. Fruit seller Yusuf Khan rose to be the most respected movie star, rechristened Dilip Kumar. Young Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, and Shah Rukh Khan came to Bombay seeking stardust but became iconic cinema stars.

Business families such as the Tatas, Godrejs, Mafatlals, and Ambanis discovered their fame and fortune after seeding first companies in the city. In Bombay, the size of your achievement depended on the scale of your ambition.

Since I came here 58 years ago, Bombay has changed radically. In 1996, it was rechristened Mumbai. From 34 lakh citizens in 1955, it now houses nearly 2.1 crore people. The population density has burgeoned to more than 20,000 a square kilometre.

The city has become grimy and fetid. Mumbai is no longer safe. Crime and lawlessness have increased. Violence against senior citizens, single women and children has augmented. The city is becoming intolerant and impatient, and road rage has replaced road discipline.

Mumbai's splendour is eroding because of traffic, indiscriminate high-rise construction, and the all-pervading slums and pavement dwellings. It still is the wealthiest city in India and spawns stars and billionaires every year. Nevertheless, its infrastructure stands debilitated. The people who have grown affluent and triumphant in its bosom should bond to avert further debauchery, arrest Mumbai's decay.

In future, I hope to hear the ticket examiner say: "Welcome to Mumbai, city of dreams."