I clearly remember my excitement as I stepped off the plane. It was my first visit to Bombay, as the city was then called. I was 16 and thought of it as India’s most cosmopolitan and glamorous. The trip was a present from Daddy after finishing my Senior Cambridge exams. It was also the first holiday on my own. Consequently, I felt grown-up and liberated.
Kidder jaane ka? The taxi-driver’s Hindi sounded defiant but also inviting. It suggested an adventure. No one spoke like that in Delhi. There, conversations were more formal, the grammar more old-fashioned. “Peddar Road”, I replied, and settled in to enjoy the ride.
As we drove to Malabar Hill I tried to imagine what Flora Fountain, Cuffe Parade, Kemp’s Corner and Napean Sea Road would be like. These were names I had long wondered about. They had come to captivate me. Each seemed rich with the promise of money and chic, modernity and difference. Collectively, they were a world away from Hauz Khas, Karol Bagh and Dhaula Kuan. For me, Bombay was another country.
I first noticed little things. In Bombay, men wore shorts and women were often in skirts. The taxis were Fiat 1100s whilst the buses were clean, safe and on time. People waited in queues and minded their own business. And no matter where you eat —Bombellis, a bhelpuri stall or the Zodiac Grill — it was a thrilling experience.
But after a while I became aware of the city’s atmosphere. You could literally feel it and it was compelling. Bombay was youthful, fun, busy. Everyone seemed to be dashing around. And, of course, Bombay kept awake at night. You could buy kebabs at Haji Ali well-after midnight, or sip coffee at the Shamiana even as the garbage collectors swept the city. In fact, you could have been forgiven if you thought Nancy Sinatra’s hit ‘The city never sleeps at night’ was written with Bombay in mind!
That first visit lasted a week but there weren’t enough hours in any one day for all the things I wanted to do. Everything was different, special, exciting or simply fun. Compared to Delhi, the cinema halls were bigger and brighter, the ice-cream colder and fresher, the colleges more exciting and youthful, indeed even the clubs seemed less staid. And where in the capital could a teenager drink chilled beer as the traffic honked by?
Alas, I fear the Bombay that won my heart has disappeared, possibly forever. I won’t claim Delhi is better but the city that was a magnet, that attracted teenagers like iron-fillings, has ceased to be. Or else how do you explain the attacks on Biharis for being outsiders, on the Bachchans for speaking Hindi and on shopkeepers for not putting up Marathi signboards?
In fact, it seems the very identity of the city has fractured. Today, its residents have become Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Goans, Punjabis or UPites. No longer are they Bombayites or even Mumbaikars. Bombay has become its many different parts.
It’s shrunk. It’s diminished.
I may be wrong but I’d say this process started when they forced a new name on the city. In 1995 Bombay became Mumbai but, sadly, with the name a lot more seems to have changed. Bombay was India’s most avant-garde city. It’s where Indians flocked to realise their dreams. They said the sky was the limit.
Mumbai is simply the capital of Maharashtra. The largest city in India’s richest state but limited by its regional identity. It’s insular and parochial.
However, this is not a requiem for Bombay. It is, instead, a plea to reverse history. Perhaps the old name cannot be resurrected — although in St. Petersburg and Volgograd that is precisely what happened —but can we not recapture and re-activate the lost spirit? Must the best lie buried with the past? Does the future have to be different to be better? Are there not a few old values we should preserve forever? Otherwise memories will be the only thing left.