Actor Jeremy Piven patiently tours across south and north India for a Discovery documentary, Journey Of A Lifetime: a beautiful, unscripted labour of love. Somewhere on this trip, he stops by at this city, pauses for a couple of minutes, and you’ll notice, disappears out from smoke, exhaust fumes and a general mess. This minor punctuation in the film, Bombay, he politely calls “overwhelming”. And leaves, I think, for Kerala! Overwhelming, like interesting, is a finely neutral word. It means nothing. You’re not surprised. Few honest visitors to this city can instantly tell what the fuss is about.
Bombay, as most know it, is a figment of an Indian imagination: a city of the underworld, guns, bar and the item girl; the beautiful hero, his heroine and the songs they make love to; the rich bourgeois and his skyline; the slumboy, the starlet and the millions they could still make: a mythical, maximum city of the active mind, and colonial-gothic architecture. You get to see none of it if you live here.
Popular culture has helped this chimera grow. Population has multiplied alongside. Somewhere between the romance and mythology acquired from Hindi films, and the frustration and reality of actually surviving under an armpit, lies the truth.
City, village and the small town
The city you see from the level of your car-window could pass off for any Indian small town. The pavements, if any, are dangerously narrow. Garbage gathers on its own every evening, to make an open, dank dump in every lane. Streets are mostly lines of small ‘kirana’ shops with metal shutters. While driving, the signboards in Devnagari (usually shop owner’s names: Chandan, Sanjay etc) rush past your eyes; often open into equally quick, running slums of makeshift huts that over half the city calls home. That’s the ugly, urban village of Bombay.
Most glide over them on grey, cement flyovers. The eye now peers upward to highrises: some of the world’s most unaffordable, over-rated pieces of sky, perennially under construction or in need of it. Upper deck and lower deck are geographically defined. It’s as if life should be this way. Only poets and pundits sense any paradox.
What leaks from the crevices of hard facts and popular fiction are circular clichés about a city of ‘gold’, ‘light’, ‘dreams’ that ‘never sleeps’, is ‘ambitious’, ‘resilient’, ‘liberal’, ‘cosmopolitan’…. None of these aphorisms are entirely flawed. But the opposite holds equally true. It depends on which Bombay you negotiate with. You read English. You’d roughly know mine. I know yours. That’s all that matters in this town.
One year test
Within the first six to eight months of Bombay, the newcomer rightly senses only packed trains, jammed roads, and a strong, pungent smell. The city doesn’t seem worth the assault. He leaves --for good. If not? As it turns out for everyone who passes that ‘one-year test’, he stays on -- forever. The city never leaves you, even if you’ve stopped living here.
There must be something. The air, I suppose, is mildly addictive: soon enough you begin to tell the stench of Colaba’s from Chembur’s. Distance between the two neighbourhoods --always measured in minutes, never in kilometres -- was about an hour on the road, 10 years ago. It is about an hour on the road still. Strangers furiously rub against each other on suburban trains, at about the same kissing length they always did. The filth has little scope for growth.
Zen takes over when you know what to expect. That long wait on the road, at a station, in a queue, gradually replaces itself with constructive occupation: blankly staring at the pavement, meditating on the iPod, salivating over the afternoon tabloid, dreaming. The state of emergency finds in Bombay a strange breathing equilibrium.
Maybe this city will eventually boil over at some point, as many predict. The water we swim under is just too lukewarm to tell the difference every day. Politics in this metropolis changed for good in mid ’90s. So did its name.
Cabbies, auto-rickshawallahs refusing to take passengers onboard, depending on distance, is the only thing that has disturbed the middle-class city’s balance lately. Imagine. This is not a minor quibble. The change is truly ‘un-Mumbai’.
Money on the move
It’s a transactional city that worships money alone, never the moneyed. This is what makes you love Mumbai more. Anything that defies this practical code, is “unprofessional”, intrinsically against the city’s character — a heavy-handed politician, an anti-migrant agitator, a rioting mob, a communal propagandist, the power broker, the bigot, the namedropper, the apartment owner who discriminates on religion, gender or diet for a tenant. They all exist here in small numbers; continue to defy the deracinated Mumbai of the Indian dream.
People, eyeing forever some luck of the draw, otherwise leave you with little to second-guess them over. Trust is easy. If you get it, life’s fairly simple. No one wants anything more from you than you don’t already know. You should just be willing to pay. The price will find its own round-the-clock (pages 38, 39) levels of pleasure, love, comfort, home: the dingy working class dive (page 36), the posh pub (page 37), dance bars that are now orchestra rooms (page 34), the swinging discotheque (page 14), the vada pav at Rs 4 (page 8), the meal at the Zodiac Grill for a lakh more, the limo, the train ticket, the hooker, the wife, her husband…
Choice is yours. Doors will open. Doorman’s polite. There are millions inside. Naipaul is right: Bombay is a crowd. But look closer at this crowd. They seem happier than in any other Indian cities you’ve lived in: girls, smarter, more carefree; men, less meddlesome, milder mannered. Look carefully still. They also rarely look at themselves: those in Napean Sea Road will never learn how to get to Nerul. Ones in Bandra don’t know Bhayandar. Bhandup or Mulund could be cuss words for some, Thane a police station, Worli a style of painting. Andheri is altogether another dark country…
This is an adorably smelly onion. You can spend a lifetime peeling it (pages 27 to 33), patiently exploring: Every lane will open into another. Everyone in his own circle will have a story to tell, each unique in its individual multiplicity. The “city beautiful” is a rejected vision of the 1900s. This is how dirty, modern people evidently prefer to live: lost in a crazy crowd, caught in their own selves. Yet, united by a common human experience: to discover and desire more.
Iss sheher mein ek hi gham hai (This city has only one stress), Javed Akhtar roughly observes, Har ghar mein ek kamra kam hai (Each home is a room less). True, more or less!