From snaking queues at Lalbaugcha Raja to the good old vada pav, some things never change. Here are the ten things that absolutely define Mumbai:
1) The stock market: financial capital’s mascot
The Gateway of India may be used to represent Mumbai on fridge magnets, but if the country’s financial capital were to look for a worthy symbol, it would have to be the Bombay Stock Exchange building on Dalal Street. Legend has it that South Asia’s oldest stock market started in the 1850s, under a banyan tree, as a gathering of five men (four Gujaratis and a Parsi, not surprisingly). Since then, you could trace the city’s growth and fortunes as a business hub by tracing the graph of the BSE. It would show the joy of the bullish sprees, the despair of slumps, wars, scams and unrest.
It also bears the city’s scars — including those from one of Mumbai’s darkest days, March 12, 1993, when a bomb went off in the basement of the BSE.
2) Street food: Where Schezwan meets Dosa
A tourist in London must try the pie and mash; one in Paris must try the crepes; in Mumbai, you have to have the vada pav. It’s a simple, deep-fried spiced potato patty in a bun, but no two varieties taste the same. No wonder stalls battle for supremacy, and any Mumbaiite worth her green chutney will defend her favourite.
Add a quick cutting chai, and you have a cheap and cheerful evening snack. Or, look beyond the vada pav, bhel puri and pani-puri to the more innovative stuff — cheese Schezwan dosa, Manchurian dosa, Chinese bhel (this neon-orange creation is only for those with invincible digestive systems). If that isn’t fusion cuisine, we don’t know what is.
3) Art deco: travel back in time
Stand in front of Eros, or Regal, or Liberty cinema and try to shut everything out but the buildings. The sleek fonts in bas relief, the grandiose geometric patterns, the Indian figures of cows, farmers, a woman carrying harvested corn on her shoulders — all laid out in patterns that draw on Greek and Egyptian styles. Instantly, you’re transported back to the 1930s. Art Deco was to the 1930s what our obsession with glass buildings is today.
The architectural style can be spotted all over Mumbai, but is concentrated in the Fort and Marine Drive areas, in buildings both commercial and residential. Its origins are western, as are those of the modern skyscraper. But they make the city distinctive in a way glass and concrete never will.
4) Dahi handi: rising to the occasion
In Mumbai, this festival — which recreates the antics of baby Krishna, stealing butter from an earthen pot — is much more than child’s play. In every neighbourhood, ‘Govindas’ start practising weeks in advance for the complicated human pyramids, putting the eldest and the strongest at the base, and leaving the lightest to make the climb.
Over the years, the dahi handi festival has evolved into a competitive sport of sorts, with big prizes involved and some mandals even seeing Bollywood and Marathi actors participate. The mounting annual toll of injuries saw the courts rule last year that children under 12 could no longer participate, but that has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of the rest of the city’s revellers.
5) Ganeshotsav: Ganpati Bappa, more, yeah
On normal days, we may be an impatient lot, honking our way through traffic and cursing trains that are slow by even a minute. But during Ganeshotsav, as gigantic statues make their way slowly to their pandals, we not only wait, but also offer a quick prayer. For the hardcore Mumbaiite, the year isn’t complete without a visit to Lalbaugcha Raja, even if this means standing in a queue that snakes all the way out of the narrow lane and out on to the main road.
More than anything, the festival is a leveller. In a city of gross economic inequality, it brings rich and poor together on the streets, in numbers that have to be seen to be believed. And on visarjan day, as the giant Ganpatis make their way to the sea, the whole city watches agape.
6) Townies and the island city: Oh My God, Malad!?
In 2013, the high-street brand Forever 21 opened its first Mumbai store — in Malad. The Internet threw up a meme of a lemur (representing a south Mumbai resident, or townie) saying, ‘Babe… I go to Singapore more often than I go to Malad’. Here are the clichés: the south Mumbai, or SoBo, resident has lived in Mumbai all their life but never set foot on a train, never taken a rickshaw, and thinks Bandra is as far into the suburbs as anyone in their right mind should venture.
If you’ve lived in the city long enough, you’re bound to know at least one person who fits the description. But Bandra is the new hotspot, Andheri and BKC the new office areas, and the sea link has connected the city like never before; so the Malabar Hill resident must venture into the wild, wild ‘burbs’.
7) Dabbawalas: Box-ing champions of the city
In Ritesh Batra’s award-winning film, The Lunchbox, the dabba Ila makes for her husband gets delivered to someone else. You know the chances of an error like that? One in 6 million. As a 2010 study by the Harvard Business School states, the “the Mumbai-based Dabbawala organisation” achieves incredibly high service performance: “6 sigma equivalent or better”.
Over a hundred years old, the network of 5,000-odd dabbawalas now delivers roughly 200,000 hot meals a day, from homes to offices, on time, using an elaborate but efficient coded system. In a city that thrives on efficiency, this is one of those ideas that sets the benchmark.
8) The monsoon: when it rains, it pours
April is the cruellest month, Eliot said. We say it’s got to be May, when the sun bakes our parched, dusty city and we can’t wait for the relief of June and the rains it brings. And then it begins, not in irresolute drizzles but in a relentless downpour. Like any constant companion, over the following months it brings tremendous joy and days of utter pain.
Air-conditioners are switched off at long last, the city suddenly turns green, and photos of frosted windows go up on Instagram, hashtagged #MumbaiRains. By day four and five, of course, you can count on the road in front of Hindmata to be submerged in knee-high water, and for the Harbour line to have thrown up its hands in despair. #MumbaiRains indeed.
9) The Mumbaiite’s attitude: time for some ‘jugaad’
If you’ve lived in Mumbai for anything over six months, chances are you’ve picked up some of the street lingo, and attitude. You’re probably addressing the cab driver as ‘Boss’ or ‘Dost (Friend)’, and jumping into empty trains out of sheer habit. Of course, there is the good and then there’s the bad.
Tell off the guy spitting paan onto a wall, and he’ll say “Chhod na, kya farak padega? (Let it go. What difference does it make?)”. But it’s also a city where the work gets done, even if means someone has to do a little bit of ‘jugaad’ to see it through.
10) Local trains: the ultimate champion
We’re a city on the run. And it’s the Mumbai local — our veritable lifeline — that keeps us running. Every day, it carries a staggering 7.5 million commuters, making it one of the busiest public transport networks in the world. But, beyond the figures, beyond the routine of twelve (or nine) metal boxes running from one end of a long track to another, the Mumbai local is a microcosm of the city itself.
We spend a significant part of our lives on them; play cards, make friends, chop vegetables, sing songs, and fall in love to the sound of their clattering wheels. They move fast because we need to move fast; they do their best to keep working in the heaviest of downpours — because we need to do the same. And every day, they magically pack in more than they were built to hold. And that’s just as true of Mumbai.
(Illustrations: Siddhant Jumde)