When I was a little girl in the 80s, I spent four years in Bombay. My parents and I lived in a small apartment on Warden Road, close to Breach Candy hospital and down the road from the shops owned by brothers Amarsons and Premsons. Every day our community darwan would escort me and some of the neighbours' kids through back lanes to our school, Green Lawns. In the evenings, when I wasn't playing with my friends, I'd go for walks with my mother across the street to the park by the sea or for pony rides nearby. Even at that age, somehow I knew how glamorous Warden Road was with glitzy shops like Benzer and fast food joints like Yankee Doodle that served the first hamburgers I ever ate.
Soon after, my family moved to Calcutta. At first, I missed my friends and the bright lights of Bombay but gradually the memories faded. Only the idea of the city never did.
When I was growing up in Calcutta, my hometown, despite its size, always felt somewhat provincial. It was never perceived to be as cool as the other metropolises like Delhi, Bangalore and Bombay. Especially Bombay where women, we were told, felt safe at all hours of the night, and everyone wore exactly what they wanted.
Perhaps owing partly to its representation in Bollywood films, Bombay assumed a mythic stature over the years. It was the big bad city, known for its fast-paced lifestyle, extremely high cost of living and proximity to film stars and other wealthy folk. Hindi movies have often portrayed Bombay as the city of dreams to which people from villages and small towns travel. Many wide-eyed characters migrated to Bombay with nothing but shirts on their backs to try and eke out a living because they'd heard of the opportunities there. There was always the iconic shot of a newcomer looking overwhelmed in the large city, with the voiceover commenting on the city's largesse and cruelty all at once. The famous song from the 1956 Guru Dutt film, "C.I.D.", sums up the romantic aspects of Bombay's hardships and mystique.
Whether it's the Arabian Sea that flows alongside the city, making sea-facing neighbourhoods like Marine Drive and Worli look lovely by day or night or the possibility of bumping into Bollywood stars at the airport or at a nightclub, or the heritage buildings and architecture of south Bombay - ranging from Art Deco to neo-Gothic - or the legendary costs of real estate, the city has taken on an aura of glamour and sophistication that, like most auras, is misleading.
In many ways, Bombay reminds me of New York. Both are groups of islands, which means that expansion can happen only in one direction - skywards. Real estate prices in both places also rise like the buildings themselves. Real estate prices in Bombay are mind-boggling. While south Bombay, comprising the old parts of the city, are quite lovely, they are simply unaffordable for even most upper-middle-class folks. In a fashionable suburb like Juhu or Bandra, the monthly rent for a 1000-square feet, 2-bedroom apartment is upwards of one lakh (one hundred thousand) rupees. Most of my friends in Bombay live in much smaller, cramped apartments, or in less fashionable suburbs further away. I have heard several corporate Indians in New York say that Bombay is less affordable.
Like New York, Bombay never really goes to sleep. When I was out in Calcutta one night at around midnight, there were hardly any signs of life on the streets. There were only deserted trucks and taxis around. Any late night partiers were stuck out of sight inside a few posh nightclubs. The city was asleep on a Friday night. As for Delhi and its suburbs, it's still considered too unsafe for women to be out and about very late. Accounts of rapes and murders and relative unavailability of safe public transportation make it difficult to commute freely as the night wears on.
In Bombay, even at two in the morning, it wasn't just young people coming out of a nightclub who were visible on the streets. Auto rickshaws and taxis crowded the streets we were on. To satisfy my craving for good pav bhaji, my friends approached a streetside vendor who was wrapping up. When he heard their appeal, he opened his shop again for us and whipped up a few plates. People walked around, hailing cabs. A family ate food laid out in the trunk of their car. Except for the darkness, it was impossible to tell that it was the dead of night.
And like New York, Bombay is a melting pot not only of immigrants from all over India, but of creative people trying to get breaks in cinema, theatre, music, or advertising. It's a place where commerce meets culture which makes it both fiercely mercenary and also a leader of cultural trends. It's the most cosmopolitan and liberal city in the country. Women can wear anything they want and not get stared at or feel out of place. It has the most active and visible gay rights movement in India.
Of course, there's a seedier side to the city. The underworld mafia is responsible for much of the crime in Bombay. Most big terror attacks in India the past decade have happened in Bombay. The 1992-93 race riots between Hindus and Muslims tarnished the secular city's image forever. And the everyday struggles of the poor and underprivileged to maintain a basic standard of living don't seem appealing even when romanticised in movies.
The most fascinating thing about Bombay is the co-existence of the super wealthy and the underprivileged. In April 2008, Mumbai was ranked seventh in the list of "Top Ten Cities for Billionaires" by Forbes magazine, and first in terms of those billionaires' average wealth. Its per capita income is almost three times the national average. But it is also home to some of the world's largest slums, including the infamous Dharavi, depicted in several films including "Salaam Bombay" and "Slumdog Millionaire". Many more live not in the slums but in chawls which are rows of basic tenements with common bathrooms.
The distances people must travel to get to work are fierce. It can take anywhere from an hour to two or three to commute each way which means that professionals often leave home before 8 in the morning and get back after 9 in the evening. Add to this the heavy monsoon downpours that leave streets flooded, exorbitant costs of entertainment, education, and domestic help, and you're left questioning the quality of life in Bombay vis-a-vis any other big city, unless you're so rich that none of this matters.
No one reminds you of this more than a Delhiite! There has long been a raging battle between people from Bombay and Delhi for the title of Best City in India. The capital is known for its superior infrastructure, better roads, better civic planning and so on. But still, personally, every time I land in Bombay, I feel a rush of adrenaline that I never feel in Delhi or any other city. In that sense, it's a lot like New York. Although the traffic is heavy, it never feels claustrophobic like Calcutta. When driving along Marine Drive at night, when the lights in the buildings across the bay shimmer in the night sky like the Queen's Necklace it's named after, or by the Oval Maidan and the Art Deco buildings surrounding it, it's easy to see why native Mumbaikars find their city beautiful. Despite the associations of fashion and glamour in the commercial and film capital of India, Bombay is a down to earth city in many ways. Its life, over the past 2 decades, has spilled over into its suburbs where the middle class lives. Its life is in crowded local trains, in the not too clean beaches where you can eat bhel puri from vendors, in the thousands of office goers braving the rain and rush hour traffic to commute to work, in the dabbawallahs transporting tiffin to offices and the bais working in people's homes before returning to their slums. It is a city of great haves and have nots, but it is these contradictions that give it its unique character and legacy.
My visit to Bombay last weekend was like the other times - madly hectic, with many hours trapped simply in traffic, trying to get from one part of the city to another, stopping to eat pav bhaji on the way! Having been in Calcutta, Hyderabad and Delhi in the past month, I was in a position to compare the cities quite objectively - I think!
What about Bombay reminds me most of New York is how alive I always instantly feel when I land in those cities. The first night, a Friday, my friends and I went to a lounge on the beach in Hotel Novotel in Juhu. The sticky seaside air mixed with our overpriced drinks as the waves, white in the late evening darkness, lapped against the shore a few feet from our table. Another night, a musician friend took us to WTF, a lounge cum nightclub in Andheri where we sat on wooden benches. Even on a Sunday night, the place was full.
I had gone to Bombay to do research for my novel and part of it involved checking out the famed nightlife. But my favourite part was driving around the city, along Lake Powai or the sea, looking at the highrises in the horizon that form such a stark contrast with the blue tarpaulin covered chawls. I visited friends in the hip suburbs of Andheri and Lokhandwala and the art district of Kala Ghoda. It was mostly deserted when I went, except for a couple of small galleries that were selling original paintings by some of India's most talented emerging artists. My friends and I had coffee at the Kala Ghoda café and bought DVDs and CDs from the historic Rhythm House. My friends in Bombay are the most indulgent ones I have. Like a treasure hunt, they drove me round and round south Mumbai to locate Charagh Din, my father's favourite shop in the world for over three decades. By the way, if you haven't ever been to CD, you really must go. They have the coolest casual and party shirt collection I've seen in my life. I also dragged my friends to a nearby restaurant, Delhi Darbar, a place I used to frequent when I was little, in search of a dish called Dabba Ghosht made with goat, eggs and cilantro. But the best thing I've eaten all summer - and I've eaten plenty - was fresh custard apple (sitaphal) and cream served in our car at Haji Ali Juice Centre. It was simply divine.
This city has an energy that is quite unique. Unlike the other cities I've been to this summer, when in Bombay, I found my friends quite willing to travel to a different suburb to meet up with me after a long day at work. When I asked them if this was not too much for them, one of them replied, "In Bombay we're all so tired, that we don't care any more. We just keep going."
Bombay is bohemian and spontaneous in a way few other cities are.
I am not oblivious to the fact that every day life there must be terribly hard. But unlike any other place in India, Bombay lights up the imagination because of its associations. Cities like Bombay and New York are unattainable for many and perhaps, for that very reason, become objects of desire. Bombay is, unlike most cities, not a means to an end. It is an end in itself. Part real and part imagined, like one of its brilliant skyscrapers, it never stops shining its mythic lights across the sea.