Mumbai, for all its financial frenzy, vulnerability to terror strikes, flamboyant cinema, and poor urban planning, is still a city that millions call home.
It was called Bombay when I came here in 1975. There was only one thing we knew about the city then – that it was home to film stars. As an introduction to the city’s greatness, among the first buildings I saw was Amitabh Bachchan’s house in Juhu, a low ramshackle structure with security guards outside. In front of the flat we lived in there was a large empty space paved with concrete – it was simply called ‘shooting’.
A film with Sanjeev Kumar was shot there and the film crew was around for over two months, much to the hysteria of local residents. I did see the film later and the sequence filmed on the "shooting" was hardly a blip. Yet the events of the two months of filming are momentous and cemented in local lore.
Later on a school picnic, to our utter ecstasy, Amitabh Bachchan was on location nearby with four other stars. The crew refused to let us shoot pictures. I had a box camera back then and along with other girls, I half-jumped over a barbed wire fence, and skinned our knees trying to get a glimpse of the tall actor, every much as impressive in real life. There was Vinod Khanna, Parveen Babi and one more actor whose name I can’t remember, and sighting them galvanised an otherwise dull picnic into a high treat.
Many years later, as a journalist, I interviewed a puffy, over weight Parveen Babi recovering from the throes of her illness and refusing to admit there was anything wrong with her. She was a far cry from the glowing young woman I had seen.
When people ask me what do you like about Bombay/Mumbai, I am often at a loss. It’s not a beautiful city and most of it smells to high heaven, the sea around it is an ugly grey and in the monsoon you want to run away. In the nearly four decades I’ve been here, it has changed for the worse. The textile mills have gone, replaced by buildings looking like the lighted ships from Star Trek, with shopping malls the size of a football stadium, full of things you don’t need or can’t afford.
I spend at least two and a half hours commuting every day and other people even more. South Mumbai is my favourite part of the city with its broad pavements: you can walk on them unlike in the rest of the city where they are colonised. It still retains an old world charm, with its colonial structures and art deco buildings, the museum, Colaba causeway and flowering trees, though the booksellers have been kicked out along with the nariyal paani vendors. Then there’s Yazdani, Britannia, the Asiatic library, Rhythm House, Strand, Gaylord and Marine drive, the huge maidans where everyone plays cricket, and there is less ugliness than elsewhere.
Churchgate station is now garishly made over with blue tinted glass and chrome and its insides paved with faux marble which can be quite fatal in the rains as one is running to catch that train. Inside, the station closes in on you and the mixed smell of urine and Chinese food never fails to take your breath away.
For some reason trains take longer and longer to get anywhere and it speaks for the poor quality of maintenance and eternal repairs on the suburban rail lines. But Mumbai has a certain je ne sais quoi quality about it. Not the least of which is its ability to bounce back after terror strikes, repeated ad nauseam by everyone. In reality no one forgets and few bounce back.
Many years ago Mumbai still had textile mills though they were in the process of being closed or moved out and when we used to go home from nightshift, often catching the last train at 1 am, it used to be full of mill workers returning home. The Marathi daily Navakal which comes out hot off the press at 1 am, costing Re. 1, was very popular and sales were frenzied. Mumbai would soon be known for something other than Bollywood or the fact that it is India’s financial capital.
Few will even remember it as a city which saw post-Independence India’s worst communal carnage in 1992-93, ten years before Gujarat in 2002, but now I feel it will always be known for its vulnerability to terror strikes. How easy it is to enter by boat and create havoc. That November night when ten highly trained men killed with almost military precision and impunity, creating a tsunami of terror across Mumbai will forever define for me the city.
It was so bizarre it almost became unreal for me at one point. Leopold Cafe is no longer a place one goes to for a beer. Its walls bear signs of that violent night when people hid under tables as bullets were sprayed around and whenever I am in CST station I tend to look for the announcer’s cabin with its cracked glass.
Every evening at around 5 pm, hordes of people rush out of their office and make a beeline for the nearest suburban station. No time to stand and stare here, there is only a single thought in their minds: to get home by the fastest train. To go against that tide of men and women marching with single-minded purpose can be difficult if you are walking in the opposite direction.
Once a friend’s daughter from Bangalore, a child then, asked me in amazement, “Where are all these people rushing to?” She couldn’t believe they were all running/walking to catch trains. For the nearly seven million commuters in Mumbai, the local trains are a true lifeline, and so it was that the trains are almost the first thing that are set right after terror strikes.
On November 27, 2008, trains were running through half empty stations and a friend remembered the chilling silence at CST. After the July 11, 2006, train blasts, I remember using the train from Bandra the next day and also on March 13, 1993. But the largest chunk of commuters in the city have to make do with regular delays, poor seating and discomfort in trains, while the state builds expressways, sea links and other structures geared for a minority, though a growing one, which insists on travelling boxed in fancy metal.
Mumbai suffers from poor planning, poor connectivity from stations to surrounding areas and even the bus network fails to deliver at times. It has built skywalks all over the place, which in a sense are spaces where people can walk without stepping over vegetable vendors, vegetables, and other items such as are found near railway stations. While skywalks defeat the purpose of community life and people prefer walking on the road since they cans shop, gawp etc., the situation outside most suburban stations goes beyond chaos.
While the city has been anointed with an earthy name “Mumbai” – reminiscent of the Bombay duck – no one calls it the Mumbai duck though, not yet at least, and Mumba Devi, the presiding deity. It has hurtled towards anarchy. You have designer apartments with millennium pools and aqua yoga but most of the city's residents who live in slums don’t even have a decent place to live or water and light, things we take for granted. Yet, Mumbai is home to so many of us whether on the pavement or in a high rise or in between, and it’s the only place I can ever call home.