When I first moved to Bombay (Mumbai) as a teenager, I genuinely felt like Alice in Wonderland. Bombay for me is not just a city. It is like a person. It makes me happy, it makes me sad, sometimes its sheer apathy has shocked my senses and sometimes it has wrapped me in its comfortable arms and given me hope. I have laughed with its crazy winds and cried when it has been shot and blooded. Often I have wondered if the city famous for its spirit is losing some of its soul too. Today, a friend, traveler and fellow blogger, Rushikesh Kulkarni who blogs here tells you the story of Bombay, a city with many, many shades.
First there were the islands, then came the colonists who reclaimed land from the sea and the islands became one. The city of Bombay witnessed upheavals throughout her long history. The islands were ruled by powerful rulers belonging to illustrious dynasties. There were the Mauryas, the Chalukyas, the Silharas, and also the Sultanate from Gujarat until the European powers arrived. Portuguese came to Bombay first then arrived the British who received some of the islands in a marriage treaty with the Portuguese. All the remaining islands were soon captured and Bombay’s identity as a important trading centre was established. Incidentally, the city played an important role in the overthrow of the British – from the founding of the Indian National Congress to the Naval Mutiny – Bombay and her residents fought relentlessly for freedom.
A little over a decade later, fresh struggle broke out on the streets resulting into the division of the State of Bombay into Maharashtra and Gujarat. Shiv Sena was born soon after and opposed the influx of migrants from South India (a tactic used to gain sympathy of the locals, to be repeated by MNS an offshoot of the Sena against North Indians years later), the once thriving textile mills went silent and India’s blue collar workers were rendered unemployed, the chawls made way for towers and communal violence broke out. A series of bomb explosions rendered the city silent but terrorism against the city was to continue. Amidst all this, the city was renamed Mumbai and its financial importance grew exponentially.
For her residents, the mention of Bombay evokes many emotions. It signifies home and each one of them share a unique relationship with her. Most love her and can’t imagine living anywhere else. It doesn’t matter if they live on the pavement or in skyscrapers. Why? You may ask. The city is congested, chaotic, noisy, even hostile at times and everyone seems to be in a perpetual state of hurry. It is is most puzzling really. But still, the lights of the city seem to draw crowds like moths are drawn to a flame. The lit up neighbourhood are symbolic of the pulsating nature of the city nights. If you knew where to look, you’d find what you are looking for at anytime of the day. Cryptic as it may sound, Bombay provides for all your needs. Her capacity to momentarily satiate human greed is remarkable and if you are a hedonist, you couldn’t have wished for more. If you have a dream and the will, Bombay almost assures success. The rags to riches story can be heard in everyone of her bylanes. And as they say – work hard in the city and you will never go to sleep hungry.
Way back in 1956, a movie named C.I.D was released, a very popular song from that film spoke of the way of life in Bombay. Strangely, all these years later Yeh Hain Bombay, Meri Jaan (This is Bombay, my love) continues to be the most accurate song to describe the city and her denizens. Fast paced, nimble footed, moving swiftly one station at a time – the people of Bombay won’t surprise you, they will shock you. From casual indifference to overt concern they may seem helpful and hostile at the same time. Time is paramount to them and distances are calculated in minutes rather than kilometers. They are accommodating and will adjust-a-little to squeeze in more people in small spaces including railways compartments, auto rickshaws, elevators, and even bus stops on a rainy day. They have a distinct dialect which encompasses words from Hindi, Marathi, English and to a certain extent Gujurati to form a unique tongue; indecipherable to outsiders.
But as it is with any other city, the migrants add a new dimension to the overall population. A large number of migrants belonging to every strata of the society have altered the nature of the city. Most old residents reminisce fondly of the times when the city was much more liberal, open minded and friendly to people of all backgrounds. Ghetto-isation is much more pronounced with people belonging to minorities opting to live among their brethren as many housing societies follow absurd rules banning non-vegetarians or minorities from taking up residence. There are increased number of instances of sexual harassment towards women and this has led many to question the very safety once provided by the city to its female residents. The institutions that held the city together and provided her with the distinct identity through their yeoman service also show signs of tiredness and inefficiency. Whether it is the impersonal attitude towards the city of the new migrants or the weakening of the emotional bond of the citizens that they shared with her historically, it is difficult to tell. In pursuit of making ends meet and satisfying growing needs, one may have lost sight of what is more important.
As this untamed tsunami of change sweeps over the city, the cool breeze, an unrestricted sea view and the solitude at Marine Drive remain untouched. The monsoon continues to be dramatic and washes the city clean. The Gothic architecture mingles with the new age steel and glass comfortably, retaining its old world appeal that charms passersby. The sev-puri ( street food delicacy) remains symbolic of the varied emotions one feels towards the city while the Bombay Duck (deep fried and served crisp) makes this world a better place. Sitting on the steps of Asiatic Library, many watch the world rush past them while film stars add glamour to the island city; as each day future Shah Rukh Khans arrive at Victoria Terminal railway station, with a dream of making it big in Bollywood. Each afternoon a man enjoys home cooked lunch delivered by a Dabbawallah (complete with the Gandhi topi; Prince Charles was so impressed by them when he visited the city in 2004 he invited them for his wedding with Camilla Parker) as the Coppersmith Barbet keeps calling out to no one in particular. A couple steals a moment of privacy in an autorickshaw while a hijra winks flirtatiously at a young labourer from Jharkhand (in Eastern India). And as I stand on the footboard of a Churchgate bound fast local, the wind smothering my face, listening to the rhythmic noise of its wheels in motion, watching the city zip past me, inside the crowded compartment a man asks the passengers to adjust-a-little to conjure up the fourth seat for him.
That my love, is Bombay for you. Yeh hai Bombay Meri Jaan.