Yes, this is a filmy line, but it sums up my very sentiment towards this great city. I can write and discuss about it forever and still not adequately convey the greatness of the city fully, nor my love for it. (and BTW I always called it Mumbai during my childhood and this was more referring myself as the 'Pai from Mumbai' and not for any political reasons. Bombay is actually closer to me than Mumbai is...Ok this is only for the Indians who will get what I am saying)
I have been an itinerant Indian. Within India my family has travelled to various places thanks to the banking job of my dad. Once I was asked which place did I like best from the towns and cities we had stayed in, and I said all of them. Each one of them was special to me.
We had started of in Mumbai and then it was a few cities after that. But Mumbai feels special to me for my career more than anything else. One of my Insti friends had told us how everyone had to eventually come to Mumbai if they had to grow – I mean it was inevitable. (even though Gurgaon and Delhi/NCR is soon turning out to be a bigger centre of gravity now).
So most would have done their management training here, and immediately rushed off to a more affordable and convenient place (like Bangalore, or Kolkata or Delhi etc.). Most who were not from the city, would have not-so-great memories of their stint in Mumbai.
For me too it’s the same – I have seen the grime and the depressing under-belly of Mumbai, but it doesn’t deter me in liking it. As a management trainee there was difficulty in finding a place and I stayed everywhere – right from Chawls to those lodging rooms where you stayed with 10 unknown strangers, you were unlikely to see the next day. And of course, as a paying guest – which to me was the most memorable part of my stay in Mumbai.
You could say I was eminently lucky. I stayed in Bandra Bandstand – before the Taj Land’s end laid its foundations there, and of course before SRK had built that ugly façade over that pretty bungalow.
For me the charm of Mumbai though lies in South Mumbai and in the hearts of the people there. I am more closer to Dadar and Sion where a significant proportion of the Konkanis lived and their influence is still strong. But further down South offers a glimpse of Mumbai that simply embraces everyone and moves you.
When you move towards the tip of the island below – the sheer architecture is one big marvel, everything from Victorian, Gothic, Edwardian architecture. But you also get to see Mumbai the way it was meant to be. There are pavements, parks, fire hydrants, even some of the surviing gas lamps on the street side. There are parts of Mumbai that remind me of the some of the other cities – mostly London, Beirut, New York etc with a lot of Indian zest thrown in.
South Mumbai is one of the best kept secrets, and it is unlikely most people in the city will ever get to know it well. You see the majority of South Mumbai, at least the best parts are simply inaccessible – and not just because of the traffic. A big part of South Mumbai belongs to the ports as well as the armed forces. If you are lucky and know someone, you could go to the US club (united services) – its unbelievable, and I cant think of this being matched anywhere else. And if you have access to homes in the Malabar hills – both the high rises as well as the old employee quarters from the British times, it is magical. The view from the high rises in Malabar beats what you get to see in Manhattan – its really amazing. Colaba high rises also offer a great view. One of my colleagues who stayed there would keep her windows open as the noise of the waves used to gently lull her to sleep.
And there are a lot of hidden/ unknown secrets - and as I talk about them, I suspect a lot of them really don't care. anyway (since you asked) the ugly decrepit façade of a building opposite Kala Ghoda which should be condemned and might fall down anytime - used to be a hotel, and was where the first FILM was shown in India - in the last years of the 19th century. This building in the last few decades had whorehouses, shady busineses running out of it, and not a safe place to venture around at night. Strangely enough it also had a XEROX shop which was used by nearly every advertising agency in the 1990s - that's how I got to know about the building.
the other secret for me was the sea green hotel, another now shady hotel where all the Arabs go and stay and since it is next to the cricket stadium a lot of deal making apparently takes place there (hearsay - don't ask me). The hotel is now split into two. But this was the very place where Narayan Apte and Nathuram Ghodse stayed for one night before they took their flight to Delhi and what took place made them part of history. In London, they might have made a tour of this and preserved the hotel's room with some fake memorabilia. But then...
But that’s only what you see. The moment you step into South Mumbai you are not just witnessing architecture, but you also get to see what India and Mumbai were meant to be – a rich tapestry that encompasses all the hues, colours, experiences, opinions, lifestyles, cultures and allow them to bloom and be – just be. To me, the sheer variety of peoples you are going to meet amazes me. I think if you look hard enough Mumbai was the port where every citizen from every part of the world found a place – and also from within India. So you will see Bangladeshis along with folks from various parts of the soviet union, folks and churches from different orthodox Christian faiths. You will also see various members arriving from the Arabian and north African shores along with those from Israel and Palestine, co-existing peacefully here. The intermingling would result in some of the best flavours – seen in everything from Irani restaurants to bakeries and some smaller cafes and bars around south Mumbai.
(and just to make a point about how various parts of India have always been in Mumbai - one only needs to visit the one of the most unaffordable prime property - i.e. Banganga where Lord Rama is supposed to have brought out a stream of Ganga by firing an arrow into the fertile earth here. Surrounding the tank of Banganga are Mutts / Maths of various regions and sects which have been established '00s of years earlier. My own community has three different maths - one of them nearly 300 years at least and has the Samadhi (resting place) of one of the blessed pontiffs. If that doesn't talk about how Mumbai embraces various sects and is a melting place of all of India - cant think of any...)
Its hard to describe, but the city teaches tolerance like few other cities do. Spending time here can open everyones eyes like few places do. But its not just about race. When I was in Mumbai and what I saw, a hallmark – was how there (and seriously) – was no difference between the social classes. In those days, even senior corporate executives used to travel by train, a lot of them ate the same food from the same stalls and cafes. You saw the same plays and cinemas. And eventually you realized there was little difference between them and you. This sadly has disappeared and is evaporating away in South Mumbai.
I had talked about how accessible you felt places like Samovar and Tata theatre were – didn’t matter if you were a govt clerk or a socialite or a senior corporate executive – all were treated the same. And most people were plainly dressed and not overdone up. You walk into any corner of versova/ Lokhandwala and you see the very opposite where everyone is dolled up beyond belief, and “Tum Jaante nahin main kaun hoon” is very commonly heard.
But this is not a piece lamenting the change in Mumbai – the change is inevitable.
I stayed in Mumbai at various times across my career, and in spite of all the difficulties , and struggles I have had as well as the sheer difficulty it imposes at times (flooding, crime, poverty, traffic etc.) – there is a human side – which will embrace you the moment you walk in… each time.
I heart Mumbai! Always will….