Nobody prepares you for the gust of wind that greets you when you exit the Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport, but when it does, you know you’re in Mumbai. The air smells of the sea, and is heavy with moisture. It takes a while to get used to it, especially for someone like me who has never experienced humidity like this. Pushing my way through the sea of overenthusiastic taxi and auto drivers, I make my way to the car park where my friend awaits.
For a first timer, Mumbai can be quite overwhelming. The constant stream of people, vehicles, vendors adds to the pandemonium that is Mumbai. However, first ten minutes in, and I was in love with the city. Mumbai is a series of juxtapositioned images, lined next to one another. “You’re either really rich, or you’re just poor – there’s no in between in Bombay,” says my friend. From the aerial view of the slums next to the skyscrapers, to the peaceful coexistence of hip new cafes alongside stalls selling the quintessential Bombay street delicacy – vada pav, Mumbai effortlessly nestles within itself vastly different time periods and people forming mini cities of their own.
I’m quite adamant to squeeze in as much as I possibly can of this city in my 2 days here, which progressively feel more and more insufficient, and we leave for ‘town’ or South Mumbai, the central business district of Mumbai. We make our way through the narrow paved roads of Vile Parle, a suburb close to the airport onto the Sea Link, a massive cable bridge connecting the western suburbs of Mumbai to ‘town’. The sea looks beautiful. From within the confines of our cab, it’s almost easy to ignore the dishevelled looking, blue tarpaulin covered line of houses along the bank. Probably this is precisely what the grandeur of the Sea Link wishes to distract commuters from. The one and a half hours spent in the cab seem so much shorter than the same one and a half hours spent in a cab in Bangalore. Amidst a thousand fluttering pigeons and the ever furious sea throwing up frequent splashes of water, the Gateway of India holds its ground firm. It seems to stand nonchalant, completely unaffected by the waves of water swirling and smashing at its feet. Right opposite is the Taj Mahal Hotel, beautiful and revealing no traces of the terror attack of 2008 November that left one of the hotel’s wings on fire. Standing between the two buildings, I’m caught in a trance. It almost starts to feel like I’ve been teleported back to the Colonial era, when one of the several photographers there brings me out of my short-lived reverie – “Madam, photograph leejiye. Too good.”
We make our way through Colaba causeway, winding in and out of the several street shops, and find ourselves at Leopold Cafe. The shopping has left me feeling a tad bit disappointed, and not to mention betrayed. After hearing so much about the street shopping in Bombay, I expected something much better than what I found and come to the conclusion that nothing beats the street shopping of Delhi. Finding ourselves at Leopold though, is a pleasant and unexpected surprise and we excitedly make our way into the cute Irani cafe, done up with the typical red and white tablecloth covered tables characteristic of Irani cafes. Leopold Cafe is also one of the places where the attacks of 26/11 took place. But apart from the bullet holes in the walls that hold testimony to this, there is once again nothing that suggests the horrors witnessed by this place. I devour my spaghetti arabiatta which is generously seasoned with black olives. The pasta is so tangy and it strikes that perfect balance between being uniquely Indian and not going overboard with the spices. It’s better than any I’ve ever had. Good food definitely makes for happy people.
In so many ways, Mumbai reminds me of Delhi – the endless people, the traffic, poverty that smacks you right in the face only to give way to the shiny new multi-storied building 50m away. There is a chaos characteristic to all organically sprung up cities that were never expected to be this big. Yet, the similarities give way to rather marked differences when the surface is peered at a tad bit longer. The people in Mumbai are so accepting. My friend argues that “they just don’t give a f***,” but I believe that the city and it’s people are always ready to welcome that one extra soul onto its streets. Unlike in Delhi where one’s got to be on guard and fight to keep her space in a city that is constantly threatening to take away that and much more from you, Mumbai makes space for everyone.
The Mumbai local train amplifies this spirit of Mumbai. It’s barely 4pm, a solid two hours to go before peak hour, and the station is already bustling with activity. There’s a steady stream of people flowing in and making their way to the platforms. It’s easy see why the local is the lifeline of Mumbai. Unlike the Delhi metro, there are no automated gates that require a token to let someone in and I realise it’s too easy to walk in without buying a ticket. The chance of being caught for not having a ticket is almost negligible. The trains are so crowded that I couldn’t possibly imagine a ticket collector trying to check tickets. But perhaps this is the beauty of the local – it’s inclusiveness. It does not discriminate based on your wallet. Just when I think noone else could possibly squeeze in, the train pulls up at a station and after few brief seconds of shuffling, the train sets off again with a couple more hearts beating inside.
The beauty of Mumbai also lies in its inexhaustible list of public spaces where one can just sit. Period. Access to spaces where one can spend time and call one’s own without having to spend money is an extremely essential, and often overlooked feature of well planned cities. Bangalore has always dismally disappointed me on this front with barely one or two places, both at least an hour away from home, I can go to just read a book or listen to music or sit around without being stared down at. Armed with conversation, laughter, evening sunshine and Theobroma brownies (the best I’ve ever had), two hours fly by while sitting amidst the rocks overlooking the sea at Carter Road.
My favourite place in Mumbai however, has got to be Prithvi theatre, the iconic theatre run by the Kapoor family. Prithvi theatre is beautiful. With fairy lights that weave in and out of the canopy of leaves and create dancing shadows, and posters of different plays that jostle for attention, Prithvi theatre is a tiny gem tucked away in one corner of Juhu. I instinctively make my way to the bookstore and spend a considerable amount poring over the worn out pages of the second hand books that seem to hold much more than just the words printed in them. The place buzzes of conversation stimulated by the delicious food served by the tiny cafe which is part of the theatre.
It’s hard to say goodbye to the city I fell in love with so easily. Mumbai makes you feel inconsequential and yet there is a certain sense of peace in knowing that you don’t matter enough and nobody cares enough to judge you. The pulsating energy of the city is like a drug, and when we finally head home, it is with happy tummies, tired aching feet but light joyous spirits.
– Kanika Kochharfirstname.lastname@example.org