This week I complete six months in Mumbai — make that THE Mumbai. It is so different a state of mind to any other place in India that, when they say you become one with the crowd – never mind the individuality you try desperately to cling to – they couldn’t be more right. If you live in Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, or any other Indian city, you follow the same rules of living, albeit at different scales. But Mumbai has an idiom of survival all its own.
The positives: It’s a remarkably efficient city. It might rain cats and dogs, but people go about their business. Trains ply, buses run, streets are as packed as when it’s bright and sunny. No excuses please, we are Mumbaikars. After all, it’s a city driven by commerce. Got money? Will work. It is impossible to desire something and not find it in Mumbai. No other city in India is as enterprising and as remarkably proud about its spirit.
Mumbai is frequently compared to New York for its cosmopolitanism. Its spirit has an expansive Marathi base to it. Notwithstanding Raj Thackeray’s anti-Bihari tirade, Mumbaikars – Marathi-speakers in particular – are welcoming of people from other states. While regionalism has entered drawing room conversations, the city is suffused with an openness to anyone willing to work hard and work right. There are opportunities galore for everyone.
So much commerce, so much hankering after constructing a life. All good, huh? Where is the time for subtlety, nuance, dialogue? Mumbai is culturally dead. I don’t mean art events and film festivals — there are plenty of those. But try and initiate conversation with the person next to you in the local train and you’d sooner drop dead. Literate people, supposedly educated people, smartly dressed people, perfect-accent people — in any other city, such would hold their own in a conversation about art and politics. Mumbai? Here we are cutely clueless. Or, ponderously pigheaded. Take your pick!
Mumbai tests you. It asks of you to share in its humanity until you become the lowest common denominator in its deservedly elevated sense of self. That lowest denominator is charming enough, and hallowed enough, to survive a lifetime. You live, merging with the crowd, happy that you are one with the vast sea of people in this metropolis. Never mind your brain goes potty and you become progressively insipid.
That, if it happened, would be the death of me. Until I moved in with my current flatmate, an MBA who works for a consultancy, I was starved of conversation. Its culture scene, the pride of Mumbai, can be extremely insular. Sure, there are the Western classical music aficionados converging on NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) at Nariman Point, families whose sons and daughters play Bach and Beethoven from the age of three. These are the constellations of the unreachable. Then there are the cine-goers, hordes of wide-eyed Bandra and Andheri lurkers who, together with the theatre enthusiasts, form distinct subgroups. For a rank outsider like me, it is frankly impossible to pry open the scene. Prithvi in Juhu and the Comedy Store in Lower Parel provide the occasional respite, but these too are dens of air kissing.
Thank God for the bookshops. Mumbai scores rather well in this department. Apart from regular chains such as Crossword, the city has several standalone bookstores housed in charming Art Deco-style buildings. My favourite is Kitabkhana, right opposite the brooding figure of Flora at Churchgate. Exquisitely designed and wrapped in muted colours, Kitabkhana provides me with the soulful company of books for several, undisturbed hours.
If only there were more hours. That reminds me. My long-winded lament has its roots in last Sunday. Like every Sunday, I went to Vashi to take classes. In Mumbai it is not uncommon for people to work across physically unimaginable distances. Three tracks run parallel through the length of the city: the Western, Central and Harbour Lines. On Mumbai’s fluid periphery are Thane, Vashi, Belapur, Panvel — self-contained residential agglomerations that cock a snook at the main island’s paucity of space and pollution.
Since I stay on the Western Line, it takes me close to two hours to reach Vashi. For a class at five, I left home at three. I carry a first-class train pass, which I renew every month. Since this was my lucky day, I had failed to renew it in time (I was a day late). Of all the blessed people in the world, mine was the shoulder the ticket checker gently tapped asking for the pass.
Hmm. I spotted in his eyes what can only be called “a lack of humourous appreciation” (to borrow Bret Harte’s memorable phrase from Tennessee’s Partner) and made for the exit after promptly paying the fine. Ever seen how perfectly gentle and mature individuals go dotty with glee when they espy a target? Man, I felt violated.
Well then, there is no more to say about that, is there? But Mumbai, I will be watching you.
The author has switched too many jobs in the past and hopes he can hold down this one