December 01, 2008

Bombay Burning

I don’t have to tell you what happened in Mumbai. You already know it. I wasn’t there that day, and although I may at some point in the future, I have never lived here. Not in the real sense of ‘living’ somewhere, with bank accounts and rented residences, or jobs. But Mumbai is my city, my friends are Mumbaikars, and I feel every bit one myself: I still call it Bombay, because Bombay is romantic and real and Mumbai isn’t; I love the city, have my favourite haunts in Bombay, both north and south, and know the city well.

Perhaps too well.

On any regular Bombay evening, my friends and I would be sitting at Cafe Leopold in Colaba Causeway. I’m there every night, not that I particularly like it. When the papers and news reports tell you the gunmen threw a grenade into a ‘popular tourist cafe’ in Colaba, you need to know first that Leopold isn’t just any popular cafe, Colaba isn’t any regular street… and Bombay isn’t any regular city. Leopold had a strange, inexplicable draw. Mr Shantaram was there, back when he was actually living in the slum a few streets behind it, and so were the real life cast that inspired his fictional motley crew of Bombay misfits, mafia and other things. Even now that Johnny Depp is going to play him in the movie, now that he’s a minor celebrity, he is still there. You never quite leave Leopold.

My friends and I at Leopold would just be like any regular bunch of friends who might be sitting there that night. Young and foreign — photographers, wannabe Bollywood stars, scruffy Bollywood recruiters, writers. Drawn by the magic of Leopold: the bad music, the bad pasta, the Kingfisher and Cobra beer that was never terribly cold, but the coldest the city could give. And our friends: each other, and the chattering yuppie Indian middle classes. When we were done someone might say, let’s go for a kebab. We’d pop around the corner to the famous Bade Miya, just down the road from the Taj, sit in a derelict building outrageously (and illegally) outfitted with fluorescent lights, while more young scruffy expats and Indophiles like me sat with each other and with our yuppie middle class Indian friends — smoking, eating with our hands, and perhaps someone would say let’s go to the sea.

Bombay is a city by the sea, but not in the usual sense of it. It’s beautiful, but only if you look hard. The Arabian sea engulfs it on one side, and on a hot Bombay night there is nothing more entertaining than sitting by the Arabian Sea, eating bhelpuri and drinking_chai_ with your love — and Bombay is a city for lovers — on Juhu Beach or by the rails along Marine Drive. You’d look out to the domain of old Bombay money, Napean Sea Road and Malabar Hill, shimmering away in the distance. The majestic Taj hotel behind you. The Gateway of India, and all its pigeons and pigeon shit and tourists, to your left. Bom Bahai, Bombay, Bom Bahai the good harbour, as the Portuguese called it.

And CST was where it all started and ended. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, so renamed to please the frothing at the mouth Shiv Sena, Marathi supremists and their Shivaji cultists. Victoria Terminus, or VT, was what the rest of us called it. You entered Bombay at VT, stepped over sleeping bodies, crouched all over the station and platform floor. They never did that in ones, rarely twos — the Indians do everything in groups, and especially in Bombay groups of ten, twenty, will all be sleeping, chatting, sitting, drinking tea on the floor, squatting by their ancient-looking luggages, waiting for trains to take them homes. Some of them would have just got in to Bombay, destined to a lifetime of pavement-sleeping in this crowded city; others would be veterans, waiting to go home for the week after months or years in the big city. You can tell who’s been here for a while by the way they talk about the city: there’s a certain degree of Bombay smugness. Or perhaps smug is not the word — it’s the air of knowing. When you know Bombay, whether you’ve lived there all your life, whether you’re Parsi, Gujarati, Malayali, Singaporean, American, British, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, whether you go back to sleeping on your pavement, to a Malabar Hill Road address or your expensive room at the Oberoi. It doesn’t matter. When Bombay is your city, it shows. Whether you stepped out into Bombay in the morning at CST, or in the dead of night, they were there. And to get out you had to step over them, shove your way through the porters, and the thronging multitude carrying what seems to be hundreds of kilograms of things they were carting home: sweets, hay stacks, goods. When you left Bombay, you did so at CST too. If you left for a day trip you might go to a place like Matheran, where I like going whenever I’m in Bombay, and you’d take the train from CST to Neral Junction to get there. If you lived in Bombay, especially in the north, you would take a train home from CST, too. You’d get on one of those dangerously overcrowded suburban locals, the ones I so love.

But it all fell apart. The city of dreams is burning. Those sleeping bodies on the station floor are probably all dead, and so are the waiters at Leopold — two of them. So are the sorts of people I might have met and chatted up at Leopold. Heck, my career started in Leopold when a roving photojournalist chatted me up there and we found we had an incredible chemistry and worked well as a team, sealed off with Kingfisher, Gold Flakes, and Indian whisky at Gokul just around the corner. I never went to the Taj or to the Oberoi but as India’s finest hotels, they are not mere hotels — they are symbols, testament to the power of this city and its dreams. As a young man Ratan Tata’s great grandfather, Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata, walked into the colonial Watson’s hotel and was turned away — because he was Indian. He vowed to build a grander hotel than that, and he did: the Taj hotels are the pride of India, and the Taj Mahal in Bombay was the crown in the jewel: the Beatles stayed there, and so did endless other kings and queens, especially the ones that matter most to the Indians, the cricketing gods. For the pavement-sleepers, scruffy backpackers, middle class Indian tourists, and locals alike, The Taj was — and still is — the landmark in the city by the sea.

If something like this could happen to any city, it would be to Bombay, and it would be to these sites of great emotional resonance. The city has never been an easy one to live in. It is full of crumbling buildings and bureaucracy, it is the symbol of Indian inequality of class, wealth and status, it is the city full of people who have nothing right by the people who have everything. It is hard to imagine why anyone would live here. But Bombay, like Leopold and its terrible pasta, like the Taj and the Oberoi and its occasionally contrived grandeur, has an inexplicable aura that draws her people — and their hearts — to her. And she demands you love her despite the terror attacks, despite the gangland wars, despite the everyday inconveniences of living in a place like this with no living space, no drinking water and no dignity.

Other writers more talented than myself have made the New York connection, and it’s true: Bombay is where people come from all over India, even the world, to chase and live their dreams — I did — and they’ll do it by grumbling a heck lot, but will always grit their teeth and survive. If the terrorists wanted to take Bombay apart and show the world that they’ve destroyed this great city, they will never succeed. They do not understand this city is a very different city, and its 14 million inhabitants are hardy people who are toughened but never disillusioned — go take a walk around the chawls and slums, including Asia’s biggest one at Dharavi, and in the midst of poverty and suffering there is always an air of incredible hope and optimism. It is a city of 14 million who have fought back floods, bombs, shootings, racial riots and gangland wars, because they fight daily the misfortunes of everyday living in this city of tough love. More than any other city, Bombay knows how to survive. And will.

So be strong, my beloved Bombay. I will be with you shortly.

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