My husband is a banker. Every week, for the past several years, he has commuted to Bombay from Bangalore where we live. He stays at the Taj Mahal hotel’s heritage wing, room 315 if possible. That Wednesday, 26 November, for the first time in three years, he debated coming back to Bangalore mid-week, something he had never done before. A book he loved, Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani, was being launched and he wanted to attend. The plan was to take the first flight back on Thursday morning. Of course, he didn’t go. As the horrific events of that night unfolded, it occurred to us that a book had saved his life.
Mystique or a muddle: Is Bombay a metaphor for India and all its vicious problems? Manoj Madhavan / Mint
Bombay, more than any other Indian city, arouses loyalty and a dose of envy. No other city in India encourages such empyreal ambitions in its people nor brings them down to earth so fast. Bombayites are fiercely proud and loyal about their city, even as they complain about its daily frustrations. Few contemplate leaving. Au contraire, they keep coming: from Ranikhet and Rohtak; Erode and Idukki. The city absorbs them all: larger than any single soul; retaining its identity and arousing feelings of inadequacy. Is this why those brainwashed young men targeted Mumbai? And we might as well get this out of the way. I like the name Bombay even though I believe that the name change is a necessary step in India’s emergence from the chrysalis of colonialism. So Bombay it will be—in this article anyway.
Over the years, I have spent countless days in Bombay trying to figure out the city. Couldn’t do it. The city gave me vignettes; snapshots; Greta Garboesque mystique; chiaroscuro contrasts. I’ve ridden trains and hunted for vada pav; ate chaat and lunched on sushi at Wasabi. Like you all, I too have my “only in Bombay” stories.
Lunch at Wasabi with socialite Chhaya Momaya. “I don’t know why people say that Bombay is like New York. It’s more like L.A., with all the botox people are into,” she says. Executive chef Hemant Oberoi comes out. Air-kisses all around. “Get me a reservation in Per Se next week,” she asks. “I am in New York.”
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If Wasabi is power lunches, then Dharavi is Bombay’s great send-up; its cosmic joke that a slum is now the geographical centre of this metropolis. Giddy tourists take guided tours, chatting up potters and papad-makers. Last I checked, the Dharavi redevelopment plan was stuck in red tape. “In terms of urban strategy, it is a very defective plan,” says urbanologist Matias Echanove, who maintains a site called Dharavi.org and moved here from Tokyo. “Bombay should develop incrementally, with infrastructure retrofitting—like Tokyo has for decades. Dharavi is the solution not the problem.”
The real problem is the vegetarian housing societies that have sprung up on Malabar Hill, says Naresh Fernandes, editor of Time Out Mumbai. A sophisticated bachelor about town, he poses as a scold. “There were maidans (playgrounds), gardens and theatres that were open to all,” he says. “Now, it is all about elite homes and schools and how to keep the ‘others’ out. The city has lost a sense of itself as a single entity.”
We are sitting at Vetro (and yes, the irony doesn’t escape me), one of the many restaurants that makes this city such a romp for foodies. Bombay today, says Fernandes, is a “metaphor for India and all its vicious problems”.
I put up with it till the tiramisu. If he hates it so much, why the heck doesn’t he move out, I ask. Fernandes is taken aback. “This is my city,” he says finally. “I have a stake in it. I mean, Bombay used to represent a certain egalitarianism, you know. This was the place where you could come and make your fortune.”
Fortune, of course—or the prospect of it—defines Bombay. Half the Indians on the Forbes billionaires list live here. And in spite of its contradictions, this city of 17 million, give or take, is India’s most cosmopolitan. “Bombay is incredibly accommodating towards immigrants,” says Abhay Sardesai, editor of Art India. “It allows individuals to drop anchor and flourish on their own terms.” Erudite and energetic, Sardesai looks like a friendly Indian techie but is anything but. We are walking in and out of the galleries of Colaba. At one, we run into artist Vivan Sundaram. They discuss his loft-sized installation, Trash. “It reminds me of Art Spiegelman’s Maus,” says Sardesai.
“Actually it is more like Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog,” the artist replies.
I hang back, feeling like a yokel. You see what I mean? Envy compounded by feelings of inadequacy.
Dentists Gauri and Anand Merchant invite me to an IPL match. Later, over dinner at the Thai Pavilion, I invite them to Bangalore. He demurs. Didn’t the bars in Bangalore close at 11.30pm or some such ridiculously early hour, he asks. “Your city is a bloody morgue, yaar. Here, I can drink all night and go to Zaffran’s at 4am if I am hungry. What would I do in Bangalore?”
Merchant lives on Malabar Hill in a joint family. His two daughters are state-level swimmers. “I am a devoted dad,” he says. “But after 9pm I have to get out of the house because my folks start watching serials.”
Which is how we find ourselves—Merchant, his wife and I—at 2am at a gay party. It is the Queer Media Collective’s Awards night and my friend, Vikram Doctor, one of India’s few openly gay journalists, has invited me to attend. Wendell Rodricks is giving the awards. There are probably around 800 people spilling into two rooms. The strobe lights come on and I melt into the crowd. Be cool, I tell myself. Gauri and I dance. People stare at us. Maybe they think we are lesbian. I stare right back. Most likely, they are wondering how the straitjacket crashed the party. There are a few young men with spiked hair and nose-rings, but for the most part, the black-attired crowd looks impossibly chic.
Doctor introduces me to Prince Manav, the “gay prince” from Rajasthan who looks like Jeremy Irons. “I appeared on Oprah,” he says. “The royals disowned me.” So what do you do now, I ask. “My duty,” he says with a faintly ironic smile. “I talk about gay issues and rule my kingdom.”
He didn’t actually say something that sound bite-worthy but after a few martinis, that’s what it sounded like.
Merchant stands in a corner, slightly sour that nobody has propositioned him while I dance the night away with his wife, a Malabar Hill Princess slumming it at a gay bar while her in-laws watch television serials at home. Only in Bombay, I think.
This is why we love Bombay.
Shoba Narayan thinks Bombay is like a walnut: large-hearted, smooth on the outside but complicated inside.
Write to her at email@example.com