This city is endless.
It is the wisps of smoke from the burning end of a cigarette, the steam rising from a cup of chai, and grey vapour emanating from factory chimneys. It is the rage of colours at the flower market, and also the paleness of dawn, which is when the flower sellers arrive. It is the buzz of people claiming space on its footpaths, the cattle that grazes by the local train stations, and the lone raven perched on a Gulmohar, scouting for prey. Mumbai is a raucous melody; the loudness of a Bollywood song, the thumping of the Ganesha drums, the honking of the kaali peelis, and the fluttering of birds in flight.
When I arrived in Mumbai three years ago, I could stand neither the noise or the air, nor the people or the dirt. I hated it, and left within the year, only to quickly realise what I had left behind. The people of Mumbai- my friends, my neighbours, the lady seated beside me on the train, anyone really- take no time to get comfortable with you, because there is no time to waste; everyone is in a hurry. The buildings here are absurd- some look entirely unfit for inhabitation and others look as if they were plucked from the ritzy streets of Dubai. From its slums to its high rises, the metropolis reeks of a cultural mix seated uncomfortably yet decidedly beside each other. The good, the bad and the ugly are juxtaposed in an identity crisis you cannot avoid; you eventually find your place in it as I did.
So I left. But feeling displaced and conflicted at the time, I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere I could feel like myself again. Intense introspection and haphazard decision-making led me back to Mumbai, a place that is both a stranger and a home to me. The Mumbai I know is not a single city but many knotted as one. It is a city of the street life that Kiran Rao captures in Dhobi Ghat, one of powerful networks as in Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, and a slum undercity as Katherine Boo writes in Behind The Beautiful Forevers. I know all of these three Mumbais and the many more to which paeans are dedicated, but I also know a Mumbai that is truly mine. This is a Mumbai whose street lights comfort me on a lonely night, whose traffic cacophony reminds me not to be late, and whose kabutar khanas reflect the flurry of activity that is life here.
My time in this concrete jungle has revolved mostly around escapades and detours. Places such as the Jehangir Art Gallery and Joey’s Pizza hold divine respect in my heart, but I also love turning into alleys on a whim; that is how I found the Banganga Talav around this time last year. I can still vividly recollect the stillness of the water against the faint chiming of temple bells in the background. I did not discover Jehangir Art Gallery too differently either. A friend and I were on our way to the David Sassoon Library, and on finding it closed, we decided to check out “that cool place on the other side of the road”. I fell in love with it- just as we finished strolling through a gallery, we would stumble upon another.
In the present, though, I am stumbling into a different kind of alley. Beneath the image of this extravagant city is a rich historical legacy that I am on the cusp of exploring; the legacy of the land that was once only a handful of islands handed as dowry to an English king. I am only starting to discover the story of Mumbai’s indigenous koliwadas, the past that made Mumbai a migrant’s haven, and the narrative of a metropolis built by the sea. Mumbai, after all, is many things. It has taught me that I too can be many things; each absurd but beautiful nonetheless. There is an emotion that has seeped so palpably into the fibre of my soul that sometimes I think my heart beats with the rhythm of the city. As I sift through the layers of its many identities, I am gently unravelling those of my own. And the more I discover this city, the more I realise that I am discovering myself with it.
Cover photo courtesy Rohan More (@goat_horn_)