A Modern Atlantis: BombayThursday, January 12, 2012
“The first thing I noticed about Bombay, on that first day, was the smell of the different air. I could smell it before I saw or heard anything of India, even as I walked along the umbilical corridor that connected the plane to the airport. I was excited and delighted by it… but I didn’t and couldn’t recognize it. I know now that it’s the sweet, sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; and it’s the sour stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love. It’s the smell of gods, demons, empires, and civilizations in resurrection and decay… It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and loves that produce our courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches, and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers… the worst good smell in the world. The next thing I noticed was the heat. I stood in airport queues, not five minutes from the conditioned air of the plane, and my clothes clung to sudden sweat… Each breath was an angry little victory… Then there were the people; warrior caste, Brahmin, and untouchable; Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Parsee, Jain, Animist; fair skin and dark, green eyes and golden brown and black; every different face and form of that extravagant variety, that incomparable beauty, India.” --Gregory David Roberts ("Shantaram")
A similar flood of emotions and thoughts strikes anyone who steps into this island of dreams. This city is a showcase of India and, indeed, the World. It has a strong flavor of the energy, spirit and aspirations of countless of peoples, most of whom are immigrants or their descendants. The world's poorest and the richest live here as equals, walking with the same stride, carrying the same pride, and riding the same locals. It is a city which lives on its own rules and with its own dynamics. This is Atlantis reincarnate, but unlike the mythical Greek city, even Gods have failed to shake it. This is Bombay.
My latest trip of Bombay took place during Ganpati, a festival celebrated with utmost vigor by one and all here. Where ever I went, there were highly ornate pandals and Ganesh idols and everyone around was dancing their hearts out, I would get my chance soon enough. However, my first day involved a marathon:
A two hour flight from Bangalore to Bombay,
a taxi from the airport to Kurla,
a one and a half hour local from Kurla to Panvel,
one and a half hour bus ride Panvel to Pen,
one hour drive from Pen to Alibaug beach,
then all the way back to Bombay (Bhandup) the same evening.
Travelling on the Bombay Local is an experience unlike any other. At its peak hours a platform is a torrent of humanity. Get caught in one and you will be travelling by the mob's will. It also has the notorious distinction of one of the most dangerous sub-urban railway systems in the world, with more than 3,500 casualties and counting due to overcrowding, trespassing and suicide attempts. Having said that, of all the railway systems, it has the highest passenger density, with more than 7.2 million commuters daily. Without it, the city would come to a stand still.
The Bombay Local is also the most important institution of the city, in fact, Bombay's geography, economics and sociology is defined in relation to the three major lines (Central, Harbor and Western). The confluence of these lines are the stations Churchgate and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) or VT. VT is probably the ensign of Bombay. Similar to way the the Lady Liberty greets immigrants travelling to New York, here, VT is what travelers first behold on their arrival to Bombay. Apart from being the hub of the local rail system, VT is also head-quarters of the Central Railways, emanating trains to virtually all parts of India, making VT the busiest railway station in the country.Being of prime importance both symbolically and functionally, the Local system and VT both have consistently been the targets of terrorist attacks, the latest and the most infamous being the one on November 26, 2008.
------------------------------My second day was relatively peaceful. I went to VT to rendezvous with my cousin, and then we set out for Haji Ali. We took a cab which took us through the marine drive, which was jammed up . . .
. . . and Ganpati festivities were visible everywhere.
We finally reached the small island darghah late in the evening. Haji Ali is a place of peace and tranquility in this bustling metro, where people come to take a pause from the rapid spontaneity of their lives in the city. Believers of every religion also come here to offer prayers to the Sufi Saint for favors. It is a place of spirituality, hope, charity and reflections, with the ambiance of the sea, sunset and the city's skyline.
The rest of the day was pretty much uneventful. Except that, we had the hardest time of our lives getting a taxi to the nearest station. And yes, I broke my sandals and had to travel through half of Bombay bare feet, wearing a saffron kurta.
Not everyone at the dargah was a Muslim and it weren't just the Hindus who were chanting for Ganpati. The harmony and the sense of brotherhood among the communities here is unlike the rest of India, probably because this is a city of immigrants. But Bombay too has a history of communal violence. On December 6, 1992, politically motivated destruction of an old mosque in Ayodhya followed by politically led aggravation of Muslim communities supposedly led to a backlash by the Muslims. The consequence of this were the Bombay Riots of 1992. There were 900 casualties and and it took the city more than a month to come back to normalcy. But the series of tragic events was not to stop there. The Bombay underworld got involved and D-Company, an Islamic crime syndicate conducted a series of bomb blasts on the March 12, 1993, which caused 250 fatalities, mostly Hindus. Thankfully, this act did not cause another backlash by the Hindus. It did however cause a split in the Bombay underworld and led to a gang war which continues to this day. Bombay has seen several attacks since but none of them has caused a rift among the communities or event stopped this raging bull of a city for more than a day.
|Ganpati at VT|
Day three in Bombay, and I get to take part in the Ganpati festivities. I was staying with a friend of mine at his hostel and it was the Visarjan day. Dozens of people from his college joined in the procession with drums, dancing, colors and the slogans of Ganpati Bappa Maurya. Ganpati himself was seated on a lorry which was surrounded by the throng. By the end of the procession, when everyone was soaked in sweat and colors to the bone, Ganpati's lorry drove off to a nearby tank and we followed on bikes. The Visarjan involved a few rituals, whispering our prayers and requests in His ear and then submerging Him, ask Him to come again next year. The affection and love that the people here have for Him can't be described in words or caught on camera, you just have to be there to experience it. Anyways, fearing its premature death by water, I was not carrying the Nikon on this occasion.
My fourth and last day was spent around the Town area. I had a lunch date with Yashoda's daughter at Gaylord. Then I waited around for my friends at Leopold's and went to Cafe Mondegar with them. Due to a sudden itch to buy a Zippo, we roamed around the streets of the Colaba district but could not find one there. We were off to the Gateway of India, and Taj. Roaming around the lobby and using the rest-rooms is complimentary there, so we did that. This was my first experience of the Taj, and I found out that every bathroom has a butler. After that our quest for a Zippo continued. We went to at least three malls just to find out that it should be available at Crossword stores. Then using the latest in surveillance technology we located a Crossword with its shutter half closed. We forced ourselves inside, but the guy we interrogated said Crossword has stopped selling such things. Resigned to our fate we left for Carter Road to grab some killer wraps and shakes. Later that night I flew home.
A friend of mine, a Punjabi brought up in Delhi and a hardcore Delhi patriot, visited Bombay for the first time and spent two days there. All he had to say later was that Bombay is a City. Its comparisons with the New York City are endless, but in my opinion New York is not quite there yet. Yes, both cities are unstoppable and unshakable, both are full of energy and pride and aspirations. But, in Bombay, the spirit and the smell that Shantaram talks about is so thick that anyone falls in awe in an instant and becomes one with the place . . . and like they say . . . Mumbai meri jaan . . .
. . .