This city has some nerve – holding on to 15 million people; squeezing them all into small apartments, small cars and even smaller cubicles; letting them stand head-to-armpit every day in crowded railway compartments; making them work round the clock; and still getting them to think they’re the luckiest people on earth.
Mumbai is that kind of city. Every street corner offers an opportunity for profit. Entrepreneurs support families of six on their pavement snack-stall business. Swish hotels like the Four Seasons rise out of slums, reserving lower floors for service areas and letting guests look out to better views on the floors above. Stylish boutiques operate out of former garages, and little boys make big bucks from minding people’s shoes outside temples. If you elbow hard enough, Mumbai will let you get to the top.
Of course there are too many people. Of course they’re all going in the direction you’re going, no matter where you’re headed, and at what hour of the day or night. Of course someone will be in your way. Mumbai is tiny, a little tongue sticking out of the west side of the Indian peninsula. More than 800 people come to the city every day, and every day there’s a little less room for you.
But everybody makes do, and there’s fun to be had while doing it. Plump housewives have shopped their way through the economic slowdown, buying everything they didn’t need from new malls and hypermarkets. ‘Fine dine’ is the phrase of the moment, with cocktail bars and multi-cuisine restaurants opening every other week. Multiplexes play out young urban stories made by young urban crews for a young urban audience. Mumbaikars are starting to understand just what it feels like to be home to cutting-edge art, cinema, design, theatre and music. They’re buying up city-inspired kitsch, originally intended for tourists, and learning to laugh at themselves. They’re even starting to look beyond themselves, rallying after November 2008’s terror attacks and forming civic groups to reclaim public space, deal with religious fundamentalists and outwit bureaucrats.
They’re also standing on nothing more than a reclaimed archipelago of seven islands. Mumbai – ruled by Ashoka in 300 ВС, Raja Bhimdev in the 13th century, ceded to the Portuguese by Bahadur Shah in 1534 and disposed of to Britain as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry to Charles II in 1661 – didn’t become a city until the British reclaimed lands and erected a township in the century that followed. And it didn’t become a manic, fast-paced metropolis that sets the pace for India until after Independence in 1947. Rivers have been choked, mangroves cleared and forests denuded to accommodate its shiny new office complexes, apartment buildings and department stores. The city floods every monsoon, reminding everyone just who’s boss. But eventually the rain clouds part, and Mumbai’s millions roll up their trousers, hike up their saris and wade through the waters to work. After all, what good is a city of dreams if you spend the day in bed?