Maximum City

MUMBAI–Apologies to Suketu Mehta, but is there a city ever described with more contradictory superlatives than Mumbai, formerly Bombay? I am overwhelmed by its size, it’s energy, smells, poverty, wealth, generosity, and numbing and cruel disdain all at once.

It’s a marked contrast to my last few weeks, which saw me chilling out in Hyderabad, one of India’s least visited central cities, despite its pleasant air and easy-going attitude. The problem with Hyderabad is there’s just not much to do there. ((As it’s been pointed out to me, I spent much of the time in Hyderabad asleep. Like, 20 hours a day asleep. So I may have a skewed take on the place.)) Sure, there’s the Charminar, but that’s a bit of a one-off and lacks the “wow” factor of the stately Taj Mahal or the scenic grandeur of the Himalayas.

So fast forward to a weekend in Goa, which was lovely. While it was the slow season–which might as well have been called the “no” season–it was slow, relaxed and very, very green. The jungle around me seemed to have more ambition and a need to expand than I did, as I lazed around cleansing my system of past toxins.

So the contrast with Mumbai is all the more stark. This place doesn’t chill; it heaves and thrashes. Even Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, brings little respite. (A recent expedition, after iftar, was to the Muslim quarter’s famed “food street”, Khou Galli.)

And yet, as in any metropolis of 16-18 million people, there are places of tranquility. I’m currently in Leopold Cafe, which is a stalwart for fans of Indian-based literature and ex-pats alike.

In one corner, there is a pretty Indian girl in full sari, with whom I imagine is a doting suitor. The indigo and scarlet of her garments brilliantly complementing the pink and green juice drinks on the table before them.

At another table, a lost western tourist tiredly flips through the bible, also known as “Lonely Planet India“. She smiles wanly as I walk in and shake the monsoon out of my hair.

Two skinny Indian guys, their torsos maybe as big around as my thigh, are enjoying a simple lunch of naan and two massive towers of beer. The liquid present on the table looks to be more than the entire 70 percent water makeup of their bodies.

A European family—a father and three kids—merrily chat away in some Mitteleuropa tongue while scarfing down green curry and tall pitchers of draft beer. Germans, I presume.

A 150-year-old institution, Leopold Cafe was one of the first sites to be attacked by alleged Pakistani militants in the November 2008 terrorist attack. They rampaged through Mumbai for three days, killing at least 168 people and wounding hundreds more. Several were killed at the Leopold and many more wounded. There are still bullet holes in some of the mirrored walls, a grim memorial to the violence wrought here. A known haunt for foreigners, it was an easy target.

But today, the vibe is easy and fun. Mumbai is cooling off from the monsoons, with the streets freshly washed clean by the seasonal rains—at least until the millions of bodies muck it up again in a few minutes. But even that will be washed away in the night or the next shower, in a continual cycle of use and renewal. Don’t get me wrong, the trash and litter are real problems. But I also see the back and forth between Mumbaikars and nature to be symbolic of the larger city, with its societal back and forth. It’s how the city breathes.

A very select set of impressions of Mumbai:

Image courtesy of Chris Allbritton

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