‘This is an ode to Mumbai: My muse, my whore, my wife’. These beautiful lines uttered by the character played by Aamir Khan in the film Dhobi Ghat sums up this city for its lovers. Riddled with chaos and confusion, it is amazing how one seldom finds time or space to stand still and reflect upon the hectic lives led in this city. Once a beautiful tropical island, Mumbai is now home to some of the most congested living spaces in the world. But that doesn’t mean the city hasn’t preserved its share of beautiful open regions where life still moves at a rather simpler, slower pace.
Mumbai is many things to many people and the more you discover it, the more mysterious it gets. I travelled to Mumbai as a stranger a few days back and the city welcomed me as if I had always belonged to this place. I remember sitting in my fiancé’s car right after my airplane landed and felt humankind walk past me in a tearing hurry to reach places and do things. I can gauge the wonder and awe of people who have newly moved to this city in the initial few weeks while they are still coming to terms with its frenetic pace and trying to get rid of the pangs of homesickness that one suffers in an alien abode. That being said, these very people who come from various walks of life and distinct cultures make Mumbai a truly cosmopolitan melting pot.
Struck in a traffic jam while heading home on a waterlogged road, there was little else to do but watch the water pouring down the windscreen to the fascinating chorus of ‘here comes the rain again’. There it was, in full glory and splendour, the Mumbai rains! Songs played in the stereo of my mind, all paeans to the downpour, the liquid gift from the highest heavens. I couldn’t help but imagine how, in true Bollywood style, when Mumbaikars can’t take the summer blaze any more, they start praying for the rain gods to show mercy. Then one day, as a perfect anti-climax, the city wakes up to overcast skies. The anxieties, over whether these are just passing clouds, are washed away by the first showers. The monsoons have arrived, they thunder and announce, the throbbing, exploding Mumbai clouds.
Potholed roads, traffic jams and mucky streets are common sights everywhere in India. But despite the dirt and grime, Mumbai never looks more beautiful. What adds to the city’s rain-drenched lush-green beauty is that no one sits around citing the showers as an excuse. Everyone sets out with the same zeal and fervour. Hours into the frenzied rain, I understand it, as if it’s flowing through my veins, seeping into my body as some charmed elixir. I feel it, the Mumbai rains, its swashbuckling excess and sudden grace, when I see throngs of people making their way to Marine Drive, or the ‘queen’s necklace’, the first best stop during the monsoon. A four-kilometre stretch of road along the Arabian Sea in downtown Mumbai, it runs along Chowpatty (one of the coolest beaches in Mumbai).
As couples take a walk in the rain holding hands, often sharing an umbrella, you cannot help but recall numerous Bollywood songs for which this scene must have been an inspiration. The sea swells and as the waves hit the walls along the promenade, they go up in a huge splash on the sidewalk drenching everyone who arrives there just to soak in the waters that turn the sky and the earth into one.
Making your way through the old parts of Mumbai can be both exhilarating and chaotic, mainly because the narrow roads of the city allow little space for walking without nudging the next person, but at the same time they hold those ancient stories, which have been missed in the age of modernity. The old lanes of Mumbai conjure up an image of a city within a city; shops selling a wide range of wares, from vegetables, flowers to fancy jewellery, clusters of buildings housing thousands of people, ancient temples for the devout worshippers, commercial establishments dealing in garments and lots more. There are a few hundred temples in Mumbai, some ancient and popular, some small and known only to the locals. But they exist as magnets of peace and quiet, spread all across this urban sprawl, indicating that the bustling commercial capital always has a moment to spare for faith and prayer.
The name Mumbai is itself derived from Mumba Devi, the deity representing Mother Earth. Many of the city’s suburbs also bear the names of the temples they house. The immediate vicinity of most temples are full of colourful markets selling garlands, incense, and other things related to worship, signifying a blend of commerce and faith, in many ways an apt description for this pulsating city. As a hardcore Delhiite who dines at Karim's, I have consistently been dragged into sociocultural debates over Delhi’s merits and pitfalls compared to its more humid cousin, Mumbai. While I don’t think a few days are enough to really judge a city and its character, but in an age when people end up writing ‘bestsellers’ after having spent just a few days in any country, I believe my opinion should also count for at least something. So without beating around the bush, here’s the verdict: I’ve fallen in love with Mumbai, head over heels. So, bring out the umbrella, get out of your car and take a walk in the rain!