Wednesday, March 05, 2008

She loves me, she loves me not.....

Bombay doesn't love me, but do I love Bombay ? This is the classic conundrum generations of adoptive 'Mumbaikars' like me - who have tried to make Bombay their home ( despite the periodic protestations of the 'uncle' or his cub turned fledgling tiger 'nephew' ) - struggle with. Bombay is like the quintessential femme fatale - from Cleopatra to Carla, Angelina to Ash, Marylin to Madhuri - who have through the ages made millions drop on their knees by simply refusing to be conquered. Bombay doesn't believe in slow seduction like Calcutta, nor does it have the brash, on your face, 'come hither' attitude of Delhi. It simply shocks you to submission and ( very often) total surrender.

I was ruminating these thoughts on my way back home from Geoffrey's, where I had tried - with limited success - to ply a young colleague with drinks on a potential career move to Mumbai from the comfortable confines of Calcutta. He parried every single argument I proffered with a stolid, one point counter - "but why ?" - throwing the ball determinedly back on my court.

It is this "but why ?" factor which baffles everyone visiting Mumbai from other cities small, large or another megalopolis ( like Delhi would like to believe it is ) . They fail to figure out what's the fix that hook people so hopelessly and irreparably to this 'packed and pestilential' city - which Kipling , if he were to live today, would have described in the self-same words he used for Charnock's Calcutta ( still holds true , by the way ) - "As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed, So it spread–chance-directed, chance-erected ....." except perhaps, he would have modified it a little to read - "builders selected, builders created.....where penthouses, hovel-poverty and pride (exist ) - side-by side " and it would have fitted Mumbai beautifully.

A couple of weeks ago, the chief of a well-known PR Agency told me, how she was appalled at visiting the new apartment of a just retired senior civil servant, to find it was smaller than the size of her living room and cost almost as much as her bungalow by the golf-greens of Gurgaon. And yet, she is surprised, even corporates who constantly complain about the soaring real-estate prices, unaffordable rents, high wages and crumbling infrastructure - threatening to shift base to Gurgaon and Bangalore - stop short at Andheri, which keeps bringing back the likes of her to Mumbai in search of new business. The critiques on Mumbai (lack of space, crowded trains, snarling traffic, poor quality of life, etc etc.... ) are as cliched as the the praises that are heaped upon her ( city of opportunity, professional work-culture, efficiency and so on... ) none of which can bear repetition here. But both these constituencies, I think, miss the essence of Mumbai or , as the Americans say, ' don't get it'.

I don't love Bombay - either for her glitz and glamour or for her grossly romanticised under-belly made pruriently fashionable by the new genre of "realist" Bollywood movies or the likes of Shantaram ( foreigners make a cool business of this as Morehouse, Lapierre and Grass did for Calcutta or, more recently, Dalrymple for his City of Djinns ).

I love Bombay for the energy she exudes, her pace, her indefatigable spirit - her infectious positivism. I love Bombay because she lives in the 'present' - neither harking back to an over glorified past nor the dreams of future transformation to a "world city from a walled city", whatever that might mean ( Bombay needn't ever be another Shanghai or a Singapore for that matter !!). I love Bombay for the personal space she gives her people. So what if they live in pigeon-hole apartments or travel in sardine-packed trains - no other city is as "non-judgemental" as Bombay. Yet she's not amoral, somewhere deep within, she is moored in strong, middle-class Indian values. I love Bombay because she respects anonymity - she allows you to exist without wearing a name tag on your chest or dangling a calling card on your sleeves. Here, I can take the train to work or enjoy my Sunday afternoon beer with mandali fries at my favourite JBs ( Janta Bar - for the uninitiated readers of this blog ) without anybody sparing me as much as a second glance - let alone waste their energy in lifting an eye-brow. And yet, she breeds just that right amount of insecurity, like the dynamic sexual tension generated by a consummate lover, never letting you take her for granted - only to bring out the best in you, keeping you always longing for more.... That's what makes it a truly 'international' city unlike her northern pretenders;

Bombay doesn't need to ooze her sensuality or titillate your senses - to cast her spell on you and make you her slave for life. She only has to look at you with a side-glance. That's why - I am amused to think, how in 6 months time or even less the same young man who was greeting my spiel about Bombay with scornful skepticism would become a irreversible convert. And more than him - his wife, who he was convinced would never be able to adjust to the tough life here, having been used to a cozy pampered existence since childhood, would get so irredeemably addicted to the charms and spoils of Mumbai, that she'd rather dump him than desert the city.

Once a friend asked me about Delhi - is there nothing you like about this city ? I told her, of course, I do love your winters. She probed why ? - and I answered, because the weather makes the people a wee bit tolerable. A truism which, as a 3rd generation Delhi-ite, even she couldn't refute. Mumbai, thankfully, has no seasons - but only the monsoons. And, who cannot but fall in love with the sight of the torrid rain beating down on a raging sea - merging in a deep blissful union of the elements.