There is a certain charm involved in getting into a rickshaw at 3 am in Bombay. It seems as if the city breathes a little. You can feel the wind in your face moving unfettered, with no crowds or traffic to prevent it from howling down our otherwise overflowing streets.
You find little pockets of warmth on rainy nights, when rickshaw drivers huddle under makeshift canopies put up by tea sellers. You also find kinship with strangers as you stand companionably by the side of quiet streets, some sipping Bournvita in tiny plastic cups, others smoking cigarettes calmly, stoically, as if preparing themselves for the onslaught of dawn that will break in a few hours.
The Gateway of India at midnight, when photographers who will snap your pictures for 50 bucks have all returned to the far-flung suburbs. File pic
There is something special about taking the last train from Churchgate. It's quiet, subdued, full of people who want nothing more to do with the city than stare at the slums whizzing past or play a game of cards with their neighbours without discussing the day that has passed. On fast trains in winter, the luggage compartment sometimes houses vagrants who burn newspapers to keep warm, stamping them out furiously before the train rolls into a station for fear of being arrested. They don't look out either, wilfully putting aside the city that lies between where they work and what they call home.
If you're lucky enough to find yourself on a Virar local on December 31 at midnight, the comfort of strangers prevents you from wondering why you're alone at the break of a new year. People you have never met, and probably never will again, pass out plastic cups, then ask if you would like whisky or rum, Limca or Coke, pouring it out generously as they welcome a new year between Bandra and Andheri.
There are smiles all around, glasses raised, the odd Kishore Kumar song sung by travellers who have probably been drinking before stepping on at Churchgate, but no one minds. They raise their glasses together and toast the New Year in a flurry of languages, compelling you to join in, leaving you with a memory that will never fully leave you.
There are moments of otherworldliness that appear when you stumble into holes in walls that expand into hidden bars in pockets strewn across the city. The place where the fishermen of Versova drink, for instance, in the heart of their village by the sea, where you may find yourself sitting opposite a mafia don or a small-time politician sharing a Koliwada fry starring prawns that were brought ashore a half hour ago.
And you may get into a conversation with these unlikeliest of drinking partners and go home with stories whose authenticity you will doubt the next morning. And the food you eat there will be unlike anything you have ever tasted before or since. You may find yourself at a traffic signal, stuck alongside a vehicle being driven by one of the world's most famous film stars.
Or walk into a party at Yari Road and find a slew of television stars who play mythological figures by day, then drink until they drop by night. And you may find a struggling filmmaker discussing Scorsese and drunk teenagers who want to run the world, and they will all get along and raise a toast to you and dream of 4 BHKs in Cuffe Parade.
The places tourists throng to are different when the Bombay Darshan buses aren't around. Juhu beach at 6 am, Kala Ghoda at 7, the Gateway of India at midnight when photographers who will snap your pictures for 50 bucks have all returned to the far-flung suburbs. The buildings all come alive then, and you may catch yourself smiling at how beautiful they are, and how often you walk past without really noticing because your life in this city rarely offers you the luxury of stopping.
And one day, when you're on the other side of the planet, walking down Bleecker Street in New York or stepping inside a subway train in Vienna, you may overhear a stranger use a cuss word or mention a location that triggers something powerful inside you and makes you ache for Bombay. And you may lock eyes with that stranger who will recognise a kindred spirit and nod. And in that moment, a thousand miles from the city you both once called home, you will recognise, if only for an instant, that what you left behind was a bit of your heart and a whole lot of magic.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org