Who does Mumbai belong to? That’s easy: Everyone and no one. Everyone because whenever anyone mentions Mumbai or Bombay millions of people jump in, opine, threaten, joke, accuse and claim. But take one look at Mumbai and you can see that no one is really bothered by what happens to it at all. It has no roads any more, its sanitation and drains are struggling, the garbage is piling up, the people are spilling over, the entertainment is shrinking, crime is rising, pollution levels are rising, lifestyle is sinking, green spaces are collapsing and the more its ever-malleable borders expand, the more the chaos that enters the city.
The best part of the city is the imaginary one, which belongs to everyone’s childhood and no one’s reality. To those who grew up here, you can spin any story you want about skating around Malabar Hill (me), to sneaking off to see movies in magical theatres, to playing cricket at the maidans, to swimming in seas that were not filled with sewage, to running into a film star while your mother was buying groceries. This imaginary city is usually called Bombay.
To those who came here later, there are stories you told yourself when you were little, based on legend and fable and myth and lies. That the streets of the city were paved with gold. That whoever came here made good. That everyone from film people to gangsters were glamourous. That the whole city looked like that favourite movie panorama sweep down from Marine Drive to Chowpatty beach.
And then there’s Mumbai. The one we have to fight over. Who does it belong to? Who should live here? Who should leave? Who was here first? Who loves it more? Where does it begin? Where does it end? Is this part more worthy of attention than that part? Of course, the unspoken question is: Who will be here last? And that has an easy answer: given current circumstances, only those who cannot see beyond the ends of their own noses.
Let’s not even discuss words like cosmopolitan, secular, liberal... Who even knows what they mean? Those unmentionables and others like them, well some of them died between December 1992 and January 1993 and whatever was left was given a good jolt in March 1993. Ever since then it’s been the ghosts of those concepts which have been hovering around to torment us.
At least for now, the usual guff about the “spirit of Mumbai” has vanished. That may be partly because the government has taxed liquor so heavily. But mainly because the spirit gets somewhat vanquished by what Mumbai has become or been made into or forced into or squeezed into or demoralised into or destroyed into.
I hear the lie in my voice when I tell people from other parts of the country and the world that Mumbai is India’s most “professional” city. Is it? It took me one week and four days of house arrest to get my washing machine fixed in this maximum city with maximum excuses being made about time, rain, life, commuting and such. Not an example you want to really share with anyone while you’re perpetuating a dying myth or flogging a dead horse. Is the rest of India really worse than that? Maybe it is better in my bubble then...
That way I can pretend that there’s no malnutrition within, no malnutrition at the city’s doorstep, that people are not being chewed by rats in their homes and their hospitals, that cancer patients waiting for treatment are not treated like terrorists, that women out for a drink are not arrested for being sex workers, that men caught for rape and robbery are not let off by friends in the police force so that they can go back and try again...
And at the end of it all, regardless of what the politicians say, Mumbai really belongs to everyone. Not just them. Not just you. Not just me. And from what I can see, we’re all about to be tried for murder. You can’t say no one did it then.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona