The princely sum at which Mumbai, or Bombay as it was then known, was leased to John Company would either raise a titter (among the cynical) or fetch a gasp (from the naïve) today. At its current value, and with the rupee in free fall, 10 pounds a year would not fetch a toehold in the shabbiest slum of India’s Maximum City.
The inhabitants of the seven islands that were merged to create the Bombay Presidency could never have imagined in their wildest dreams that one day a sparkling metropolis would replace their thatched roof shanties. Such are the quirks of history and they equally exist for all cities with a past, if not a future.
Work would often bring me to Mumbai since the mid-1980s. But none of those visits afforded me the luxury or leisure of looking at the city beyond the glittering façade of Nariman Point or the old world sophistication of Colaba.
On one such visit I recall standing at the doorstep of Shobhaa De’s apartment, waiting for someone to answer the bell. That was a score-and-five years ago. I had expected a liveried khidmatgar to open the door, instead it was Shobhaa who ushered me in.
Nor had I expected her to accept a callow Assistant Editor’s offer to write a weekly column for Saturday Statesman, the first of its kind all-colour weekend section published by a broadsheet newspaper. She readily agreed to write for me. The fee, a pittance, shall remain undisclosed.
Shobhaa’s column, ‘Big B’ (it was much later that Amitabh Bachchan came to be known by that moniker) turned out to be immensely popular among The Statesman’s crusty readers. Even Dharani Ghosh, the paper’s starched dhoti-kurta clad dour theatre critic, who lived, breathed and talked Brecht, would often have a word of praise.
I basked in reflected glory, thrilled at having subverted convention and tradition through Shobhaa’s risqué prose written with what my Editor called a “facile pen”. She actually wrote her copy in long hand, without any punctuation marks or paragraphs, and it had to be deciphered with some effort.
The only opportunity of discovering the sights and sounds of the city came when I went pub-crawling with my college mate who had relocated to Mumbai with a job. He would take me to delightful watering holes across the city, most of them shady and smoke-filled.
Those are Daud’s men, he would say pointing to a group at a table. I would look at them with wide-eyed wonder. Little did it strike me that he could have been bluffing, which he most probably was. Kolkata seemed so boring and dead-end compared to Mumbai.
I continued to visit Mumbai, but the pub-crawling stopped with my friend finding himself a job in Australia. I doubt he has ever taken a last train, drunk to the gills and barely able to stand, since the last time I dropped him at Bombay Central before returning to my lodgings.
Times change, situations change, and we grow older and sedate. My visits to Mumbai continued, but they were restricted to attending conferences, meetings and seminars. Last year I qualified as a frequent visitor to the city while working on a jointly drafted document on public policy. It was also the year when I began to see Mumbai in a new light, and was seduced by the city’s many charms.
Mumbai is a power city -- it exudes power in its many forms, not only financial. In more ways than one it is comparable to New York, and I am not referring to the glimmering skyscrapers that crowd both the cities and the sluggish traffic that can prove to be despairing.
Mumbai may not be Shanghai, but it is what Kolkata once was and Delhi shall never be. Over the centuries rulers have sought to plant their flag in Delhi in anticipation of power and glory. Both have proved to be ephemeral when achieved. Delhi was and shall remain India’s wannabe power centre.
There’s a vast gulf that separates a power city from a power centre: The first throbs with life; the second survives on deceit. Mumbai is about enterprise. Delhi is about intrigue. Mumbai energises you. Delhi leaves you enervated. Of course, both have ugly underbellies, but which city doesn’t?
The stars in my eyes may yet turn into motes. But at the moment I am enamoured of Mumbai, my new karmabhoomi, and every day that I spend here is a day of joyful discovery: People, places, food and shaded pavements where one can walk without fear of being run-over.
I wish I could have moved to Mumbai. Since that’s not possible, shuttling between Delhi and Mumbai is the only alternative. So be it.
No, I am not being disloyal to Delhi. I am just a small town boy from Kalimati in search of fame and fortune. A Dick Whittington, if you wish, who has travelled west from east, via north.