Now come on, wake up Bombay!
Has the city that never slept been de-conditioned to cede spaces of the night, even when returned to them?
Indore loves to be outdoors. Especially at night. This is the first thing you notice about this Madhya Pradesh mercantile town, walking around downtown bazaars like Sarafa, buzzing with people (of almost equal gender-ratio), chaat-shop hopping, close to 3 am, on any given day.
This is in sharp contrast to the rest of India, which is obsessed with sleeping early, and waking up early — having yet to discover the true joys of electricity, that makes it possible to reverse the sleep cycle. That said, there are in fact two kinds of people, and seldom the twain meet — morning people, and night people.
This demographic divide is deeper than we accept. To the point that the only unsolicited relationship advice I ever give, is for couples to check if their sleep patterns are compatible enough for a relationship to last. Rest can get worked around that, eventually.
Likewise, there are morning cities, and night cities. This isn't a surprise. For, what are cities but people anyway? By that measure I'm often embarrassed when Indoris call their town, 'Mini Bombay', while for the past decade or so I've actually envied their night-life far more than the proverbial 'city that never sleeps'.Sure, like New York, and very few cities in the world, Bombay doesn't sleep — not at the same time, at any rate. It can't. There are far too many people for all of them to hit the streets simultaneously. And most are packed into pigeon holes, making the footpath better for nightly respiration. To paraphrase Javed Akhtar: 'Iss sheher mein ek hi gham hai/Har ghar mein ek kamra kam hai (This city has just one stress/Each home, has a room less)'!
You could be stuck in a traffic jam at 3 am in Bombay, and not wonder, what's up? This is also what makes it the city that feels safest in India. You're always surrounded by people. There is hardly ever a deserted gully conducive for mortal attack. Ironically, governments lording over this sea-farers' fun-metropolis have used safety as an argument against allowing places to stay open until late — since a heavily under-staffed police would not be able to bear such civic burden.
Police-to-population ratio is incredibly low during the day as well. It's not that there are cops everywhere you look. You call them during emergencies. You could do the same at night, on occasion; even while all shops/establishments hire private security for immediate exigencies.
What's the other thing you associate Bombay with; a cliché, and therefore true? That it runs on money. What do we like to do with spare money? People milling around all night (after work), on water-fronts and apologies for walkways, somehow making themselves happy, through low-key retail therapy, hogging on cheap grub, watching movies — all recession-proof preoccupations — equals good economics.
This is how I imagined Bombay to be. And it lived up to that glorious reputation, when I moved here in 2001-02, although my experience of night-life essentially entailed stepping out of hectic bars (Fire 'n' Ice, Athena, etc), shit-faced in the mornings, before community breakfasts on the way home. This Bombay of 2001-02 was still a pale shadow of the one before the 1993 blasts, that turned the city on its head. And yet, Bombay was as playful as any in the world.
What defied the economics of the night? Morals of the day. Entertainment is a bureaucratic sin, and mercilessly taxed likewise; but why not clamp down on it altogether? This was imposed by the government of the day — ordained to rule over a unique city, with rules of a generic state.
Let alone daily banging about little outlets serving people snacks, cigarettes, etc, late at night; in an organised fashion, they first came after regular pubs, with cops sauntering in at 1 am to make sure the places are empty by 1.30 am. Who were they protecting, I'm unsure. In 19 years, I have not seen a single pub-brawl in Bombay.
Then they came after dance-bars — the only night-life institution worth showing off to tourists (females included), with women dancing to Bollywood songs, like Bollywood stars, in the home of Bollywood! How did its closure positively impact crime rate? Nobody's produced any data so far. No one has to. Gradually the public began to cede spaces of the night, left to only work, sleep, work, and feel like you could be in Tasgaon.
Much water has flowed under the bridge. The progressive Shiv Sena government in 2019 passed an order to keep some malls, and establishments in non-residential areas, open all night. Five-star hotels for the rich always did, anyway.
Super-excited, I took my laptop after work (close to midnight) to Kurla's Marketcity to write this potentially fervent piece. Entrances were open. Shops were still closed. There was lobby music overlaying sounds of silence, in this deathly morgue for a mall. Perhaps this city has been intrinsically de-conditioned? At least the choice for it to eventually wake up exists! Will wait.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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