Resilient is the word that has most often been used about Mumbai, but the city is much more than that. It is vibrant, energetic, dazzling, vivacious and multidimensional.

All of us have favourite cities. Bombay — I won’t say Mumbai — is not my most favourite city, but it is certainly one that triggers nostalgia for an era gone by and has the capacity to bowl you over… yet again.

A visit to the megapolis last week reinforced the sheer magic of it. “Resilient” is the word that has most often been used about Mumbai, but the city is much more than that… it is vibrant, energetic, dazzling, vivacious and multidimensional, almost like a woman! But it is also noisy, messy, expensive, chaotic and exasperating. But what strikes you the most about Mumbai is the buzz it generates and the spirit it exhibits, something that Danny Boyle captured so well in his unforgettable Oscar sensation Slumdog Millionaire.

The latest visit took my mind back to my childhood and teen years… when bhelpuri and malai kulfi or, better still, the delectable mango kulfi, at the crowded Chowpathy, were a special treat. And so were the “Victoria” rides on those majestic horse-drawn buggies around Palva, in an era when pollution was unheard of and the night star-studded sky, combined with the rhythmic sound of the horses’ hooves, and prospects of a Dilip Kumar movie at Maratha Mandir the next evening, came together to weave a magic spell of sheer bliss.

Ahmedabad via Mumbai

Those were also days when our ties to our home State of Gujarat and the little town… almost a village… of Sidhpur in Mehsana district were very strong.

Grand-uncles and -aunts showered on us — we were six siblings — the affection of the grandparents who had passed on. Weddings were invariably held in Sidhpur; the women grumbled a little but the men were most delighted. I belong to the Bohra Muslim community, a community of traders, and the men rooted for weddings during the long summer holidays in Sidhpur because it gave them a long break from work. Summer also meant a different variety of mangoes, and delicious hand-churned fresh fruit ice creams, masala aloo and a host of other delicacies.

But what made a trip to Sidhpur even more memorable was that, in those days, there was no Navajeevan Express connecting Chennai directly to Ahmedabad. Flights were, of course, prohibitively expensive. And not only the men, but also the women, who had the bleak prospect of taking charge of the kitchens for two months during a blistering Gujarat summer, were most enthusiastic about taking a three-day break in Mumbai.

We would descend on my mausi (aunt) who lived in a chawl in Parsi Ghali near Crawford Market. She would lovingly prepare delicious meals for all of us, to be followed by basketfuls of ripe and sweet hafoos (Alphonso) mangoes that uncle brought during his lunch break every day. But her most stressful moments came in the mornings during our bath time. Hailing from Madras where water shortage was unheard of, we would splash away, depleting her most precious commodity stored in buckets and other brass and steel containers. “Go easy on the water”, would be her constant refrain!

Falooda vs mango milk shake

Even then, what amazed me was the incredible buzz around her house, as we carefully made our way jumping across little hand carts and keeping clear of little boys carrying several glasses of tea. Abdul Rehman Street was packed with little hardware shops and we walked through it straight to the Badshah Cold Drinks House bang opposite Crawford market, where one agonised over a choice between their trademark falooda which came in bright colours… red, orange, green, et al… topped by a generous scoop of ice-cream and the most delicious, chilled mango milk shake made out of the sweetest of alphonsos.

Sometimes, our wanderings took us to the most palatial of places that Bombay had to offer… the Taj Mahal Hotel at Apollo Bunder. Along with hundreds of star-struck visitors, and consuming endless packets of chana-mamra (moori), we would watch in awe the magnificent edifice and the shiny cars that drove in and out of the place, carrying fancy sahibs and memsaabs.

Fast forward to the present and on every recent visit to Mumbai, I’ve not been able to pass by or step inside the Taj Mahal Palace, as it is called now, without a stab of pain and waves of anger at what those terrorists did to this very iconic symbol of Mumbai, as well as other places during 26/11 and the following days.

For so many reasons, Mumbai is the core… the heart… of India and an attack on this city was a collective attack on India and Indians.

Much more inclusive

But these days one can’t visit Mumbai without ruminating with a pang of regret about how inclusive this city was once upon a time.

The best part about the Bombay of yore was that it was most welcoming of all. Over 40 years ago, nobody talked about the sons-of-the-soil theory and outsiders could walk into the city with stars in their eyes and dreams in their hearts with no questions asked, no discrimination made. Bollywood stars are the most visual public testimony to this characteristic of the city. Whether it was a Yusuf Khan (Dilip Kumar) from Peshawar or a Shah Rukh Khan from Delhi, this city embraced them all.

Several of my mausi’s neighbours in that chawl were Hindus, Christians, Muslims and they exchanged delicacies as well as gossip almost on a daily basis.

That the same cosmopolitan city — in the true sense of the word — even while wearing that label with pride today has been saffronised to a certain extent is heart-breaking. More and more Muslims, and even Christians, are talking about their difficulty in renting or buying properties in certain areas, the latter mostly for their food habits and the former more for their religion than being meat-eaters.

But if you are a foodie, Mumbai is the place for you…. Call them Muslim localities or ghettos… Bhindi Bazaar and Mohammed Ali Road are places I seek out to buy khameer roti and the most delicious breads called lamba or Fakiri pao. And the rates are fakiri (beggarly) too; last year, I bought a few dozen of these diamond shaped tiny breads, paying a ridiculous amount of Rs 8 for a dozen. Pack the sheek kebab from a nearby restaurant, again at some crazy cheap price, and you are set for a most delicious meal on board airlines that serve you atrocious food!

It’s not for nothing that Mohammed Rafi had crooned in CID…. Yeh hai Bombai meri jaan!

Responses to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in and blfeedback@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on July 9, 2012)
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