In the middle of a busy day, the Mumbaikar has time for a caring gesture, a helping hand... It's a city that surprises you at every turn, if you only stop a moment to breathe it in.
Mumbai is a crazy city to live in a space you want to run away from, except that it gets under your skin; a Ferris wheel that flings you to dizzy heights and brings you down before you've caught your breath. While you are here, you dream of packing your bags and heading to a lonely mountain peak; then you go away and realise you cannot live anywhere else. Mumbai has you by the throat, the hair, the gut; its grip is unrelenting, its cruelty and charm can leave you hypnotised.
Elsewhere, in other cities, they think of Mumbai as the ultimate dream the city that lets you spin gold from its blazing sunshine, where there is work for everyone and you never starve. Like much else in the metropolis, of course, this is an illusion, as every beggar who greets you at traffic signals will remind you.
There is never any shortage of action here marathons in which 80-year-olds enthusiastically participate, food festivals, art camps, exhibitions, parties and more parties, with the publicity machine in constant motion. A top designer at a Gucci-laden bash once told me: "There used to be a Russian circus. Now there's a celeb circus." What do you say when you actually receive a press release about a Page 3-studded party designed to "appease all male fantasy" complete with mock bondage and spanking!
In this city it is easy to believe people are nice because you are useful to them; then you discover, unexpectedly, that sometimes the goodness and warmth are genuine that in the middle of a busy day, the Mumbaikar has time for a caring gesture, a helping hand a boy gets separated from his father in a local train, and a complete stranger spends four hours trying to reunite them; even the biggest star of them all, Amitabh Bachchan, finds time to make a phone call to a dying fan...
It's a city that surprises you at every turn, if you only stop a moment to breathe it in, a city that you love and hate, and love to hate except that this is where you belong.
`I Ching', therefore...
Through all the crass materialism and cynical points of view, there are people who believe in the mystic, the magical; people who are convinced they were born with a mission, and refuse to give up, whatever the odds. When Suneel Ramaney was eight, he saw a goat being killed and became a strict vegetarian. Now, he is convinced that his mission on earth is to eradicate meat eating, which is an "evil condition that causes the greatest danger to the planet".
Ramaney is involved with a unique organisation the Mumbai version of Healers Club International, which has 200 to 300 members; he specialises in Bach Flower Remedies, I Ching, Tarot and Runes, among other things. A couple of weeks ago, as part of their `Karmasutra' week, he held personal consultations at the Oxford Book Store at Churchgate, using the I Ching and Runes to tell people what their problems were, and suggest solutions.
Curiosity andI must confess, a little natural scepticism led me to the bookstore, and I left with some sage advice from the I Ching: "Be true to yourself. There is no need to go around impressing others." In this city, it is advice that many of us need to heed with, or without help from the I Ching!
Never say die
Some issues in Mumbai never seem to go away; like power blackouts, they return with unfailing regularity. Take the bar girl controversy; a couple of decades ago, when there was a move to close down such bars, I met a girl who lived with a huge family in a simple room whose walls were covered with gods. She had taken up this job, she said, because her father died, leaving her with five brothers and sisters to look after. Worried about how she would earn a living, she said: "We should be allowed to work at least till 11 p.m." The controversy died down, as it was bound to, and nothing ever came of the move.
Money can buy me...
At the other end of the spectrum is the world of glamour for which Mumbai is so famous. With fitness being the latest fad among the superrich, the upmarket Zafs Fitness Centre has signed on supermodel Upen Patel and Bollywood star Celina Jaitley as brand ambassadors. Palak and Pankaj Arora have opened a new boutique at Juhu; it's called Rouge, and Sweta Keswani, Kashmira Shah and Payal Rahtogi were among the celebs at the opening.
Boutiques, restaurants, movies... if you have money in this city, every day has something new to offer, every moment some transient excitement, some impossible dream. Arundhati Subramaniam, in her just-released book of poems, Where I Live, describes it perfectly in her title poem: "City wracked by home and bulimia./ City uncontained/ by movie screen and epigram./ City condemned to unspool/ in an eternal hysteria/ of lurid nylon dream... "
Now, it's time to step off the Ferris wheel and try to make sense of it all.
Picture by Paul Noronha