Mountstuart Elphinstone himself was no slouch. He was president of the Asiatic Society of Bombay, whose library has one of the two known original manuscripts of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In fact, in 1930 Mussolini offered the library a million pounds for one of them, but the society refused. I don’t know why they would turn down a stash of cash for some ancient crap, but there it is: Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s still at the Asiatic Society library, and you can get special permission to see it.
The city’s big leap forward came during the American Civil War, when cotton exports from the American South dropped. Bombay took over and became a great cotton-trading center. Then the Suez Canal opened and the whole thing got more intense. Huge cotton mills sprung up; tons of migrant laborers came to work. They stayed at the Bombay _chawls_basically dorm-style housing with one toilet. You still see them all over the place. The mill workers lived in the chawls and partied at night. They did street theaterpolitical satires, mythological extravaganzas, you name it. That’s why Bombay has such a strong regional theater tradition. Nowadays, most of the huge cotton mills are being converted intoget thisnightclubs and shopping centers. The Mathuradas Mills compound is now the Blue Frog nightclub. Phoenix Mills is now a mall. Weird, isn’t it?
It was only after the First War of Indian Independence, in 1857, that the British crown finally took over Bombay from the East India Company. In fact, the Gateway of India was built to welcome King George V and Queen Mary into India. The crown entered through the Gateway, and the last British troops left through the Gateway. Or so we Bombayites like to say.
So now we are in the 1940s and the freedom struggle is in full swing. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement from Bombay. He lived in Mani Bhavan, a building on Laburnum Road, for many years. You should visit it; today it’s a Gandhi museum.
In the seventies, Bombay had this massive land reclamation drive. Much of Marine Drive is built over “land that has been reclaimed from the sea,” as the books say. Today, of course, the big controversy is what to do with Dharavi. These real estate guys are real snakes, you know. They wanted to tear down the 138-year-old Crawford Market, but thankfully we all did morcha (protests) and got the thing stopped. You can’t fool us Mumbaikars.
That’s it, yaar. Bombay’s history as told by a Mumbaikar. Now let’s go grab a beer.
I have to admit that I still don’t really get Bombay. I can feel its exuberant energy, hear its passion, and see the panache of its citizens. Bombay may not cushion the fall of the average barber who wants to pole-vault across the class and caste hierarchies that define India, but it certainly will drive him to succeed. But is it one of the great global cities of the world, or is it merely, as a Kiwi tourist put it to me, “a shole”? Despite my days traipsing around the island, the city ultimately eludes my grasp. Just when I think I have it figured out, I see something that turns my theories on their head. In that sense, Bombay is like Chopin’s music: It shows but doesn’t reveal; it remains, ultimately, unknowable.
On my last day, I awake at dawn and go for a jog down Marine Drive. The monsoon has arrived right on schedule in early July. Sheets of rain sluice down my body as I run, the sea on one side and the Art Deco buildings on the other.
The night before, I dined with my cousin and his eighteen-year-old daughter, Sanjana. They live in Navi Mumbai, or New Bombay, which is arguably the largest planned township in the world, a parallel galaxy.
It was 11 P.M. and Spaghetti Kitchen, at Phoenix Mills mall (poised between South Bombay, where I was staying, and distant New Bombay), was bustling. Sanjana radiates the giddy enthusiasm of youth. She has six tattoos and multiple piercings. We are Brahmins, my family, yet Sanjana eats rare beef and speaks in unprintables. I gaped at this young lady who shares my family tree yet seems so different from me, as much a gypsy as I am a schoolgirl.
When Sanjana heard that I was writing about Bombay, she could not stop raving. Which other Indian city would accept a young girl with multiple tattoos? she demanded. In Bombay, she could come home at 2 A.M. and still be safe. She could lead her life and not be judged. Bombay wasn’t conservative Chennai or sleepy Bangalore; it wasn’t flashy Delhi or intellectual Calcutta. It was all of the above yet none of the above. Res ipsa loquitor. Not again, I thought.
I invited Sanjana to Bangalore. I would find her a job, I said. What I didn’t say was that I thought Bangalore would straighten her out, make her normal again. What was so great about Bombay? I demanded.
Sanjana stared at me. In a demure, respectful voice that would surely have made her father proudthat was in contrast to the braggadocio beat of Bombayshe replied, “Shoba-aunty, if you have to ask, you just won’t get it.”
I think about this as I pause at Worli Sea Face, out of breath, to stare at the raging gray water. Behind me, a small crowd has gathered to gawk at this woman standing in the rain in a clinging wet T-shirt. I catch snippets of the conversation. “Kya shooting chal raha he?” I hear a man ask. Is this a film shoot? Heroines clad in wet saris and dancing in the rain are a Bollywood staple, and he thinks I’m one. In this moment, I too live my Bombay dream. The city delivers. I run on.