I’ve grown up introducing myself as the girl from Bombay, India. I’m entirely used to having to dispel the notions many people have about what it means to live in the subcontinent. No. I don’t own a cow. But yes, there are cows in the streets sometimes. No, not everyone is a Hindu. Yes, people do speak English.
Sadly though, there’s a girl in Canada with a wonderfully ditzy accent who probably still believes that I rode an elephant to school (I believe I called her Lakshmi) and that I learned how to use a computer and speak English in the two months before I moved to Toronto.
However much fun I may have had making up those stories, over the past couple of years I’ve become acutely aware of just how vastly different India is from those perpetuated stereotypes common in the Western world (thanks very much, Danny Boyle). I’ve visited Bombay every year since I was fifteen, and have enjoyed every minute of my time back at home; but, the city itself has transformed rapidly and drastically in every way.
Allow me to give you some context. I grew up in Bombay, and have always relished going back to it. There’s no sense of “personal space,” in India; the bubble of privacy that Western individuals enclose themselves in simply doesn’t exist. The staring-at-the-floor-in-the-elevator routine becomes in Bombay a deep, unabashed study of other individuals on your two-minute journey, or perhaps a collective appreciation of the fact that the elevator you’re in has a metal cage-like door that plays the Lambada tune if it isn’t closed properly. You never have to pretend to be on your phone when walking down the street to avoid making eye contact with strangers, because chances are, you’ll definitely meet someone you know. That’s one of the other amusing things about Bombay. In a city of so many million, I probably interact with the same five hundred people every day. The grand metropolis can really sometimes feel like a village, where everyone knows everyone and everyone’s grandmothers too. Perhaps that’s why Bombay is the home of Hindi cinema – Bollywood. In this city of so many people of varying races, socioeconomic statuses and faiths, there’s bound to be drama.
Living in the city itself, with all the strange quirks it develops every time I go home is a little like a Bollywood experience. That may sound odd, but there are few paradigms that my hometown can fit into, so perhaps describing the city as “Bollywood-like” can further one’s understanding just a little bit. Bollywood offers different things to different people in its frames. The old stereotyped romantic comedies can still mesmerize audiences with the possibility of a dream-like existence, full of designer clothes, gorgeous cars, even more gorgeous people and spontaneous dances on the lush green hills of Switzerland. Correspondingly, today, films like Shanghai and Gangs of Wasseypur are being made, which force audiences to come face-to-face with the grim underbelly of the Indian political and social lie. Bombay is something like those two movies being screened side-by-side in the same theater. The co-existence of extremes – those who live fabulously rich, opulent lives and those living in utter squalor – makes Bombay a surreal place to live, and nothing like my Canadian friend’s elephant-riding, Hindi-babbling fantasy.
Not long ago, people in the Western world used to associate India with poverty, disease and outsourcing. My parents told me that when they first went to graduate school in Pennsylvania, seeing another Indian was something of a momentous occasion. That certainly isn’t the case anymore. Indians, and many Indians from Bombay, are everywhere these days – on Forbes lists, in high-profile banking jobs, in the tech world, on the political scene, and in the media all over the world. Fareed Zakharia, who now has his own show on CNN (even though he’s in a spot of trouble right now), started out in Bombay. In a conversation with Arnab Goswami, the face of one of the country’s most popular news channels, Times Now, I was told that there was a “new India” emerging, one that is far wealthier, far more ambitious, and ready to go out into the world and get what it wants. Mr. Goswami is right. There definitely is a new India emerging. Every time I’ve gone home, I see glimpses of a vastly different India from the one I grew up in. All around me are people whose wealth drips off of them, from their clothes to their cars to their jobs to their trips to Macau (Macau was the ‘it’ destination last year, you know).
You could always tell that wealthy people lived in Bombay, but today, it seems to be much more exaggerated than it was when I was growing up. Perhaps I’ve only realized it because I’m not sitting at the children’s table anymore (at the decrepit age of eighteen, I was trusted to make polite adult conversation), but in my adolescence I’ve begun to hear a lot more about the all-expenses paid, lavish trips to Europe for birthday parties, or weekend shopping trips to Paris and the glorious week-long weddings that couldn’t possibly live up to the realities of marriage.
Even more, in a city where real estate prices have sky-rocketed, there are even 20+ story homes for single families. It’s not just the adults (who in all fairness, have probably worked hard for this wealth) who are engaging in these magnificently opulent enterprises. People my age and younger are toting Louis Vuitton totes (and no, they’re no fake Indian knock-offs) to neighborhood cafes, hiring out entire nightclubs for parties and driving some seriously expensive cars. It’s jarring to me, and nothing like the world I grew up in.
The Dusty Reality
When you can get some of the glitter out of your eyes (and I’m not being critical here, I’ve struggled to do it and I still find it enormously difficult not to get swept up in the wild, fun Bombay life), you’ll probably be able to see the other side of the city. The side that’s nowhere near as pretty, not as full of glamorous people, and filled with hardship. Not more than 14km away from the 26-story home of the richest man in India, is the second-largest slum in India. In Dharavi, many of the hopeful individuals aspiring to make a name for themselves in the City of Dreams end up unemployed or working in a position earning far less than they had hoped.
This abject poverty is exacerbated by the potential for ethnic tension. With hordes of people flooding into the Bombay in search of work from across the subcontinent, it isn’t surprising that there is restlessness among people of different faiths and creeds. I used to think that one of the best things about Bombay was that people were so focused on making something of themselves that those kinds of apprehensions commonly fell by the wayside. But today, these primordial tensions might be hard to avoid with parties like the Shiv Sena in power. A party that believes strongly in the might and heritage of members of the Maharastrian state, the Shiv Sena isn’t particularly fond of out-of-state entrepreneurs who have made it big in this “maximum city,” and have never been afraid of using violence to voice their disapproval. Away from the confines of the old Gothic-style buildings of South Bombay, the terrifyingly, hard-hitting world in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai really does exist. Bombay is remarkable in how these completely opposite worlds can co-exist but meters from each other. As it was crudely put in Shanghai’s hit song, Bharat Mata Ki Jai – Sone ki chidiya, dengue, malaria; Gud bhi hai gobar bhi Bharat mata ki jai (Roughly translating to: The golden bird, as well as Dengue and Malaria; We have the good as well as the shitty, hail Mother India!)
The thing about living in Bombay is that you quickly learn to navigate these two starkly different worlds. It’s not impossible to cross over the boundaries that divide these two halves of the city, but it’s rarely been done. Sometimes I almost think I can feel Bombay’s strong, but erratic pulse thumping against the walls of the plane as I land. It’s like I’m gasping for air by the time the plane finally taxis to a stop. I usually rush through immigration and baggage claim, and outside I’m greeted by the hordes of people (some waiting to welcome friends and family off the plane, some just hanging around at the airport with nothing to do but people-watch – I’ve never understood this) and the ear-splitting sounds and the often-oppressive heat. And then, the first whiff of Bombay air; the grotesquely wonderful mixture of the perfumed and the sweaty, the fresh and the exhausted, the likely terrified foreigner clinging to re-circulated plane air and the relieved Bombayite opening their pores to the city – and I’m literally breathing Bollywood.