July 2014 – Unmapped
That I love Bombay as unreservedly as I do is a fact that’s often met with some combination of incredulity, disbelief and bemused condescension, particularly by people born and raised here.
One close friend has warned me not to “get stuck in India.” The wife of an extremely wealthy developer and self-proclaimed “proud Indian” (emphasis very much hers) once told me that, if asked to come up with a list of great things about Bombay, she would have trouble naming even ten. New acquaintances from Bombay, when they find out that I’ve been here voluntarily for the last 30-odd months and that I have no intention of leaving any time soon, will often introduce me to the next person entering the conversation (especially, for some reason, when that other person is old), by saying ‘This is Michael. He really loves Bombay!’ as though explaining that I have an extra appendage or a deep academic interest in higher math. One friend and colleague, a well-known chronicler of the city, responded, when I told him (maybe a touch too effusively?) that I really like it here, with the simple question: “Why?”
Why, indeed. This is a difficult question to answer sincerely, primarily because it’s asked so damned often. Over the course of more than two years, I’ve whittled my response down to such a well-rehearsed schpiel that I can hardly think around the entirely accurate, but not at all true, rationales that I so often offer. Because I’m partial to West India’s coastal cooking. Because print media isn’t dead here (yet). Because it’s possible to live not uncomfortably as a freelance writer. Because—well, because I do.
Bombay is not an obviously appealing place. It is, as anyone can tell you, crowded, chaotic, loud, filthy and crumbling. It’s impolite, indiscrete, impudent and utterly unjust. Many people who have spent their lives here see a city that has lost itself to thoughtless development and to the cannibalistic barbarity of the super wealthy. To others, the city has failed to achieve its promise, stagnating under the pressures of overpopulation and insufficient infrastructure even as other Indian cities – Delhi, most prominent and loathed among them – seem to pull ahead. For many, Bombay’s heyday came in the 1960s with the golden age of Hindi cinema, for others it was the 1990s and early 2000s, the afterglow of liberalization. In either case, the consensus among these groups holds that Bombay’s moment has already passed.
The relationship that I have to the place is different. I’ve never known any of Bombay’s previous incarnations. I didn’t know the city of quiet villages and clean beaches and I didn’t know the city of mobsters and filmstars and I didn’t know the city of unrestrained hope and hedonism. The city I know is one where I can live comfortably as a freelance writer, that gives me frequent opportunities to travel in a country that I find endlessly compelling, that is technically immense and yet also, in practice, almost unbelievably intimate. Bombay is, famously, a city of extremes. It may also be a city in extremis. This is part of its appeal: that the city I live in today has never existed before and will never exist again. It is a product of this moment, still battling over the simple question: ‘What do I want to be?’
With its addiction to speed and inability to keep up with itself, Bombay is, for better or worse, probably the purest expression I’ve ever encountered of our clamorous new century: It is the ever-widening global income gap on a grand scale. It is constant (if imperfect) ingenuity designed more for disruption than for actual innovation. It is the rural world’s desperate struggle for urban opportunity, and the urban world’s own struggle to accommodate it. Bombay is our eagerness for novelty at any cost and our atrophying attention span and the constant threat of total disaster that is our generation’s nihilistic answer to the Cold War. And yet, save for the naysayers who lament their city before it’s even gone, Bombay’s population refuses to accept annihilation as a fait accompli. Bursting with wonder at its own marvels, always on the verge of collapse, always stepping back from the precipice at the last moment, Bombay is what happens when 20 million people build their dreams on a mudflat.
* * *
A friend of mine who has since moved away once told me that what he loved so much about Bombay is how there’s nothing synthetic about it. ‘Except,’ I remember thinking, ‘the ground it’s built on.’ This happens to be literally and figuratively true. The very premise on which Bombay was built is almost paradigmatically synthetic: A cluster of muddy islands connected by landfill, populated by people from everywhere else, who came for the explicit purpose of accumulating wealth. From that synthesis – the driving individual ambition that earned Bombay the epithet ‘The City of Dreams’ – sprung an urban landscape so virulently alive that neither geography nor bureaucracy could suppress it. The city’s unofficial symbol is the stolid stone Gateway of India; it ought to be one of the ubiquitous Banyan trees that crack sidewalks from underneath, and, when confronted with walls, simply grow around them.
For all that instability, Bombay is also, somehow, safe. Of course, terrible things happen here, but I defy you to find a city this large or this dense or this unshielded by a functional legal system in which you will feel so comfortable, protected, looked after. Despite the cruelty that Bombay inflicts upon a great many of its citizens—I fully recognize that my experience of the city is inextricably connected to my privilege as an affluent man (it doesn’t hurt being white, either)—it can also be a place of spectacular warmth and generosity.
Petty theft is a relative non-issue; I’ve accidentally left my ground-floor apartment with the window open and known, beyond any doubt, that my neighbors would keep an eye out in my absence (that said, I would have come home and closed it had I been anywhere nearby; this is still a city and I’m not a complete idiot). I’ve had extended conversations about climate change and food costs with the three spinster sisters who sell me eggs from a tiny clapboard storefront thrown up outside their crumbling bungalow. I’ve been invited into the homes of friends of friends of friends just because I expressed an interest in cooking, and I’ve had last-minute wedding invitations extended by relatively recent acquaintances because the more the merrier. This, too, may well change as the city continues to grow, and as its wealthiest citizens retreat farther and farther into their secure compounds and vertical suburbs. But for now, Bombay remains—given the challenges it faces—almost inexplicably secure and, at times, almost inexplicably kind.
And maybe this is what keeps me here above everything else. Though this city requires an indefatigable sense of humor, it also defies irony. What good is irony, after all, in a place where meaning and expectation never quite correspond, where two minutes often means an hour, where yes can, not at all infrequently, also mean no. You can laugh at the city’s absurdity, which is constant, but you cannot question its sincerity.
Bombay has, to some extent, curbed my native cynicism (i.e. the cynicism I started affecting back in high school thinking it made me more urbane). Because if Bombay is what happens when this many people live one on top of another, if this is what we, as humans, really are in this moment, when the codes and rules are blasted to pieces and scattered so far that no one even bothers putting them back together – if this is the 21st century unleashed, then maybe Bombay is right: Maybe we’re not doomed, after all.