“Jeena yahaan marna yahan, iske siwa jaana kahan”. These melodious lyrics waft through the air as I think of life in Mumbai.
The City of Dreams is a lure to most Indians. Once you’ve lived in Mumbai for a bit, the city remains a part of you no matter where your travels take you. This was my story, too, until recently.
I used to defend my city with a fiery passion, hailing it as the best in India. But soon enough, the travel bug bit me. My wanderlust has taken me away from large cities and into the small villages of Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Himachal Pradesh. The clean air I breathed in the village of Buriakhop, West Sikkim, reminded me that Mumbai’s air had more pollutants than oxygen. The fresh water from the Himalayan streams quenched my thirst in a way that mineral water cannot hope to match.
My exposure to these pristine places has led to a unique love-hate relationship with Mumbai. To me, the city is both a seductive temptress with its alluring dreams and an ugly ogre that threatens to suffocate me with its polluted breath.
Like Sardines In a Can
In the past few decades, Mumbai has welcomed more people into her embrace than she can accommodate. According to a recent article in The Telegraph, it is the fifth-most densely populated city in the world.
The best way to get a feel for this overwhelming population density is by taking a ride in the famous local trains. It’s also the cheapest way to get a vigorous massage, if you can survive the sensory overload, sweaty armpits, and loud abuses that come with the experience.
In a display of complicated acrobatic precision, a Mumbaikar will balance herself on the seat, whip out her mobile and sent text messages while simultaneously fighting the robust lady standing in front of her. The train might look ready to burst at its seams but, when it pulls into either Kurla or Dadar, another flood of passengers miraculously squeezes in.
The overcrowded trains are just one of the prominent displays of Mumbai’s teeming population. Attempt to walk the roads of Andheri or in Dadar market, and you will find yourself in a human game of “dashing cars”. After saying “excuse me” for the hundredth time because you can’t help bumping into strangers, you’ll give up all niceties and roughly elbow your way through the crowd.
The same crowds, however, provide a sense of security when it’s time to return home after a late-night party or long meeting. There’s always the feeling that help is right around the corner if you need it.
Mo’ Meter, No Problems
One of the blessings of auto travel in Mumbai is the humble meter. No long arguments on how much the fare to Andheri should be or why a 5 km journey costs Rs. 250. You simply enter an auto, state your destination, and the driver turns the meter on. Traveling to other cities has taught me the importance of this little device.
But then again, autos are the reason most Mumbaikars have high blood pressure. “Powai”, I ask tentatively as they whiz past me without so much of a glance. “Autooo!”, I yell, waving my hands frantically till I’m almost mowed down by a passing car.
Convincing an auto to drop you a short distance or through a traffic-logged route is tougher than convincing your mom that your new skirt isn’t too short. Still, one must persevere. Legend has it that there is an auto waiting at the end of the rainbow.
Walk around the streets of Mumbai and your world turns into a nightmarish version of fifty shades of grey. The soot-laden air, the dusty tarred roads, and concrete buildings make me yearn for the smallest glimpse of green. The only green I see from my balcony is the prickly cactus someone has placed on their windowsill. No wonder, then, that Mumbaikars jump at every chance to get away from the city on weekends.
Lucky for us, escape from the sadly abused city air is just a few hours’ drive away, amidst lush green hills. The Sahyadri range comes to the rescue of the space-starved citizens of Mumbai.
For the Love of the Sea
For those not so inclined to sweat it out on the hills, the same few hours will get you to pristine beaches like Alibaug, Kihim, and Kashid. Here, you can simply grab a beer and watch the waves kiss the shore.
But you don’t even need to leave the city to experience the benefits of the sea.
Taking a walk along Mumbai’s large seaside promenades is a quick fix for everything from a broken heart to an exhausting day at work. Grab a hot cob of corn to keep those hunger pangs at bay as the wind gently soothes you. Do not attempt to play kabaddi with the waves, though, lest a passing constable comes running after you with a stick.
Follow the Food Trails
What can I say about the food here that hasn’t been said before? The city offers delicacies in every imaginable price range. Mumbai is a foodie’s paradise for the sheer variety available at every corner and at any time of the day.
For me, late-night drives along Marine drive are never complete without grabbing a strawberry cream at the Haji Ali juice centre.
Love, Hate, and Life
But despite all the complaints and rants, I can’t help but feel a strong sense of belonging in this mad city. Every time I return from my travels, I look at it as a mother would look at a child that’s lost its way. No matter how far the child may stray, the mother’s love for the child never fades.
I plug in my earphones to drown the cacophony of horns and tie a scarf across my face to keep the stink at bay. At the end of the day, Zara hatke, zara bachke, yeh hai Mumbai meri jaan.