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How did a city of dreams turn into a nightmare?

Mumbai has been reduced to crowds, confusion and grime

Gulf News

According to a recent report, out of 27 megacities, Mumbai, India’s business and financial capital, is the worst to live in.

We, who have lived most of our lives in small towns — and still do, even if the population of those small towns now runs into some millions — have always looked upon Mumbai as the city of opportunity, the city where dreams come true.

Our tryst with this great city began long before we were born. Mother had left her little railway town in the south to follow her elder sister to the Big Apple and there she thrived. Her stories of Bombay (as Mumbai was called prior to its renaming in 1995) in the 1930s and 1940s are what we grew up on. There were theatres and a theatre-loving populace, roads were good, buses were frequent, girls were safe — it was a good place to be young and independent.

Tales of mother’s youth brought Bombay alive for us. Long before we made our first trip there, we knew the landmarks and the places mother often visited during her years of study and work and enjoyment — Villa Theresa, St Mary’s School, St Xavier’s College, Chowpatty, Marine Drive, Regal Cinema, Opera House, Colaba Causeway, Juhu — and we could almost feel the sea breeze on our faces as she talked.

When she told us of her first few years as a naval bride in Bombay, we heard the names of the buildings in which she and others in the family had lived and naturally when we made our initial forays into this city in the 1960s we wanted to see them: Fairlawn, Ravindra Mansion, Dhanraj Mahal, and other musical names fell off our lips as easily as they did hers.

Winds of change

We heard mother rue how Bombay had changed from a quarter century earlier, but for us, it was still a place of wonder. Through our adolescence and adult years, we visited Bombay often. We started to collect memories of our own — gazing open-mouthed at the works on display at Jehangir Art Gallery, eating our very first Frankie and a kulfi (ice cream) on a stick, bargaining for costume jewellery on Colaba causeway ...

Even when we visited from the sophisticated capital of our country, the charms of this city were intoxicating, and many of our thrills came from our frequent rides on the local trains — a busy lifeline that fascinated us. In due course, Bombay became Mumbai but it still captivated us.

Then, in the fullness of time, it was the place where we thought our only beloved son would make the most of himself. We sent him there as a teenager, hoping that along with acquiring a college degree (from his grandmother’s alma mater) he would take his first steps into independent adulthood.

He did.

We smiled in satisfaction when he grew into a true Mumbaikar and elected to return there to work. We visited him often, thrilled by the bustle of a city that doesn’t sleep, and didn’t notice how difficult it was getting for us to travel from one part of the city to the other. Traffic congestion, packed buses and trains, roads that were caving in ...

Mumbai was the city of his dreams — and therefore of ours.

And now we are told that it is the worst city to live in! How could that happen? Were we wearing rose-coloured glasses and living on memories instead of looking around at the crowds and the confusion and the grime — or are we so inured to the crowds and the confusion and the grime in our own hometowns that we don’t notice it on a larger scale elsewhere?

Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.