There are cities people talk about as if they have a soul – New York, New Orleans, Paris, Budapest – collections of stone and steel that set the heart to yearning when distanced for too long.
Dirty, crowded, crime-ridden, expensive – those who have bonded with the stone and the steel love the metrapole morning breath and all. They love it not just because it is home and all the folks of home live there, but because the city itself is a member of the family.
Mumbai, I think, is one of those cities.
A few years ago I read Gregory David Roberts’s novel Shantaram and my interest in Mumbai was piqued. Now I’m reading Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games and I have a full-blown crush on Mumbai. In both novels, the city is as much a character as any of the people in the thousand pages of narrative.
Shantaram idealized the city and people, yet showed both warts and all. Sacred Games has a much less heavy hand. Roberts’s is trying to seduce us with Mumbai; Chandra is coy. Still, both portray Mumbai as the raandi with the heart of gold.
Over the years, I’ve fallen deeply in love with places because of a book; places I’d never seen. Early on it was Cornwall and London; later St. Petersburg and Geneva. With those great cities, I fell in love with them as they were a century or two ago. This Mumbai affair is for the Mumbai of now.
Of the cities I’ve mentioned, I did get to see London, but my time there was too short and the opportunities to explore too limited. I left astounded that I liked the modern city and not just the ancient one that lived in my head. I didn’t fall in love with New York until after I’d visited, but now I can read novels set in the city and they’re richer, fuller.
I have a yearning to visit Mumbai – a city that will make my heart simultaneously soar and break. I can’t foresee the when or the how of Mumbai and I meeting, but I can daydream in the vivid colors, scents and textures that are India in general, and Mumbai in particular.