Dear Mumbai, Your Spirit’s Lying in a Sewer. Yours Unfaithfully, A Dilliwala


Dear Mumbai, Your Spirit’s Lying in a Sewer. Yours Unfaithfully, A Dilliwala

Illustration: Sushant Ahire / Arré

Somewhere in the opening pages of Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts writes of Mumbai: “Mumbai is the sweet, sweaty smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; and it’s the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfume, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers.”

I’ve searched everywhere for this smell that Gregory David Roberts speaks of, but every time I’ve come to this city, which has been a river of rain for the last two months, the only thing I can smell is sewage. And surrender.

As people from Delhi, we’ve come to expect great things of Mumbai. We’re constantly told how inferior we are, and somewhere we’ve come to believe it, putting our trust in Mumbai to show us how things are done right. But Mumbai, it turns out, is a city in the middle of an epic meltdown.

So fragile is the faith of the Mumbaikar in his city, that the first whiff of rain and the slightest darkening of clouds gives him a panic attack. Cabs go off the road, the trains stop working, and offices run empty, as the city stands paralysed like a very wet, very scared deer caught in the headlights.

A few days ago, when the rains gods peed all over the city, a friend was nice enough to drop me home, but as we walked toward the car while having an engaging conversation about salsa, she kept asking me to look out for weaknesses in the road, scared one of them would cave in, unable to withstand my meagre frame. I didn’t know if she was kidding.

“Didn’t people in Mumbai know that roads are supposed to carry the weight of cars, not fall apart if a mildly fat dude steps on them in mild rains?”

But somehow Mumbai has come to expect that its world will dissolve. The memories of the 26/7 flood and every rain ever since has every Mumbaikar believe that he will be washed away, which is a crazy fear to live with in what is dubbed as the “greatest city in India”. In Delhi, we may fear getting shot, but Mumbai seems to be petrified with the idea of even getting its toes wet. What can a city made up of supposed enlightened progressive beings say for its broken backbone?

In probably the most cited piece by Delhi thinkers about the Delhi vs Bombay debate, Hartosh Singh Bal’s “Why Delhi Hates Bombay”, the journalist calls Bombay’s cosmopolitanism, “… a veneer over a reality altogether too grim to withstand serious debate about what lurks under it.” Great thinkers assumed this to be a reference to the dark corporate-underworld nexus that runs parts of the city, but I think Bal was being much more straightforward and talking about the fucking paper roads which can’t survive a leaf falling from a nearby organic tree branching out of a Bandra café. And yet Mumbai seems to be okay with that.

Every day I get out of my house in Bombay and lust for an Uber harder than I’ve ever yearned for Katrina Kaif. And once you hit the roads, the traffic is essentially the broken dream of a successful Throwback Thursday meme – the saddest thing ever. Yet, people speak, without irony, about the “spirit of Bombay”, an entity so sacred that it spawned a think-piece war among writers clearly working from home. The spirit of Bombay, I have come to realise, is essentially the spirit of re-electing those who have fucked the city a thousand times over. The first episode of Meghnad’s excellent Consti-tuition spoke about the role of municipal corporations in our lives, how their job is to provide basic amenities like clean roads and decent sewage systems, but Mumbaikars don’t seem to expect these things from its civic body. They just keep voting for the same party in the BMC in between glasses of the finest Chilean wine, even as the city drowns every year. They accept, with terrifying equanimity, that once every year they will wade home through the floods and watch their cars float away. They simply shrug and carry on, without being struck by the idea of holding the richest municipal corporation accountable for doing its fucking job. I sometimes wonder if they believe that riding a kaali peeli and admiring the architectural ingenuity of the sea link will fix everything.

Whatever Mumbaikars may say about Delhi, Delhi went out on a limb and brought in Kejri (<3), and if a (kinda) revolutionary (IMO) like that were to walk in Mumbai during the rains, he’d probably fall down a pothole and end up in a gutter somewhere far away, while its citizens verbally circle jerked about the shape-shifting majesty of the clouds above. #SpiritOfMumbai #fam

As a Delhi boy, I’m the first to admit that Delhi is not cool. It does not have cool people. We are the kind of people who, if pounded by rain, may just shoot someone for the fuck of it, but we at least have four-lane roads that will take us home. We have a revamped Connaught Place, and our metro is forever bae. For starters, it doesn’t have a roof that spilts wide open before you can say rains. And guys, notwithstanding the beauty of Queen’s Necklace, that shit is kinda important.

So, dear culturally superior Mumbaikar, shove all your restaurants and all-nighters where the sun don’t shine, as I fly back to Delhi where I will blow nonchalant smoke rings as my car flies around Chanakyapuri, a thulla behind my ass and swagger in my veins, while you try to pull your spirit out of an open sewer.