Everyone I meet says this city used to be better.
They lament the loss of “Bombay,” the former name of this city of 18 million. They criticize the real estate development, the pollution, the politics, the steady ethnic cleansing of Muslims and other minorities. In fact, I have yet to meet a native who thinks the city is improving, or even that it may be a better place someday.
This grumpiness is common in leading cities, but it's surprising coming even from the rich and powerful. The city's many charms often go overlooked.
No doubt Mumbai has a mixed reputation. When I told my friends that I was moving to India I could see a shadow come across their faces as they tried to decide if I faced a good fate or a bad one.
Since arriving at the beginning of August 2019, my family and I have been getting situated in work and school, figuring out daily tasks like where to buy vegetables and where I can get a cheap buzz cut. As lovers of cities, we try to absorb as much as possible. On weekends we often pick a neighborhood and then go there, with some shop, gallery, or coffee shop as the tentative destination.
Now, in mid-October, several aspects stand out:
• The mix of people is astounding, despite the political currents nationwide and in Maharashtra specifically. Walking the streets around Mani Bhavan it’s easy to imagine how bucolic the Gamdevi area must have been when it was an elite enclave. Today the symbol of embattled Gandhian secularism is adjacent to the Parsi area of Kemps Corner and the devotees visiting Babulnath temple.
• It’s an architectural madhouse, with Victorian era structures whose faded walls hold untold stories, to the breeze-kissed art deco around Churchgate, to the under-appreciated Charles Correa structures and urban plans. The city isn’t pretty — my apartment looks across a dead river and shanties, at an oil refinery flame burning 24x7 — but the scale is energizing.
• On the one hand, the sheer size of population is depressing in the context of the global climate crisis. But it’s fascinating if you try to imagine what’s happening inside all those brains. I’m influenced by the Kate Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, but it stands to reason that each person is an individual with thoughts and dreams and disappointments. A recent newspaper headline (“From Garibi Hatav Nagar to Garib Nagar”) laments how one slum formerly known literally as “Poverty Elimination Town” still lacks reliable water and sufficient toilets after a generation and is now just called “Poverty Town.” The day-to-day resilience of the millions of residents at the bottom of the economic ladder is inspiring.
• Democracy, though flawed, remains vibrant. Bookstores feature shelves groaning with titles criticizing Modi and India’s political, cultural, and economic trends. The news media may self-censor and the quality often leaves room for improvement. Compared to living in a one-party state in Southeast Asia, this feels like full freedom.
• The industrial heritage is an enduring puzzle. There are dozens of mills — some turned into residential towers, but many just fallow gaps in the city. These properties could be repurposed into a combination of business incubators, art spaces, community centers, housing, urban farms, and parks. In his book City Adrift, Naresh Fernandes criticizes how they instead have been turned into overpriced gated communities with no thought to the reset of the city. I’m looking for a writer who remains optimistic.
• Despite the sprawl and traffic-inducing projects like the Sea Link, Mumbai’s seaside setting gives it a natural rhythm. The best parts of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City talk about how the metropolis awaits rain each spring and greets the falling air pressure and first drops with a collective, relieved sigh. During the monsoon season the sky was often a brilliant blue; while flooding could be tragic, the downpours provided a sort of fresh start.
After two months, my question is who is trying to make Mumbai better? This city isn’t Dubai or Singapore, though plenty of people seem to wish it could be – if only the ruffians from the countryside could be kept in check. It’s common to hear self-congratulation that it’s a “cosmopolitan” city without seriously defining or qualifying the term. Lack of political self-determination is a major hurdle.
Of course, this sort of confused identity isn’t unique. For example, Mexico City fancies itself the capital of Latin America and has plenty of art and luxury shopping, but struggles with corruption and fails to provide basic services to millions of its citizens. In Seattle, my hometown, residents rhapsodize about the stunning natural setting but, even with an abundance of resources, can’t seem to make policy decisions that would turn it into a model of sustainability.
The opportunity to live in Mumbai is a gift. I’m no Pollyanna, but I’m eager to embrace the daily challenges for the chance to observe how the city changes (and how my view of it evolves) over the next few years. I look forward to meeting residents who are determined to help shape it.