I am plagued by an increasing sense of disorientation. Things in Bombay seems familiar and yet so different. I am no longer confident on the streets anymore. I look around and I don’t see people I know. The landmarks I was familiar with are covered in a haze of dust (literally). The air has an unfamiliar acrid smell, and I feel myself inhaling particles of construction waste.
But most shocking of all to me is how most of the city looks like an extended slum. To my irritation, V has taken to referring to Bombay as slum-city and I am beginning to agree (though I would never admit it to him). Even the erstwhile beautiful parts of the city have fallen into disrepair (I haven’t been into town yet and I will probably be more enraged at the unfairness of it all if it is well-maintained). The veneer of the hip restaurants, bars and cafes is also wearing thin.
My own building is a case in point. It used to be one of those buildings everyone wanted to live in. It probably still is. But the lift lobby has remained unchanged since I was a child, with the steps being repaired, using the cheapest and ugliest stone, after years. The name board is the same one that graced the badly painted and dust-stained walls since I was a child, an ugly brown slab that now only characterise government offices. The building has been painted (shoddily) in the most unattractive colour possible. The lift is falling apart.
Speedbreakers and bits of wall and concrete that have broken down due to wear and tear have been left as is. This is symptomatic of the larger city where piles of rubble characterise the streets, wedded closely with rubbish heaps. Speedbreakers, road dividers, walls – all broken and un-restored – seem to be a metaphor for the city.
But a metaphor of what? Bombay seems to be charging ahead with burgeoning wealth. Luxury goods retail here at 40% higher than they do in other cities and there are people that can afford them. Occasionally like an anomaly, fancy condos rise out of the dilapidated older structures (which cost a fortune to live in) providing an aspiration that is impossible for even the medium-wealthy to achieve. I wonder how a city that has so much money passing through it every day manages to function in such disarrayed surroundings. Ah well, at the risk of sounding unkind, even a slum has its logic.
There is undeniably a vibrancy to Bombay, a teeming life that propells it forward and which is infectious. There is a charm to its masses of poor aspirants through which pass a few well-heeled chic young things like exotic birds. To it’s trendy cafes sitting right next to grubby tea stalls, both equally used. There are patches of green – like the surprisingly well-maintained garden around my building – that are delightful because they are semi-wild. The sea is grey and peopled with those who use it as their personal toilette but it is the sea nevertheless and it is beautiful.
As I walk through the streets smiling benignly at the chaos as if it is a tableau being enacted for my benefit, I realise this is what if feels like to be a foreigner.