A Mumbaikar's love affair with a city constantly on the upgrade

A long-time resident talks about what it means to keep up with it

PTI02_17_2023_000269A Best ride: Mumbai’s iconic double-decker bus got a swanky new avatar―electric and air-conditioned with tinted windows and doors | PTI

My brother’s friend exclaims, “You guys are a different species altogether.” A resident of Jammu, she was in Mumbai to showcase her Basholi paintings at the recently concluded Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai’s cultural extravaganza. It is a weekend morning. At Thane, we squeeze into a crowded train that was headed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. The journey evokes nostalgia.

Until six years ago, I would take this very local train to work. Life in a local has its own rhythm and rules. There are no illusions of privacy or boundaries here―you can turn up your nose how much ever you want but you cannot escape the sweaty, smelly armpits and oily scalps jostling for space next to you; you will not be termed nosy for (inadvertently, of course) peeping into the WhatsApp chats of those around you; and no one will wrinkle their nose at you for literally breathing down their neck even as you try to find your feet and move your hands without rubbing up against someone.

I am jolted back to the present when a box of puran polis and sesame seed laddoos is being passed around, with someone screaming, “Sankranti hain le lo, ek ek sab le lo [It is Makar Sankranti; everyone take one of each].” The grind is the same even today, but there is a difference. This is version 2.0 of a Mumbaikar’s love affair with her local―we were now shoving, nudging, pushing, muscling our way inside fully air-conditioned trains, that too with automated doors. My brother’s friend smirked at my idea of luxury―an AC train in which I have both my feet firmly inside the doorway and not dangling outside; no chance of being hit by a passing pole, see. When will Mumbai get all its trains air-conditioned? Well, we are not sure; we are not used to fast-track projects, only fast-track life. So until we all get to bag a seat, we are good with ‘Bag pakad, jagah bana [hold the bag, and make space].’

You see, we Mumbaikars are a patient lot, perpetually waiting and hoping for good things to happen to us―a rickshaw wala who never says no, vada pav prices that never see a hike, punctual trains, at least two extra pani puris in each plate, Shah Rukh Khan waving at us every weekend, cheap popcorn at multiplexes, chilling at Marine Drive post 2am, unlimited free parking space and landlords accommodating of pets and non-vegetarians are just a few.

42-A-view-of-Churchgate-railway-station Life on track: A view of Churchgate railway station | Amey Mansabdar

But even as this wish-list keeps growing, one of my wishes came true a year ago when the iconic double-decker buses got a swanky new avatar―air-conditioned with tinted windows and doors on both sides. As I hopped onto bus number 66, fond memories from childhood came rushing back. I remember taking the bus―the non-AC version―plying on the oldest and most popular bus route of the city, beginning from Rani Laxmibai Chowk in Sion and going right up to Ballard Pier in south Bombay. Every Friday afternoon post school, my brother and I would board the bus right outside our society in Matunga, a leafy neighbourhood, and accompany our grandmother to the All India Radio near Mantralaya. Tickets cost Rs1 for an adult and 50 paise for children. We would climb to the upper deck and quickly occupy the seat right at the front to enjoy the wind racing through our hair and get a peek at the world zooming by. From there, we would head to K. Rustom, the iconic ice-cream parlour at Churchgate that will soon complete 90 years, for a ‘sandwich ice cream’, followed by either a walk down to Marine Drive or a film at Eros cinema―one of Mumbai’s grandest Art Deco theatres―which is now a multiplex with large retail outlets. I saw my first-ever English film, Jumanji, there.

Weekends were almost always spent at nani’s home in Prabhadevi, hardly 10 minutes from our place and very close to the sea. My brother and I, armed with a carry bag each, would walk down to the shore to collect shells and even perch ourselves on the rocks during low tide. Those days, the shore offered an uninterrupted view of the setting sun, long before the Bandra-Worli Sea Link came in and offered a view of another kind―the most recent being a mesmerising light show portraying Lord Ram’s image ahead of the Ram Temple consecration ceremony in Ayodhya.

Every time we think we are living life in the fast lane, in comes a big engineering marvel that reminds us we are not fast enough, and speeds us up even further. Every 10 years, it seems, we undergo a reboot! For, who would have imagined driving from Worli to Bandra in 10 minutes! Earlier, just the thought of travelling from central to western suburbs would make us sweat; now we go on drives for the heck of it.

The current favourite drive destination though is the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL), connecting Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. I was there the very next day of inauguration, keeping up with the spirit of being a Mumbaikar who loves to be the first in line, be it at the chaat waala’s or at the temple. If there is a queue, the Mumbaikar will be there, and happily, too. So revolutionary has been the impact of MTHL that the number of real estate inquiries for Navi Mumbai seems to have crossed the number of cars plying on the link. A trip that would have otherwise taken me close to two hours from Matunga to Navi Mumbai could now be covered in 20 minutes. Infrastructure playing leveller?

43-commuters-travelling-in-a-Metro-on-Line-7 Commuters travelling in a Metro on Line 7, which runs between Dahisar east and Andheri east | PTI

Not really. It is making the commute easy, but making the stay within the city difficult, forcing many millennials to look for a home beyond the city’s metropolitan area, only to come back, work here, go home, repeat. South Bombay remains the same, like Matunga. Many from my grandparents’ generation first came in as tenants, paying less than Rs100 per month, which continues to this day in a number of buildings. Ours has always been a cosmopolitan society, with Tamil Brahmins, Gujaratis, Marathis and Malayalis coexisting in two-room flats. We used to celebrate all festivals like one big family. Neighbours would exchange sweets during Diwali and everyone would visit each other to wish them well on naya saal (new year). But increasingly, homes are getting locked up, as millennials move out for want of bigger spaces at affordable rates. Go around looking for a home to rent in our area, like we did, and the first thing they ask is not how much you can pay but if you are a non-vegetarian and whether you own a pet. If you say yes to both, please move on. A friend had to lie through her teeth and say that she was a vegetarian, or she would have lost the flat she is residing in―the 25th one she had seen after desperate house-hunting in Matunga. For close to Rs50,000 per month, this is what she got―“No eggs will be allowed; no pets; for lift, pay extra Rs5,000; no car parking on the building premises.”

And then there is the incessant digging. As of now, Mumbai feels like a metaphorical patient who has been operated at so many places. Some wounds have healed well and how, while others remain open and unattended―no one knows when they will recover. While the MTHL was ready in six years, Andheri stands testimony to our patience. Work here never stops, the digging continues. But we do not complain, we do not fret. If you dig up a road, we will find a bypass, happy and proud that we could reach work on time. We are a peace-loving people, you see. We have no time to stand and stare; we have work to get to.

Okay, there are exceptions―Bollywood stars do make us stop in our tracks. I remember my aunt taking us to watch film shootings whenever my cousins from Delhi were in town. At the time, Mannat was not a landmark and nobody spent hours waiting for King Khan because one could easily catch a glimpse of him at Film City. It was on the set of Devdas that I first saw him in flesh and blood. The set was huge and expensive, and SRK was at the peak of his career. Sighting stars was not as hard back then and film shootings were the most touristy thing to do. The other time to catch a glimpse of Bollywood stars was during Ganesh Visarjan, when, sitting on road dividers opposite our building, we would wave out to the Kapoors as they sat on the trailer, smiling and distributing modaks during RK Studios’ Ganesh Visarjan. Now, none of the Kapoors accompanies the visarjan.

When people refer to Mumbai as a safe city, one wonders at times how anyone could feel unsafe here―so many of us live so close to each other that we can not only look inside our neighbour’s home but even listen in on conversations. But if you insist, we let you be. The other day, my husband and I along with two of our friends were out at Marine Drive promenade, immersed in repeat games of Ludo until the wee hours of morning. We had cutting chai and chana jor garam for company and nobody thankfully shooed us away. Now, with the new coastal road coming up, I am dreading the security deployment there, especially at nights.

So what is the story of Mumbai? It depends on who is telling it, who is listening and when it is being told. Our footpaths are busier than our roads; we are taught to tread carefully on the roads and leave the footpath for the shopkeeper, his dog, cat, the fruit wala, newspaper wala, vegetable wala, pani puri wala and for cars to be dumped or parked illegally. We have small spaces but big hearts―even as the train starts, we will have enough space for one more person to barely get in. This is where every new bridge and flyover seems to be a clickbait for transporting us faster into traffic jams―it takes you less than 10 minutes to go from the sea link straight into a jam that lasts over 30 minutes at Bandra west. The most recent―the Bandra Kurla Complex-Chunabhatti connector―will bring down the travel time, but only till the connector. Once you are on the connector, you wait. But then again, are we not okay with it? I mean, who has the time to address it? It is okay if the traffic is crawling, at least it is moving! Half our days are spent responding to ‘where are you?’ queries, because we are never on time, unless we leave an hour early. We were doing fairly okay on the pollution level, until we raced past Delhi recently. The only advantage we have is the sea breeze―it disperses the pollutants and fools us into believing that all is well.

McKinsey, a management consulting firm, once came out with a report and a vision that said Mumbai could become a world class city like Shanghai by 2020. Architect Charles Correa had retorted to that, saying, “That is not a vision, but a hallucination.” With major infrastructural projects transforming the way we move, will Correa be proved right or wrong?