Down and out in the City of Dreams

Join me on an existential journey through India’s famously pluralistic commercial capital as I attempt to navigate its chaotic streets and complex moral terrain. It is a journey involving dangerously overcrowded trains, byzantine immigration procedures, a tussle with nightclub bouncers and more. It is a journey that takes me to the heart of a vast, frenetic city that seems to teeter at every moment on the brink of collapse and yet continues to capture the imagination of all who enter its irresistible orbit.  

“Somewhere, buried beneath the wreck of its current condition — one of urban catastrophe — is the city that has a tight claim on my heart, a beautiful city by the sea, an island-state of hope in a very old country.”

“I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.”

PSALM 73:22

My wife and I live in Bandra, a former fishing village that has been engulfed by the urban sprawl of one of the most densely populated megacities in the world — Mumbai (or Bombay as it is still known to many locals). We live in an old two-storey building with a Sanskrit name which translates, rather appropriately, as “Humble Abode”. The shabby facade looks out onto a leafy neighbourhood occupied mostly by Catholics. The building is partially sheltered from the tyranny of the Bombay sun by large spreading trees which accommodate ravenous crows in the daytime and huge, ominous bats at night. Some of the trees produce a bizarre torpedo-shaped fruit which apparently has pharmacological properties and is sometimes harvested by groups of men at odd hours of the night. Across the road, near an Ayurvedic medical store with a sign advertising a hangover cure, there is a small family-run flour mill in which two men labour day and night without facemasks in a thick choking fog of white dust. Occasionally the mill workers wander barefoot across the burning tarmac to nearby shops or kiosks, their clothes, skin and hair a mottled chalk-white, looking like the ghoulish survivors of an apocalyptic artillery bombardment. Next to the mill is a building site where the foundations are being laid for a block of luxury apartments. The construction workers live at the site with their families — their laundry hangs on lines strung out in a forest of reinforcing steel and the womenfolk spend the day squatting on the sidewalk minding their infants beneath a hoarding that proclaims the builder’s slogan — “Built on Principles” — and the “salient features” of the future building, including “sea view from all flats”.

The street has its own particular rhythm of life. Each morning the mill workers and the wives of the itinerant labourers take it in turns to bathe and wash their dishes in the murky groundwater being pumped out of the construction site. In the afternoon, street vendors ply their wares or services, some mounted on bicycles, others pushing carts. In the early evening, kids play cricket next to the butcher shop beneath an overbearing image of Bal Thakeray, the cartoonist-turned-politician who founded the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena. Then, after dusk has fallen, local Catholics gather outside a convenience store to recite the Hail Mary in front of a shrine to the Virgin Mother while clouds of frankincense smoke waft up into the trees. And a little down the road sweaty men clutching soiled banknotes jostle at the liquor store to purchase cheap alcohol in medicinal quantities.

We were a couple of weeks into the monsoon but it was a sunny day as I set out for my appointment with the immigration bureau. A fishmonger was doing his rounds, ringing his bicycle bell and calling out in a plaintive monotone. Leaves were strewn over the road, dislodged in sporadic showers during the night, and my path was blocked by a rotting pile of sawn-off palm fronds and other trimmings which the municipal corporation, or BMC, had not bothered to clear up — a common problem in monsoonal Bandra. The street was braced for the four-month rainy season: storm drains had been unclogged, corrugated steel shelters had been erected over storefronts and old movie hoardings had been draped over the Shiv Sena building, the corners weighed down with water-filled soda bottles. The latter was an improvised solution of the type that is so common in India that there is a word for it — jugaad.

I stepped out into traffic to avoid the pile of rotting foliage, setting off a frenzy of honking, and headed for the rickshaws parked on the street corner. I was running late for my appointment at the foreigner registration office which was located nearly 20km to the south in Mumbai proper. It would be hopeless to attempt the journey on the city’s permanently gridlocked roads. There was only one option — I would have to take the infamous Mumbai Local.

I was running late because the pest control guys had shown up late to tackle an ant infestation. Our landlord, a self-made property investor from the Nizari Ismaili community, had sent his handyman round that morning accompanied by a skinny youth with a tank of insecticide on his back. And it had been my job to supervise them. It was shaping up to be one of those days — so common in Mumbai — where one lurches from one occupation to the next and feels by the end of it that nothing useful has been achieved. You feel sometimes that the city itself is sentient and that you are merely a slave to its caprices, flicked like a pinball from errand to errand, crisis to crisis, dinner party to dinner party. 

As a matter of fact, I had a birthday party to get to that night. And I had a lot of work to get through before then. A disgruntled client had sent back a report I’d written, the margins cluttered with editorial annotations. The report was about how disgraced banks in Australia could regain the public’s trust by harnessing cutting-edge data mining techniques and machine learning technology to better monitor and manage employee conduct. I needed to reword sections of the report so as to avoid offending the banks in question by focusing too much on their ruthless, predatory behaviour. Although the required edits were extensive and sometimes unreasonable, I couldn’t afford to lose this client.

None of the autorickshaw drivers on my street could be bothered to make the 15 minute drive to the train station so I walked towards a nearby film studio, hoping to flag one down there. Road works had created a bottleneck in the traffic — the BMC had for some reason decided to wait until the start of the monsoon to tear up the road tiles and replace them with tarmac. A battered red bus was attempting to get around a pile of earth that had been allowed to spill out into the section of road that was still open. Cars honked wildly and bikes attempted to manoeuvre through the jam, taking care to not clip the wing mirrors of the other vehicles. An SUV flashed its headlights, two chubby kids wedged in the sunroof, riding charioteer-style.

A homeless man watched the whole mad circus with languid disinterest, squatting near a statue of St Sebastian riddled with arrows. I had seen him many times before shuffling around the neighbourhood with a vacant look in his eyes. His squalid clothes and matted hair gave him the appearance of a shipwrecked sailor — a castaway languishing among Bandra’s old bungalows; among the sprawling bougainvillea, the tamarind trees and the frangipanis. He was not a beggar. I’d never seen him call out to passers-by for “khana” or tap on car windows or contort his features into an expression of exaggerated wretchedness. He roamed the streets as though in a trance, seemingly indifferent to his destitution.  

I carried on walking as if I’d not seen him. The young man — he appeared to be in his mid-twenties — was adrift in a city that didn’t care whether he lived or died. There was no social security system that he could fall back on; there were no proper mental health facilities he could access; and his family had likely disowned him. Surely such people can only survive through acts of kindness proffered by passers-by. But I was in a hurry, I told myself. Besides, I had my own financial woes to worry about — I was barely scraping by from month to month. And would he even accept my help, having not asked for it? Deena had given him some leftover Burmese khowsuey on the way home from a restaurant one evening but he had placed it on a wall and abandoned it to a trail of ants.

Even if I helped this man I knew there’d be one, two, three more vagrants around the next corner living hand to mouth on the sidewalks. Mumbai has made me accustomed to the sight of human suffering — the drunks lying spread-eagled in the gutter; the children begging at road intersections; the families sleeping under flyovers and on central reservations — but every now and again I’m struck afresh by the horror and abnormality of it all and I’m appalled by my apathy. I feel sometimes as though this city is eroding my empathy — chipping away at my humanity.

Eventually I managed to hail a rickshaw which had a sticker of Sai Baba, a spiritual leader revered by both Hindus and Muslims, fixed to the windshield. “Bandra Station?” I enquired. The driver flicked his head in a gesture that meant “hop in” and spat a jet of blood-red paan juice on the ground.

The morning rush hour had passed when I reached the station but it was still teeming with commuters. The station’s main building is a century-old Grade 1-listed structure built in a Victorian Gothic style with tiled roofs, wooden eaves, a weathered porte cochère and an ornamental tower. Behind its quaint facade, the station sprawls under utilitarian steel canopies and crowded footbridges. The corrugated-steel shanties of a neighbouring slum overlook the station on its eastern side. The shanties are stacked haphazardly on top of one another, four-storeys high in places, with vertiginous wooden ladders providing access to the upper levels. The shoebox-shaped houses bristle with satellite dishes and here and there green flags bearing the crescent moon and star of Islam hang from the window-holes that have been cut into the steel walls. At the end of 2017 a major fire broke out in this slum while the BMC was carrying out demolition work there. Remarkably, only minor injuries were reported.

I made my way to the ticket counters and purchased a second-class ticket to Churchgate. It was an off-peak time and there was no sense paying seven times more for a padded seat. As the train rolled in, the waste pickers who had been scouring the tracks dispersed. I stepped back to give room to the passengers who were already jumping like frightened antelope from the footboards and let the first-class and ladies-only carriages slide by. At peak times there is a mad scramble on the platform the moment a train pulls in. I’ve seen punches thrown, shirts pulled and shouting matches break out in the frenzy to get on the overcrowded trains. But on this occasion I was able to board more or less at my leisure. I took my place in the carriage, near the doors, and watched the station slide away with its newspaper stands, vada pav sellers, and shoeshine boys. 

Passengers on the western line of the Mumbai railway.

If you have the luxury of avoiding peak hours, there really is no better way to get across Mumbai than by train. The hypnotic clickety-clack of the wheels on the tracks, the breeze rushing in through the doors and windows, and the swift linear motion of the carriage offer a refuge from the hell of the Mumbai streets with their potholes and the endless cacophony of traffic. Peak commuting hours are a different story, of course. At these times you must cast aside your humanity and fight tooth-and-nail for a square foot of standing room or fasten yourself like a barnacle to the handrail above the door and hope that your arms don’t give out while the train is moving. In this over-populated city goats and chickens travel in greater comfort than most humans. In 2017 the Mumbai railways racked up a staggering 3,014 fatalities, an average of eight per day. The brutal reality of the Mumbai commute was brought home to me one night in 2014 when, after a long hold-up midway between Naigaon and Vasai, my train pulled into the station and the reason for the delay became apparent — a corpse had been retrieved from the tracks and was lying on the platform under a bloodstained shroud.

Even when the trains are not full, teenagers often put their lives on the line with acts of death-defying bravado, making a game of hanging out the doors and dodging the signal posts as they zip by. My train to Churchgate was half-empty but passengers had still clustered at the doors to feel the wind in their hair, paying no attention to the warning that was repeated on the PA system at regular intervals: “It is dangerous to travel on the footboard or lean out of a running train.” Next to me, a short man with extraordinarily hairy earlobes was singing to himself while he clung to a handrail and watched the carriages ahead of him snaking through the metropolis. We passed weathered housing blocks and chawls — soulless concrete monstrosities which reminded me of chicken coops; corporate towers, shiny but equally soulless, in the distance; billboards with English-worded advertisements for real estate and life insurance; the lush mangrove swamps of Dharavi; dilapidated warehouses and railway depots; and the overgrown ruins of the textile mills on which the city’s economy was built in the 19th and 20th centuries, tall chimney stacks marking their mouldering remains like ancient tombstones.

The cityscape began to change as we rolled into the precinct of South Mumbai. Here the apartment blocks were swankier. The Arabian Sea, iridescent in the noonday sun, could be glimpsed between the buildings. We passed the sporting clubs, or gymkhanas — relics of the city’s colonial past where old money families wile away lazy weekend afternoons. And, finally, a huge cricket stadium loomed into view as the train slowed down and pulled into Churchgate, the southernmost station.

I disembarked, walked through the station, and emerged into the street. On the pavement, a group of dabbawalas, Mumbai’s famously efficient lunchbox deliverymen, were squatting by their pushcarts. A melee of pedestrians swirled around them.

Dabbawalas carrying lunchboxes through Churchgate Station.

Churchgate is a neighbourhood of broad boulevards, banyan trees, wide-open maidans, and imposing colonial architecture. Upon exiting the station I doubled back and walked alongside the train tracks for a short distance. When I came to a Zoroastrian fire temple I turned right and headed towards Metro, an iconic Art Deco cinema. Here I crossed an eight-lane intersection swarming with black-and-yellow taxicabs (there are no rickshaws in South Mumbai) and came out into a tree-lined boulevard. If I had continued down the boulevard I would have come to the iconic cathedral-like railway terminus once named after Queen Victoria and now bearing the name of Chhatrapati Shivaji, a 17th-Century Maratha warrior-king who has leant his name to countless landmarks in post-colonial Mumbai. But instead I crossed the road where a sugarcane juice vendor was feeding bunches of sugarcane through a hand-operated crusher and entered a narrow alley. At the end of this alley was the building that housed the office of the Addl. Commissioner of Police, Special Branch, CID, and the notorious Foreigners Regional Registration Office.

“Your umbrella is very beautiful,” the receptionist said to me while I entered my details in the visitors’ book. “Thank you,” I replied.

The FRRO is a Kafkaesque warren of crumbling offices full of stony-faced pen-pushers and purgatorial waiting rooms that reek of ennui and vague despair. Foreigners with long-stay visas are required to register at the office when they enter the country. But I was here to submit my application for an OCI card, a document that would give me the lifelong right to live and work in India. OCI stands for Overseas Citizen of India and the document is issued mainly to applicants who have family connections in India. I had recently become eligible for OCI status having been married for two years to an Indian national.

I’ve been in Mumbai a while now and there are times when I almost forget my foreignness, but a trip to the FRRO always puts me in my place. The staff speak English but they respond much better to Marathi, the local language of Maharashtra. I do not speak Marathi and my wife, fluent in the language, was at work. When my turn came to submit my papers I looked on gormlessly while two officials chatted to one another and broke out into giggles, seemingly at my expense. Another applicant butted in, pushing me aside with Darwinian ruthlessness. I rapped my fingers on the countertop anxiously. The lethargic movements of the FRRO staff seemed calculated to ruin my plans for the day. But I was acutely aware that I would be allowed to remain in India only at the pleasure of these jaded bureaucrats and their superiors in New Delhi. I would simply have to wait.

Finally, the lady who had been examining my paperwork turned to me. “Sir, you need to fill out this form,” she said, holding up an affidavit that I’d never seen or heard of before despite having meticulously trawled through the instructions on the OCI registration website. I had to provide the passport details of my parents and parents-in-law and the affidavit would need to be countersigned by Deena.

The trip to the FRRO was a complete write-off — it had been doomed from the start. Eager to salvage the few remaining hours of the afternoon, I set out to find a nearby workspace where I could use my laptop. There was a Starbucks I used to frequent during a two-week period in which I stayed in South Mumbai in 2014. There were better cafes around but the Starbucks was large and the likelihood of getting a table there was greater than elsewhere. I would have to walk — it was close enough that no taxi drivers would want to take me there and far enough that getting there on foot would take a solid 20 minutes. The walk took me through bazaars, narrow Victorian arcades, and alleyways seething with bicycles, cars, and pedestrians. In the heart of Old Bombay, in a district where the British East India Company had once built a fort in order to protect its colonial interests in the city, the ubiquitous Starbucks siren — mascot of a new wave of corporate colonialism — smiled impishly across the street from the 300-year-old Cathedral of St Thomas.

Once inside, I ordered a coffee and a croissant and set about finding a suitable table — not too high, not too low, not directly under an air-conditioning vent, near a power outlet, and so on. But once I had got through this rigmarole my thoughts turned to getting back to Bandra. Rush hour was approaching. I couldn’t stomach the thought of being trapped in the stale air of an Uber for two hours or more and I didn’t have the energy for the medieval struggle of rush-hour train travel. I told myself that I had at least an hour before the trains got too messy. I used the time to stare vacantly at my word processor’s blinking cursor for several minutes, scroll through my Twitter feed, watch a few YouTube videos about the heat death of the universe, vacuum decay, the sixth mass extinction event, and the various near-future cataclysms that could end human civilisation, disappear down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, and let my coffee get cold.

Another fruitless hour passed, I once again set out into the sweltering streets. I hailed a cab and took it to the Marine Lines train station. In the ticket hall a couple of haggard medics were soliciting blood donations with a scratchy audio recording that boomed off the walls on a ten-second loop. The commuters kept their distance, perhaps repelled by the obnoxious recording. On the platforms things were already starting to get hectic — wild-eyed passengers were diving headlong into carriages like infantrymen storming an enemy trench. I jostled my way into the tangle of bodies and clung to a handhold as more and more white-collar combatants piled in. But once the train was moving, the passengers succumbed to the spirit of compromise and cooperation that nearly always prevails in Mumbai. People shuffled around to accommodate the newcomers. A couple of T-shirt vendors carrying their merchandise in oversized canvas sacks began inching deeper into the carriage with their cargo to allow those getting off at the next stop to move closer to the doors. But the T-shirts were too heavy and the train too crowded and the vendors promptly abandoned their effort to get out of the way. Passengers wishing to disembark were now forced to perform gravity-defying gymnastic feats to get over or around the sacks, but everyone bore the inconvenience in good humour and without complaint.

This goodwill lasted only while the train was moving. Whenever a station came up it was war again. At Bandra I had to fight my way through a phalanx of boarding passengers with flailing limbs while frantic hands shoved me from behind, alighting on the platform just as the train started moving again. On the platform a khaki-clad policeman was thrashing a loitering drunk with his lathi. A group of Muslim clerics from the nearby mosque were waiting for the northbound train, their beards tinged with copper-coloured henna.

By the time I got home Deena was already back from work. She had opened the windows to let in some fresh air but the place still smelled of insecticide and the blue liquid had left streaks on the walls. Worst of all, ants were still crawling around in the kitchen and Deena was going after them with a can of bug spray. “We have to get the pest control guys back, they’ve not done their job properly,” she said.

At this point I had abandoned the idea of getting any work done. All I wanted to do was put my feet up and watch some garbage on YouTube. The heat was unbearable as it hadn’t rained all day. The AC unit in the living room was out of action and rainwater from an earlier downpour had somehow made its way into the circuitry of one of the ceiling fans, rendering it useless. I sank into a deep torpor, looking up at the rainless sky — kites were soaring high on the thermals looking for carrion in the streets below. Bright green parakeets had emerged from the eaves of the neighbouring bungalow and were screeching at one another and hanging like trapeze artists from power cables.

But there was barely time to unwind. After a quick dinner of khichdi we had to get ready for the evening. Night had fallen by the time we set out. A fleet of trucks was delivering material to the construction site and the site manager, a pot-bellied man in a linen shirt and skinny jeans, was directing traffic with a heavily bejewelled hand. The Goan “uncles” who routinely clustered at the gate of our building in the evenings to grumble about the state of the city were talking exasperatedly among themselves about the disturbance. They were old enough to remember what Bandra was like before it succumbed to rampant gentrification — before the high-rises, the upmarket spas and salons, the trendy bistros, the ubiquitous pet shops and the pulsating nightclubs. Moti, a Labrador that had been abandoned by its owner, was lying at their feet. She had a pretty good life for a stray, lounging under shop awnings in the afternoons and growing plump on the food left out for her by the locals. But the sight of passing waste pickers always stirred up some old trauma and caused her to bark uncontrollably. Apparently she had once had her puppies taken away in a sack like the ones carried by the waste pickers.

We waved hello to the Goan uncles. Mr Fernandez, ashing his cigarette into a tin can, reminded us that the housing society, of which he was the secretary, was still waiting on our landlord’s monthly maintenance cheque. He urged us to help chase up the payment. We assured him we would do so and carried on down the road. As we walked, we kept our eyes peeled for an ATM as we needed cash for a rickshaw. But all the machines we came across were either out of service or wouldn’t dispense any notes in a denomination lower than 500 rupees, an amount far above the cost of any rickshaw ride within Bandra. So we carried on walking, eventually coming out onto Hill Road.     

“Hey, it’s Veer!” Deena said, pointing out a young kid who was hawking tissue packets on the sidewalk. “I told that boy to stay off the streets at night!”

Veer grinned in recognition as we approached. We often bumped into him on Hill Road, one of Bandra’s busiest thoroughfares, and Deena had struck up a rapport with him. He was a precocious little kid, maybe eight years old, with pretty good English and an endearing personality. With his entrepreneurial instincts, tenacity in the face of adversity and profound sense of filial duty, he seemed to embody the very spirit of Mumbai.

“Where’s your mum?” Deena asked.

“Over there,” Veer replied, gesturing vaguely at some distant point along the busy street.

“I told you it’s not safe for you to be out at this hour.”

“Yes didi, but I have to get money for my family.” Veer explained that he was trying to raise money to buy a tarpaulin sheet to protect his family home from the rains. Every day after school he was out in the dust and fumes of the street, Chhota Bheem school bag on his back, scraping together a paltry 100 to 200 rupees (1.40 to 2.80 dollars) per day selling tissue packets.

Veer’s story is not unique. Thousands of kids his age and even younger walk the streets of Mumbai day and night, begging or hawking a variety of impulse goods, including colouring books, cheap party accessories, paperbacks, trinkets, and (most commonly of all it seems) tissue packets. There are, in fact, scores of kids far worse off than him. Some of the most unfortunate are those that fall into the hands of crime syndicates who send them out into the streets to beg or to hawk, sometimes maiming them in order to increase their earnings, which are ultimately pocketed by the racketeers. This so-called “begging mafia” preys on orphans and lost or abandoned kids, sometimes going so far as to kidnap those walking unaccompanied to or from school.

We didn’t have any cash to give but Deena offered to buy the boy some ice cream from a nearby ice-cream parlour. Veer considered the offer. The last time we met him he’d asked for fried rice from a cheap bakery-cum-Chinese takeaway, refusing our offer to order from a slightly pricier place. “Arré, why would you waste your money?” he’d said. Now he asked for fried rice again. But Deena explained that we were in a hurry and could only offer ice cream for the time being.      

“Ok didi, give me malai flavour,” Veer said. The ice cream parlour offered a range of exotic flavours but Veer insisted on having the familiar kulfi flavour sold by the roving vendors on the seafront promenades, the equivalent of choosing plain vanilla. The shop wouldn’t let the young ragamuffin in — the doorman threatened him with a beating the moment he approached — so he waited at a safe distance while I purchased the ice cream. When I presented it to him he smiled broadly, thanked us, and went on his way.

As we carried on down the road I questioned the wisdom of buying the kid something as indulgent and innutritious as ice cream. It seemed such a frivolous gesture.

“I wanted him to feel like a child for a change,” Deena said, “besides, it’s so hot today.” She saw Veer not merely as a helpless victim of unfortunate circumstances but first and foremost as a little boy and moreover as an individual with the intelligence and grit to navigate and even rise above his circumstances. She once told me “true greatness is in believing in great things for others.” It was her ability and willingness to see the humanity in individuals and to respect their agency that elevated her simple acts of everyday kindness above the self-serving pitiful interactions we often mistake for charity.   

We had by now walked most of the way to our destination and there was little sense anymore in trying to get a rickshaw so we carried on walking until we came to the bar.

Upon entering we were immediately enveloped by thumping bass and the hubbub of dozens of voices straining to be heard above the music and each other. It was in bars like this that Mumbai’s well-off hard-partying youth gathered after sundown on any day of the week. Clustering around dimly lit tables and booths were the city’s well-groomed yuppies, spendthrift scions, aspiring social media personalities and chic film and TV starlets. On the strobe-lit dance floor revellers were dancing with abandon to a Mark Ronson track. It may be a stereotype that all Indians are born dancers, but it is one that has a firm basis in reality — even those that dislike dancing show an incredible aptitude for it when pressured (and there is always pressure to dance at parties in Mumbai).

I put together a playlist of tunes that are evocative of Mumbai. Enjoy!

We forged our way through the crowded room until we found the birthday boy, Johnny, nursing an orange juice while Sid regaled him with tales of his trip to Delhi where he’d been touring his debut album. Johnny listened intently, his head cocked to one side. A mercurial graphic designer and creative director who was winning acclaim across the city for creating vibrant digitally rendered dreamscapes that were reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch, Johnny had recently adopted the appearance of an ascetic. He’d always had an eye for fashion and a penchant for flamboyant clothing but these days his outfit of choice was a simple linen kurta (a loose-fitting collarless shirt traditionally worn in India and other South Asian cultures) and a pair of jeans. He’d lost a lot of weight during a severe bout of typhoid fever and had recently taken to shaving his head and growing his beard out. His use of eyeliner gave him an intense, brooding look, enhancing  the god-man aesthetic.

Sid, a multi-instrumentalist and neuroscience student, had grown up in Detroit before repatriating to India as a teenager. He was now preparing to move to Australia to pursue a postgraduate degree and he’d come to Johnny’s party not only to wish him a happy birthday but also to bid him farewell. Johnny had produced the artwork for Sid’s avant-garde space-themed concept album and designed the visuals for the live shows.  

I lingered for a few moments on the periphery of this conversation, listening to Sid and Johnny exchange terse sentences that were barely audible above the music and ambient noise. A boozy-eyed Englishman in a V-neck and blazer was threading his way through the room, making graceless overtures to any woman who caught his eye. Over and over again this tragic gin-soaked lothario was rebuffed and yet he remained resolutely focused on his dubious mission. Men drew their dates close when they saw him approaching.

I decided I ought to greet some of the others in our group and began to work my way around the tables. But only fragments of conversation were possible and these had to be shouted at uncomfortably close quarters to be heard. I soon grew tired of this and decided to head to the bar to get an Old Monk, a cheap domestically produced rum. This meant shuffling between the writhing dancers, trying not to get elbowed in the face. And when I reached the bar there was a scrum of customers fighting for pole position and waving banknotes and credit cards in the air. I waited a few moments, hoping to be noticed by one of the two overworked bartenders, but it was apparent that only the loudest, most assertive punters stood any chance of being served. So I stood there being slowly atomised by the relentless bass, glancing at my watch and counting down the many minutes to closing time.     

But after a while I began to despair that I would never get my drink and I resented being shunted aside by solipsistic trust fund kids with their designer moccasins and expensive cologne. I was at the bottom of the pecking order and I knew it. Eventually I was irritated enough to lean in and voice my displeasure as unequivocally as an introverted Englishman possibly can. The bar staff nodded vaguely and in another ten minutes or so I had received my Old Monk and Coke and a Kingfisher beer for Deena. When I got back to my group, Johnny had cut his birthday cake and was hand-feeding it to his guests, as is the custom here. Shots of tequila were being passed around. And the DJ was playing the song It’s My Birthday, a staple at birthday celebrations in Mumbai. The track samples a popular (and legitimately good) Tamil song called Urvashi Urvashi.

After the cake-cutting, the birthday guests began to gradually disperse, pulled away by other social commitments or simply because they had an early start the next morning, leaving a stalwart remnant of mildly inebriated night owls. The next day was a working day but nobody explicitly mentioned this as a reason for turning in early. Hemingway wrote: “It is very important to discover graceful exits in the newspaper business, where it is such an important part of the ethics that you should never seem to be working.” It would appear that this statement could be extended to almost all young professionals in Bandra.

Sijo suggested moving the party to a “more happening” venue. A gregarious man-about-town, he always seemed to know where to find the best party scenes in Mumbai. Sijo was an event manager and culinary entrepreneur who had spent his twenties in Afghanistan managing logistical and de-mining operations for the coalition forces. Like Johnny, he was a South Indian who had grown up in the Gulf.

At Sijo’s suggestion, we moved on to a popular nightclub where groups of partygoers were standing outside the entrance waiting to enter, some smoking cigarettes, some chatting merrily and with varying degrees of coherence about the night’s shenanigans. Johnny wanted a quick smoke so I hung back with him while the others filed through the door. The tobacco-laced air throbbed with the heavy bass issuing from deep within the bowels of the club, like the erratic heartbeat of some strange subterranean beast. Once again, I readied myself for the seizure-inducing strobes, the all-encompassing sound, and the strained, staccato conversations.

But when the two of us decided to head inside, we were immediately thwarted by the overzealous security. Assuming that the club had a no-stag policy, Johnny explained that the group we had come with was already inside. And then things took a strange turn. It wasn’t a lack of girls that was the problem, it was Johnny’s outfit. Traditional Indian attire apparently did not conform to the club’s strict dress code.

Now, I’ve always thought that there is nothing more pretentious than a nightclub with a dress code. Whatever country you’re in, a typical nightclub is essentially a cultural void in which EDM-loving yuppies let off steam, hook up and get so plastered on overpriced liquor they don’t remember anything about it the next day, activities that hardly warrant the dignity of formal shoes and a collared shirt. But life is full of absurdities and, in the grand scheme of things, nightclub admission requirements are not worth getting riled up about. There is, however, something uniquely preposterous about Mumbai’s more high-end clubs and their insistence on Western standards of smart-casual wear. Johnny’s kurta was rejected on the grounds that it lacked a collar, whereas collared linen shirts of a similar style were perfectly acceptable.   

“Bro, are you serious?” Johnny protested, taken aback.

“Sir, I’m just doing my job,” the bouncer said.

This was true, of course — the bouncers didn’t make the rules. But this fact didn’t stop us trying to reason with them. In Mumbai, a little smooth-talking can go a long way and Johnny was an old hand at the game. Addressing the head bouncer by name, he calmly appealed for some sartorial open-mindedness — the kurta was a versatile garment, could even be considered trendy when worn right, and should not be scorned because of its mass appeal and association with populist politicians. But sartorial open-mindedness was above the bouncer’s pay grade. He shook his head and asked Johnny to kindly understand that rules were rules.

If we’d walked away at this point, we’d have done so with at least some dignity intact. But we didn’t. Instead we began to escalate the situation. Forgetting my usual reticence, I became belligerent and berated the security personnel for their slavish adherence to the club’s anachronistic dress code. “But, sir, you may enter,” the head bouncer said, “it is your friend who is not permitted inside.” Johnny, by turns nonchalant and antagonistic, at one point made a snarky comment about the man’s patriotism or lack thereof, trying to get under his skin.  

“C’mon man, this place is a dump anyway, let’s go somewhere else,” I said. Brimming with newfound temerity, I spoke these words loudly enough to be heard by the queuing clubbers as well as the club staff. But I had no intention of going anywhere. I was now hell-bent on making sure we got into the damn club.

I can only describe what happened next as a kind of out-of-body experience. Seized by blind rage, I unhooked the velvet rope in front of me and made a break for the door, unleashing a volley of choice words. In the grip of this apoplectic outburst, my limbs seemed to operate independently of my mind.

But perhaps it is disingenuous of me to describe my actions in these terms — perhaps there is within me, more than I care to admit, an innate desire for respect which is capable of manifesting itself in ugly, brutish ways. I suppose somewhere in my addled brain I imagined I was waging a righteous battle against elitism and injustice. But in reality I was lashing out from a sense of entitlement and wounded pride. I had never before had any trouble getting into a club in Mumbai and I felt now that some fundamental right had been violated. I felt gravely insulted that anybody should call into question our access to the city’s nightlife, least of all some pedantic doorman.

Of course, I only managed to get two or three steps before the bouncers put a stop to my quixotic charge. I reluctantly backed down, yielding to their numerical superiority, but not before launching into another blistering tirade. It was at this point that Sijo came out of the club to see where we’d got to. Surprised to find me skirmishing with the security, he asked us what the problem was.

“Apparently they don’t allow kurtas,” Johnny said.

Sijo simply shook his head and disappeared once again into the club to speak to the manager, whom he knew personally. Within the next few minutes the bouncers had received the order to let us in. In Mumbai it is not the truth that vindicates you so much as your proximity to power.

We made our way inside and linked up with Deena. The club was fairly standard, albeit slightly more ostentatious than average and the crowd a little more glamorous. Svelte models in heels and skimpy dresses, some of whom graced the giant billboards which advertised to the city’s battered commuters everything from shampoo to skin-whitening cream, birth control and bank loans, milled around beneath an imposing chandelier or reclined in booths at either end of the room sharing hookahs with socialites and heavily pomaded fashionistas. Jewellery and sequins sparkled under the flickering lights. At a bar table cluttered with bottles, glasses and ice buckets, an intense, bug-eyed cokehead was raving to his friends about how he had a guy who always hooked him up with high-grade stuff from Peru. And an EDM Bro in a baseball cap was mixing beats on the turntables, a heavy medallion swinging from his neck.

“What happened?” Deena said, reading in my face that something was amiss. So I told her about the bizarre kerfuffle that had taken place. I then continued to rail against the club for some time but my heart was no longer in it. The initial satisfaction of having cheated the system quickly gave way to bitter self-loathing. There was a grotesque irony in the fact that I’d raised hell over the entrance policies of some dumb club that I didn’t want to go to in the first place. I thought about all the Mumbaikars struggling every day for mere survival on the streets, on the commuter trains, on the construction sites, in the sweatshops and in the slums. The club’s bouncers, too, were just trying to make an honest living in a tough city rife with greed, racketeering, exploitation and corporate chicanery. They had done their job admirably, only to incur the ire of some lippy white guy. 

Johnny and I were now introspecting grimly over the whole squalid affair. By this stage, the party had entered a post-midnight lull. There was about half an hour till closing time and the clubbers were already discussing after-party plans. Sijo and the others in our group had disappeared into the crowd to catch up with other acquaintances they’d spotted. There wasn’t much point in hanging around any longer — there’d be one more burst of energetic dancing, much drunken heckling of the DJ and, finally, a collective groan at 1:30am sharp when the music would come to an abrupt end. Johnny, Deena and I hovered for a few wretched EDM-filled minutes near the hookah booths, surrounded by Mumbai’s resplendent glitterati, before deciding to call it a night.

But we couldn’t just slink off quietly — we had to go back the way we came, past the doormen we’d squabbled with only moments earlier. We approached them sheepishly at first and then extended our hands in contrition. Commending them for their professionalism and offering hearty mea culpas, we shook their hands firmly. I wanted them to know that I didn’t usually behave that way; that I wasn’t the entitled jerk I appeared to be. I don’t know if they were convinced (or if I was, for that matter) but they smiled warmly.

“It’s ok sir, we’re used to it,” one of them said.

Having made peace, we bid the bouncers goodnight and went on our way. Around a dozen rickshaws had pulled up at the kerbside, their black hoods glistening from a brief rain burst. The drivers were waiting for the club to disgorge its drunken clientele into the street, their faces bathed in the glow from smartphones sealed in monsoon-proof ziplock bags. A group of giggling revellers were mincing their way towards the road, looking past the bank of rickshaws to find their Uber. A man pushing a bicycle with a grubby-faced child on the back was attempting to sell them helium balloons.   

We paused for a few moments by the rickshaws to exchange the usual parting salutations and final birthday wishes. “Very good, sir,” Johnny said in a mock-John Cleese accent before lighting a cigarette and bowing into his rickshaw. Distant sheet lightning was flickering overhead, backlighting the dark buildings and the swaying palm trees. The moon was a rinsed-out disc drifting in a gunmetal sky, alone but for Saturn and the pale dot of Arcturus, as if even the ancient stars were merely transient visitors and Planet Bombay, vast and inscrutable, would outlive them all.  

Mumbai is known as the City of Dreams and this is a fitting epithet for several reasons: the city is often experienced as a kind of phantasmagoria with its exuberant street festivals and everyday unpredictability; it is home to the world’s most prolific film industry — the mass production of dreams in celluloid; and migrants dreaming of a better life are drawn here from all over the subcontinent. But perhaps most of all it is apt because we Mumbaikars are always dreaming of what the city could be if things were different — if the infrastructure was fit for purpose; if the air wasn’t toxic; if all districts had adequate sanitation; if there wasn’t such a deeply entrenched culture of bribery and embezzlement; if more people had access to a good education; and so on. “This could be the next Singapore,” I’ve heard people say.

There may be myriad reasons for the problems plaguing Mumbai but a lack of resources is not one of them. Mumbai is not a poor city. On the contrary, a recent report ranked it as the 12th wealthiest city in the world on the basis of the private wealth held by individuals residing here. The city is home to a lucrative real estate market and one of the world’s largest stock exchanges. People live large here, taking consumerism and hedonism to ever greater extremes. The BMC, too, is well-funded. Yet, around 40 percent of the population of Greater Mumbai lives in slums, even while nearly half a million residential properties lie vacant across the city. 

This image (taken in 2014) perfectly illustrates the wealth divide in Mumbai. In the foreground two men lie under a flyover. In the background a billboard advertising a new Trump Tower proclaims in characteristically crass fashion: “There is only one way to live. The Trump way.”

For most Mumbaikars, daily life is a Hobbesian struggle for survival. This fiercely competitive environment breeds feelings, attitudes and behaviours that could be described as pathological —misanthropy, solipsism, narcissism, anxiety, depression and so on. This is an environment where motorists will refuse to give way to the extent they’ll block an ambulance on an emergency run; where employers regularly expect their employees to work overtime without extra pay; where a bad exam result can literally ruin a student’s future and drive them to suicide; where opportunism is so rife that people were willing to turn on and loot their own neighbours in citywide riots in the 1990s. Money is king here and under its dominion a culture of backstabbing and exhibitionism flourishes and the spirit of one-upmanship pervades almost every aspect of life. Those without economic clout are routinely trampled, scorned, demeaned and condemned to a life of drudgery or outright slavery.

How does anyone live here without losing their soul? The fact is that people do. While Mumbai is a city that brings out the worst in humanity it is also a city that brings out the best. The capacity for altruism that people have here is unmatched elsewhere. I’ve seen people open up their homes to strangers stranded by floodwaters in the monsoons. When my mother-in-law had to be hospitalised with a high fever the owners of our local convenience store offered to help. Even the worn-out railway commuters are often seen putting themselves at further discomfort by lifting new passengers into their already overcrowded carriages. And although there is always the potential for tribalism, Mumbaikars overwhelmingly choose the way of tolerance, forming personal and business partnerships that transcend cultural, religious and political differences. It is these things that make me proud to live here.

The one thing we can say definitively about Mumbai is that it is a city of paradoxes. Caught between the wild excesses and extreme deprivation of the city, I have learnt some valuable lessons. I’ve learnt that I can live with a lot less stuff than society would have me believe. A minimalist life is truly a rare and wonderful thing in a world of sensory overload where “must-have” products and experiences are endlessly paraded before our eyes. But it does not follow that we should resent the super-rich and hold them accountable for all society’s woes. To do so not only oversimplifies the issues, it is almost always hypocritical. Wealth, after all, is a relative concept. I come from a simple middle-class English family and even by the standards of Mumbai I’m not rich, and yet I’m conscious that the monthly rent on my modest one-bedroom flat is much higher than what the poorest people in India earn over an entire year. In other words, I can be either desperately poor or filthy rich depending on whose company I’m in.

It is every individual’s right to amass wealth if he or she chooses, as long as that wealth is not obtained dishonestly or by exploiting others. But the flaunting of wealth is always vulgar and inexcusable. Moreover, I believe that the more we as individuals have benefitted from the capitalist system, the more we have a responsibility to help those that have been crushed by the system. Chasing profits without regard for anything else leads to social Darwinism and, ultimately, to horrors like the British East India Company. The city of Bombay, of all places, should know a thing or two about that.

Finally, Mumbai has taught me this: there is no room for self-righteousness when we truly examine ourselves. This is because, in the end, we are all condemned not only for the bad that we do, but also for the good that we fail to do. Paradoxically, those that realise that even their righteous acts are, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, no more than “filthy rags”, they are the ones most capable of carrying out genuine works of love without worrying about whether their actions will be appreciated or reciprocated — in short, their good deeds will be free of the burden of self-interest; free to change hearts, to shape culture and to bring light into the darkness.  

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15 thoughts on “Down and out in the City of Dreams

  1. Good job!
    Blog is on point. It has been 16yrs for me and many say ‘Mum-bay has changed’…. But it seems it is still the same in many ways from the time I left.
    See you guys soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Deepak! I was not here 16 years ago so can’t compare. I’m sure in many ways it’s the same but it’s a rapidly developing city and even in the 5 years that I’ve been here it’s changed in many ways. See you soon!


  2. Great glimpses of Mumbai life, both joyful and sad, Sam. Reminds me of the wonderful fortnight there at the time of your wedding. Looked up some of the locations you mention and Indian/local expressions. Loved the bit at the end about bringing light into the darkness. Random acts of kindness in a broken world, done in secret.
    “Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.”
    From ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. nice style. evocative of Mumnai’s soul. An easy read. Good to know that Sid is in your writing! He was my student!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is Devesh, marketing team representative from Roots Travel App. At Roots, we are enabling experiential travelling for a Modern Day Tourist. Building a community of (travel related) bloggers is one of such attempts to know about the roots of a city.


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