I walked into a Head Office of a Paper Mill in Andheri, a suburb of Mumbai (Bombay) yesterday with a colleague of mine. I checked with the receptionist if we could meet the head of the commercial department for a few minutes. She asked me if we had an appointment. I told her we did not have one as it was late in the evening the previous day, the head of mill asked us to meet him in Mumbai and it was too late to make a request for a meeting.
She informed me that Mr. XXXX had not come to the office. I asked her if we could meet someone in Purchase department as we wanted to introduce our company. She said, “Don’t worry sir. I will see what can be done.” She directed us to sit in a small conference room. Called the person who we wanted to meet, on his mobile number and connected us. Mr. XXXX spoke to us for few minutes and said he would ask his assistant to meet us.
Meanwhile the receptionist asked if we would like to have a cup of tea or coffee. I first said, “No thanks.” She said, “Don’t worry sir. It’s not machine made. We make our own coffee. Tea or Coffee?” I told her “Coffee.” She commented, “I thought so. You are from South.” Before the coffee arrived, Mr.XXXX’s assistant came in. We introduced our company, handed over our brochures and over a cup of hot coffee, explained about the products we could offer to the mill. He asked us to send an email with details and he would see to that the message reaches his boss.
I thanked the receptionist for the great hospitality and help. To me, she personifies the indomitable spirit of what makes Mumbai special. In any other city in India and in most of the cities across the world, we would have been sent back with a terse message, “Mr. XXXX has not come to office today. You can send an email, get an appointment and come back at a later date.” But here she was, called someone who was on leave, connected us to him, set up a meeting with the next available person, served hot coffee with a smile and in between attended a dozen phone calls.
Incidentally, tomorrow, 26th November, marks the tenth anniversary of one of the biggest terrorist attacks happened in India. Within 48 hours after the attack, the city was functioning at its impressive best while mourning the deaths of near and dear ones. Just as they did after the first simultaneous bomb attacks across the city in 1993.
I was sixteen when I first went to Mumbai (Bombay as it was called then). I was spending summer holidays at my aunt’s place who lived in a faraway suburb of the city. My uncle got me a season ticket for the train and asked me to roam around the city as I pleased. He also gave me a very generous pocket money every day. The local trains were crowded even forty years ago. Getting into the train was an arduous task; you needed guts, courage and a willingness to get crushed in the process and ready to loose all your possessions in the bargain. Getting out was not a problem. If you stood anywhere near the door, you would be carried out and thrown on the platform by the sheer momentum created by 200 people trying to get out at every station. During the summer holidays, I had lost my wallet with season ticket once, had my T shirts shredded on couple of occasions and suffered some bruises while falling on the platform. But it was an adventure I remember to this day.
The demographic experts and the journalists of the leading newspapers used to wonder, even in the seventies, what would happen to the city, say in ten or twenty years from now. Well four decades have passed and after all these years, the city is not only surviving but it is as bubbly as ever.
Mumbai was a cluster of seven islands which first came into Portuguese rule in the 15th century. In 1661, when Charles II of England married Cathrine of Braganza, he received the ports of Tangier and the seven islands of Mumbai as part of dowry. It was then passed onto East India Company. Lucky guys. As if the countries they conquered were not enough, they got some great cities as dowry on a platter. Mumbai had a deep natural port and the islands were joined together and the development of Mumbai started which is continuing till today.
It is said that the mayor of Shanghai once remarked, he wanted to Shanghai to develop like Mumbai. Today Shanghai is miles ahead in development. But there is a significant difference. Mumbai is democratic and anyone who wants to make a living there can go there without a penny in hand unlike Shanghai where entry is restricted in so many different ways. So the migration to Mumbai in a land of 1.2 billion people, which started few centuries ago is still continuing.
And this overcrowded city, which hosts the largest slum in Asia is lashed by incessant rains for three months bringing life to a halt. At the first sign of a mild shower, Chennai declares holidays for school and colleges. In Mumbai the arrival of rains coincides with the reopening of school. People have learnt to live with the rains which floods the city, halts the suburban trains on its tracks, gets the city buses marooned on the water-clogged roads. The Goddess Mumbadevi, the family deity of the city, bless them with a special spirit which make the people of city to overcome all the odds and help them to make a graceful living.
The metro construction mania which is now spread across all cities in India has engulfed Mumbai as well. On the Western Express highway, metro construction is going at a breakneck speed. This construction is choking the highway which already was a nightmare for commuting during peak hours. The construction has taken a part of the main road and the exits where the metro station are being built. On a Saturday afternoon, it took me fifteen minutes to get out of the exit. Imagine chaos that awaits the commuters during working days. A three hour commute from south Mumbai for a distance of 15 kilometres is quite common.
And then the irony of it all. Just above the choked exits, I saw real estate advertisements. A single bedroom flat about 500 Square Feet in size, is offered at 1.17 Crores (about a quarter of a million dollars). This is a huge sum of money, beyond the reach of most of our population. Why would someone pay that kind of money to live in a faraway suburb and spend four to five hours everyday in commuting? That’s something beyond my understanding.
And yet, the city not only is surviving but booming all the time. It’s not a city where only the Bollywood dreams come true. Anyone with a dream in the eyes and a will to succeed can make it big in Mumbai. It is a city where everyone can become a hero. My father remarked once, “This is a city for all. People live here eating கோணக்காய் – Konakkai, (Manila Tamarind/ Vine Tamarind) spending 30 paise on their meal, and there are people who spend 300 Rupees on a peg of Scotch Whiskey. And people at both the ends of spectrum seem to be happy.” That summarises the city for me.
This spirit combined with hard work and a single minded determination of its residents makes Mumbai one of the wealthiest city in India. Mumbai produces 6.6% of our GDP, 25% of Industrial output, pays 30% of the Income Tax collected in India, 60% of all custom duty collection and accounts for 40% of India’s foreign trade.
One thing has not changed though. Their ability to give direction. In 1980, I took Mohan for sightseeing in Mumbai. As I had already spent the previous summer there, I was kind of an expert to show the city around. Whenever we lost direction and asked someone for guidance, the standard answer we used to get was, “Seedha Jaavo – saral java – go straight.” It did not matter if the road ahead was just 50 feet before it turned sharply to the right or left. Yesterday, I lost my way near my aunt’s place and asked for help in locating the apartment. All the four people I asked for direction, from a college student to the security guard in the near by housing complex, gave me the same answer, ” Seedha jaavo – go straight.” Incidentally the apartment I was looking was just next to the college and they were directing me towards Arabian sea.
Mumbai to India is what New York is to the world. If you stand in Times Square in New York and ask people at random where are they from, you would could say hello to people from hundred different countries. In the same way, if you stand in Gateway of Mumbai on a Sunday and ask the visitors where are they from, you can probably say hello to people from all the states and Union Territories in India.
Mumbai is a city for everyone. Salaam Bombay! A big salute to the city and to the spirits of its residents, the Mumbaikars.