Salaam Bombay Part 2

Fayes T Kantawala found himself counting the similarities (and differences) between Mumbai and New York…

Salaam Bombay Part 2
A week on and I’ve developed a semblance of a routine in Bombay. (Sorry, Mumbai.) I wake up to sounds of horns and shouting; I eat breakfast; take a taxi through the sound of horns and shouting; get to work; stare at blank walls for six hours while contemplating how so many people can live in one city; take a taxi back through the shouts and horns; shower to reveal what I thought was a tan but is actually dirt; and repeat.

Evening is when Mumbai comes alive for me, and I have tried my hardest to talk my way into as many different “worlds” here as possible. (Old Bombay looks down on the filmy crowd, the filmy crowd looks down on the professionals, and so on). Being Pakistani helps; it’s like being an exotic bird that has landed in a nest of sparrows. It gives me great access. Observe: Last week began with an Architectural Digest magazine party at the Four Seasons Hotel. The party’s purpose was to celebrate the New Top 50 design gurus of India. (I was taken along by a friend.) It was basically a wonderful outdoor cocktail party filled with interior designers, editors of Vogue, architects, CEOs and other such sorts.

[quote]Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla walked in together[/quote]

A few nights later I met up with an acquaintance of a friend, an expansive individual who turned out to be in the “movie business” (that’s a coy variation on Bollywood, if you please). He had offered to take me to a movie premiere that evening. We met for drinks at a fancy hotel near the filmy area where, as I entered, I saw a surly-looking Arjun Rampal sitting alone at the next table. (Yes, he really is that good-looking, and yes, it’s depressing.) An hour later I emerged onto the third floor of a cinema where the premiere for Gulab Gang was being held. It seemed fairly normal to see people milling around the concession stand. Upon inspection, I learned that Bollywood was there in full force. I saw the guy who directed Sholay and was later chatting to a man who was introduced to me as a musician. I asked him what kind of music he made. He said all kinds. I said how wonderful it was to meet a musician and asked where I could hear his music. He stiffened slightly. Later I was told he was Anu Malik. (‘My Heart is Paining, It’s Paining, It’s Paining’.)

And then, mere moments later, Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla walked in. Together. The crowd went nuts. They are truly beautiful, the both of them. You never expect stars to look the same in real life as they do on screen, and it’s even rarer when they look better.

Most everyone I have met here has been engaging, generous, curious and welcoming. Occasionally I’ve been asked something like “Do you have art in Pakistan?” (“Why, yes, we do. Much like you have the bubonic plague in India…”) And then there’s the statement I’ve heard more often than I’d like: “Mumbai is really just like New York!”

No, it’s not. I get that Mumbai is cosmopolitan, and I understand that it has some skyscrapers, but it’s not New York for a whole host of reasons. People don’t defecate on the streets of New York. I know I’m going to get hate mail for this (tempted to say I don’t give a sh**) but I need to talk about it. I hadn’t expected the defecation to be as prevalent as it is. On my second day I was told to take the train for the experience. Standing at the end of the platform, a man next to me just squatted and went to town, his bum hanging off the edge. I took a breath (not a deep one, obviously) and walked out, never to return again. Another time, as I alighted from a taxi, I found myself facing a man who was blissfully relieving himself on a street corner. Kill me for saying this – here come the Indian trolls! – but I have never seen this done in Pakistan, and so am disturbed in ways I haven’t quite processed.

[quote]I often have to remind my Indian interlocutors that MF Hussain was exiled from India for blasphemy[/quote]

I do concede, however, that Mumbai and NYC share an air of callous aspiration, which often takes the form of their residents’ steely indifference to the realities around them. Mumbai is also like New York (well, sort of) in its successful upholding of a fantastic self-projection. I mean, who outside India could guess that right now the country’s papers are all abuzz with the story of how Penguin Books has recalled all copies of two perfectly harmless volumes that offer an alternative history of Hinduism because they happened to offend a few conservative citizens. And compare this to Pakistan, which despite its literary festivals will always, it appears, be branded as a land of bearded fundos. I can’t help but feel that our problems, despite the difference in the “official” narrative, are often quite similar. In other words, Pakistanis are not the only crazies in this region. It’s like when I walked into the Taj Hotel and saw a massive mural by the late MF Hussain. He’s been brought up to me in conversation more times that I can recall, mainly as an example of the greatest Indian artist of all time. When my Indian interlocutors ask me how great it must feel to be in a free country, I often have to remind them that Mr. Hussain was exiled from India for blasphemy and died a sad old man in the Arab Middle East. India’s elites may claim him now, and piously garland his portrait, but they failed to protect him when he was alive.

You may accuse me of being a jealous Pakistani who is being petty and ungracious. But that’s not the case. I’m really wondering how a nation (read: a middle class) that believes all of its own rhetoric can keep a grasp on reality.

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