Over the years, a lot of attempts have been made to quantify the vastness of Mumbai into a couple of lines. The struggle is coalescing such a detailed mosaic of neighbourhoods vibrant enough to be their own cities into one simple slogan to slap onto a tourism brochure or Instagram bio. There are parts of the city that don’t sleep and there are parts that revel in a perpetual daze. Many remember the busy streets rimmed with food stalls and opportunistic vendors, while some know it more for its upper echelon of luxury outlets and rows of celebrity-owned houses.
How do you sum up a city filled with so many polarising multitudes?
For me, the only line that ever seems to do the job is one that isn’t made of words. It's a line that stretches from the East, through the new city, over the old part of town and to the foot of Runway 27 at Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Airport, located on the west end of the city of Mumbai. This was the route I took when nearing the end of a 16-hour evacuation flight from Vancouver in June 2020, just as things began to go truly awry in India.
In that last minute, before touching down, you can see everything, the malls, highrises, slums, apartments. A reminder of the power the city life holds in bringing together people from all walks of life — all in the pursuit of that singular vision of success.
Of course, the buildings I saw on that flight were only a shell of their former glory.
By mid-2020, Mumbai became India’s COVID-19 epicentre. The vibrancy I had left behind when coming to Vancouver in 2019 had long been wiped clean in the face of strict lockdowns and innumerable deaths. Roads that once deafened all but its mildly irritated vehicular occupants now had no traffic even at peak hours.
The city that never slept seemed to have finally been put to rest.
Writing this all feels a bit ironic; I seem to be reminiscing on things I once ignored and even looked down on. I’m likely not what many in India would consider a stereotypical Mumbaikar — I’ve only been to a club in Mumbai once, which itself feels like a socially-awkward blur of forced dancing and sandpaper-textured conversations. My nights before coming to UBC mainly were spent watching movies with my dad, speaking with my friends or bullying Iceberg — my Persian cat. Yet, here I am, romanticizing one of India’s most notorious party towns
I miss traffic — which is something I imagine I’ll laugh at some time from now if (and when) things improve.
Maybe it’s my time away from Bombay at play here.
Back at home, my “foreignness” often stood out. I only listened to English music. I mostly loved English TV shows and movies. I never really ate much street food. My Hindi is a bit, em, let’s call it “rough around the edges.”
In Vancouver, however, things were different. Something about my “Indian-ness” being a bit more glaring changed the way I looked at home. In Canada, conversations with peers and strangers alike were mainly in English, rarely in Hindi, and never in Malayalam — the language of my state. Christians went from a small, occasionally persecuted minority to a culturally pervasive and historically significant force. The automated Google Maps voice didn’t struggle to pronounce the names of streets and towns. It was my first time thoroughly interacting and living with people who were not of Indian or South Asian heritage.
I suppose a very “what’s my place in this world” moment.
In late October 2019, with a move that would’ve seemed unconventional for me in Mumbai, I put on my aquamarine kurta — a traditional Indian garment worn by men — and showed up happily with my friends to a celebration of everything Bollywood in the Nest. I went primarily for the purpose of screaming at the top of my lungs to the bangers I grew up with. In retrospect, some part of me also wanted to protect a side of me I took for granted at home — where a piece of my heart resided.
Ask my UBC friends about me and they would tell you some version of, “He’s a Mumbai nationalist,” in reference to my love for Bombay and my unbridled ire for the capital of New Delhi.
This is how I seem to have brought a little piece of home to this big, bright town of Tim Hortons, Totem Poles, snow-capped mountains and the oh-so distinctive smell of freshly lit joints.
I suppose the million-dollar question is then, what happens when the heart doesn’t recognize where it is?
Mumbai still occupies the same part of the map. Its name hasn’t changed. Yet, something indescribably quintessential about the city had vanished. The city whose pieces I tried to hold close in Vancouver doesn’t exist anymore.
1 John 2:17 comes to mind, the line that says, “This world is fading away.” I never expected Bombay to remain the same, but I also didn’t expect it to transform so quickly into something so different.
A lot has happened in the 22 months since I returned and each moment of that time has helped answer this question. I’ve learnt to appreciate the parts of the city that didn’t change. My home still feels as safe and warm as it did in 2019. My parents, family, friends, and my God all still have my back. As the city slowly recovered into a state of suspended, cautious, animation, I could once again feel that familiar fluorescence that comes with returning to the place you’ve spent your life after a long trip away.
Once the mental dust of my arrival had settled, my attention shifted to the incredible yet well-known Mumbaikar resilience demonstrated by the folks of my town. The local municipal authority stepped up their work and kept Mumbai fairly safe when the rest of the country writhed in pain during the second wave. People have shown up in the hundreds to get their COVID-19 vaccine.
The people are the city, and it’s clear that the time to rebuild has arrived.
If I had to bring all this together, this is what I have to say — change is inevitable.
"Who Am I" by Casting Crowns puts it best, describing the happenings of Earth as a “vapour in the wind.” However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s changed has been lost. They say you die twice — once when you actually die, and a second time, when someone thinks about you for the last time. The same applies here. A piece of my heart is in Bombay, and that word exists in two different times. One half is in the past, where it revels in warm memories of my childhood and, in turn, keeps that version of my city alive in a sense. The other, much newer half is weaved from tough but necessary experiences of losses, grief and uncertainty that have helped me grow up more in the last year than in the eighteen years prior.
A piece of my heart is in Bombay, a word that exists in space, time and emotion – arguably three of the most difficult things to accurately describe.
I suppose that’s why it’s impossible to coalesce all this into a couple of lines.
‘Where the Heart Is’ is a new, biweekly series from the Features section intended to complement the ongoing ‘Places to Go’ series. From this new series, the reader will be shown around someone’s hometown as the author recounts a fun story, lesson learned or other memory. This series is also intended to showcase communities of all sizes — tell me about your block in Delhi, tell me about your apartment complex in Shenzhen, tell me about your sparsely populated municipality. For more information or to submit a piece, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.