It’s 5:41 a.m. and I’m headed from the airport into the city formerly known as Bombay. In the next two weeks I will hear its current name, Mumbai, spoken exactly zero times, so I’m going to stick to Bombay. Bleary-eyed and tired after 15 hours aboard Kuwait’s intriguing and completely dry national airline, I am staring at the ramshackle temple by the side of the road with these beguiling words stretched across its façade: Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known god.
What the hell does that mean?
We are puttering down a series of dying streets and highways in a tiny, ancient Fiat that would have made an East German Trabant look sturdy, dodging an obstacle course of mopeds, fellow Fiats, and the occasional resigned-looking bullock. Suddenly I am feeling spiritual. My usual liberal arts agnosticism is difficult at a time like this. I want to trust in a known god for the duration of my stay in the city. In short order, we pass by the Status Refine Gourmet, the Palais Royale skyscraper, and the Happy Home & School for the Blind. A sign instructing the reader of the symptoms of malnutrition (“If your child complains of constant lethargy perhaps malnutrition is to blame”) hangs next to a gleaming Porsche dealership. I am silent, and a little stunned. My driver is honking every other second, as is everyone around him. But it feels less like a plea to get out of the way than an affirmation of one’s existence. The honking says, “I’m here!” Which is what everyone in this impossible, ridiculous, and addictive city wants you to know. They’re here! And they’re coming right at you.
I’ve come to Bombay because of a book written by a friend. Ounce for ounce, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is, in my opinion, not just the best book on Bombay, but the best book on anywhere in the world right now. Maximum City, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has been rightly compared to Dickens’s and Balzac’s 19th-century treatments of London and Paris, and it gives Bombay the same immortal sense of flowing, unabated, tragicomic life. You close Suketu’s book thinking that Bombay is not just a snapshot of the world, it is the world. Or at least the entry level to the world. It’s where you get off the train from your village and join the path that leads eventually to London or Palo Alto or, as I see from the grimy window of my Fiat, to a gated community in the suburbs built exclusively for aristocrats.
I forgot to mention that it’s also a very funny book. And Bombay is a very funny city. At one point during this trip, as Suketu’s taxi idles at a red light, a 14-year-old kid tries to sell him a pirated paperback copy of Maximum City. Suketu asks him what the book is about.
“Oh, all of Bombay is in this book!” the young street salesman says.
“Well, how much do you want?” Suketu asks.
“Six hundred rupees!” the kid says—about $9.
“Six hundred? Do you know I’ve written it?”
“Fine,” the kid shrugs. “If you’ve written it, you can have it for four hundred.”
Which is to say, if you want to trust your unknown future to a known god in Bombay, he might as well be Suketu.
What’s it like to be a lonely person in Bombay? I guess I’ll never find out. People talk to me even when it’s clear that I don’t understand Marathi, Gujarati, or Hindi. To not talk to someone here, to keep your opinions to yourself, is seen as mildly offensive. I meet Suketu at the best place for talking, the Press Club. Suketu’s journalist buddies are gathered on the club’s rooftop, which overlooks the cricket field of the Azad Maidan. This is part of the greenbelt in the center of South Bombay that leads to the Victorian Gothic skyline of the famous Oval Maidan (the Rajabai Clock Tower is a fearsome answer to Big Ben). We munch pappadum and deep-fried tapioca balls, smoothing their crunchy passage with a combination of Thums Up, a beloved local Coca-Cola impostor, and Old Monk, a beloved local rum impostor. After the worldwide coverage of the horrific rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi, I get the immediate sense that the country is wounded. One of the journalists says, “They’ll talk about rape for now, the way they used to talk about corruption, and then nothing will change.” It’s hard to argue with this brain trust, most of whom seem to have written at least one book about their country. But I take note that on our busy rooftop, there are only three women in a sea of men, and all of them are at our table. One of them is a young journalist named Nishita Jha who covers gender violence and pop culture for Tehelka, “India’s most fearless weekly.” Everyone chimes in to tell me that Bombay is far more cosmopolitan than Delhi and far safer for women. (After the recent gang rape of a female photojournalist in Bombay, I’m not as sure about the second part.)
I am introduced to Naresh Fernandes, a delightfully bearlike, shaved-headed journalist. “Naresh is the gangster of Bombay,” Nishita says, affectionately. “He runs everything.” Naresh has an “alcoholic’s license,” allowing him to buy 12 units of whiskey a week, as a way around Bombay’s draconian booze laws. He was also part of the Wall Street Journal staff and has a facsimile of one of the paper’s Pulitzer Prizes hanging proudly above the toilet in his apartment. But Naresh, the author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, is no cynic when it comes to this city’s past.
The next day he takes me and Suketu to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, better known by its former name, the Victoria Terminus, and still better known to all Bombay natives as VT. Naresh is excited because this truly stunning structure—supposedly the second most photographed in India, after the Taj Mahal—has just opened a so-called Heritage Gallery, allowing visitors a guided tour of the building’s innards, whose scale and detail have no earthly equivalents. “Exotically Gothic” is what our guide calls this mix of Gothic Revival and Mughal architecture. The railway station easily puts New York’s Grand Central to shame with its solid granite columns, Italian marble, carved wood ceilings, an open cantilevered staircase beneath the octagonal dome, and stained-glass windows that light up the structure like a veritable Duomo of the rails. There are bas-reliefs of the different ethnicities of India, along with a sculptural riot of squirrels, dragons, crocodiles, monkeys, birds, and foxes. Only Queen Victoria is missing from her central niche.
The state of the trains departing VT is not quite as stunning. Even the first-class cars are like a prison on wheels, the beige color scheme and the barred windows perfectly complementing the maximum-security motif. There is a compartment for ladies only and another car reserved for people with disabilities and cancer patients, the last represented by a drawing of a crab. The done thing for the millions of passengers who commute from the far-flung suburbs to the city every day is to jump out of the moving carriage while the train is still slowing down at VT. In my attempt to look cool before the Bombay natives, I nearly kill myself when I try this, my arms windmilling to gain balance as I stumble across the platform, the wind of the still-passing train against my back, along with the sound of laughter. I end up on my knees, palms on the ground, in a near-universal position of prayer, pain coursing up my shoulders and thighs.
Naresh and Suketu take me as far away from the Press Club and my hotel in relatively tony South Bombay as one can go, to the slums abutting the railroad tracks near the Bandra station, which is north of Bombay proper. The iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel, where I am staying, has a “destiny planner,” or in-house astrologer, but we decide to consult a white-clad, bearded man sitting by the railroad tracks with his parrot. The parrot picks out cards from a deck and the man interprets his little green friend’s advice. “Saturday is not a good day for you,” the parrot tells me through his master. “Do not conduct business on a Saturday.” I am stunned by the parrot’s ability to identify my ethnicity. Do I really look that Jewish? The parrot and I lock eyes, and beaks, for a while. “Your wife is smarter than you,” the man interprets for the parrot, which is also true. He asks me my name. “Gary is not your birth name,” the parrot tells me. Which is correct as well: my birth name is Igor. Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known god, I think. The dusty parrot by the railroad tracks knows all.
Naresh walks me over to a hunger strike conducted by a gathering of slum dwellers, sitting beneath banners for L’Oréal Paris. In the distance, the shimmering locus of their anger—the ugly, shoddily built apartment buildings, the so-called transition housing to which they will soon be shunted. Six months after being built, these six-story tombstones look like ruins, and the locals tell us they’re infested with bugs. It is one of Bombay’s paradoxes: sometimes it is preferable to live in a slum. “This is an epic land grab,” Suketu says.
On the other side of the train tracks we pass the series of century-old heritage bungalows that comprise the Catholic Willingdon Colony. Naresh tells me a crooked developer has bought up all of them and is going to tear them down to make way for something called Orchard Elegance or Elegant Orchard, another high-rise. Even as he is saying this, a group of thugs in khakis and dress shoes, lean and menacing, confront us in the lush passageways of the colony. The thugs begin screaming at us. Naresh shows his press pass. I can almost sense the violence about to start, and Suketu braces for impact. I can suddenly feel every bit of the humidity, the breezes of the Arabian Sea too far away. A fat-bellied police officer approaches and we ask him to intervene, but the constable is clearly on the side of the thugs. The cop and the gangsters decide to give us a good lesson in Bombay’s municipal civics. “Bhagao! Bhagao!” they shout in unison.
“Get out! Get out!”
And so we run.
That evening I am glad to be back at the Taj hotel, where the staff still speak in hushed tones about “the unfortunate events” of the 2008 terrorist attacks. That tragedy notwithstanding, the Taj does a preposterously good job of tuning out the steamy world outside, the parrot astrologers and khaki-clad thugs. When you’re looking down the stairs at the sublime pink Escher-scape of its infinite staircase or swimming below the fantastic Victorian cupola of the hotel, a congregation of pigeons above you, the world feels better than it should. The Taj’s butler staff (each of the club rooms has its own butler) may have given me the nicest treatment I’ve ever had in my life outside of marriage. Need a horrific stain magically rubbed off your suede shoes? Samrat, the butler, makes everything right in less than half an hour. Then there are the joys of a sunny Parsi breakfast of akuri (spiced scrambled eggs) on toast at the Sea Lounge, the boats bobbing by the triumphalist British bulk of the Gateway of India, a line of tankers coming into port. Which brings me to the food.
Within my ghee-covered pages of Maximum City lies a veritable larder of India’s many cuisines, Suketu’s subjects constantly munching on street snacks. There is a two-page disquisition on the vada pav (the spicy deep-fried potato patty) alone. Back at the Press Club I meet Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi, a food columnist for a website called Mumbai Boss. The lovely Roshni has a Bombay native’s wonderful sense of nostalgia, and during our drive through the city yells out things like “They used to sell popcorn over there!” or “I lived behind Schroff’s eye clinic!” More poignantly, as we pass the green expanse of the Horniman Circle Garden, she says, “I used to go to the study corner in the park, because my family was too noisy and I couldn’t concentrate.” The next day, I stop by the park’s little study corner, tucked away within the greenery, and find a small enclave of schoolboys and girls with monstrous backpacks poring over numbers and figures. Some of the kids look barely high-school age but are already elbow-deep into Marketing and Human Resource Management. Far more than the land grabs and the headlines about crime, this is India.
Roshni takes me to Highway Gomantak, a restaurant off a service road in the unfashionable Bandra East neighborhood (I’ll get to Bandra proper shortly). It’s a working-class family place, with writing on the walls attesting to Krishna’s many names. The food is coastal Maharashtrian and Goan, all of it heaped before you in great waves of fried sublimity. There’s an elegant fried version of the lizard-like “Bombay duck,” an intensely ugly fish that is beautiful on the inside. There’s a pomfret curry with coconut milk and tons of turmeric and green chiles and coriander seeds. Roshni tells me that the dish has at least a dozen ingredients, but it’s the coconut that gives it such a nice, sweet balance. The fish in my stomach makes way for hot clams, swimming in spices and bearing a sharp kick of cinnamon and cloves that manages to overwhelm even the 220-volt current of chili. “These are spices that will wake you up from the dead,” Roshni says.
As we drive back to South Bombay we pass the infamous new Antilia building on upscale Altamount Road. The 27-story, reportedly $1 billion tower is home to a family of five who, rumor has it, delayed moving in because the mega-home conflicts with Vastu Shastra, an ancient Indian architectural doctrine (disobeying it brings bad luck to a home’s inhabitants). The world’s most expensive private residence is owned by one Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest person, who is worth an estimated $21.5 billion. The tower apparently has three helipads and a series of floating gardens.
“Ambani built a special snow room for his mother,” Suketu tells me that night. “His mother once got caught in a snowstorm in Boston and she enjoyed it quite a bit. So he built her a room that produces artificial snow. She looks out on the hot Arabian Sea beneath a Massachusetts snowstorm.”
We’re at the Café Marina, the rooftop bar at the Sea Palace Hotel. In addition to the sea, the hotel looks out to the fabled dome of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the Gateway of India beyond. I can practically see my room from here. I’m talking to Kitu Gidwani, a friend of Suketu’s and star of TV and indie Bollywood. “The lifespan of a Bollywood star,” the brilliant actress tells me, “is from fourteen to thirty-five.” She has crossed the latter date, but looks as beautiful as ever.
As the sea breezes sweep the rooftop and I down another vodka tonic, the conversation turns to tango and psychoanalysis. The mass spread of psychoanalysis would suit this city well: there are few places in the world where people talk as much, as eloquently and passionately and randomly.
The next day I head north to Bandra. Once a suburb of the great metropolis, this former farming and fishing village has been transformed into a rival of the densely settled South Bombay. Comparisons with Brooklyn have been drawn, although Bandra’s relative tranquillity, and its proximity to Bollywood studios, make it feel a little more like Santa Monica. Bandra is aspirational in a cute way. The American Express cleaners are right next door to the American Express bakery.
The party center of Bandra used to be the Olive Bar & Kitchen. The whitewashed Mediterranean place is still known for its profusion of cleavage on Thursday nights, when the DJ really lets loose. On other nights, it serves fatty duck, foie gras, and all the contemporary classics of the big-belly set. I watch a suitably large man set two BlackBerrys down on the bar next to a woman in power stilettos. “Drink, boss,” he says to the bartender who wordlessly answers with some tall, icy concoction.
I meet Suketu and Naresh, who is a resident of Bandra, at the recently opened Pali Bhavan restaurant. The atmosphere is laid-back, with old sepia-toned studio photographs of Indian families, a corrugated-steel ceiling, and a back window that, according to Naresh, is sealed “because it looks out on a slum.” After a week in Bombay, the proximity of poverty to luxury no longer surprises. I bite into the galouti kebab, which, according to the menu, was “created for the leisure loving nobles who preferred not to chew.” The food at Pali Bhavan ranges from the country’s north to south without missing a beat. Next, we travel back to the common man’s vada pav, the fried potato patties that are a proud vegetarian answer to the burger. The Pali Bhavan version is amazing, filled with peanuts and garlic and served with a vibrant ghati masala. Even the presentation is simple and beautiful—five perfect sliders lined up on your plate. The juicy char-grilled corn on the cob, another street favorite, is a gratifying snack. Then there’s bharwan karela, stuffed bitter gourd in pumpkin gravy. Indian children endure their karela the way ours do broccoli, but at Pali it is an eye-opening combination of bitter and sweet.
The next day, I follow Roshni’s advice and head to the Café Military, in the Fort neighborhood, smack in the center of South Bombay. Military, despite its name, is a friendly, open-window kind of place with beer-drinking locals and excellent Parsi food. The keema salli is a snack-perfect dish of crunchy potato sticks with savory minced meat. With the cheerful staccato of the ceiling fan and the old brown cabinetry, Military is timeless and fun, like a cool boteco in Ipanema.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the Mi Maratha restaurant, in Lower Parel, a spare white room where locals from the enormous corporate park nearby graze on hot-and-sour fish curry and the spice bomb that is chicken sukha, filled with bony morsels, slurped up with the aid of many chapatis. The jhinga thali with dried shrimp and jumbo prawns is alone worth the trip to this neighborhood-in-progress.
One of the last chapters in Suketu’s Maximum City, “Goodbye World,” concerns a wealthy family who give up their riches to become Jain monks and nuns, wandering around the countryside, living under brutal and basic conditions, trying to reclaim something they had lost amid the frenzy of Bombay. I’ve only been here for 10 days, but I have been chased out of a housing colony by gangsters, charmed by psychoanalyzed Bollywood stars, banged up after jumping out of a moving train, and eternally convinced of the prescience and wisdom of railroad parrots. I end my journey at one of the holiest Hindu places in the city, the Banganga Tank, on Malabar Hill.
The holy lake was originally built in the 12th century and, according to legend, flows straight from India’s holiest river, the Ganges. Flanked by the laundry sprouting off apartment buildings, the greenish holy water accepts worshippers in saris and dhotis. Ducks and geese take to it as well, the only place in the city where the car honks are exchanged for goose honks. Everything smells of cooking and family life, and children play cricket on what may well be the world’s smallest pitch. The eyes are dazzled by the pastel colors, the rising stupas of nearby temples, the kites launched by gaggles of kids.
I walk around and sample the continuous call-and-response of religious chants, and then, during a sudden interval between prayers, I hear that Bombay rarity, the impossibility you can enjoy only in the “snow room” of your 27-story personal skyscraper perched high above the slums: silence.
Gary Shteyngart is a T+L contributing editor.