Though I grew up in India, I never had the “nerve to tackle Bombay,” said Shoba Narayan in Condé Nast Traveler. The most densely populated metropolis on earth was as intimidating to me as New York City must be to a kid growing up in rural Indiana. Since then, the city’s changed its name to Mumbai, and I’ve lived everywhere from the Bronx to Bangalore. But I knew I had to eventually test myself against Bombay’s “vibrant congestion.” This city of nearly 14 million is India’s “dream weaver, its Cockaigne for consumers, its paean to possibilities.” It’s a place where a “bullock cart and a bicycle have just as much right” to the road as a Mercedes-Benz.
The city “reaches out into the Arabian Sea like an extended palm,” with streets and subway lines traveling up it like veins. It’s a “study in contrasts,” at once ancient and modern, dirt poor and filthy rich. One street may lead to “the rising spires” of skyscraper-studded Nariman Point, another to the “crowded by-lanes of Null and Chor bazaars.” Nearly half a million of the city’s residents live amid “the stench and sewers of Dharavi, Asia’s second-largest slum.” Meanwhile, Mukesh Ambani, the country’s richest man, is building himself a 27-floor, $2 billion home. The multifariousness of the city is reflected, in a sense, by its two names. Locals use “Bombay” and “Mumbai” interchangeably, “according to whim and circumstance.” At government offices, it’s Mumbai. At art openings, it’s Bombay.
Whatever the name, this is a city that “parties till dawn yet still prays at daybreak.” It’s a cramped, chaotic metropolis, yet it also has a “beach for a backyard.” That colorful strip of sand is known as Chowpatty Beach. “Wonderfully egalitarian,” this public beach embodies the city’s openness. All of India is evident here: “burqa-clad women helping kids build sand castles, Goan Christian couples strolling at the water’s edge, and large Hindu families sitting on the sand,” with grandmothers in saris and granddaughters in halter tops. Walking along the seacoast, I can feel Bombay’s “exuberant energy, hear its passion, and see the panache of its citizens.” The city no longer frightens me, but it still “eludes my grasp.”