Last week, I went to Mumbai for the first time in almost 18 months. It’s unusual for me not to visit the city for so long—friends, family and work commitments have for many years ensured I’ve travelled there at least once every few months.
And it felt great to be back in Bombay (for many of us, that's still the name that slips out first). The weather is lovely, especially when you’re coming from a Delhi summer or winter. The sea there also adds to the city’s unmistakeable character.
I was staying in Bandra, an upscale residential neighbourhood with numerous good restaurants, boutiques and hangouts. Historically a Christian neighbourhood, Bandra is dotted with tiny lanes that have Goan-style houses. And yet, despite the undeniable charms of the area, I couldn't help but feel sad for what seems to be happening to the buzzing, vibrant city this district belongs to.
History is full of civilisations and cities that once ruled the world, but which now no longer exist, or which have instead simply slid into irrelevance. One gets the sense this is happening to Mumbai. India's financial centre has no business looking the way it does—like a bloated, 1980s urban hamlet that doesn’t have the resources to refurbish itself.
Yes, there were a few new flyovers, including the beautiful Worli Sea Link. But in virtually every way, Mumbai seemed poorer, less energetic—just not itself. I met up with an acquaintance who was born and raised in Mumbai, and she admitted that over the last year or so, she has seen her city change for the worst. It isn't only infrastructure issues that are affecting Mumbai—the city's culture also seems under threat.
Delhi and Mumbai have for decades been locked in a game of one-upmanship, so it’s not an everyday occurrence for a Mumbaikar to any admit such chinks to a Delhiite. But it’s impossible to escape the feeling that things aren't right there at the moment.
Until the 1980s and the 1990s, Maharashtra was considered one of the better managed states. But over the last couple of years, politics in the state has been defined by shallow and petty vested interests and venal corruption. Last year, an upright and seemingly decent man, Prithviraj Chavan, took over as chief minister of Maharashtra, after his predecessor was removed following a housing scandal. I recently watched an interview of his where he spoke with a candour that’s rare for politicians in this country. Chavan said revamping Mumbai and returning the city to its glory days was a priority, but one he knew wouldn’t be easy.
Frankly, even this sounds optimistic—nothing less than a miracle is going to be needed to save a city that is still an essential part of India’s identity.