When you’re going to Bombay, everyone warns you about two things. The first—the sweltering heat and humidity—turns out not to be such a problem once the monsoon begins to pelt every surface of the city. Once you abandon the futile effort to live in a cocoon of air-conditioning and resign yourself to simply sweat, the heat fades unremarkably into the background.
What continues to surprise, instead, is the second thing about which you’re warned: the sheer numbers of people. Though the numbers are staggering, it is only when you arrive that statistics transform into the exciting, crushing, seething mass of a local train at rush hour.
Bombay runs on people. There’s a guy for everything, a this-or-that-wallah, that makes no day possible without human interaction. Street signs—if they can even be found amidst the corrugated metal panels, blue tarps, and tangled wires that make up the rows of street stalls around which crowds gather at all hours – are forgotten before they’re read. Names in official paint have no meaning to the resident of the city; places exists only amidst cross-streets drawn in words by a friend, relative, or passer-by in the neighborhood.
Too much comes at once—crowds not just of people, but of sight and sound. Waiting for an auto-rickshaw is no mere waiting. Around you swirls the heat of a fire and the clattering scrapes of cooking metal on a hot pan, while the wails of a passing trinket seller join the hodgepodge horns of the Bombay Traffic Philharmonic Orchestra. From the passing swarm, a dented, black, yellow, three-wheeled transport bounces its way towards you, skirting a wooden cart piled with tomatoes and surrounded by crowds and clouds of shoppers and flies. Barely splashing to a stop through a puddle of stinking brown water, it rumbles off again even before you can fully squeeze in and away from the endless stomp of sandals and the chatter of crowds.
The streets, the crowds, the hustle and bustle of Bombay—all of it seems at times frustratingly immune to analysis. With so many lives at all times jostling and pushing and pulling, no lens is wide enough to capture it all.
The crowds remind you with unspoken insistence of the oft-repeated maxim that everything you can say about India is true—as is the opposite. Fantasies of uncovering all-explaining revelations about this civilization struggle against an endless torrent of humanity, inevitably swept past the concrete tetrapods and into the churning waters of the Arabian Sea. To be awash in this flood—and not yourself be swept away, is the challenge and the supreme pleasure of Bombay.
The city rumbles along through rain, shine, and more rain, a marvel in the sheer fact that its infinite gears—in some places gleaming, in others grimy—somehow intermesh and turn day after day. It defies the expectations of precision, definition, standardization, and odds. I’ve taken to calling it Bombay—as most people I’ve met here seem to—because calling it Mumbai seems too finicky, too insistent, in a city where the standard of clarity is most often the ambiguous wag of the head.
A society woven together far more by human links than by artificial ones, Bombay seems to embrace the imperfections and inefficiencies that emerge unavoidably from the diversity of its moving parts. People fill those gaps only to make new ones, and the city is ever-changing as a new face finds its place amongst the others.
Yet for all my excitement and wonder at all the ways in which the city seems to work, I can’t help but wonder if the day might come when it might not. An improvised city in an increasingly standardized world, Bombay fixes, feeds, and finds itself with a resolute humanity, a torrent against the tide. The city still seems to find a way each day—never knowing if it will do so once more. It would not be Bombay if it did.
Bombay runs on people. When there are just so many, how could it be otherwise?
Jonathan Yang is a summer associate at Gateway House.
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