‘Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahan

Zara hatke, Zara bachke

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan’

None can sum up ‘Bambai’ like this hummable cheery golden oldie does. It gives you a glimpse of how a city that never sleeps, was like back in the 50s; when life was far less hectic; the population more manageable. An era when textile mills were the major industry; when the economy was much less developed; when a car was still called a ‘motor’ and tongas and even trams were operational.

With a delightful song on his lips, you see Johnny Walker, the comedian of the days of yore, bumping against people and pinching their wallets. In the grand dame of Indian cities, his nonchalant pick-pocketing provides a pretty picture of someone just going about his usual business.

Apart from talking about the loss of humanity and the games people play, the song also warned the non-Bombayites that if you are not careful, like a huge mothership, the city will also swallow everything that comes in its way. And people with their dreams, hopes and realities will get gobbled up in its unending nooks and corners.

During our ‘Bharat Darshan’ (as I would like to call our multiple transfers), when my husband, who worked for the Indian Railways kept getting shunted from place to place, we also happened to be posted there for three years. The city of dreams, which became Mumbai, had the power to disarm us like no other place we had been to before.

The first thing that hit us was the distinct smell. There was definitely something ‘fishy’ about it. Even after days of shifting into our Railway quarters, the stink persisted.

It took us a few months to realise that this stench had seeped into the very air of Badhwar Park. We just had to toughen our olfactory nerves and get used to it.

The next issue was the ‘spatial’ challenge. Having been pampered with huge Bungalows, the three BHK felt like a very ‘flat’ existence. But that too passed when we realised our apartment was actually a palace compared to the double storeyed slums where people were packed like sardines.

Just when we began to warm up, the rains arrived, bringing with it the humidity, dampness, overflowing drains and endless traffic jams. ‘Don’t worry’, our friends said. ‘Soon the city will grow on you’. So we waited.

Meanwhile, every black fabric turned white with mildew. The dals in the kitchen changed colours faster than a chameleon. Forget about leather, there was mold even in gold.

One day I was shocked to find fungus forming on the remote. That was when I chose not to become a couch potato and kept flitting about from place to place. I wasn’t sure about the city ‘growing on us’ but I didn’t want anything else to grow.

I also distinctly remember our first local train ride. Being used to first classes and saloons, this was an unforgettable experience. When we reached the station, it seemed like the whole world had somehow gathered there.

As the train arrived and the commotion began, I frantically wondered if someone had planted a bomb somewhere. When I questioned about the sudden stampede, to my surprise I found it to be a ‘regular’ affair.

Once inside, it felt less like a train and more like a can of beans where people were tightly packed. Tired bodies were clinging onto each other unwittingly. But surprisingly everyone was resigned to the fate of such travel.

In this city of paradoxes, I also got to see the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor co-existing in almost the same space. And even if this presented a very disconcerting picture, it was also Mumbai that gifted me Nelson- my one eyed Maharashtrian cat, named not after Mandela but after the General.

In the colony of Cuffe Parade, one day I came across a kitten, mauled and blinded and bleeding in one eye, huddled in a corner of the staircase. I cleaned it up, applied ointment and left a bowl of milk.

I didn’t carry it home because I’d grown up listening to Mummy yelling at us not to fight like ‘cats and dogs’. Since I already had Champagne the dog at home, I didn’t want to start a canine/feline war.

What I had not bargained for was the emotional manipulation of the teeny weeny feline ‘terrorist’. I never imagined that a small kitty, who had beckoned and seduced me with a beatific look, would also be smart enough to terrorise me emotionally into giving it a permanent home.

What I also never thought in my wildest dream, was that one day both Champagne and Nelson’s relationship would flower and blossom into something so beautiful, it would put even humans to shame. By the time we left Mumbai, both the cat and the dog were not only playing and sleeping together, they were also eating from the same plate. For this charming gift of ‘humanity’, I will always be grateful to Mumbai.

Which is why, whenever the financial capital is in the news for all the wrong reasons, it breaks my heart. What is worrisome is that even as the road shows and the political circus continues, and the city is all geared up to participate in the democratic (or whatever is left of it) process of voting, the collapse of the ‘hoarding’ looms in the backdrop. It highlights how deaths due to administrative and civic negligence are only increasing day by day.

Since the city is close to the coastline, high speed winds pose a risk to any massive structures erected nearby. The billboard, spanning 120x120 ft, and weighing 250 tonnes, was nearly three times larger than what was legally allowed. But guess what? It had found its way into the Limca Book of Records and that’s all that mattered.

During a fierce dust storm, when the hoarding collapsed, it landed on 70 vehicles, crushing 100 people. Among the 16 casualties was a retired couple, who were in Mumbai to complete their Visa formalities to visit their son in the United States.

They had stopped for petrol when the calamity struck. This is what affects me on so many levels. Next month, my husband and I are also planning a trip to the US to be with our son. I can’t help but think: What if it was us?

But that’s not all. Bhavesh Bhinde, the man responsible, has over 20 police cases filed against him for putting up such banners without permission. He is even accused of rape. Wait, there’s more this man had also contested as an independent candidate from Mulund once.

So my question is, why was this man even allowed to be roaming free, contesting elections and constructing illegal hoardings? Is life so cheap in India?

Why are we so insensitive? Why do we hold our falling castles so miserably well? In economics, when there’s abundance, individual entities have less or no value. But when there’s scarcity, they are highly valued, respected and guarded. Sadly, the same principle also applies to our population.

Just as I started with a song, let me end it too. The lyrics and the tune is the same but the background score is now filled with more dread and less of cheer.

‘Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahan

Zara hatke, Zara bachke

Yeh hai Mumbai meri jaan!’

Nargis Natarajan is a writer, author and novelist residing in Bhubaneswar. Views expressed are the writer’s own.