My Dear Mumbai,
I am writing this long overdue letter to tell you I love you.
Of course you didn't notice when I left 28 years ago- you were preoccupied with many other things. At the moment my mum swung me into her arms and walked onto that aircraft at the Sahar airport, there were teenagers groping each other furtively at one of your public parks, a pani puri wala was wiping his sweaty brow and a phoolwala was stringing together fragrant jasmine for the evening prayers.
And anyway, someone is always coming and going in Mumbai. How many come and go every day? Do you know? I always wondered because you always seem to welcome everyone. You don’t care what their last names are, what they look like or what skeletons they carry in their closets. You don’t seem to care if they come with a pocket full of wealth or just the clothes on their back. They make their small mark on you and you just seem to expand to accommodate them.
When I was 16 I learned that your patron goddess is Mumba Devi, the great mother. I always wondered if you are the great mother herself- because- like any loving mother, you seem to selflessly give whatever you are asked for- you give hope, you give shelter, happiness, money and even rain. You make people feel like they can do anything. When my paternal grandfather showed up in the 50s with a wife and scars from the war, you just expanded and made room for this growing family. And when my maternal grandmother died of smallpox a few years later, you absorbed the tears of her young children and nurtured my grandfather through this difficult time giving him the courage he needed to bring up his young family alone.
Mumbaikers- your children, with their spirit and their determination to thrive no matter the circumstances, are magnificent. I wish I had even a small portion of that spirit. But alas, I was just a wee one when I left your embrace and came to the shores of my chosen home country. I’m not sure when I started loving you so deeply. It was definitely not when I was a child vacationing in Mumbai with terrible bouts of food poisoning and jostling along in a cramped car for two hours to visit every boring relative in every far flung corner of the city.
But who cares when I got besotted? Because right now, everything about you is a discovery - of flavours, stories and unexpected experiences. Getting on a train without a ticket and then getting caught and fined, hearing a nonchalant discussion on gun violence, and even swapping make up and clothing tips with a hijra woman on the train, all vignettes in an amazing adventure. You show me your deepest underbelly and your brightest achievements. And you seem equally proud of both. And I, who is only afforded only a tiny glimpse of your magnificence, keep wanting to come back because even that small glimpse is worth any amount of time, money or anguish.
So here’s to my city of contradictions. Gritty and Glamorous. Secular and Devout. Antique and Brand New. You are overwhelming with your magnificent gothic structures, opulent glass skyscrapers and maidans standing side by side with horrific slums, narrow potholed streets and a train system that smells like urine. I love your filth and crumbling exterior, and the brisk scent of hope that underlies your signature scent of diesel exhaust, refuse, and something frying. I love your heart.
You may never read this- but that’s okay Mumbai meri Jaan. Know that I love you always.