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Mira Kamdar: Reflections on Mumbai — Arriving

I’ve become used to entering India via New Delhi, so it was a surprise to land in Mumbai and emerge into a nicer airport than the one I’d left 15 hours earlier in Newark, New Jersey. As in Newark, the now ubiquitous HSBC advertisements adorned the jet way, but the corridors were well-lit and freshly carpeted. There were no long lines at the ample row of stations at immigration where I was treated cordially, bags were delivered promptly, customs was a breeze with “Green: Nothing to Declare” channels. The airport I remembered from arrivals long past—with its fetid odor of malfunctioning air-conditioning, its dark red splats of betel juice in the corners, and its random groups of men loitering around in grimy khaki uniforms—was gone. Mumbai has performed a serious upgrade on its point of entry, becoming one more international airport against which Newark not to mention the dismally down-at-its-heels JFK (New York’s “Gateway to the World” and my usual point of leave-taking of the United States) unfavorably compare. But, clearly, the city is not stopping there. On exiting, there was construction everywhere. The taxi driver explained that additional terminals and parking garages were under construction. I’d picked up a bottle of scotch for my Mumbai hosts at the duty-free shop in Newark. I needn’t have bothered. One of the features of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is a gleaming duty-free hall through which one must pass between immigration and baggage claim with a far bigger selection of booze, perfume and chocolate than the cute little spot at the Newark Airport where I’d stopped. Cheaper too: I’d paid $37.00 for my bottle of 12-year-old Chivas in Newark, and was dismayed to see the same on offer in Mumbai for $29.00. As an old-time adopted daughter of this Indian port, I still can’t bear to call the city I have sometimes called home "Mumbai." For me, it will always be Bombay. Bombay is the name of the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, live-and-let-live-so-we-can-all-make-a-living city that welcomed my Gujarati family in the early 1960s. Mumbai is the name of a city run by the criminal-political nexus of the Shiv Sena, the pro-Maharashtrian, proto-fascist party that has made life infinitely more difficult for anyone it deems a foreigner—e.g. anyone who is not a Maharasthrian Hindu. Hence the name of the new international airport, Chhatrapati Shivaji, the very same name that Shiv Sena has rechristened the fabulous old Victoria Terminus railway station. Apparently, there was a link between the martial hero of the Marattes and mass-transportation hubs which my reading of Indian history had not made evident. As two of the city’s most famous native sons now living in voluntary exile in New York, Salman Rushdie and Suketu Mehta, concurred during a panel discussion in which we all participated following the terrorist attack of November 2008, the target of the terrorists was Bombay, not Mumbai. It was to Bombay I had come because of that attack.

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