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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. That the attack was an abject failure in the sense that it no way stopped the momentum of this great, sloppy, commercial metropolis was manifest from my first step off the airplane. It was confirmed by my trip downtown, toward South Bombay, where the mayhem and murder held forth for three days a year ago. In the year and a half since my last trip to Bombay, the city’s elite has managed to make the place a great deal more comfortable for themselves, a comfort this arriving foreign visitor was only too happy to avail herself of after a long, demi-planet journey. The road out from the airport had not changed much, and we passed by the familiar pavement dwellers and slums packed up against the curb, though there seemed to be less place for them between the many new buildings. My driver asked me, in Hindi, whether I’d like to take what sounded to me (in English) like the “ceiling,” telling me it would be much faster but that there was a 50-rupee toll. I wracked my travel-addled brain for the meaning in Hindi of “ceiling.” Had I really lost my grasp of the language so much that this word he used with such naturalness meant nothing to me? Then I saw a sign in English for the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link or RGSL toll road. I told the driver to go ahead and take the “Sea Link,” that I’d pay the toll. We headed up an on-ramp toward a gigantic yet ethereal structure rearing itself out of the sultry night. A suspension bridge framed by a causeway over a good portion of the Arabian Sea lapping at the shores of Bombay took us in a few minutes from north of Bandra to the Worli Seafront, a distance that has taken me up to an hour and a half on the old road. After the elegant Worli promenade, we again passed through a small section of the Bombay I remembered: cheap concrete apartment blocks fronted by ramshackle storefronts with shoddy, brick, one-room apartments on top accessed by ladders for the shopkeepers and their families. Soon enough, however, we emerged in front of the Atria shopping mall, whose opening had been delayed due to a brief tsk-tsking by the media because the land on which it was constructed had basically been stolen from its prior poor residents. The Rolls Royce dealership I’d written about in my book back in 2007 is still there. A Ducati dealership has opened next to it. I glanced across the street to see complementary Jaguar and Land Rover dealerships, the shiny, new vehicles crouching behind plate glass windows, and I thought it somehow fitting that these iconic British brands now belonged to the Indian Tata Motors. After that, it was a matter of minutes before I reached the base of Malabar Hill and my cousin’s wife’s parents’ apartment. (In India, these are close relations, and I know them well.) I will stay here until my aunt, the mother of the cousin killed in last year’s attack returns to town. She’s gone to Ranakpur, a site holy to Jains. It’s a hard time for her, this one-year anniversary of the murder of her only child, murdered along with her husband as they waited for a table in Tiffin restaurant at the Oberoi Hotel last November 26. I’ve come to Bombay to be with her during this difficult time. At exactly 5:30 a.m., the neighborhood began to stir. At 6:30 a.m., it was suddenly light. From my window, I can just glimpse Priyadarshini Park and the Arabian Sea beyond. The cawing of crows over that peculiar drone of cars in low gear climbing Malabar Hill is one of the sounds that lets me know I am back in Bombay. Mira Kamdar is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (Scribner, 2008).

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