India’s most cosmopolitan city offers a dramatic blend of Bollywood idols, opera, street stalls and gripping tales of the underworld
In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the protagonist Saleem Sinai returns to the city of his birth – then called Bombay, officially renamed Mumbai in 1995 – in a third-class train carriage, lulled by the familiar chant: “abracadabra abracadabra abracadabra sang the wheels as they bore us back-to-Bom”. He finds it changed, its shoreline reclaimed from the sea, the skyline transformed with new billboards. “Yes, it was my Bombay, but also not-mine.”
I fell in love with Mumbai nearly 15 years ago while riding its local trains. On these packed carriages hurtling through the length of the city, I found a sense of unfettered mobility and unfolding possibilities that felt new and entirely thrilling. By the wide entrance doors of the ladies’ compartment, I saw women chopping vegetables in preparation for their evening meals. Behind the chaos, I found rules: I was expected to know when to start queuing to disembark (at least two stops before my station), and to vacate my seat halfway through my journey to allow a fellow passenger to sit.