When I began writing my first novel, I kept it all very hush hush. For all the usual reasons, but also because setting my story in Mumbai (known as Bombay until about fifteen years ago), seemed ridiculous even to me. After all, I’d visited it often but never lived there, much less experienced it without a chaperone.
But the story bubbled up and, in the process, I mined my memories along with lots of online research to get my facts straight.
Early this year, when I finally started spilling the news that I’d written the novel, I was thrilled to find so many cheerleaders rooting for me (at least, no one laughed in my face). Soon, I was exchanging dozens of emails with friends and relatives in Mumbai, who were answering my growing avalanche of questions—from insider information on the city’s textile industry, to Marathi translations, the color of a particular local train five years ago, and whether autorickshaws came to certain neighborhoods. That’s right, I became a pest.
Still, even with all that local knowledge and despite visiting the city so many times growing up (long before I started writing about it), I worried about getting the details right. So when this past summer, I had an opportunity to visit for a whole week, I jumped at the chance to both experience one of my favorite cities and fact-check my first, mostly completed novel. Talk about exhilarating!
In trying to experience the city through the eyes of my main character, I did some things she did in the book along with a few interesting adventures of my own. I rode the local trains alone (okay, only once, I’ll admit), got soaked in the fabulous monsoon rain (or rains, plural, as they call it there), snuck into a nightclub during off-hours, dined at what had to have been a seven-star hotel, visited a police station with an offer of chai from the friendly, hospitable cops who, oddly enough, encouraged me and my companion to take photos.
Most of them wore huge grins, all except for the one pictured here who may look stern in the photo but was actually just self conscious about being photographed with his pant legs rolled up. Yes, his pant legs. He’d just waded through ankle-deep rainwater accumulating in this low-lying section of South Mumbai and instructed us not to include his exposed legs.
The trip was full of bittersweet emotions. Seeing loved ones doing extraordinarily well after decades of hard knocks filled me with joy. And seeing the entire city's fortunes undergo such transformation felt like the start of a revolution.
Known as the city of gold, for about a hundred years until the 1980s, Mumbai lured hundreds of thousands of laborers from all parts of the country to its textile mills and the promise of employment and steady incomes. So when the industry collapsed thirty years ago, the city itself started a steep decline that could be felt in all areas, from its crumbling infrastructure to its uneasy, frustrated residents.
But today, with loads of foreign investment, obvious economic growth, designer this and brand name that, the city is hard to recognize. Thriving cottage industries have come up in slum areas, attracting both shoppers and tourists. Wide, high-speed freeways, such as the one known as Bandra-Worli Sea Link, are drastically cutting travel times from central Mumbai to the suburbs. And soon, the city will have its own high-speed metro rail.
Nowhere is this boom more apparent than the construction industry. Real estate is virtually unaffordable for outsiders, but longtime residents of the city, even the poorest, benefit from some of these changes. For example, developers are buying up the crowded old tenement buildings known as chawls, tearing them down, and replacing them with ultra-modern skyscrapers. The original occupants of, let’s say, a five- or six-story building are given large, modern new flats that they can in turn rent or sell at a premium. It's a win-win situation, as the developers rake in even more money selling the upper-story flats of the new building, say some twenty stories high. A down-and-out area automatically becomes prime real estate so now, instead of trying to get away, the old residents are perfectly situated.
Obviously, it would be naïve to believe these changes benefit everyone. They don't, and in some cases, the opposite is true. But it fills me with wonder to imagine thousands upon thousands of low-income residents becoming millionaires overnight. There’s a long way to go in eradicating poverty and addressing environmental conditions, but progress is actually conceivable now.
The changes also presented me with a few challenges. Was that building here on my last visit? Wasn’t there a shanty outside this hotel before? When did that bridge go up? My questions elicited vague smiles and a bit of head scratching. “Maybe,” I kept hearing. Or, “I don’t know myself. Things just keep changing. It probably changed more than once after the thing you’re remembering.” I thought Mumbaiites would find it hard to stomach a novel with the facts of their city not just right. But in fact, the landscape’s changing so much and so fast, that I can keep imagining the Mumbai of my novel. And the one of the future.