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4 December 2008

Mumbai: the soft city

At ground level Mumbai is a jumble of Manchester Gothic, with palm trees, pleasing 1960s modernism,

By Catriona Luke

There are qualities that make Bombay – the formal Mumbai is little more than an honorific for the inhabitants, who prefer to use its old name – peculiarly vulnerable to terrorism and they have little to do with man-made infrastructures.

This was an attack on the rich, who were largely unaffected by the train bombings of 2006 and the Shiv Sena-inflamed communal violence through the 1990s. Bombay is a sea city, a city of pleasure and pleasure-seeking, and, like in a vulnerable 16th-century Cadiz, the attacks came in from the sea.

It’s the sea that makes life bearable in the city. It provides year-round even temperatures, mild breezes, fishing and port livelihoods. The poor may be locked out of Bombay’s financial wealth, but they have equal possession of the city’s physical geography, from Chowpatty Beach at the top of Marine Drive to the Bandra seafront, where young boys can be seen peeing in arcs off the rocks into the sea.

Bombay is the original port of India’s sentimental dreams. Its people are on the make, on the razzle, sometimes a little short of intellectual ideas, but better at pure make-believe and entertainment.

No surprise, then, that the city itself resembles a slightly confused stage set. The sight from the ridge of the Malabar Hill promontory is of a flat-roofed white, grey and blue city that could have floated in from the Middle East. But at ground level it’s a jumble of Manchester Gothic, with palm trees, pleasing 1960s modernism, labyrinthine shanty towns with cupboard shops, interjections of mannered Indo-Saracen architecture and finely carved, diminutive town houses.

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Alongside the mercantile activity of a busy port, the financial and property dealing, the Mafia thrives. There is smuggling and gangsterism, and political and police corruption: like with all teeming cities, there has always been a soft underbelly to Bombay.

Last week, after the killings, the long stretch of Marine Drive from Nariman Point was eerily empty. Bombay remains a city of abject poverty, where, it is said, “hands unfurl like petals” to lift fellow workers on to the overcrowded commuter trains. But it was the hit on the rich that put Bombay at the epicentre of international relations.

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