The Spirit of Mumbai

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Just as the spirit of a person is the essence of that person, so too is the spirit of a city. When we understand the core to a person, we can predict their reactions to some extent. We can say, “Oh I know what she will say when she hears this news.” Or… “I know what he will do when you tell him you lost the money.” When you understand the spirit of a city you say, “Oh I know what Mumbai will do when in the grip of a terrorist attack.” The principle is the same. We are talking of an individual’s consciousness, or the collective consciousness of a city- which is no less distinctive.

All cities have their own spirit. But in no city is it as palpable as it is in Mumbai. Mumbai has a vibrantly alive spirit. For its residents, the spirit is not manifested in times of crisis alone. They use it on a daily basis.

When there was a flood, it was this spirit which came to the fore in the form of the populace not permitting the flood to drown its fighting spirit. It asserted itself in the way stranger helped and encouraged each other. In the way people looked out for each other. I found that amazing. The spirit has immense cohesion, I thought.

When there were bomb blasts, this spirit came to the fore in the way the city bounced back unperturbed- despite the terror of the unknown. The spirit made people stand taller and to refuse to make way for terror in their midst. It was business as usual in less time than I thought possible. The spirit has resilience and courage, I thought.

They talk of Amchi Mumbai. There is no other city whose inhabitants have coined such a term- or speak it with such pride. Even funnier is that when I hear the phrase Amchi Mumbai pronounced in the silence of my mind, I feel as fiercely proud of Mumbai as any Mumbaikar- which I am not.

The first time I felt this way was about 14 years back. I was on a visit to the metropolis- for the fist time. It was to take my mum-in-law for a confirmation of diagnosis at Tata Memorial. It got confirmed. She kept asking me how it was possible that her body was busy plotting against her for so many years and she never came to know. She couldn’t understand the betrayal. To this day, I cannot either. Not the betrayal of her body, but that of God. I need to have that issue out with HIM one day. One more issue I guess I should say… for there are many. But I digress.

I think that was the time this Amchi Mumbai phrase was being bandied about a lot. In any case it was my first encounter with it. I read it in one of the afternoon papers on that trip. When I read it, I felt a thrill go through me. Suddenly I felt as if Mumbai belonged to me too. It changed my perspective about the city a bit. I was no longer the outsider trying to look in- I was inside too. Until then it was this teeming, incomprehensible, impossibly HUGE place that intimidated me. I had seen all these hurrying, smart people, these massive buildings, the amazing traffic and the mind-numbing number of people… and I had freaked out. Then I read Amchi Mumbai splashed across a newspaper in huge letters. I pronounced it silently in my head. It reassured me. I lifted my gaze from my feet and began to look around. In that moment, my fascination with the term began. Amchi Mumbai. Amchi. I patted myself on the chest. Mine. Oh Brother…. did that feel GOOD…!!

Going from the At-Home feeling of Amchi Mumbai to the feeling of pride of Amchi Mumbai took some years. But I have been feeling it off and on. Every time I have come in contact with the metropolis, I have had a dose of it poured down my throat. Until now just reading the phrase Spirit of Mumbai ignites me like a thousand watt bulb.

I feel uneasy around any causeless emotion. I was truly uncomfortable feeling the way I was feeling about a strange city. There was no reason on earth why I should feel so buoyant remembering a city I didn’t even like- truth be told. I guess I am a putting-labels-on-things kind of a nut. I like knowing my world thoroughly. I like putting everything in its place… Here was something which defied definition. I didn’t know which pigeon-hole to put it into. What is it I thought?

Is it the sheer alive-ness of the city? This is the most happening city in India. It is always alive- never sleeps. There is something going on all the time. It caters to such a wide variety of tastes. There is nothing you cannot do here. The ways and means are all there… if you look long- and hard- enough. There is so much to do, to see and to experience.

You can be as conservative as you want to be and as whacky as you dare. There is a strange impersonal-ness to the city which in a way is reassuring. It gives me a feeling of freedom that I never imagined possible. When there I get the feeling that whatever I do, I need do it only for one reason- because I want to do it….! Wow…what a feeling for freedom…!

Or is it the people? On an average the people are humane and help you when you are in trouble. They’ll patiently give you directions for 15 minutes without batting an eyelid. Then they resume their the-world- is – coming – to – end – in – the – next – 10second- so-I – had- better – rush routine. I love that hurried, harried look they have on their faces all the time. When I see them rushing to catch their locals in the morning, catching a sandwich at the Church Gate underground, I wonder how they have the energy left to work all day. They are so disciplined and so strangely honest. They are up-beat and enthusiastic. Their spirit is tremendous… and infectious.

Or is it the fact that it is a city of opportunity…? So much is possible here. In this city you can be what you want to be… nothing can hold you back but you. It is THE place for an entrepreneur. Imagine Mumbai without the dabba-walas… delivering food like a clock-work whether flood, rain or bombs. Innovativeness is a by-word. I am amazed at the variety of services available in the city. There seems no end to money making opportunities there. The city is a haven for home-businesses.

The one thing that I adore is that there is such tremendous respect for a good worker. I haven’t seen that kind of pride of performance in any other city. This pride is the cornerstone of the Mumbai work-force. They know they are as good as anyone on earth- because they are experts in their jobs. There a small restaurant I went to long back with my ex. It was run by Muslims and we happened to go on a Friday- lunch time. The place was packed and I was the only woman there. The owner- a grey haired old gentleman- made room for us next to his counter and took our order. He didn’t quite like dish we chose, so he told us quietly that we have to eat what he will choose. He said it so lovingly. There was no way I could not agree. He was treating us like his special, personal guests. My ex was none too happy but I just LOOKED at him…! When the food was brought by the owner himself, it was so delicious I can still taste it. When I told him how tasty it was, he agreed- not proudly, but casually. As if to say- why are you surprised? It is the Spirit of Mumbai to display extraordinary performance in a to- be- taken- for- granted- manner.


I have come to the conclusion that the Spirit of Mumbai is nothing but a people’s celebration of their life, of their ability to achieve, of their RIGHT to achieve.

Spirit of Mumbai…? Or Spirit of Achievement…? You tell me… they seem identical to me…

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Written on: 3rd Jan 2008

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