Mumbai Moment

Jil Wheeler in The Morning News:

A-moment-for-mumbaiMumbai, meri jaan—my life, my love. It’s a city that was once described to me as New York, Los Angeles, and Lagos all wrapped into one. It’s a city I left, a city I returned to, and now it’s a city that I am really just this close to writing off. I’ve spent nine months now defending my adopted hometown as safe for women, half a sub-continent away in distance and culture from the headline-worthy rapes in New Delhi and northern India. I’ve justified my safety to my friends, to my family, to my husband, and—most importantly—to myself. And last month this came crashing down with the gang-rape of a female photojournalist as she was poking around an abandoned mill with a male colleague, before sunset and in the center of town.I don’t feel as much scared or angry as I feel betrayed by a city I praised and defended more than its own natives did. My first “Mumbai moment”—what I’ve termed a feeling of joy and peace at being here and not there—came some evening in early 2009 when I was walking with friends along Marine Drive. The pedestrian walkway runs for two miles along the sea; walking north, there are six lanes of traffic and shabby Art Deco low-rises to your right, crashing waves to your left. We had just left an Asia Society talk on the fate of the euro or trends in microhousing or maybe developments in contemporary Chinese punk music. The feeling all over Mumbai was of great optimism. The economy was booming and the world’s eyes were on the city—whether for an Oscar-winning movie about the reality TV triumph of a slumdog or the well-publicized construction of a $3 billion single-family home.

As we strolled up Marine Drive, we congratulated ourselves for being the lucky few expats in a city where Things Were Happening, New Yorkers living through the early days of the next Jazz Age. We watched the long line of streetlights come on along Marine Drive, nicknamed “The Queen’s Necklace” for the way the lights resemble jewels on a chain. Mumbai was then, and still is now, a city that pushes itself forward. Religion, caste, gender, and tradition fall by the wayside as millions of people flock to the city to try their luck in business or Bollywood. Despite—or perhaps because of—the striving, struggling, and severe overcrowding, people remain happy, considerate enough, more concerned with tomorrow than yesterday. I fell in love with Mumbai not because I belonged there but because no one really belonged there. The city and its residents were heading into uncharted waters, me included. Walking along Marine Drive, chatting with a vegetable seller in the market, watching a Hindi film, I felt a satisfying combination of promise, acceptance, and adaptability. I was happy and free in a way I hadn’t felt in the U.S.

More here.