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Places: Mumbai’s Magic

May 2006
Places: Mumbai’s Magic

While in college at Carnegie Mellon University, I had several roommates from Mumbai. I had never been to the city and found it hard to empathize with their love for this so called "haven."

"You have to visit to understand," they said with passion-infused voices. "It's the best city in the world!" Sympathetically, they told me that as an American, I could only envision New York City as a possible comparison to Mumbai. "And even it," they said emphatically, "doesn't even come close."

During the year and a half that I lived in India, I passed through Mumbai a few times, but I could never understand what my diehard, Mumbai-loving roommates had been talking about. I found the city too hectic, the people too rushed, and the local trains too packed.

On my very first visit to the city, I was literally shoved in and out of the local trains by the sheer power of the crowd's force. It was scary, almost horrifying, and it certainly did not make me believe that Mumbai was the greatest city in India, let alone the world.

But on my most recent trip to the city a few months ago, I caught a glimpse of that magical Mumbai that my roommates must have been trying to explain to me years ago.

I was there to participate in the Mumbai Marathon, which, serious athletes aside, was going to be a mela for about 25,000 people doing the 7 kilometer fun run.

We arrived a day before the big race, and so we boarded a rickshaw and went to Juhu Beach. There, I was surprised to see how established the beach was compared to Chennai's Marina Beach. Juhu has a food court that rivals the size of a shopping mall—and I mean a shopping mall, not a shopping mall's food court. At the beach front were rows of permanent stalls emanating enticing scents of pav bhaji and chaat along with burgers and pizza. After a brief dip in the water, we gave in to the mouth-watering smells and had a bite to eat.

As we were leaving, we met a beautiful little girl who wanted to print an artificial mehndi tattoo on us. She had soft features and the best type of smile, coming from her eyes.

"Didi, didi, please?" she said, wanting us to buy a tattoo from her. As she stamped a curvy, flowery design across my friend's arm, she snuck a quick glance up at her and then said with certainty in her voice, "You?are Madrasi."

My friend was astonished—the little girl was correct. The girl turned to me and said, "And you are foreign." I had not opened my mouth as yet, and so my tell-tale American accent had not surfaced. How had she known?

I was impressed by how astute she was, so I started pointing to others in our group and asking her where they were from. "Punjab?Bangalore?Mumbai," she replied. Only one of her answers was wrong.

I was charmed and decided to get a tattoo as well. As I did so, I asked my friend to ask her a few questions in Hindi. To my surprise, she replied in perfect English. "My name is Sonali. I am 12. I am in 7th standard. I work here with my mother on the weekends."

After a thank you, a ten rupee payment for the tattoo, and a good-bye wave to Sonali, we were off for a good night's rest.

The next morning was the marathon. We boarded the local trains and after one transfer we were at Victoria Terminus, the starting point of the marathon. All 20 of us were clad in bright yellow shirts with our NGO's name stamped across: Dream a Dream. Others were sporting colorful shirts of their own in support of other NGOs and other causes. They waved at us, and we waved back, united in our goal for the morning.

We burst through the gates with throngs of other runners to the lively, catchy chant of "Run, Mumbai, run!" Vinod Khanna, from up above in the bandstands, looked down at me and waved. We pushed forward through the crowds, trying to make our way. I was amazed to see the number of people who had come out to cheer the runners on. And boy, were they cheering! One small chap stood on the sidelines handing out pieces of candy, presumably bought with his own pocket money.

Kingfisher and Bisleri were the official water sponsors, and they provided us with plenty of fluid throughout. As I approached the finish line I met eyes with a young street urchin who had his hand out. But he wasn't asking for money, as I had anticipated. "Aunty!" he exclaimed, "cross it and then give me five." As my hand met his and I walked on to join my other friends, I heard him saying to someone else behind me, "Give me five!"

Hungry and thirsty after the 7K run, we made our way to a Persian restaurant on Marine Drive. Walking on the long stretch we managed to add another 3K to our 7K. As we walked, we caught the tail end of the full marathon runners making their way to the finish line, slowly and steadily. The winners and intermediate runners had long since finished, but these were the novices and the 70 year old champs, the everyday heroes who were running for themselves. Sadly, though it was 1:00 pm and the heat was beating down, Kingfisher had run out of water bottles and had not arranged any more water for these runners who so desperately needed it. We gave all the water we had in our hands to the runners that we saw, and amongst ourselves we cursed Kingfisher and the marathon organizers for their outrageous behavior. It was actually dangerous to have runners out in the afternoon heat with no access to water. I recalled that several people have died from heat strokes during marathons.

It is then that I saw something truly remarkable: a group of ordinary citizens was handing out glasses of water to runners. They were buying as much water as they could from every surrounding shop, by the bottle, and by the case if possible, to soothe the runners. I can not pen the gratitude that was visibly evident on the faces of the runners, nor can I really express the pleasure I could sense in those men who were doing a good deed.

We continued on and enjoyed a sumptuous Persian feast before heading back to our hotel to collect our luggage and head to the train station.

Big cities are often likened to hardened people, who have lost the kindness and goodness that small towns and children have to offer. But somehow, in those extraordinary few days, Mumbai's citizens showed me otherwise. During my past two years in India, I was able to see a great deal of the country. Bangalore, with its diversity of people and its modern atmosphere is perhaps the most user friendly city in India. Chennai is the home of my ancestors and closest to my heart. Goa is certainly the most indulgent, and rural India from the Western Ghats to Coastal Kerala the most stunning. Yet Mumbai, with its strength pace, passion and intensity, is in a league all its own.


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