Aftab Khanna is a Delhi based Management Consultant and a Chartered Accountant. A keen follower of politics, business affairs and sports, Aftab attempts to find the signal of perspective amongst the noise that often dominates our discussions. He likes to read, travel and play golf whenever his weekend schedule allows him to.
Over the years I have always harbored mixed feelings towards the city of Mumbai. As someone who was born and brought up in Delhi and never had a chance to visit Mumbai during his childhood, the maximum city stood for movies and cricket during my growing up years. As I entered college and then my working age, I began to read and hear stories about the wonders of Mumbai. Of how it was 'the' place for singles to live in, of its expensive real estate, of its safe roads for women and of its many attractions in terms of hang out spots. Through television I was also frequently bombarded with the ubiquitous 'spirit of Mumbai', an entity whose existence I am yet to decipher or understand till now.
My first visit to Mumbai happened only in 2008. I was twenty five and stayed a couple of nights with a friend in Powai while visiting on official business. On that visit, I saw the Mumbai up close and during the day and night. After landing at the airport, I hesitatingly approached an auto waiting for him to haggle for the fare and determined to net let the driver fool the hardened Delhi boy in me. I had heard about ease of public transport in Mumbai earlier but that day I felt it. The auto driver calmly picked up my bag, placed it in the auto, swung his meter and without another word we were off!
My friend shared a tiny 2BHK apartment with three others and it was as typical a bachelor pad as they come. Later that night we boarded a local from Andheri and headed all the way down to Churchgate from where we took a cab to Leopold's. I briefly saw Marine Drive, walked outside the Taj at Gateway and felt the night air of Mumbai in my face as a taxi took us all the way back to Powai past midnight.
Three days after I returned to Delhi from that first trip, 26/11 happened. My heart sank as I saw all those placed I had visited now under terrorist fire and innocent people falling victim to the senseless fire. While I heard the stories of those who died at Leopold's, I could not help but experience the feeling of 'it could have been me'.
This morning I returned from another trip to Mumbai. The duration was slightly longer at five days and the bachelor of 2008 was now replaced by a married man accompanied by his wife. Over the course of three evenings and a full day, my wife and I managed to touch some parts of Mumbai neither of us had explored earlier. Snacking at Juhu beach at night, walking around the plush Carter Road (where my cousin proudly displayed his apartment, with Katrina Kaif being one of its ex-tenants), standing on a balcony at the 35th floor of a fancy residential high rise overlooking the Mahalaxmi race course, driving along the Bandra-Worli sea link and even managing a stamina testing three hour trip to Navi Mumbai.
Once again, my feelings were mixed. I absolutely hated the traffic. Having driven all my life in Delhi, I am not easily troubled by a few traffic jams and congested roads but Mumbai is one level worse. It doesn't help that in a land scare city the width of the roads has to be compromised and any time my cab stepped away from the Western Highway, I was caught in the congestion. I had been scouting some distances over Google Maps before landing in the city but soon realized that the 14 kilometers and 30 minutes as shown on the web were quite meaningless in practice. The 30 minutes very easily stretched to an hour during the evening rush. Even at nine at night, the 5 kilometer distance between my hotel and the Juhu beach took a good 40 minutes to be covered over auto.
Some parts of the city I found over hyped. I fail to see what is so special about Hiranandani unless the Mumbai residents love to marvel at the neat roads, pavements and architecture there that you would struggle to find elsewhere in the city. I liked Carter Road and Bandra but don't understand the rave around its eateries, which to be seemed fairly modest. I would give the city its Marine Drive with its soothing sea breeze but the constant crowds and the tiny cubbyhole apartments with extortionate rents are, in my view, a bit too steep a price for the joys of Mumbai.
I do however greatly value two characteristics about Mumbai. Coming from Delhi, it was absolutely refreshing to commute without having to haggle even once with an auto or taxi driver. When my wife asked the driver of a normal taxi to switch on his A/C during a muggy afternoon ride (fares for A/C and Non-A/C cabs differ), he did not bat an eyelid and only apologetically asked me to pay whatever I deemed fit in excess of the fare in the meter at the end of the trip to compensate for the A/C use.
Secondly, I can now agree with those who state that Mumbai is much more open and friendly for women that most places in North India. A close friend of my wife whom we met twice for dinner had absolutely no worries in taking a cab for home well after 11pm, something that has now become a life threatening activity in Delhi. I saw many other couples as well as single women moving around comfortably late into the night without any hint of tension in their body language. I am not for a second believing that Mumbai is crime free and that women are not victims of it but I felt a sense of openness and a welcoming attitude towards young women that I have not seen anywhere in Delhi or another part of the north. I am not sure what is the reason behind it. Some friends call it the 'culture', some blame the patriarchal and feudal history of the north for the darkness of its gender gap. Whatever it is that works for women in Mumbai, I hope it persists.
Like every city, Delhi included, Mumbai has its ills and then its redeeming features. I am not as polarized now in my views as I perhaps was a few years back about the 'Mumbai vs. Delhi' battle. I recognize that both have differing aspects to offer to their residents and both may be viewed with a different lens from the other side of the fence. Being the true Dilliwalla though, I will give this one point to my city - I was quite underwhelmed by the quality of the bhelpuri and pav-bhaji at the Juhu chowpatty. It comes nowhere close to that served by a middle aged Marathi man who has a tiny shop tucked away across the Golcha cinema in Darya Ganj. I look forward to going back to Mumbai again in the near future to experience more of its joys, but I am certain that street food would not be one of them.