“Welcome to Mumbai International airport, the outside temperature is 30 degree Celsius…”, the landing announcement came on while my mind wandered off. I was 22, moving to Mumbai, often dubbed India’s own New York, from my small town down in South India. Unfamiliar faces and language was what was ahead, but I was thrilled. This was my chance to start all over and this time I promised myself it would be my way.
Mumbai is a city of many avatars – the financial capital of India and home to Bollywood which churns out over a hundred movies a year, amongst the many. It is technically made of seven islands, interconnected with the help of land reclaimed from the sea ; but the affair still continues between the land and the sea. The city derives its name from ‘Mumbadevi’, a goddess worshipped by its oldest fishing communities and ‘Aai’, which means ‘Mother’.
After living a sheltered life under my parents’ roof, it was time to get out there and write my own stories, triumphs and lows. Exploring a vibrant multi-faceted city like Mumbai on your own is an exhilarating experience: Initially you test the waters, dip your toe in it and then you get pushed in, blindly. In a city as crowded as Mumbai, this is quite literally true as well which I found out unfortunately through experience. Here, everything is an adventure including getting around the city. The city which is home to over 14 million people, traffic jams are the norm and local trains are called the city’s lifelines. With over half the population commuting to and fro during workdays, getting onto a jam packed local train can often be cited as one of life’s many achievements.
I took the most crowded locals, I held onto helping hands aiding me get onto them, I asked for directions in my broken Hindi and with genuine smiles got helpful tips along with the directions. I went to the southern tip of the city, with the beautiful Victorian buildings from the British colonial era, a reminder of making peace with your past. The Victoria Terminus, in the yellowish glow of the street lamps at night is a sight to behold. This is where the infamous 26/11 shooting took place when a terrorist just walked in and opened fire on the people who were rushing to get home. The city has seen more than its fair share of terrorist attacks, riots and floods. But here is a city that chooses not to be defined by the atrocities it has faced, but by the way how everyone has pulled themselves back together and reached out to others; whose people know how fear and baggage can hold you prisoner and chooses to rise above.
With over a million people from various parts of India moving to Mumbai every year, it is a melting pot of many cultures, languages and social strata. There is a poetic chaos everywhere and in a city where everyone is going through their own struggles, it seems only natural to help each other. What I found most endearing about Mumbai is how it empowers everyone to be their own person. Man or woman, struggling artist or corporate big-shot, laborers or millionaires, there is a Mumbai for everyone. For a girl like me from a small town who is used to everyone having an opinion of everything you do, having the freedom to be who you are was experiencing a freedom I never knew existed. You could be whoever you chose to be!
I made new friends and fell in love, stayed out the whole night watching the city that never sleeps and felt a sense of belonging I never had before. It had been two years since I stepped out of that airport into the mad frenzy of rain, black-and-yellow cabs and people eager to get places. It still smelled the same. It smelt like Freedom.
About the Author: Aswathi Vengallur got bitten by the travel bug when she was a child and never got fully cured. She is often seen in a behind-the-desk job dreaming of being a round-the-world traveler. Once in a while, she manages to let out the nomad in her and you can read about those escapades on her blog.