Amit Chaudhuri is one of the finest Indian authors writing in English – right up there with Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh. Now in Britain, he wrote in the Guardian yesterday about Mumbai. He grew up there after being born in Calcutta (Kolkata). It’s a beautiful piece starting with his learning how to use an MP3 player. He is also an accomplished singer in the North Indian classical style (about which I know nothing, give me rock ’n’ roll). In the Guardian, he says:
My parents moved to Bombay from Calcutta in 1965, when I was an infant – they stayed at the Taj for two weeks while the company found them a flat. This was the beginning of Calcutta’s decline, companies and professionals fleeing labour trouble, and relocating at this optimistic seaside metropolis in western India. It was a charmed life – from at least two of the flats we lived in when my father was finance director and then chief executive of Britannia Biscuits, flats in Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade, the city’s two richest localities, you could see a skyline that, with its lissom, tall buildings (Bombay is the only Indian city to have had an obsessive romance with the vertical, the skyscraper), approximated Manhattan in some ways; in its sunniness, its palm trees, its disguised but obvious carnality, it echoed what we knew of California from films; and the gothic buildings were remnants of the old history that had first brought together these seven fishing islands…
A great deal changed in the early 90s, along with the name: Bombay obliterated, and turned into Mumbai… As Bombay expands and shrinks, and you take the new routes and visit the relocated offices, you are struck by the architectural marvel it is: the thrilling juxtaposition of churches, mosques and small Hindu shrines, the genteel, suburban residential houses, with flower pots and swings, that you had never before noticed.
No city I know, certainly not New York, has this variety of life, except perhaps London. Its principal difference from these two cities, which, in many ways, it surpasses, is its relative intolerance of the learned, academic classes: it has ceased to have a great university.
He also writes:
The disparities in Bombay had always been crude, but liberalisation and the free market had legitimised consumerism and spending, and made it seem, in the metropolis, more effective than social work… In the process, Bombay’s middle and especially its upper classes – always large-hearted and relatively free of introspection, always upbeat – had slowly but irrevocably been infantilised. It was an infantilisation that even my friend and I, after all these years, consciously re-enacted, as he showed me the buttons to press on the MP3 player, a way of connecting to the world and the past: it was, in part, why we still loved Bombay.