They call it Mumbai now, this most populous city in India that I always knew as Bombay. I don’t know why they, the ubiquitous “they,” go about the world changing place names that have a romantic resonance for me; and I don’t know why it’s called Mumbai now, and indeed I haven’t asked, because they might give me a reasonable answer and put my Bombay in a different part of my mind. My Bombay is an intermittent place that flows in and out of my mind as easily as the cadenced speech of the Maharashtra native falls on the ear. The decibel level of industrial Bombay verges on the deafening, with mufflerless motorcars, trucks, trains, buses, and even iron-wheeled handcarts adding to the din. But Bombay has a rhythm that during the day is like the thumping of a bass drum; at night there is a restless sibilance undulating through the air, not allowing the torpor of other large metropolises in the small hours.
The city has a miasmic, sweetly offensive odor impregnable to the monsoon or to the daily industrial pollution. This odor, more noticeable at night, is a combination of decomposing vegetation, aromatic flowers, and burning flesh at the roofless crematoria, each striving to assert its dominance.
The well-known sights include the Mahalaxmi dhobi ghats, said to be the largest outdoor laundry in the world, and the red-light district where both men and women rent out their bodies. Generally speaking, the mendicants and street vendors, though persistent, will fall away if you firmly but gently refuse to give or to buy.
It’s a hard place, Bombay, but oddly addictive, abounding in color and commerce—and always fascinating. I met a man on my last visit to Bombay whose business card said simply “Callahan of India.” He has lived in Bombay for over 40 years. He neither loves nor hates the city but could not live as happily anywhere else, he told me over dinner, and intends to die there.
The Irish adage, “When God made time, he made plenty of it,” could be the Bombay motto. Despite their city being the film capital of India (Bollywood), and despite all the industry and technology, the people of Bombay always have time for leisurely talk. There were nights when I just sat with the street dwellers and talked and listened. As magnificent as the Taj Mahal might be, it is just a postcard compared to Bombay, emerging at night, a murmuring place that belongs to the people who are born and live and die on its streets.
Irishman and New Yorker MALACHY McCOURT is the author of A Monk Swimming: A Memoir, Singing My Him Song, Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland, and other books.
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