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Mumbai is "like a novel written by a magical element"

August 5, 2010

Mumbai is the biggest megacity in India. On the Arabian Sea, it is also India's financial hub and thus a symbol of recent progress, however poverty is rife. Altaf Tyrewala writes about the city's many contrasts.

Altaf Tyrewala at a mausoleum
Altaf Tyrewala at a mausoleumImage: DW

With 20 million inhabitants, Mumbai is known for its traffic jams, the loud honking of cars and buses and people everywhere. Altaf Tyrewala lives in Byculla, one of the city’s oldest areas, in the south. The 33-year-old welcomes me to his city with a friendly smile.

However, we don't stay in Byculla for long. He takes me to the Joseph Baptista Gardens, known locally as the Mazagaon Gardens. He feels the quiet and green are rejuvenating when he has overdosed on the city.

"Mumbai is home," he says. "But it is also a place which has unwittingly turned out to be the backdrop for a lot of unsettling realizations and unexpected ways in which I have grown or regressed as a person."

The writer likens the city to a novel that has been written by a magical element - exciting but also complicated. He says Mumbai offers a plethora of interesting stories, many of which remain unknown.

Disillusioned with American way of life

After leaving school, Tyrewala went to New York to study business but he moved back to Mumbai after graduating.

"I saw a side of New York, which most foreign students don’t see. I had three jobs at a time and often had to skip meals to pay my rent. It stripped me of all illusions of the so-called American way of life," he recalls.

Byculla is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Mumbai
Byculla is one of the oldest neighborhoods in MumbaiImage: Pia Chandavarkar

However, the young man who hails from a liberal family of Khoja Ismailis, who follow the Aga Khan, does not seem entirely at ease in his home country either. He now lives with his mother, his wife and their one-year-old son in an apartment in Byculla.

Anti-Islamic prejudice despite multicultural nature of Mumbai

He says that although Mumbai is considered the most multicultural city in India, there are still prejudices against Islam and Muslims. In 1992 and 1993, when some 900 people were killed in riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out most of the dead were Muslims.

"When I started writing my book, I had to put myself into other people’s shoes and step out of my cocoon. I realized that life really is very harsh for people who are not cushioned from the realities out there. That’s when I became more sensitive to minor nuances in the workplace, in friends, in people I came across. That's also when I started picking up these minor clues about how my Islamic background actually plays a much bigger role in their imagination than it does in my imagination."

In "No God in Sight", Tyrewala plays with this dichotomy. One of the protagonists is Avantika, a Hindu who has married a Muslim against the wishes of her family. When one day her husband does not come home, she decides to go to the authorities to seek help.

"Only one thing left: I bring down the packet of Tandoori Masala from the kitchen shelf," the author reads from his novel. "I take a pinch of the angry-red powder and streak it down my middle parting. It burns, it stings. But so does the necessity of festooning myself before approaching the State for assistance. Looking somewhat like the perfect Hindu Patni. I leave the house with my handbag tucked under my arm and Muslim Miya’s photo inside it."

Seeking success in India’s financial hub

We leave the park and walk back into town. Thousands of people come to Mumbai every year to work and seek their fortune here. Some succeed, many do not.

Altaf Tyrewala likes recovering from the city in quiet and green parks
Altaf Tyrewala likes recovering from the city in quiet and green parksImage: DW

Tyrewala has been trying to buy an apartment in a relatively mixed and cosmopolitan area for months but without success so far.

"It is not as if there aren’t places," he explains. "There are and maybe if I really stretch my budget to its breaking point I might even find one. But there is also a sense of feeling that these places are not worth the price being asked. This is related to the failing infrastructure of the city.

"The government hasn’t done enough to ensure that if you have a flat for 150,000 dollars, you also have to have enough amenities to rationalize that kind of price. So you end up paying for a space under the sky but your access routes will be in shambles, your neighborhood will flood in the monsoon, you may or may not have a water supply."

A sense of panic

Thousands come to Mumbai to seek their fortune every year
Thousands come to Mumbai to seek their fortune every yearImage: AP

He says he has often felt a sense of panic in the past few years. Two years ago, he even applied for a Green Card. His wife, who is an American citizen, sponsored him. He went back to the US to meet the requirements last year but he came home after only two months.

"Homesickness?" I ask. "Clearly I am doomed," he sighs. "I cannot deny the lure of migration. I belong to a stratum of society for whom it is much easier to go away.

"Yet, all said and done, this was a kind of a test for me and I wanted to see if I really wanted to migrate. I find much to my dismay that I still don’t want to leave because, despite it all, here I sometimes get one second of profound peace that I don’t get anywhere else."

Author: Disha Uppal
Editor: Grahame Lucas