Dreams of Mumbai

In Delhi where I grew up I knew a girl who carried a meat knife. Tired of daily molestations, she used to say that the next stranger who fondled her, in the bus, or on the street as he brushed past, would feel it.

I didn’t carry a knife, but I wore my sister’s baggy salwar kameezes. This way, I told myself, men wouldn’t stare and they wouldn’t touch. When I was 24 years old, I left Delhi for Edinburgh to study for a master’s degree. After I returned to India I found that I no longer wanted to dress like someone else, and I still didn’t want to carry a knife. So I moved to Mumbai.

My boyfriend, an American recently arrived in the country, moved as well. Mumbai offered me the freedom I had experienced only outside the country, and it gave him freedoms he took for granted in his own.

Before relocating I had heard that young women did things in Mumbai that were unthinkable in Delhi — they wore shorts in public and returned home on their own after dark, even if they had been drinking. But it was in Mumbai that I became the person, and in time the writer, I now am.

Only in Mumbai could a young female writer safely attend a late-night birthday party hosted by a madam in a brothel. Only in Mumbai could I have lunch with a known gangster and leave the conversation feeling even more alive than when it had begun.

Mumbai is that rare Indian city in which a woman can be a woman without constant fear of sexual harassment — or worse. For me, this freedom is nearly impossible to experience elsewhere in India.

But freedom means different things to different people. To another migrant, Mumbai may represent the chance to earn a living wage. To yet another, it offers the possible fulfillment of a shyly nurtured dream to become a movie star.

The freedom Mumbai allows its people — to dress, live and work as they choose — has made it a city of achievers, a place that has earned the moniker “City of Dreams.” Without Mumbai, India would be less remarkable.

To understand why people who dream of success love Mumbai is to understand why terrorists repeatedly target it. In the past decade the city has been attacked several times, most recently on July 13, when three explosions killed at least 20 people and left 141 injured.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, as with every previous attack, people took to the streets — not simply to commiserate with the victims’ families, or to denounce the terrorists, or to demand that their leaders explain why the violence had not been prevented — but to go on living. Life did not stop. The people of Mumbai still needed to do the things that would help them achieve their dreams.

But a city that will not allow itself to mourn, that will not express its vulnerability, anger and fear, is a city that cannot heal. Unlike the uproar after the November 2008 attacks — when terrorist attacks on hotels, a train station and a community center killed more than 160 people — the reaction to these latest attacks has, after the initial shock, been subdued. Indians have accepted that the city is the front line of terrorist attacks on their country. And, like Mumbai, the rest of India is getting on with life.

I, too, have moved on. In 2003, my boyfriend, now my husband, was at work when a bomb blast outside a nearby tourist spot shook the windows of his office. In 2006, when seven coordinated bomb attacks on Mumbai’s commuter trains killed more than 200 people, one of the explosions hit the tracks near a building we used to frequent. And in 2008, we sought refuge in a darkened hotel, as gunfire and grenades went off throughout the night at the Taj Hotel 100 yards behind us.

We crept out at dawn just as the curfew was raised. The air was silent, the streets bare. There wasn’t even a stray dog in sight. We retrieved our car and drove home, navigating police checkpoints, fearful of the militants we knew were still on the roads.

In our silence grew the realization that we could no longer live in Mumbai. Perhaps we decided we were unwilling to pay the full price for what we enjoyed. Perhaps we were not willing to place that burden upon our future children. Or perhaps we just had options many Mumbaikars did not. Whatever it was, we knew that after living through four terrorist attacks in seven years we could be resilient no more.

Leaving didn’t cause me guilt. The pull of Mumbai is so great, its place in my heart as my home so real, that I knew that I would, as I have, often return. And I knew also that the freedom I had found in Mumbai would continue to give life to the dreams of other women and men as generously and fearlessly as it had to mine.

Sonia Faleiro, the author of the forthcoming Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars.

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