How Bombay Became Mumbai

Mumbai-skyline

The talk at my Thanksgiving table—as no doubt at every Indian-American household—was all Bombay. We watched CNN through eating, with its hysterical headline blazing, “Mumbai: City Under Siege.” Years of suicide bombings had suddenly given way to a wholly unexpected takeover of the major hotels, more typical of James Bond-villainy than latter-day jihadism. They differed in their attire as well: News reports insisted on pointing out that the attackers and hostage-takers wore jeans and t-shirts. When I was younger, I used to travel through Bombay in order to get to my ancestral city, Bangalore. A bus would take you from the international to the domestic airport, along a vertiginous swath of blue-tarped slums. The air was oppressed by humidity; the rain didn’t wet you, it slimed you. And those slimed shantytowns, shadowed—as every traveler ritually points out—by white stalagmites of luxury towers everywhere, had always been proof to me that it was a city of absolute evil. But poverty was only one of its evils. A Hindu family friend once took me on a drive that led through a large Muslim ghetto, its streets dusty and narrow. “Everywhere the Muslims go, they make the place dirty,” he said.

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