Two Cities in One Space

Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

Mumbai didn’t so much welcome me as press-gang me when I arrived unprepared into its hectic, unfathomably discordant streets

On top of the record-breaking decibels of the world’s noisiest city, the air was thick and stale from the day, and my senses were tangled into a disoriented mess.

By midnight I was battered under the shrieks of street life. I was hearing the loud clashes of desperation and joy in contrary turn as I inched in my sweltering cab, halt by frustrating halt to the hotel.  

The last yards were the hardest. Any progress was halted by Tetris jammed cars and jostling merchants smacking on passenger windows with their cluttering wares. By the time I had arrived drained at the hotel desk, I was a sweating mess scraping the city’s robust welcome off my face.

Mumbai was noise. A rock concert, a low flying jet and a storm from the ages.  All cackle, scream, cymbal-crash and roar. 

As I checked in, the sound of vehicles colliding outside jarred me but was ignored by the hotel team for whom it would have been an almost regular occurrence.

A policeman already looking defeated arrived on the scene as I watched from an exhausted daze. 

A choir yelled their stories at the beleaguered man, creating a clash with the symphonic horns of trapped cars and buses. And through it all, pavements full of beautiful people wearing their Saturday night colours zig-zagged into and around each other in the most glorious, confused dance. 

It was all Pollack and Stockhausen, a rake-in-the-face shock to someone more attuned to Constable and Betjeman.

Even in my room I couldn’t escape the clamour below. Bars outdoing each other in volume, car horns held interminably and ineffectively, and even the dense air seemed to be banging in my head.  Eventually a wrestled sleep came as an exhausted silent protest against my day.

Only a few hours later, around five in the morning, I was wide awake into an unexpected stillness.  Something had changed.  Not even a gentle fading echo of the nights din remained. 

It was as though I’d awoken in one of those movies where you’re the only one left after a plague. 

Very tentatively I walked out into the birth of the Mumbai morning and onto a silent street against the edge of the harbour.  

The rumble of the night had gone, and the city had become so strangely quiet I could hear the water timidly rippling against the sea wall.

Only a handful of people criss-crossed my path as I walked over a deserted road to the imposing ‘Gateway to India’ arch stood against the shore. 

The contrast of the hours was as stark as the arch against the morning sky. In the short time I slept, the city had gone from clatter and chaos to calm and charm. 

The air was easier now, no longer carrying that oppressive musk, and through the arch of the gateway I could see the gently twinkling Arabian sea on one side and the first glimmer of a tangerine edge to the new day’s sun on the other.

I listened for something of the city, but all I could pick up was the early calls of those Siberian Gulls that escape to Mumbai from the harsh Russian winter.  They flap and fidget as the day starts and begin their gliding skim of the harbour looking for an early feed.  Later in the day they’ll scavenge from the masses of people that will crowd this waters edge, adding their screech to the city’s tumult. 

For that moment, they were a disinterested companion as I strolled unhindered through the quietly waking neighbourhood.  

This early morning in Mumbai was beautiful. The sun graced the dusty streets lightly, and the air felt fresh and free. The merchants and early workers smiled and nodded at me as a welcome extra in their play and I could start at last to feel that glorious traveller sensation of ‘being there’.

Its as though Mumbai is two cities existing in the same place through two different times. One that screams, sings, and wears its name in lights, and one that barely whispers its name at the gently nudging edge of the ocean.

It’s a golden hour in a pocket of tranquillity before the day charges through the city once more.  As I felt the warmth from the risen sun on my back, and sensed that first thickening in the air, the clashing colonial red and contemporary concrete grey streets ruptured with life and the chaotic eternal ballet of the city began again.

This time, grateful for the gentle touch of the Mumbai dawn, I at least felt ready for the colour and chaos of the day to come.