The new Sahar – sorry, Chhatrapati Shivaji – Airport in Bombay – sorry, Mumbai – is magnificent. The floors are made of marble. The immigration queues are efficient. The time taken from landing to entering my uncle’s waiting car – which we access through a lift, in a multi-storey car-park – is 30 minutes. This is a nice contrast with the trek through the throng of paan-spitting cab-drivers and supplicants for our dollars outside the airport that was once customary. I also have memories, as a child (and perhaps even from earlier this year), of spending hours making my way across peeling grey tiles and through an arrival hall that bore the unmistakable fragrance of stale urine. (Perhaps this is the conflation of unreliable memory, and one smell overpowering the memories of my other senses. We travelled a lot on trains in that India, too.)
This, though, is a space to rival Changi or Dubai’s Terminal 3. Having come from Newark 14 hours ago, and braved LAX’s incompetent hipster insouciance barely eight weeks ago, this is very welcome. Some relatives turn out to have been on my flight from Newark. As I drop them home, one tells me that the BBC doesn’t report this.“Instead, they want to show our slums.”
I understand the airport in Shanghai is wonderfully impressive, too.
The next morning I drive to Pune. My driver, Aslam, comes from a family that was originally from Lucknow. He grew up reading and writing the nastaliq script and can read Arabic and Persian, too. He tunes the radio to a station that plays Mohammad Rafi’s and Lata Mangeshkar’s hits from the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a warm day. During one ad break we flick to a station that is amplifying the unmistakable tones of the country’s leader. My Hindi isn’t equal to the task of understanding it all, but I hear the words “nasha” (drugs) and “terrorist” (terrorist) several times. He’s telling people not to take drugs, or support drug-dealers, because the money could go to fund terrorists. I ask my driver how he voted this election.
“For Modi”, he tells me.
“Is he ok with Muslims?” I ask.
“Yes. A lot of my people – maybe 80% of my people – think he isn’t, but the things he’s doing, they’re for everyone. He’ll be ok. See, he’s telling us to stop taking drugs. This is good. There’s a lot of brown sugar in Bombay. Rich people, poor people, in the slums: everyone’s taking it. Especially these Biharis, they’re dealing a lot of it. They do bad things. Cause problems: work in houses, kill people, run off with their money after they gain their trust. And drugs. It’s not good. Modi’s stopping this.”
Wizened monkeys sit on the railings on the Bombay-Poona expressway – a legacy of a previous government – and chuckle sagely at us as we cross the ghats. Some appear to be bearded. They’re not yet wearing blue and orange kurtas with contrasting vests.
I’ve been hearing echoes of my driver’s words in many places this trip. An uncle in his 70s talks about another nephew of his who lost admission to medical school some years ago, in favour of a minister’s son who didn’t have the marks.
“Things like that won’t happen under this government,” he tells me confidently. “And we need to stop pampering the Muslims. We need one civil law. Family planning doesn’t apply to them.” I try to press him on what this actually means. How are they pampered? What are the consequences?
“They’ll outnumber us,” he says, unable to tell me why that would be terrible.
Later, another relative, a retired army brigadier, is less sanguine about this government’s policies. “Secularism is going to take a beating,” he tells me from his hospital bed. “And the press, and education, and the courts, he doesn’t deal with them properly. Smriti Irani – what’s she on about? But the economy, that will work out.”
Over dinner and a glass of scotch, that evening, I suggest that those of us abroad may be intellectualising things a little much. “Maybe India needs simple messages for now. Stay clean, don’t be corrupt, don’t do drugs. And everyone wants security, for their families, against Pakistan. Maybe we weren’t ready for Nehru’s idealism. Maybe these Ivy League intellectuals abroad confuse ideals with achievements.”
I shudder a little at my own condescension when saying this. Anyone who knows me will know how rare this bout of self-awareness is. It quickly passes.
“Well, I haven’t been abroad,” the anti-pampering relative tells me. “But I know what a mess things have been these past twenty years. Let’s give this guy a chance.”
On my return to Bombay over the last couple of days, so far the things I like most about this city seem to have remained intact. The booksellers at Flora Fountain remain undisturbed. Lawyers still scurry from the High Court in suits entirely of black or the former Indian Cricket uniform of grey flannels and black blazers with white shirts. A friend at the High Court shows me a plaque bearing the name Wodehouse (apparently a relation of PG’s), adorned with the honorific of Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India (slightly less redundant by age, and perhaps just as offensive, as the also dormant Order of St Patrick). The cold coffee remains comfortingly exorbitant at the Oberoi. The lights of Haji Ali shine as brightly as ever as I approach the Colaba causeway on the way back to the suburbs in the evening. For now, the important things about Bombay appear to be safe.
But there are also small, probably good, changes. One driver gets out of his cab, wordlessly, at a public toilet not far from Apollo Bunder. He relieves himself in closed doors rather than on the side of the road as would once have been de rigueur. (I do still yell at him for leaving without telling me where he was going. It’s a big city. A chap needs to look after himself.) Another tuts at a motorcyclist who disposes of his trash on the side of the road. “What are they doing to our footpaths?” he says of the raised platforms that I’ve always seen used as makeshift lavatories. Somehow the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) initiative seems to be striking a chord with the people for whom it mattes, even as we get lost under a flyover trying to find Vincent Road (which is apparently now called Babasaheb Ambedkar Marg). The inherent conflict between defecating indoors and the term “Make in India” doesn’t seem to be perplexing anyone too much.
Another relative, now 91 and retired as a radio operator from the national carrier after working there for 40 years, tells me that the merger of Air India and Indian Airlines was an act of corruption.
“The minister wanted to eat money, so got kickbacks from buying aircraft. The airline’s been heaving under the strain since. Now, though, it’s a nationalised airline. It will do better. Modi will make sure it will.”