Iconic ghazal singer Jagjit Singh immortalised poet Bashir Badr’s lyrics in his soulful ghazal ‘parakhna mat, parakhne se koi apna nahi rehta’ (Don’t judge, to judge is to lose those whom you hold dear). But it is in my nature to constantly put things on opposite ends of a scale. Of late, it’s been two cities – Bengaluru and Mumbai, between which I have spent half my life.
Growing up in Bombay of the 70s & 80s, I hobbled across to join the Navy enticed by its sprawling presence in South Bombay. Under a faulty impression that all of Navy was in Bombay, I spent two & a half decades in the whites without dropping anchor even once at Bombay. As luck would have it, I found myself easing into a second career in Mumbai 27 years later with my family strings still firmly in the hand of someone in Bengaluru, our home post retirement.
As I travel between work and home, I can’t help but run a constant comparison of these two cities. Both have their own unique identities forged through years of cultural evolution, economic activity and shifting demographics; forces of time sculpting them into what we know them to be today – Namma Bengaluru & Aamchi Mumbai.
Bengaluru first. So you need to get around? If you are a radio taxi user, be prepared for a driver who calls you in the local language asking for directions to your place. You quickly disarm him by saying ‘kannada gothilla’ (I don’t understand kannada) and make him switch to English or Hindi. If you use public transport, be prepared for conductors who rag you for change or appropriate the small change for themselves saying ‘change illa’ (don’t have change). If you are dependent on auto rickshaws or cannot speak the local language – well, good luck to you!
In Mumbai, I have seldom spent more than a few minutes looking for a suitable transport. BEST, Ola, Uber, Meru, Kaali Peeli, autorickshaw & so on – you are spoilt for choice! Rarely does one come across a driver who cannot speak some kind of language that you understand. Neither does he throw the ‘should I take you thisss way or thaaat way?’ trick at you. And when the fare meter turns up an odd figure, he will dutifully fish for chillar (change) in his pocket and return you change down to the rupee. BEST bus conductors carry a distinctive leather satchel that always jingles with plentiful chillar. Maybe I am wrong, but most drivers in Bengaluru consider 5-10 rupees balance as small change meant to improve their lives (with or without your approval). There is a seemingly perennial shortage of small change. Maybe they should shift the Reserve Bank to Bengaluru 😉
When it comes to fast food, Bengaluru has its Darshinis and Upaharas while Mumbai has its street food and juice centres. While I find a steady creep in my barometer for inflation in Bengaluru – the masala dosa, market forces still keep Mumbai’s vada pav within easy reach of every Mumbaikar. At Rs. 12 apiece, I cannot fathom the business model of the street side vendor who even throws in some chutney, masala mirchi and that spicy gunpowder. At Rs. 25 apiece, vada pav stalls outside Mithibai College in Vile Parle (West) serve you a king-sized vada while running a grandma’s helping of butter in between the pav, all under 20 seconds.
The quiet efficiency and factory floor-like precision of both Bengaluru’s darshinis and Mumbai’s street food stalls are beyond description and more than makes up for the mild disdain displayed by the servers.
Mumbai is notorious for its narrow arterial roads and killer traffic while Bengaluru has its ‘Mains & Crosses’ punctuated by signals every few hundred meters (“Machan, just take the 100 feet road, turn left at 2nd main, right at 3rd B cross, behind Shanti Sagar da!”). While suburban trains take the crushing load off Mumbai roads by carrying more than a million people on its back each day, Bengaluru has no comparable mass transit system. Namma Metro today resembles a tourist cable car service at best in comparison to Mumbai’s local trains. The result can be seen on the roads of Bengaluru – two wheelers and autorickshaws run riot with scant regard for rules as traffic police look on in exasperation. Road rage, a phenomenon hitherto seen only in northern latitudes, is part of the new normal in Bengaluru. Contrast this with Mumbai where the tacit respect for each other’s time and the overarching importance of ‘dhandha’ (business, trade) makes people think twice before cutting corners to steal a march over the fellow traveller on road.
On the 12th floor of a 19-floor high rise in Mumbai where I often visit, a man knocks at your door with freshly baked pav, bread, biscuits & eggs every evening (kitchen essentials for the next day; who hasn’t run late night errands to fetch them!). Even if your answer is a NO six days of the week, he will still be there on the seventh day hoping for a purchase. Amazing? Wait till you meet the ‘shoeshine guy’ who rings the bell asking if any shoes need polishing (for Rs.20 a pair). There is no minimum order size and even a single bottle of beer can be home delivered. They don’t want to disappoint you for anything, knowing well somebody else will usurp their business the next day if they do. In Bengaluru, I am yet to find this level of willingness to ‘fulfil’ an order even with the giants of e-commerce locking horns for Diwali bumper sales, Big Billion Day, Unbox Zindagi & what have you.
The small stores of Mumbai never cease to amaze me. The ubiquitous paan-beedi shop & ‘General Stores’ are thoughtfully stocked with odds and ends that would put supermarkets to shame.
Indeed, I have purchased Parker pens and nail clippers from a paanwaala in Mumbai. The other day, I had to beat down the doors of half a dozen pharmacies in Bengaluru while filling in an ‘order’ for Hajmola! Their cold stares and indifference made me feel like I was asking for condoms in the Vatican.
On the busy streets of Mumbai nobody has time for pleasantries. Dhandha rules supreme. Two friends meeting up at a junction or in a train are more likely to exchange notes about work, studies or tips to improve their next online purchase. In Bengaluru, it is customary to enquire ‘chenna gidhaare’ (everything good?) or ‘oota aaitha’ (had food?). Often, such exchanges lead to the nearest darshini where bisibele bath or ‘mini meal’ will then be quietly devoured over a hot cup of coffee. Let the world wait, gotta have my oota!
At about 11.5 million, the population of Bengaluru is about half of Mumbai. But Bengaluru is sprawled over 1.2 times the area occupied by Mumbai. So Mumbai is like two Bengalurus squeezed into the area occupied by one Mumbai. That requires a lot more give and take than just swalpa adjust maadi. Perhaps why there is, in general, more respect for people’s personal space in Mumbai. There is very little public or personal space to go around, every square feet counts. You have got to earn your space through skill & enterprise. Floor space optimisation is an art form in Mumbai, providing employment to thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers and artisans from around the country. How many in Bengaluru think ‘sofa-cum-bed’ while buying furniture for the living room?
I consider myself lucky to be able to enjoy both these vibrant cities. Mumbai is like an exciting date – super efficient, young, vivacious, and aiming to please while Bengaluru is like the wife – endearing but quixotic, slow but loving, great climate (read temperament), some niggling issues but faithful to a fault! (famous last words!!)
Namma Bengaluru & Aamchi Mumbai. Who wants to go on a double date?!