City Dreamer

I’m not usually a nostalgic person. I balk at lingering backward glances, teary conversations and dusty scrapbooks. When I do think of the past, it’s without any maudlin sappiness. Let’s move on and swiftly, I say. Still, when it comes to the cities I’ve lived in, visited or passed through, I allow myself a little sentiment.

Cities wear their characters on their sleeves. Ahmedabad is the go-to guy — resourceful, brisk and no-nonsense. Vadodara is grand but friendly, like a benevolent maharaja. Nairobi is a young fashionista. Calangute is a jovial good-time-Charlie — actually all of Goa is. And Mumbai. Oh Mumbai is a myriad things — excited child, dirty hippy, raging workaholic and frenzied party-hopper. Travel writer AA Gill calls Bombay (he refuses to call it Mumbai) “a metropolis with the throttle open,” and I’m inclined to agree with him.

The personality of a city comes in part from its people, its culture, its ingenuity and its history. But in a large way it comes from the way it’s built, the way it flows from one street to the next. I always try to remember the feel of the cities I visit. When I first came to Mumbai, everything overwhelmed me. It’s size, the four lanes of traffic, the smell of fish, sea and sweat, the rushing trains, the passengers that spilled out of them, like marbles pouring out of a box. Now these are the very things I love. Who can walk past the grand Victoria Terminus, and not gape at the beautiful sandstone-limestone facade with its turrets, spires and clock tower? In Ahmedabad, travelling by road was a dream: the streets were wide and smooth; the traffic, well-organized and orderly. You could be walking on a pavement, and you’d suddenly be showered with sunny laburnum flowers, shaken loose by a breeze. The city has trees in unexpected places and it has the beautiful red-bricked IIM; it has gaudily painted boats floating on the man-made Vastrapur lake. As for Vadodara, I’m always struck by the Maharaja Sayajirao University buildings, the departments of which are scattered across the city; the Laxmi Vilas Palace; and the sprawling Kamati Baug (or Sayaji Baug) which houses a zoo, a museum, a planetarium and a darling toy train that chugs through green lawns and past fountains. I was in Nairobi a few years ago, and I remember the thriving commercial area — a mix of swish malls and crammed, dark market places. In the more affluent part of town, the beautifully maintained roads wind, dip and curve (the city was originally a swamp and its terrain is all slopes and depressions), while other areas see the road disappearing into a beaten-down mud track.

These things — a road, a building or a park — get me misty-eyed. The way cities are designed, the way they stay the same and the way they change fascinate me. Perhaps it’s time I started a scrapbook…