Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

It's been more than 2 weeks since I last posted. In my defense, I've been in and out of Bombay, traveling on work. The places I visited - Goa and Ahmedabad - couldn't have posed more of a contrast. (I'm just going to refer to the latter as Amdavad from this point on because that's easier to type.)

I had my apprehensions about Goa, given that it featured in travel advisories around the time I was visiting. It's probably best if I admit that I'm no Goa purist - I stayed at Baga, ate at all the recommended (and therefore highly predictable) restaurants, and visited the conventional tourist spots. But the tried and tested route paid rich dividends - I had a great time, managed to unwind for the first time in weeks, ate carbs and dessert, and packed in a reasonable amount of work as well.

I'm not sure whether it was luck or some kind of mysterious Goan alchemy that ensured things played out so perfectly. And much as I hate to subscribe to cliches, it did really seem that life there unfolded at a gentler, quieter pace. Smiles were ready, conversations friendly.

For the first time in years, I found myself resenting Bombay. I've grumbled about the city before - the traffic, the crowds, the lack of restaurants, pubs and clubs as compared to London or New York. But now I find my gripes are much more about the toll this city takes on my well being. Every day seems like a struggle against urban elements - distances, noise, encroachments on personal space, stress, the sense that time is always in short supply. Combine that with a fragile or almost non-existent security apparatus, and you find yourself wondering whether it's finally time to retreat to some semi-urban or rural idyll.

As opposed to Goa, I had little or no time to explore Amdavad. I was driven from point A to point B, and then back to my hotel. My only 'outing' was to a relative's home for dinner and a short drive afterwards. Perhaps I shouldn't even be writing about the city, but it's a chance I'm willing to take. 

My overwhelming impression was that of one of Bombay's western suburbs - patchy development, lots of malls, traffic. My problem with Amdavad is chiefly aesthetic - spacious single storied homes have been abandoned for apartment blocks and concrete monstrosities. Although older housing societies and complexes are elegant and well planned, it's hard to believe that the city houses India's most prestigious schools of architecture and design (not to mention business and physics!).

Another gripe concerns constrained dining/entertainment options. Of course restaurants and night markets exist, but menus are severely limited by the ban on alcohol and the reluctance to serve non-vegetarian food. Personally speaking, I hardly ever drink, and am a staunch vegetarian. But I'll be the first to admit that both diners and restaurants evolve only when they can experiment - either with a wine list, or cuisines, or anything that's off the beaten track. And while Amdavad serves up some great thalis and Gujrati specialties, there's little other incentive to eat out. Amdavad helped me appreciate Bombay's diversity. I realized that I don't want to be part of a growing city with pretensions - I want to live in one that's already a metropolis and is only getting bigger.

The question really is one of growth and evolution - where does Bombay go from here? Does the infrastructure get worse, further impacting the quality of life? Or does the city surge ahead, becoming a business and cultural hub? My dream for Bombay is that it becomes a truly global city with its' own idiosyncracies. But what frightens me sometimes is the gnawing sense, after 26/11, that no matter what, I will need to seek my future elsewhere. As of now, Amdavad is not an option.

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