It’s been a decade since Kolkata ceded to Mumbai its pre-eminence in globalising popular culture and serious literature. From Suketu Mehta (Maximum City) to Katherine Boo (Behind the Beautiful Forevers) through Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai is our most studied, psychoanalysed, romanticised and feared city. Interludes of scams (Adarsh) and terror (26/11, besides the many serial bombings) haven’t helped. Yet, for all the literature that you could borrow wisdom from, and all the movies for stereotypes to lean on, Mumbai is a political journalist’s nightmare. Particularly when in the throes of its most intensely fought election ever.
Send me out to read the writings on the wall in the Hindi heartland, and I promise you a quick turnaround and a head full of stories. You think that cowbelt politics is complex. But it has its short-cuts and set algebra, geometry and patterns. “Brahmin, Thakur, Bhumihar, eastern UP-western Bihar, and throw in some Scheduled Castes and Muslims,” said a teachers’ union leader at Banaras Hindu University, where I had gone to cover a strike in 1983, and got, instead, a tutorial in UP-Bihar politics, delivered at the speed of today’s FM radio jockeys. Try applying any of that to Mumbai at election time. You can add the Marathi Manoos, the south Indians, even the Parsis for diversity. But any conventional political calculus won’t work here. Because it defies every set convention, even for complex cities. I shout at Milind Deora, trying to catch his attention on top of his campaign truck as it travels from Geeta Nagar to Ganesh Murti Nagar, in the sprawling slum abutting the mangroves on the Cuffe Parade seafront on one side, a naval residential colony — high walls, barbed wire fences, watch-towers, armed guards — on the other, and overlooked by the most infamous abandoned building in India’s recent history: Adarsh. “What is the voter mix here,” I want to know. “How many Muslims, bhaiyyas (as UP-Bihar wallahs are called) and Maharashtrians?”
Impossible to tell,” he says, “Mumbai cannot be understood like that.” He says he is appealing to no category of voters in particular. “These are smart voters,” he says, “they will vote for the best product on offer... they are not like voters in other places, uncle.” Which gives me the excuse to bring out of the closet an old story shared between his family and mine. I have said