London, where I live, and Mumbai, where I used to live. Two fascinating cities that seem very different, but, surprisingly, are more alike than not.
Even today, after years of familiarity with Mumbai, I look forward to every visit there with a tingle of excitement and expectation. As my plane circles in the sky waiting for a landing space at the crowded Santa Cruz airport, Mumbai appears below me, spread out like a map in 3D. The Arabian Sea, grey and calm, laps gently against the city's southern edge outlining it in silver and rust. The skyscrapers rise high into the sky from streets so very familiar to me. It's not dawn yet, and the streets must still be relatively empty: from this high up in the air I cannot tell. In my mindís eye I imagine the traffic building up, and see the whirling, twirling, colourful, noisy, smelly mass of humanity that makes up the city. My plane is given clearance to land, and as it comes in, the slums and shanty towns of Santa Cruz rush up to meet me, their tin roofs patched with blue plastic, and glinting in the rising sun.
I pick up my baggage and hurry out of the busy, crowded terminal. Noise engulfs me, so I cannot hear myself think: unintelligible announcements over the public address system, shrieking, blaring traffic, and running through and over it, the loud, impassioned chatter of my countrymen. I am glad to see the familiar face of the friend who has come to receive me. She takes charge, and steers me firmly through the chaos. I climb gratefully into the relatively quiet haven of her car. 'What a noisy bunch of people we Indians are!' I think.
London, even at its noisiest, cannot hope to compete with the deafening clamour of Mumbai. London is contained, quiet and polite. The traffic, though heavy, is mostly silent: a sounding horn is something that turns heads. People speak in quiet voices, and loud conversations are met with disapproving glances and uncomfortable shufflings by those around you. Even dogs don't seem to bark here, or when they do, they are shushed quickly and firmly.
London, despite its sprawl and size, usually does not give the impression of being a big city, made up as it is of many self-contained little towns, some larger than others, all stitched together in an orderly patchwork of terraced houses, narrow streets, green back gardens and paved patios.
Despite these apparent differences, both London and Mumbai are mega-cities, with a heterogeneous, culturally-mixed population and a rich and vibrant intellectual and cultural life; both are centres of business and finance, London doing at a global level what Mumbai does at the India level; and both offer its citizens anonymity, affluence, convenience, comfort, and the freedom to live life in the manner they wish to.
There are other similarities too:
Each city has its own distinctive 'language', Cockney, the working-class speech of East London, and the 'Mumbaiyya Hindi' of Mumbai, dialects that are vigorous, vibrant, irreverent - and defining.
Both cities are often written off as 'unfriendly' by first-time visitors, who vilify Londoners and Mumbaikars alike for their hurrying pace and lack of smiles, though both groups are essentially friendly, helpful people - if only they had the time!
Both cities have great wealth, and poverty too. In Mumbai, the homeless carpet the pavements at night; in London, the poor are less abjectly poor, but there are still too many of them - under the tunnels of Waterloo Station, in parks and parking lots...Beggars harass you on the crowded trains of Mumbai, and they harass you on the less crowded trains of London. There is a difference in the degree of poverty, yes, but ultimately poverty anywhere, in any degree, is cruel, ugly and a reminder that we as a species still have a long way to go.