Manil Suri Reflects on Mumbai

Mumbai embraces its contrasts—rich and poor, modern and ancient—into one exuberant identity. Manish Swarup / AP

The goddess Mumba. The word ai for mother. Does the city live up to her name? Is she the mother goddess, the Devi, to her millions of inhabitants?

As my plane descends, the twinkling lights that emerge from the darkness below are promising. Something alive, something miraculous, is bursting out of the land. Then a sea of ramshackle roofs comes into view—hundreds of them, rolling in waves. Could this slum also be a mark of the Devi?

The conundrum deepens on the way in from the airport. Elevated highways bank gracefully through the air but empty into narrow streets lined with slumbering pavement-dwellers. Tracts of shanty huts suddenly sprout skyscrapers that reach ambitiously into the night. By day, when the disparity between wealth and poverty is at its most unvarnished, the idea of city as patron goddess seems even more remote. And yet the Devi is the key to deciphering Mumbai.

The Devi, like other Hindu deities, is multifaceted in her incarnations. As Ganga, she can be immaculate, and as Parvati, motherly. But as Kali she dances with human skulls around her neck and consumes her young. This is the essence of Hindu mythology, perhaps the essence of being Indian—the recognition that multiplicity must be accepted, contrast must be cherished.

Like any good Hindu goddess, Mumbai embraces her extremes with zeal. This revelation comes to me as I watch the sun set into the Arabian Sea from the sleek roof deck of the InterContinental Hotel. Feeling the breeze against my face, with the sounds of the city far below, I imagine I can simply spread my arms and glide into the open expanse like a sea gull. Twenty minutes later I stand packed into a train, the rush-hour mass of humanity so crushing that I can't breathe. This is what Mumbai doles out to millions of her children every day. (She gives them jobs as well: the reason behind all those slums is that people keep coming due to all the opportunity.)

In some ways, Mumbai is called upon to be even more subsuming than other goddesses. Her population is enormously diverse and regularly at odds on the basis of religion, language, ethnicity, and a host of other schisms. Her visibility attracts benign and malignant elements from inside and outside the country. These factors can result in heinous acts of terror. Yet somehow, Mumbai always manages to recover, no matter how grievous her wounds. Rallying her citizens to assist in the healing, incorporating disparate elements into her mosaic identity. My favorite spot to observe this indomitable coexistence is from the rocks behind Mahalakshmi Temple. One can gaze upon the Muslim shrine of Haji Ali rising from the water ahead while still hearing Hindu temple bells ringing from the hill behind.

The Devi has many incarnations in Mumbai: each morning she appears dressed as Usha, the dawn—her most beautiful manifestation, with the buildings bathed in delicate light and the streets empty save for milkmen on bicycles. At the bookstores and art galleries, I sense her browsing over my shoulder as Saraswati, goddess of the arts. Her most time--consuming role is as Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, supervising the city's many economies—both legal and underground.

For me, what's most unforgettable is her Bombay persona. The city I was born in. The city I grew up loving, with Queen's Road and Flora Fountain and Victoria Terminus (all by now renamed). When in 1995 my city was stripped of her name, I was heartbroken. Like many others, I felt that "Mumbai" had none of the international cachet of "Bombay," and refused to use it.

But my beloved Bombay is still alive and well. I feel her presence each time I ride the red double-decker buses, or glimpse the "Big Ben" clock tower of my old university, or eat chicken sandwiches at Gaylord's, where my parents used to take me on Sundays. Mumbai, the all-encompassing mother goddess, has welcomed Bombay into its fold.

In my mind's eye, I see the seven islands from which Mumbai was born. Then come the people, the buildings, the temples, the huts, and a metropolis evolves. She bears everything, from gold to fish to movie tickets, in her multiple arms. A goddess undaunted by adversity, rising from the sea to claim her place in the world pantheon.

Suri is a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore county, and author, most recently, of The Age of Shiva.