“I want a window seat,” my friend Isha said. Get a grip, Isha, I thought to myself. You’re 20. I had already picked an aisle seat for myself. I’m a tall guy, I needed whatever extra room I could get, even if it was just a 90-minute journey.
About a week later, as my plane approached the runway at LaGuardia, I felt a sheepish smile take over. I sat on the edge of my seat, struggling to get a glimpse of the city I would be visiting for the next five days. Maybe Isha wasn’t being childish after all. When the plane hit the tarmac and rolled into the gate I heard the pilot announce, “Welcome to….” Unable to mask my excitement, I whispered the end of that sentence in unison with him, “New York City.” As soon as I sat down in the taxi, I was back on the edge of my seat. I spent the entirety of the ride staring outside the window and I felt a familiar tinge. I had visited New York City six years prior, so it could have just been the memories flooding back, but no. This was something else. It wasn’t the fleeting images of a vacation from when I was in middle school, it was a feeling of comfort and warmth that I hadn’t experienced in months, but one that I recognized instantly. Tiny lanes, rash driving and bright lights, the resemblance was uncanny. I was in Mumbai.
Mumbai is the city where I was born and where I’ve lived all my life, and it is eerily similar to The Big Apple. Both are the most populous cities in their respective countries, the American city holding about 8 million people while the Indian metropolis is home to over 20 million. Both, although not the national capitals, are widely considered the financial capitals of their respective countries and are the seat of each country’s national stock exchange. Coastal cities with busy ports, both attract large numbers of tourists and are melting pots for cultures from all over the country. These parallels are fascinating, but it’s the intangibles, the atmospheres, of the two cities that blow you away, and it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that.
They say if you can drive in Mumbai, you can drive in any country in the world, and New York City instantly felt the same. Every time I saw a yellow cab driver honk their way through a red light, I couldn’t help but smile. I’d spent all my life on chaotic roads bossed by cab and bus drivers, so living with the innate fear that I might get run over is all I’ve ever known. It made me feel comfortable, like I was at home — and the food was no different.
Every meal felt iconic. Despite the nonstop chaos that both of these cities seem to embody, I felt everything slow down around me as I ate. It was just me, the table and two slices of Joe’s Pizza. It was the kind of personal moment that I often struggle to recreate, the kind that I distinctly remember having regularly in Mumbai. Because for every bagel in New York City, there’s a vada pav in Mumbai. For every taco truck there’s a pani puri stand and for every slice of pizza there’s a plate of masala dosa. I’ve had ice cream on the steps at Time Square and I’ve drank chocolate milkshakes on the steps of Marine Drive and I promise you, they’re the same. They’re exactly the same.
The comparisons, however, don’t end there, because along with the wonders that both cities hold come a whole list of warnings. “Don’t take the subway or train after midnight,” and “don’t roam the streets alone” are the kind of phrases you would hear before making a trip to either town. After all, New York City and Mumbai have a reputation. They have a reputation for not being too kind, for knocking you down when what you need most is a helping hand and if you don’t stand your ground, they’ll eat you up, spit you out and hang you out to dry. I’d heard that if I lost a wallet or a phone in a taxi in New York City, I should wave it goodbye because it’s never coming back. I’d imagine they say the same about Mumbai, and I believe that most Mumbaikars would agree.
Therefore, you can imagine the panic that set in when, on Thanksgiving morning, as I got out of my taxi and it drove away, I realized that I had left my phone in that very vehicle. A phone that I couldn’t track because it was out of power. I was at the mercy of a random New York City taxi driver to not only find my phone but charge it and then contact me even though they were not obligated to do so. I was at the mercy of the kind of person I was told would take that phone for himself without hesitation. Fast forward two hours and my $700 phone was back in my pocket, handed to me by the very same taxi driver. What did they ask for in return? No more than $12, the money they estimated to have lost by making the tiny detour to come and drop off the phone at my house. As far as they were concerned, they were just doing what was right, so why ask for anything more?
It was my first ever Thanksgiving and I knew what I was thankful for. But as that roller-coaster of a day came to a close, I felt dissatisfied. In retrospect, it had been an exhilarating 24 hours, but I couldn’t shrug this nagging feeling, the reminder that there’s one more similarity between cities like New York and Mumbai: the generalizations. It’s common practice for Indians who aren’t from Mumbai to mock those who are. I know it because I’ve seen it all my life. We’re the spoiled rich kids, the snobbish brats that don’t know what real India is like. It’s all banter of course, and I’ve always taken it in the correct spirit, but these jokes unknowingly influence our perception of big cities and the people that live in them. As I lay in bed that night, recovering from the ups and downs of this wondrous place, I took the time to remember that every city has good and bad people, especially the big ones like New York and Mumbai.
Nevertheless, even in the enlightened 21st century, generalizations still abound. Generalizations can describe many things about a place: the professions of the citizens, the size of the skyscrapers and the habits of the street vendors. But they can never capture the raw empathetic humanity found even in the darkest alleys of our grand metropoles. In a supposedly harsh city, I found kindness and generosity. There might be things that stand out about these two cities, and they might not be pleasant, but that quality of being “pleasant” is not what strikes me as I walk their streets. These are cities whose values are rooted in histories that precede the countries they inhabit. They have a passion that courses through their veins, a passion that arms them with the ability to take punches and throw them back with twice the ferocity. They invoke a certain nostalgia, instill renewed hope and in their own way, make you believe that amongst a crowd of unmatched proportions, you are special. They’re both known as the city that never sleeps because they implore you to spend every waking hour seizing opportunity because they are the cities where dreams are made.
I am grateful to Mumbai for making me the person I am today, giving me experiences that I know I am extremely fortunate to have and reminding me just how valuable those experiences are and always will be. To New York City, I say thank you.
Rushabh Shah is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.