Mumbai is a fascinating city with diversity in religion and architecture, and in this interview, Vikram Chandra talks about the colonial impact of the Portuguese and British, as well as the Zoroastrian, Muslim, Hindu and Christian holy places in the city.
It’s also a feast for the senses, as Vikram evokes the taste of seafood from the harbor and the chaat street food on the beaches, the clang of ships in the dock, as well as the action spectacle of Bollywood films, and the multi-lingual speech of Hindi, Punjabi, English and Bombay slang.
We discuss how Vikram feels at home both in Mumbai where he grew up and in the Bay area, California, where he now lives and teaches, and he gives some book recommendations if you want to read more about the city.
Vikram Chandra is the multi-award-winning author of Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book as well as Love and Longing in Bombay and Sacred Games, adapted into a successful Netflix series set in Mumbai, which has just been listed on ‘The New York Times’ list of the 30 best international TV shows of the decade.
- On the cultural history of the name Mumbai — and why some still call the city, Bombay.
- Impact of colonial history — Portuguese and British — on the architecture of Mumbai
- Religious diversity
- Bollywood and modern Indian films
- Influence of the coastal environment
- Food and restaurant recommendations
- Tips for getting around the city
- The challenge of representing the multilingual nature of India in fiction
- Recommended books set in Mumbai
You can find Vikram Chandra at VikramChandra.com.
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Vikram Chandra is the multi-award-winning author of Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book as well as Love and Longing in Bombay and Sacred Games, adapted into a successful Netflix series set in Mumbai, which has just been listed on ‘The New York Times’ list of the 30 best international TV shows of the decade, which is amazing.
Vikram: Hi. Pleasure to be here.
Joanna: I’ve been so excited about this because I love India so much.
Tell us a bit more about your multicultural background and your connection with the city.
Vikram: My father was a corporate executive, so we’d moved all over the countryside when I was a kid. And then when I was in 11th grade, we moved to the city and we’ve been there ever since.
I came to the United States in my second year of college and I’ve been going back and forth ever since. All of my work has to do with Bombay as you can tell from the titles of at least one of my books. And my immediate family and a lot of my friends are there.
Joanna: Fantastic. I haven’t been but I did want to ask you because it’s so interesting, I always say Mumbai because I thought that’s what we have to say now. But you use the term Bombay in your book title.
What is the cultural history of the name Mumbai/Bombay?
Vikram: There are various stories about how the city got its name. So there are texts written in the early 16th century which refers to the city as Mumbai. And then there’s a local community of fisherfolk who’ve been there since antiquity who have a goddess named Mumba Devi.
One story is that the city gets its name Mumbai from the goddess. And then the Portuguese arrived in India and in the area and when they saw the amazing natural harbor, they called it Bombahia as in good harbor, which then the British are said to have changed to Bombay.
And then the city has a vast number of immigrants from other parts of the country. From the north, the people who come there refer to it as Bombay.
It’s a multicultural city with as many names it seems as the communities of people who live there. And then recently in the ’90s, a local political party changed the name of the city officially to what they said was the pre-colonial name, which is Mumbai. So in actual practice, what happens is that depending on what language people are speaking and who they’re speaking through, these various names roll off the tongue.
Joanna: Which is amazing. I wondered if someone like me, a British person, what would I call the city so as not to be offensive to anyone?
Vikram: I think Mumbai is now the official name, although in some various sort of official places it’s still referred to as Bombay. So you know on certain official institutes like the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, it’s still known as IITB, which is the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
And then also, we’ve had a lot of renaming after independence but the old names, they still linger. I grew up for a while on a road in the South of Bombay, which is called Nepean Sea Road. And that had been changed way back in the ’60s to Lady Laxmibai Jagmohandas Marg. But if you say that to a cab driver today, he or she will be baffled, they won’t know what you’re talking about and you’ll have to say Nepean Sea Road.
Joanna: Which is one of those problems with changing names.
You mentioned the Portuguese there, and I think a lot of people have heard of the British Raj period, but the Portuguese are almost unknown even to Europeans that they were in that area.
What of the Portuguese history is still there?
Vikram: There’s a whole intriguing complex history of its own. The Portuguese were actually the first Western power who in that great burst of colonialism arriving on Indian shores, and the way the British got possession of the city was through a marriage.
In the 17th century, Charles II married a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, and he received the city as part of his dowry. And I guess for me, because I live in the central part of the city in a neighborhood known as Bandra, the most obvious and prominent sign, and one of the places I really love in Bombay, is called the Mount Mary Church.
The Portuguese came to this creek, it was then a creek in 1534. Being who they were, they burned down the local fishing villages. And then over the next few decades, centuries, they built a lot of churches. And so Mount Mary, the official name is Our Lady of the Mount and locally we call it Mount Mary. And it’s become a kind of a shrine for people of all faiths.
If you go there on any day of the week, you’ll see people come and light candles. It’s a place where people will come to pray to have their wishes received. It’s sort of like, I went to Italy and I was really struck by the Italian Catholics going to churches and leaving little replicas of hands and feet, right? Wherever you have the illness, you leave a little a symbol of that and if you get better, you come back and say thanks, so it’s that kind of thing.
Joanna: That’s so interesting. And yet, I had read that there was a massacre, and the Portuguese did kill a lot of people at the time.
Vikram: Well, there were various bloody events throughout colonial history. I should say also that it wasn’t just the Portuguese and the British. The Dutch were there, the French were there, and wars were fought in India between the various colonial powers.
And then the various Indian princes and kings took part in these wars sometimes on one side or the other, so it was all very, very active right from the 17th century onwards. It’s a very complex and intriguing history that you can get lost in once you started reading it.
Joanna: And I think that’s what makes it almost feel, for a European, I feel at home in India. A lot of signs are in English. Lots of people speak English, it’s very homey for a British person.
In terms of the British influence on Mumbai, what is there that is from the British Raj or the architecture of different places?
Vikram: Some of the architecture is really clearly from that encounter between the British and India. The Bombay University buildings in South Bombay, they’re building a style called Indo-Saracenic. And it’s beautiful and it’s built from local red stone, which weathers the monsoons really well.
I’ve often thought we should go back to that instead of using really bad concrete constructions which don’t do well in the monsoons. Some of the police stations you can clearly see, again, from that period the architecture, the great railway stations.
And then like you were saying in the language itself, in English, which is all over the place on signs, on cinema tickets, everywhere you look, you see cracks of that encounter. And I think also in terms of law and the shape of parliament, all of that is very, very British, influenced by the British, Europe through Britain, I guess I would say.
Joanna: Isn’t there a big gate down by the waterfront?
Vikram: Yes, the Gateway of India, which was built for the arrival to welcome the king when he came to India. And of course, ironically, when the British Raj ended, it was the spot from which finally the last British troops left through the Gateway of India. So in some sense, it was both a kind of entry but most certainly an exit.
Joanna: I heard that. We talked more about the European stuff but then the very Indian site and the more different religions, so the Hinduism Muslim.
We’ve got the Zoroastrians as well in Mumbai, right?
Vikram: That’s one of the amazing things about India in general that every religion has been there. Islam has been here for well over 1000 years.
Not many people know this, but there was a Jewish presence in India that lasted in very, very large terms as a kingdom for 800 years because the story goes that they were fleeing the first fall of the temple and the Zoroastrians came twice actually. And then there are some really interesting religious spots that are really worth seeing in the city.
One of my favorite is, again, close to me where I live, it’s called the Mahim Dargah. A dargah is a shrine and it’s the shine of I guess you’d call him a saint named Makhdoom Ali Shafi’i who settled in this area in the early 15th century.
During his lifetime, he was revered by Hindus and Muslims for his very liberal ideas and his humanity. And what’s interesting about this is that for reasons that are not quite completely clear, he’s become the patron saint of the city police. There’s an annual festival and two officers from each of the 84 police station of the city, they are officially part of the festival. And some of them are the first to engage in the ritual offering of a shawl, which was given from the pilgrims to the shrine.
The other one that is really famous actually is the Siddhivinayak Temple, and this is a small temple of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, which I think most people will know, which was constructed way back in 1801. And Ganesh, as you might know, is the remover of obstacles, whenever you start a project or you go on a journey, you go to seek his blessings.
So often you will see big, big film stars and producers the day before a release, you’ll see them at the temple asking for success at the box office.
Joanna: That’s actually brilliant. I think that’s what I love, this real mix of ancient and modern.
I wanted to ask you about Bollywood because I do feel like Mumbai is very famous for Bollywood and the city obviously has this super-wealthy look about it on some social media and then obviously there’s poorer areas.
What influence does Bollywood have on the city?
Vikram: It’s huge. It has been since the beginning of the Indian film business industry which started way back at the end of the 19th century. The first films made in India were being made a couple of years after the first film started getting made in Paris.
It’s always been a city that’s mythologized itself through the cinema. I think a lot of ideas about ourselves are reflected in the cinema itself. And as you’re saying, there’s just ungodly immense amounts of money because Indians are fanatic filmgoers.
And so insofar as such a large city can be an industrial city, Bombay is certainly a film town. You see film stars driving by, there are certain neighborhoods where struggling actors and directors who come in to try and make it in the business, you go to those neighborhoods and you can see them in the coffee shops and the bars. It’s very lively and active and, in that way, really exciting for all the work that’s getting done there.
But I should also say that it’s not the only film industry in India. I mean there are distinct film industries in the south, in Bengal, so very, very powerful and popular films being made elsewhere. And one of the, I think, contradictions is that the West usually, I think, thinks of Indian film as Bombay/Mumbai movie-making and that’s absolutely not the case.
Joanna: I think that’s really important. The stereotypical view in my head is a musical with dancing and some kind of romance, whereas, for example, your Sacred Games is really gritty. It’s not musical at all.
What would you recommend? Obviously, Sacred Games, which is on Netflix.
Are there any other films that represent the current state of Indian film?
Vikram: There’s many, many. Off the top of my head, there’s a film called Soni, which is about policewomen in Delhi.
There’s a Malayalam movie called Jallikattu, which is a Malayalam movie. So Jallikattu is a traditional sport in which men try to hold on to a bull’s hump for as long as possible. But the movie is about a bull that escapes from a slaughterhouse and then the men who hunt it down. It’s an amazing film and there’s lots of variation in that.
One of the things that’s happened across the country is that we have multiplexes with smaller theaters so the urge to make big films for big audiences is still very much there but there are alternatives for producers and banks that are funding the movies.
And then also, all the streaming services and television make it possible to make other kinds of movies. Although there’s still the big, huge, humongous productions are still alive.
One of the other movies that I should mention that I guess you could say is, in some way, part of the traditional filmmaking setup is called Gully Boy, and this is about rappers in Bombay. It’s a stunning film.
And then if you want to watch a really state-of-the-art big commercial movie, it’s a film called War, which has Hrithik Roshan who’s the amazingly handsome film idol, has been for the last 20 years. So there is a range of stuff that’s being done now, watch all of the above.
Joanna: That’s cool because I think sometimes it’s great to see it, on the film or TV.
You’ve mentioned the fisherfolk Mumba Devi and you’ve mentioned the Harbor, what part does water play in the city? It obviously shapes the geography of. People might not know it’s on a peninsula, on the edge of the Arabian Sea. It’s a coastal city, but yet it’s so big.
Does water play a big part in the city or is it just the outside suburbs?
Vikram: It’s interesting, it’s a paradox. The fate of the city certainly has been completely linked to the seaways.
The Gateway to India really applies in a larger sense to the city because a huge amount of trade starts happening through there. It’s the port through which a lot of ideas enter, the dockyard, which is a very large dockyard, established in 1735 by the East India Company, has a very long and storied history.
The East India Company wanted to use Malabar teak, which is a really good wood that’s durable, it’s strong, it lasts a long time, it doesn’t crack or split. More than 400 ships were built over the next century-and-a-half and some of these were the best ships in the water globally in those days.
That dockyard is still is a big naval dockyard for the Indian Navy. I have to say though, that as far as the populace of the city’s concerned, there is some sailing but not really that much. There’s surprisingly little activity on the water but people, and really ordinary people, poor people spend a lot of time on the beaches, especially because the beaches have some of the most delicious street food on them.
One is called chat. I think if you’re going to Bombay and you might want to try it but you’ve got to be careful because our mothers warned us against eating that food when we were kids. So you don’t want to get a case of Bombay belly.
Joanna: What is chat, so people know what it is.
Vikram: It’s a variety of stuff. My favorite is called bhelpuri, which is puffed rice, tamarind, a little bit of sometimes yogurt, lots of onions mixed together.
Chat is generally spicy and fresh, it’s cooked right there on the beach or prepared right there in front of you, and it’s cheap. It’s very economical. Although, the five-star hotels have their own chat, which is more expensive than the chat on the beach, obviously.
Joanna: Well, that’s a good tip though. I love Indian food and I actually cycled once for three weeks down the southwest of India and I put on five kilos because I ate so much and I just love the food.
What are your recommendations for food in Mumbai? If we can’t eat chat on the beach, where can we go?
Vikram: In some of the hotels, in some of the spiffier restaurants, you’ll be able to try it. What I would recommend is that there’s a lot of really good seafood at various price levels, right? So in the south of the city, there’s a couple of restaurants, one is called Trishna and another one is called Mahesh.
Trishna is one of my favorites. There’s a restaurant called Gajali, which is very traditional seafood. And Conde Nast did a list, I think, last year of the best restaurants in India and this was number 15.
I guess then since you talked about a Zoroastrian, there are two different kinds of Zoroastrian cuisines in the city. The Parsis were a community that came to India seeking refuge sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries. And then there are more recent Zoroastrian arrivals who came from the late 1800 onwards in the 19th and 20th centuries, and they’re called Iranis.
They have two different cuisines. Parsi food is all over the city, there is a cafe called Britannia. The Iranian restaurants, cafes, I’m sorry, as they’re called, were big mainstay when I was growing up. And so in the 1950s, people say there were about 400 of them. There’s probably only about 25 left now, and not because they’re less popular but the people who came and set them up, their kids have now gotten really advanced educations and aren’t interested in running those restaurants anymore.
The Irani cafes, they’re famous for their tea, which is a very strong Irani tea, Persian tea. And they’re also really democratic in that they’re cheaply priced and so when I was growing up as a college student, I could go there and some very rich lawyer would be sitting in the cubicle next to me and we’d both be eating the same food.
I should say actually that one place in the south of the city that you can try both of these is called the Bombay Canteen, and this was also on Conde Nast list as the number two in the list of best restaurants in India.
It’s an eating city, everyone likes to go out and eat at whatever price you like.
So one of the things that you should do is Zomato there, is Zomato a British thing as well?
Vikram: If you look for Zomato India, it’s a website and an app, and it’s one of those things where people rate the restaurants and so forth. So that’s very useful. And then if you’re feeling particularly lazy, there’s a delivery service called Swiggy which will pick up food from any of these restaurants and deliver them to you.
Joanna: That’s very cool. I was going to ask on the food: if I was going to a more rural area, I would just eat vegetarian food and that some people think that you shouldn’t eat meat. But eating vegetarian in India is great because the food is so good. You mentioned bad tummies.
Should people stick with vegetarian or is meat just fine in Mumbai?
Vikram: I don’t think the vegetarian versus the non-vegetarian, at least in my experience, hasn’t been made that much of a difference. It’s more where it’s being cooked, whether it’s food that’s fresh. And some of it is just luck.
All it takes is like you might be eating in a really spiffy restaurant but if a fly sits on your food, well, there you go. I guess I shouldn’t make light of it, you probably have a better chance of not getting Bombay belly if you’re in one of the spiffier places but there’s always the off chance that you would.
Joanna: Yes, absolutely, whenever we travel, that’s part of it.
Now, getting around the city, the train network is very good, isn’t it?
Vikram: It is but it really can get really crowded, so depending on where you’re going and when you’re traveling, it becomes an adventure. I’m sure people might’ve seen those pictures of the local trains with people literally hanging out of the doors. So you probably don’t want to do that unless you’re looking for that kind of like really local experience.
I should say though that the traffic is really, really bad and has been particularly so for the last couple of decades since the economic revival because once people started being able to afford it, everyone wanted a car and the streets are a few centuries old and they’re not exactly built for that many cars.
So much of our planning when I go to see a friend in another part of the city is about geography. It’ll take me two hours to travel from point A to point B, so I’ll see you at noon but I’ll have to leave the house at 10:00. So you arrange your whole day around your travels more or less.
Joanna: That’s good to know because it depends where you are in the city and trying to get to different places, so that’s cool. You’ve given us some fantastic stuff there and I’m really looking forward to going. But I do want to change tack.
You teach creative writing at the University of California and you live this multicultural life.
What does home mean to you? Is it a different place at different times?
Vikram: I think multiple places are home, so certainly now California, the Bay Area where I live is home, my kids are here, I have friends here.
And then the other home is in India and particularly in the city. I go back and forth between the two and it’s sometimes a trial but it’s also something that’s become a part of me that makes me who I am.
Just this morning when I was thinking about what we’re doing now and thinking about all the different nationalities and communities that have come to Mumbai, I was thinking that this is not new. We are all immigrants at some point from somewhere going to a new place and people have always moved across the world, so we tend to think of this as a modern condition but I think it’s always existed.
Joanna: I totally agree with you. Obviously, you speak a different language as well when you’re back in India, or different languages, so do you behave differently?
Are you a different person in Mumbai?
Vikram: Yes. Certainly in terms of the way that people are with each other, I notice a difference. You were talking about the trains, the local trains in Mumbai, there’s a sense of space that I think is very different in the United States than it is from India.
Even just how close people sit to each other when they talk, right, of personal space, and I think it tends to be very different gestures. I think like when I’m talking to an Indian person, my Indian head nod gets a lot more noddy. And my daughters tease me, they say that they know when I’m getting a phone call from India because as soon as I start talking, my Indian accent comes back doubled or tripled.
So yes, there is all that. But I don’t think, again, it’s a bad condition to be in. Being multilingual in several ways besides just language is really, I think, an enriching way to live.
Joanna: It is, and of course, Sacred Games has been recorded in a lot of languages, hasn’t it?
Explain that because I think it makes it very special.
Vikram: One of the problems or challenges of writing a book about India, not just now, but in any part during its history, is that we grow up multilingual by default. I grew up speaking Hindi and English at home. Depending on where I was at the time, which part of the country was in, I learned Gujarati and Punjabi at various points in my life.
There were friends of mine, who without knowing it, learned four or five languages when they were growing up.
So how do you represent this in fiction? It’s really hard. Whether you’re writing in English or Hindi or any other Indian language, you’ve got to capture all the other languages.
In writing Sacred Games, I had great fun with this is, interspersing the English with Hindi, Punjabi, the local Bombay slang, especially the criminal slang, which is so particular that people from other parts of India would have no idea what they were talking about. So you kind of like leverage that and sprinkle it in.
And then in the series, what they did, which I thought was great, was that it’s mostly in Hindi and local city slang but there are entire scenes that are in Punjabi or Marathi. So it tries to replicate very much how people exist in the city, which is to say in a multilingual universe.
Joanna: Which is just so cool.
We have your books, Sacred Games and Love and Longing in Bombay.
I wondered if you could recommend a couple more books about Mumbai or about India that you think are fantastic.
Vikram: I’m going to be a little nepotistic here, I have a really very, very close friend named Hussain Zaidi, who helped me write Sacred Games. In fact, he’s one of the two people that that book is dedicated to. So if you’re interested in crime and the mafia and that kind of interesting stuff, he’s got two great books.
One is called Dongri to Dubai, which is a nonfiction history of crime in Bombay and the mafia. And then his other book, which is really interesting, is called Mafia Queens of Mumbai, which he co-wrote with Jane Borges.
This one is about women in the macho underworld of Mumbai. And what’s really interesting is that they weren’t just sort of gangsters’ mols. Many of these women were players in their own right, bosses. He does a great job of laying out this landscape in there.
I guess the other nonfiction book I would recommend is called Bombay: Meri Jaan. Meri Jaan means my life. And there’s a very famous old song that’s become the anthem of Bombay, so that’s what it’s named after. The book is a collection of writings, I’d say, over the last 40 or 50 years about this city by a whole bunch of different writers, among them big players by like Salman Rushdie, and this was edited by Jerry Pinto and Naresh Fernandes.
I guess I’m being kind of nepotistic again, there’s a great book called Narcopolis by a friend of mine named Jeet Thayil, which is about, it’s not quite underworld but it’s about drug addiction in the city and in dealing with that it becomes a history of the city.
Joanna: You’ve got some gritty reading there.
Vikram: Yes. I’m trying to think of a funny one. I cannot think of someone offhand. And I guess I should say Salman’s Midnight’s Children. That goes all over the country, but certainly, it’s beginnings and the beginnings of some of its characters and its protagonists are in Bombay. So Midnight’s Children is a great read as well.
Joanna: Fantastic. Where can people find you and your books online?
Vikram: The easy way is my website, so it’s just my first and last name put together, VikramChandra.com.
Joanna: Brilliant. So thank you so much for your time, Vikram, that was great.
Vikram: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.
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