Ten years ago, in the now sadly defunct Mumbai edition of Time Out magazine, I wrote an essay arguing that there were only three properly world cities; London, New York, and Mumbai itself. They all had an extraordinary diversity of religious, ethnic and linguistic groups; all were great centres of trade, finance, and entrepreneurship; all had an effervescent cultural life in publishing, theatre, and the arts. I considered other claimants to the title, and rejected them. Thus Paris was too narrowly French, Shanghai was located in a country that did not permit freedom of speech. I thought that in time, Sydney and perhaps Cape Town might emerge as world cities as I had defined them.
My essay in Time Out was admittedly partisan, based on my own experience of these three cities. Mumbai I had known since I was a little boy. I first came there to visit relatives, then to take part in inter-college quiz competitions, still later to conduct research in its crumbling archives. I first visited New York in my late twenties, when teaching in a college nearby, but had come back quite often since. London I first saw only in my thirties; but thereafter I returned several times a year, to work in the great collection of documents on colonial India in the British Library. I had walked through all these cities, had made professional contacts and personal friends in all of them, had eaten memorable meals and watched fine films in all of them too.
Last fortnight, however, I did something I had never done before; visiting Mumbai en route to London, where I spent a week, and carrying on thereafter to New York. My previous trips to these cities had been discrete and disconnected; now, at the advanced age of 60, I had for the first time travelled from one of my three favourite cities to the second and then on to the third.
I grew up in a small qasba in northern India. The great city closest to us was Delhi, and I felt a peculiar frisson when the bus from my home town crossed the old Jamuna bridge and we saw the ramparts of the Red Fort. I no longer feel any kind of thrill at driving from Palam to New Delhi. But I do when driving from the Chatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj International Airport into south Mumbai. And when driving from Heathrow into central London, or from JFK to downtown Manhattan.
I think New Delhi’s claims to being a great city are undermined by two things; by being inland, and by being the centre of political power. Cities located on the coast have a natural openness to winds of all kinds, whether economic or cultural. London is also a national capital, but its location close to the sea has always tempered any tendency to insularity or arrogance. Beijing is akin to New Delhi in these respects; inland, inward-looking, thinking itself superior to all other cities in the nation merely because the Emperor and his courtiers sit there.
My most recent visits to London and New York have come at a time when the nations of which they are part have each been subject to a paroxysm of parochialism. The British have turned away from the continent through Brexit; the Americans have turned away from the world through Trump and Trumpism. Fortunately, the cities I love have themselves stayed resolutely away from this narrowing of the imagination. London voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the European Union; a vast majority of New Yorkers are dismayed that an oafish, thuggish, predatory real estate magnate sits where Lincoln and FDR once did.
I love my three world cities, but find it impossible to place one above the others, whether in terms of objective criteria or of personal experience. Mumbai has more languages spoken on its streets than either New York or London. There is more entrepreneurial dynamism in New York than in London or Mumbai (this city never sleeps, while the streets of the others are silent at least between 3 am and 4 am). London is in architectural terms easily the most attractive of the three.
My own main interest is in books, and these cities each have a great deal to offer in this regard. On the first day of my most recent trip to Mumbai I went to the pavement stalls near Flora Fountain, where I picked up, for the princely sum of Rs 400, a first edition (in reasonably good condition) of Nirad Chaudhuri’s An Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. On the first day of my most recent trip to London I walked, as always, down Charing Cross Road, diving into the second-hand stores as I went. In one, located on Cecil Court, I picked up a paperback copy of the autobiography of the great Irish short story writer, Frank O’Connor.
Chaudhuri and O’Connor nestled together in my suitcase in the long flight across the Atlantic. I write this column the morning after my arrival in New York. The sun is out, and a cool autumnal breeze is blowing. For lunch I meet two old friends, both long-time New Yorkers, one an author, the other a publisher. After lunch I shall walk in Central Park, then take a cab downtown to the Strand Bookstore. Before or after visiting that great repository of the printed word, I shall pay my respects to the Gandhi statue in Union Square.
Mumbai, London, New York; that has been my itinerary so far. Now it can only go downhill.
THREE WORLD CITIES
(first published in Hindustan Times, 8th October 2018)