"Have a seat," the waiter says cheerfully, depositing me at a table next to a one-inch bullet hole that goes deep into a mirrored wall. I am in not a war zone but the financial capital of the world’s largest democracy, and I’m having lunch at Leopold Cafe, a popular watering hole that was a site of brutal terrorist attacks in 2008. Time has passed, but the symbolism is hard to miss: In this city, people live with acute juxtaposition.
With its population of 19 million and a north–south axial layout, the metro area of Mumbai, India—–whose name, to the consternation of many, was changed from Bombay in 1995—–is the fifth most populous in the world. Its denizens are a pastiche of religions, languages, classes, and political beliefs, creating a culture that is both tolerant and chaotic. The architecture follows suit.
As I walk the ancient bylanes, I see handprints of the different empires that have passed through: British, Portuguese, Islamic. The city’s architectural fabric is rich, to say the least: Victoria Terminus (aka Chhatrapati Shiraji Terminus) and Elphinstone College are high Victorian Gothic; the legendary Taj Mahal hotel is inspired by Islamic design; and Marine Drive boasts one of the largest collections of art-deco buildings in the world.
Though a galloping economy has made Mumbai the surging heart of India’s mounting dominance, part of what still eludes the city is urban and aesthetic coherence. "For the longest time, Bombay couldn’t afford good design," says Suketu Mehta, whose 2004 book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, dissects the dense urban enclave. Mehta, who grew up in Mumbai and now teaches journalism at New York University, takes us through the notable, and sometimes notably lacking, design in one of India’s most spectacular cities.