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The City of Dreams

New kinds of invisible industries are mushrooming in Mumbai. The ones that know how to make money out of money

What is the most expensive thing in India today, for that matter, anywhere else? Gold? Diamonds? No, it is real estate. A piece of land, less than five acres in area, has changed hands in Bombay-Mumbai to you-for Rs 421 crore, on which the purchasers will make a profit of maybe a thousand crore.

Twenty years ago, there was a flourishing cotton mill on the site where some of us used to buy bedsheets, towels and curtain cloth. The mill closed down soon after, like most other mills in and around Bombay, but the land was so valuable the government wanted to grab it. Now it is being auctioned, plot by plot, and politicians, masquerading as businessmen, are grabbing it, and making a pile in the bargain.

The plot that went for Rs 421 crore was snapped up by a firm close to two Shiv Sena stalwarts, Manohar Joshi, who was once chief minister of Maharashtra, and Bal Thackaray, Shiv Sena supremo. It so happens that the plot lies just across the road from Shiv Sena headquarters, and the duo must have been smacking their lips at it for a long time from their office windows.

This is not all. Shiv Sena draws its strength from hundreds of thousands of men who once worked in the very same mills. The mills have closed and most of these men are out of work. There is therefore some poetic injustice in the sale of land by the bankrupt mills to the big political bosses who are minting money from the land which once sustained their own supporters, now on the street.

But that is life. Big money always keeps changing hands in Bombay. Very few of the mill owners, who were once uncrowned kings of Bombay, are now even heard of. One hardly hears of Mafatlals or Thackerseys, and one would have forgotten Tatas too, had they not branched into new industries.

The only house that has stuck to textiles is Bombay Dyeing of Nusli Wadia, who is also selling off bits of real estate from time to time. He has lots of other irons in the fire, including chemicals and biscuits, for textiles are a closing chapter.

Bombay still generates lots of cash, for there is more money in Bombay than in other city in India. But there are new kinds of invisible industries, instead of cotton textiles or even engineering. There are, of course, lots of small factories all over the place, but they are dying out. Everything has become very expensive and unless you learn how to make money out of money, you are dead.

And that is what they are now making, money out of money. Almost everyone I know has some connection with the stock market, either buying or selling shares, or betting on them. You set up a computer, hire a few telephones, and you are in business. Housewives line up in these dingy offices after cooking their morning meal, and some make hundreds of rupees before lunch. They know more about Infosys than the so-called experts, and possibly even their husbands with fancy designations working in brokerage houses.

They will soon see 30-storey building sprouting up where their fathers and maybe grandfathers once sweated to bring home a few rupees. The new skyscrapers will be occupied by stockbrokers and merchant bankers who rarely handle a currency note but deal in millions. And Bombay will go on!