India: Mumbai, a city that defies definition

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Mumbai (until 1995: Bombay), capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra. 18.4 million inhabitants (or well over 20 million if you count the wider metropolitan area). Soon the population of Mumbai will surpass that of the whole continent of Australia. Each day there are 700,000 cars that clog up the roads, breathing out fumes – air pollution in the city is now three times the allowed limit. Additionally, 7.5 million passengers attempt to board the insanely overcrowded commuter trains day in, day out. The city brings in more than 30% of the nation’s tax income. Rents in trendy Malabar Hill are well above those of Manhattan. Yet one in six Mumbaikars lives in a slum. Mumbai defies logic, it is beyond comprehension.

We are a group of young Londoners come to Mumbai for a wedding of our Welsh friend and his Indian bride. From the airport, which looks like it has been designed by Gaudi, we take a comfortable taxi that drives us along a wide, well-lit street to the hotel, where we share nice self-service apartments intended for businessmen and travelling middle-class families. The smaller room, by the kitchen and without an en-suite bathroom, is clearly meant for the housemaid or servant.

In the run-up to the wedding we live in the hotel compound, where facilities such as the gym and swimming pool are shared with the nearby gated development whose residents are pretty much like us, wealthy, educated and shielded from what may be waiting outside the compound walls.

On a few nights we get food delivered directly to the apartment – Chinese, pizza, Thai, whatever takes your fancy. On another night we venture outside, walking on a dark pavement riddled with massive holes and open drains that could easily break your leg. Once we’re outside the compound, we find delicious food from all corners of India, at a fraction of the price of the dubious Chinese or pizza. One night we come across a real oddity – a German beer festival, complete with lederhosen and Bavarian decor. Wealthy youths are lining up outside despite the hefty entrance fee.

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Sharing street food in Colaba

It is only after the wedding that we finally get a chance to hire a car and spend a few days exploring the city. Mumbai, maybe even more so than the rest of India, is built on contrasts.

We walk around Crawford Market where cows roam freely and the easiest means of transportation is a hand-pulled rickshaw. We buy sugar cane juice and fruit from street vendors and watch with fascination how a seller rolls up paan (a combination of betel leaf, areca nut and tobacco), ready for chewing (I tried and do not recommend it though).


We visit old temples where barefoot monks and elderly ladies in faded saris offer flowers, fruit and incense to a colourful pantheon of gods of various powers and significance. We walk around sleek shopping centres displaying the same wares as Westfield in London, mixing with trendy young urbanites sipping Starbucks lattes.

We sit on the elegant Marine Drive by the sea watching Mumbai’s skyscrapers, as the affluent locals, mostly joggers and dog walkers, pass us by. To our side, there is the Haji Ali mosque where fully veiled women are lining up to enter and pay tribute to the saint buried there. As the devotees leave the mosque, the nearby Juhu beach is pulsating with music, dance and booze, a giant open-air disco.

We take a stroll in the Hanging Gardens in Malabar, a place of leisure for upper class Mumbaikars. From there we can see the Towers of Silence, where Zoroastrians deposit the bodies of their dead, to be eaten by scavenging birds, as tradition requires.

We visit museums showing old splendour of colonial India. We stop by Gateway of India, where we take pictures of the monument and Indian families with smartphones take pictures of us, the white people, and post them directly to social media.

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Gateway of India, where foreign and Indian tourists mix and take photos of one another

Across the street, there is the splendid Taj Mahal hotel, a place of unimaginable luxury by local standards. When nature calls, we cheekily go in and use the spotless clean, fragrant facilities with golden taps. We know full well that we are allowed entry only because of our Western look.

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Taj Mahal, a 5-star hotel amidst the sea of poverty

The reason we went to the Taj is that the public toilet by Gateway of India is in such a sorry state that I wouldn’t wish a visit on my worst enemy. And anyhow to get in you would have to step over the bodies of a young family sleeping directly on the ground. A naked baby is lying in the sun, its cheek pressed against the filthy pavement.

No less grand is the iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the main railway station formerly known as the Victoria Terminus. That pearl of Victorian architecture makes you think of Phileas Fogg and his adventures. But the grand interiors bring back modern India: businessmen in suits, families with children in tow, sellers, beggars, cripples and others, all rushing towards their destination or waiting patiently for what’s to come next.

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Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a relic of old times

If you come to Mumbai, everyone will show you the Antilia building, the most expensive residential property in the world after Buckingham Palace. It belongs to Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries. It stands 170 metres tall, has 27 floors, 10 lifts, and employs 600 staff. By official calculations it cost $1 billion to build. From the top of his residence its owner can see the blue sea to one side and a sprawling urban slum to the other.

On the subject of slums, these aren’t always restricted to a particular area. Makeshift tents or a simple piece of cloth placed on the ground, or people sleeping and living directly on the bare pavement, are a common sight in Mumbai. Poverty is everywhere, in your face, impossible to ignore.

But slum areas do exist, such as Dharavi, which with its population of around 1 million is one of the largest informal settlements in the world. With mixed feelings, we embark on a guided tour towards the end of our stay in the city. My friends didn’t want to go initially, having ethical objections, but in the end it is four of us. The guide asks us to put our cameras away, which we do with relief. We spend hours wandering around the slum taking in life of what must be one of the most entrepreneurial people on Earth. The tour takes us to the industrial area where thousands of small businesses recycle or burn rubbish, make soap, pottery, jewellery, textiles or leather goods. Tons of rubbish get dumped on Dharavi every day and get transformed by its restless residents into something usable, such as plastic canisters. It is estimated that Dharavi’s 5000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories generate an annual turnover of between $500 million and $1 billion.

It is dirty, hot, suffocating, and we hate to think about the state of the workers’ lungs. These people are not here by choice – they are mostly seasonal migrants from rural areas who spend a few months a year in the city breathing toxic fumes to make a living for themselves and their families.

But Dharavi carries an uplifting message too – even in the poorest and most destitute places on Earth there is life, there is laughter and there is energy. Many people associate slum areas with apathy and despair. The reality is far from that: we pass by schools, health clinics, markets, modest but clean houses, and a small business on every corner of every street. Seeing how everyone toils to make a living you start hoping that maybe one day, these people too will lift themselves out of poverty and jump on India’s development bandwagon. The first thing that needs to change, and urgently, is sanitation – currently one toilet serves a thousand people in Dharavi.

On our way to the airport we take a detour to see Dhobi Ghat, the world’s biggest open-air laundry sitting against the backdrop of Mumbai’s skyscrapers. If you stand on the nearby railway bridge, you can take a good look at what’s going on below. There are rows and rows of little wash pens where men and women are bent down washing and scrapping by hand. Further you can see innumerable pairs of jeans or white bedsheets and towels drying neatly on the line. Thousands of the city’s hotels, restaurants, and hospitals bring their dirty laundry here every single day. While the place may look like total chaos, supposedly nothing ever gets lost here, every item of clothing makes its way back to its rightful owner by the end of the day.

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Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest open-air laundry

Now, over a year since coming back from Mumbai, I still look back at that memory with a mixture of excitement, sadness and shame. I love re-reading ‘Shantaram’, an iconic book set in Mumbai among its resident expat community ‘slightly’ at odds with the law. I bought my obviously fake copy from a street seller and every time I open it loose pages come flying around. The characters of the novel spend hours hanging out at Cafe Leopold in Colaba, a local legend which we frequented too. The book reminds me of places we visited and the spirit of that monstrous, cruel but compelling city.

But there is one image I can’t get out of my head. As we were driving one hot afternoon in our air-conditioned car with a chauffeur, we saw a homeless man lower himself down to drink from a puddle. It occurred to me much later that we should have stopped and given him water, plus money to buy more. It would have been a decent human gesture, although it wouldn’t have changed his situation long-term.

In my memory Mumbai remains the city where one man builds a house worth $1 billion and another has to quench his thirst in a dirty puddle.

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