Heather here. Heading to Mumbai, India’s financial megacity, we had visions of classic British colonial India romance as well as modern-day extremes of poverty, wealth, and religious fervor. These varying identities of the metropolis formerly known as Bombay certainly presented themselves to us, like a pulsing being with multiple personality syndrome. Which version of Mumbai we’d encounter each day was a mystery until we went out to meet it head-on. And for added measure, she often surfaced a few faces at one time.
Since we planted ourselves in the historic neighborhood of Colaba, we typically experienced the classic British-Victorian-colonial version of Mumbai upon first glance. Walking through Colaba and on to Fort, past the gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Victoria Train Station (now renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), several museums and university buildings, we got a sense of the exotic, leafy image the British built of “their” India of the early 20th Century. The seaside location, with the harbor running the length of much of these areas added to the romance. Marine Drive, Chowpatty Beach. The romance of it was so thick we could practically see the Bollywood film lovers in constant embrace here long after the final wrap.
And where else is there a mosque built far out in tidal waters so that the devoted may only reach it during low tide? High tide comes and the path is submerged, closing access to worshipers until the sea ebbs once more.
Throw in thousands of zooming Ambassador taxi cars and this classic personality reached icon status.
Now, as if that weren’t enough, we had a taste (literally) of the cosmopolitan cuisine one can find in Mumbai. After all, Mumbai has everything, and people, from everywhere influencing its commerce – culinary industry included. A deli on par with any up-market deli in New York or London? Check. A bakery with a French-Belgian-based menu? Yep. A chain of coffee shops rivaling Starbucks? You bet. Frankly, we were delighted to depart from traditional Indian fare and have a taste of the familiar. Several months away from home will do that to anyone. But we were on pace to blow our budget, as Mumbai is notoriously expensive for dazzled visitors. So, we had our turkey sandwich, caprese tartine, and chocolate lava cake, then sought out more local food at a more local price. And wouldn’t you know, one block from our hotel was a South-Indian vegetarian restaurant with 3-foot long paper masala dosas to make you lose your mind. More than enough food to feed the two of us for around $1.50 each. Bingo.
One place I insisted upon checking out was Leopold’s – a classic Mumbai establishment. This bar/restaurant opened in the 1870’s and has been catering to throngs of locals and tourists ever since. I finished reading the book Shantaram a few months back. Those of you familiar with the book should know Leopold’s. It was Lin’s group’s hangout in the novel. Great place for drinks, people watching, and dreaming of Mumbai noir stories of yore.
And what would be a stop in a new city be without a new festival? The day we arrived was Lord Shiva’s birthday, and Mumbaikers celebrated with block party-like gatherings where teams of boys competed to build human towers as high as they could, stacking feet-on-shoulders on top of each other. The ultimate goals was to knock down a matka, what I would call an Indian piñata, filled with goodies and fruit. We giddily watched the neighborhood teams near our hotel do their best, holding our breath when they came tumbling down into the arms of their safety-net neighbors surrounding the boy towers.
But as classic as Mumbai is, it also harbors aggressively extreme sides as well. Polar opposite poverty and wealth abound. It is the center of India’s mass hustle to launch the economy into the developed world, and everyone up and down the socio-economic scale is working every angle (whether legal or under the table) to increase their status and fill their pockets. Urbanization has brought millions of impoverished rural folks in search of a better life. And the result of this, over the decades, has been a swelling of temporary settlements, known to all as slums. And there is a striking paradox in this city where slums and luxury high-rises stand side-by-side; geographic separation of the inhabitants’ wildly different lives seems paper-thin. And it only exacerbates the extremes when one can visibly compare the spectrum in one view.
We hired a driver to give us a ride around town, and this was most eye-opening for us. He walked us through a small section of a slum housing hundreds of thousands of people adjacent to a military compound and a row of Billionaires’ mansions (ever hear of the Tata family?). The section we visited was an outdoor laundry facility called Dobi Ghat.
Passing by the stench of the public toilets, our olfactory senses were next assaulted with the warm soapy smell of washing machines and starchy steam. Workers were laboriously managing huge washing drums of linens, and others were tending to the hand-washing in outdoor concrete bins. Sheets and uniforms hung from lines supported by bamboo poles that we dodged, avoiding knocking them over. Folks either stared at us with what I imagined was curiosity (though self-consciously wondered if it was contempt), or sang out a hello. The kids seemed especially piqued. Some boys played cricket in a field next door.
We saw other slums along the drive, albeit from the car, and we were shocked and saddened by some of the living conditions we saw, particularly when children were involved. The most heartbreaking stories were those who had nothing but a tarp and some pavement to squat on, not even a coveted shack in a slum. We had seen poverty in Rajasthan, but that was more of the rural type. In Mumbai, it is densely-populated poverty en masse. We understand that currently about 50% of the city’s residents live in dire poverty. Overwhelming.
Equally as stark, but on the other side of the extreme were the shiny condos and mansions dotted around town, and in affluent neighborhoods like Malabar Hill, near the Hanging Gardens with their pretty views of the city. Middle and upper class families picnic and stroll these gardens, shop at the French patisserie for treats, send their children to elite private schools, have chauffeurs. Restaurants and stores have guards that don’t let lesser class people in the door.
And wealthy businessmen build empires in Mumbai, like a billionaire energy and communications tycoon named Mukesh Ambani. As we took a walk through the Hanging Gardens we saw a modern, funky building in the distance that we figured was some new condo high-rise or trendy office space. We learned that it was the single-family residence of Mr. Ambani and family: a 27-floor masterpiece that did awe us at first. Our driver told us there was even a room dedicated to making snow for the kiddos to play in.
Intrigued, we did a wee bit of Googling to find out more about Sir Ambani. It turns out that his sparkly new palace is valued as the most expensive home on Earth. As a measure of comparison, the most expensive home ever sold in the U.S. was valued around $100 million USD. This Mumbai mansion weighs in at, conservatively, $1 billion USD. One BILLION! We started thinking of Mukesh as a tacky tycoon too caught up in his own wealth to see the millions around him, many literally across the street, suffering every day to find enough to eat. To build a shrine to himself and his fortune as ridiculously mammoth as this is a slap in the face, really. We’re not against a healthy capitalist attitude, nor do we think billionaires are solely responsible for fixing everyone’s problems just because they have money, but we find these displays too extreme.
An alarming scene we chanced upon one day while wandering around Fort neighborhood for us evoked visions of the religious zeal and fervor this city, and country, is often reported as having, especially in the media. After having casual chats with folks along our journeys in India, we saw from the ground level how ages-old frustrations between Hindus and Muslims is still very much alive. Some use extremists to label the folks fighting for their beliefs, and yes, when violence is involved, it is extreme. And who can’t help but think of the November 26 attacks of 2008 that this city endured, including the infamous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel bombing.
The scene that unfolded was mild in comparison to 26/11, but it didn’t turn out to be a peaceful protest either. We were inside the CST station (Victoria Terminus), checking out the interior. We noticed throngs of Muslim men streaming out of a train, shouting and holding signs in protest and waving Pakistani flags. Everyone knows the tension that exists between India and Pakistan, so clearly things were serious. The signs in English read slogans like “stop killing Muslims.” The journalist in me wanted to see what was going to happen, but having read about many protests in India often turning ugly, my gut told me we should leave. Fred wanted to leave without a doubt. We walked out but people were filing out of the station to the road, and many more protesters were arriving on motorcycles and piled in the backs of flatbed trucks, more Pakistani flags waving. Crossing the street, we could see the crowds amassing, and after a flash of monsoon downpours passed, we walked clear away to avoid any trouble. We learned on the news later that there was indeed trouble not long after we left. Two people were killed, many injured, trucks and cars burned, all in protest of the issues transpiring in the Eastern states of India involving Muslims and Hindus. Chaos.
Our few days in Mumbai whirred by, as time does. We felt we had seen many faces of this frenetic city, and surely it has many more to show to those who dig deeper. We had classic moments, we had moments that felt like extreme portrayals of one side of society or another. Yet somehow it all blended together seamlessly, and jarringly at times. As Mumbai forges ahead into the future and upward movement of the Indian economy, we can only wonder what it has in store for the future. For now, for us, it’s time to put that behind us and slow the pace a bit down south in Kerala.