Many foreigners never imagine that India has a center of commerce as large as Bombay, also called Mumbai City. Since around 2007 the city has been growing faster than any other in India, with an annual population growth between 2 and 3 million. To date the city is pushing 30 million inhabitants, which makes it one of the largest in the world. Bombay is also the capital of Maharashtra State and was originally a group of seven islands on the Konkan coastline. This island port hosts some of the biggest film companies in Bollywood, and has some of the most apocalyptic slums I’ve ever encountered. It is a city of extremes, much like India is herself, and one not to miss on your travels to this category-busting country.
Mumbai is a true melting pot of cultures, in the same way that New York City is in the US or Vancouver is in Canada
From Slums to Porsche Dealerships
I will never forget encountering the first million-person slum I had ever laid eyes on, located in North Central Mumbai. I attest that I only saw one small portion of it. Its sheer size is almost inconceivable, like looking at the stars in the heavens and trying to take it all in. As an American citizen, these slums make the projects in East LA or some of the shadier boroughs in New York, look like a Betty Ford Clinic for retired movie stars. Part of what created the slum was a huge onslaught of refugees to the area during India’s fight for Independence from British rule. Despite this understandable political collateral damage, I actually saw a woman carrying an infant on her hip who was wailing the cry of abject hunger. The mother bent down and picked up some stale popcorn off a street corner and tried to feed it to her infant to muffle his tears. It was beyond heart wrenching.
I was later told that over 4 thousand people share one latrine in these slums, if you can call a hole in the ground a restroom, and that while this was one of the largest slums in India due to its location in Bombay, there were plenty others that were equally as disparaging. While poverty is still a problem in a country where most people make less than two dollars a day, there is a resilience and heart in the people I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
The Friendliest People in the World
When trying to catch a train from one of the main Mumbai stations to a far away rural city in Rajastan, I passed a Porsche dealership while riding in my taxi. I saw a man sleeping precariously on a concrete divider set up to direct the incessant traffic of a city on growth hormones right in front of this luxury car show room. As he nodded off, and almost fell off the concrete pylon, a passerby bent down to give him some food, a few rupees and suggested a different sleeping spot a few yards down the street. He sleepily nodded in agreement and took the stranger’s advice.
This touched me greatly considering that many homeless people are shunned or ignored in my hometown, and definitely not asked kindly to consider a different sleeping spot so that they didn’t kill themselves when a large truck drives by. If there was a vagrant sleeping outside of a Porsche dealership in any large city in the US, they would be surreptitiously delivered to a police officer who would shoo them away or even arrest them, jail being the only option when homeless shelters are at an all time capacity.
Even more striking was the juxtaposition of such vast wealth and such heart wrenching poverty. In South Mumbai, the oldest part of the city, you can find Armani and Zegna, Hermes and Gucci stores. It is full of upscale restaurants and high-class bars and hotels. It houses Mumbai’s museums and the Gateway of India.
The Pulse of Life In Mumbai is Frenetic
The industry which gave rise to all this opulence is seen in the frenzied pace at which the city runs itself. It is far from experiencing the lazy afternoon musings of a yogi or sadhu inside a 4500-year-old temple, though you can visit the carvings at the Elephanta Caves if you can muster the energy after an epic shopping trip or a stroll through the streets which are all at once full of cars, large trucks, bicycle rickshaws, taxis, goats, pedestrians and motorcycles. Somehow they all get to where they are going, without much more than an occasional accident, though trucks will literally pass one another with less than a hair’s breadth between them, going in exact opposite directions, while also dodging a rickshaw and a sudden fork in the road ahead. I had to just resolve myself to this crazy way of being transported and decide that if I was meant to go by way of a car accident in India, well, then so be it. For adrenaline junkies, this is better than the most spine-tingling rides at amusement parks that charge over priced entrance fees.
The quality of the roads is hideous and the trains are laughable, but there is only one way to be in Mumbai city, and that is flexible. If you decide to travel outside the city by train, you will be joined with several million people who use them every day to commute to work or visit family members. Due to the government subsidy, trains are one of the most affordable ways to travel. In a car meant to carry 200 people, often 500 or more will cram in, like so many cattle going to slaughter. There are no doors on even the 1st class trains, so you’ll need to hold on tight and get rid of any sense of personal space you may have developed. These are luxuries you can no longer afford.
Once again, though, the people are pleasant to extremes. While riding a train from Mumbai to my desired destination about six hours outside the city, I was exhausted and hungry, and largely confused. There were no signs indicating what stops we were pulling into when we arrived at them, and no loud speaker calling out the city names. I nodded off repeatedly in my well-populated car, and several people called out the name of the city I had inquired about so that I wouldn’t miss my stop, even smiling from ear to ear and nudging me politely when I had almost missed my final depot. Perhaps due to such sheer congestion, the people of India have learned to be tolerant of one another and to make the best of crumbling infrastructure or over-crowded living spaces. Since the British East India Trading Company built many of the railways, it is no surprise that once ousted form the country so that India could enjoy its own sovereign, there might be the fallout of poor planning and an ever-growing population.
Overall, the city is home to countless technology companies, trading companies, factories, Bollywood film companies, and the entrepreneurial spirit of countless waves of immigrants from very diverse countries, so the attitudes of those who reside in Mumbai are exceptionally liberal and accommodating. It is a true melting pot of cultures, in the same way that New York City is in the US or Vancouver is in Canada. You can find every type of food, music and clothing. Surprisingly, the city manages to slosh along at its break neck pace even during Monsoon season, from June to September, so unless you like to get wet, perhaps you can plan your visit in another month. There is so much to see and take in, though, so plan at least a week for your visit before moving on to India’s other great treasures.