Since our last posting on Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Jay and Tanya visited a friend in Singapore, shopped in Klang, Malaysia and shared drinks and conversation with the Sri Lankan branch of our family in Colombo. It was an unforgettable week. But more was to come as we spent two days in Mumbai, India.
It has been said that India engages all of one’s senses simultaneously. And that is certainly true of the country’s largest city, Mumbai. With 23 million people and representing 6% of India’s economy, we found ourselves pleasantly bombarded with the sounds, smells, visual and physical input that is Mumbai. Extreme poverty and wealth converge here, religions blend, and ethnic groups mix in this garam masala of a city that has transformed itself in recent decades into the financial, entertainment and cultural capital of India.
Tanya had never been here and Jay’s last visit was in 1982, when he spent a few days attending the Bombay Jazz Festival. Tanya was a little apprehensive about our visit and Jay’s memories were of constantly being surrounded by beggars and small children literally grabbing at his pants pockets. Walking along the promenade, Marine Drive, at night he recalled seeing massive amounts of people living and sleeping alongside the street. Outside his hotel, the Sea Green, people slept on the steps outside the lobby, as well as in the hotel’s hallways. It was an unforgettable introduction for Jay as to how most people in the world live, compared to the luxury of living in the West.
What a difference now from that visit 35 years ago! What was once the squalid Marine Drive walkway is now a beautifully maintained pedestrian thoroughfare. Litter police regularly patrol on foot and promptly fine anyone who so much as drops a candy wrapper on the ground. The Sea Green Hotel is still there, not far from the cricket grounds where Jay attended the jazz festival years ago. But no one is sleeping on its outside steps.
Of course, there is still the wide disparity between the haves and have-nots, and there are many millions more people here than in 1982. People at the bottom of the economic scale have been forced to move further out from the urban core as downtown property prices have skyrocketed. But the city seems to have changed for the better. There are still those who are completely homeless and live in the streets. But for the 60% of the population living in what are unashamedly called “slums”, the lifestyle, while unbelievably low by Western standards, is not regarded as unacceptable in Mumbai.
With our guide, Rahul, Tanya and Jay rode on the local Mumbai train for the 35 minute trip to visit Rahul’s neighborhood, the Dharavi slum, home to 1.2 million people and covering over 100 acres.
Dharavi is organized into two distinct areas, residential and commercial. Portions of it were used in the film, “Slumdog Millionaire”. While it was impossible for us not to feel a certain sense of voyeurism, at no time did we ever feel unsafe or any antagonism from Dharavi’s residents. We were never approached by beggars and we were either greeted with smiles and hellos or just simply ignored as people went about their daily lives. It also didn’t hurt that Rahul was from the “hood”. Our picture-taking was kept to a minimum, with an unobtrusive small camera, and limited to the commercial section of Dharavi.
Like any metropolis, Mumbai has its “must see” sights: Dhobi Ghat, Gateway of India, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Bombay University, Mahatma Ghandi’s home, the Hanging Gardens and Chowpatty Beach.
Dhobi Ghat: One of several public laundry sites in Mumbai, this 23-acre “ghat” is where laundry from schools, hospitals and other government facilities is washed on a daily basis. The washing stations or flogging stones are passed on from generation to generation as the “dhobis” or laundrymen continue this occupation that has continued for over 100 years.
Gateway of India: This arch was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary when they landed in India in 1911.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus: Also known as Victoria Terminus is the central train station in Mumbai. From here, you can take a local or long-trip train on the Central Railways of India. An average 2.5 million people pass through this station every day.
Bombay University: Patterned after English universities and the tower of Big Ben in London, this British-built campus is now used for administrative functions.
Mahatma Ghandi’s home: Ghandi, the father of modern India, lived here for 17 years, from 1917 to 1934, and this modest building contains his library, personal items and a series of dioramas depicting key events during his lifetime.
The “Hanging Gardens”: This garden area overlooking Mumbai’s central skyline has a fascinating history. Officially known as the Pherozeshah Mehta Gardens, it is built above a large water reservoir. The Parsis were a group of enterprising Iranians who came to India in the 19th century and lived in this area. Their religious beliefs prohibited burial or cremation of their dead. Instead, bodies were hung from trees near the then open air reservoir and offered up to crows and vultures. The birds were not always very tidy and often dropped bits of human flesh into the reservoir. Since the reservoir provided most of the drinking water for the city, the Bombay officials were not too pleased and ordered the community to stop or move their practice of body disposal elsewhere. In 1882, as a compromise, a wealthy Parsi businessman offered to cover the reservoir and build gardens above it. The city agreed and the garden is now a popular site for visitors and Mumbai residents. Incidentally, the crows and vultures still carry out their duties in an area adjacent to the park.
Chowpatty Beach: The primary attraction is the pedestrian walkway along the beach, rather than using the beach for swimming or sunbathing. The problem, of course, is that much of Mumbai’s sewage and overall trash finds its way into the Arabian sea along the beach.
So, what was our conclusion after this short visit? We will definitely visit this amazing city again, next time as part of a trip exploring some of the rest of incredible India.