My (abbreviated) impressions of five trips to Mumbai.
“Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
To call it “muggy” would be an understatement. The Mumbai air felt like molasses, viscous, sugary, thick. We waded through it with our hands, ignoring the rising stench of overflowing gutters and sweaty backs, while a constant patter of warm rain fell upon our necks and arms. The entire city seemed to have entered a stupor, as laborers and servicemen sheltered near the fans of roadside hawkers, and men and women in suits crammed themselves into their BMWs, and bathed in their artificial cooling. The ground reeked, as mud, cow manure, and moisture congealed into an abhorrent syrup that squelched beneath our heavy, tired steps. A dense fog hung in the air, a remnant of the nearby valley of ashes, and expanded to envelope both the towering skyscrapers of the Bandra-Kurla Complex and the shanties of Dharavi.
And then the rain increased, and the gutters began to spew refuse anew across the sidewalks, making walking cleanly nearly impossible. Cars jammed into overcrowded intersections and created a chorus of honks, while motorcycles and mopeds zipped nimbly by. We stepped out of our taxi in the neighborhood of Parle, a western suburb of Mumbai, and walked into the chaos, greeted by the screeches and slight spray of a speeding rickshaw zipping by inches from us.
My mother was born and raised here, in this small apartment, off a particularly crowded street in downtown Vile Parle. It was quite the eclectic place, where men in expensive suits and Italian loafers walked alongside schoolchildren in their tidy uniforms, while street salesmen shoved plates of bhel and pani puri in their faces. Sweat dripped from everyone’s foreheads and collected in the bottom of our shoes, sticking to our socks and wetting our already sodden clothes.
I stayed up late playing cards, learning to love my cousins all over again, as we tried to make the most of our limited time. I spoke about my electronics, and (relatively) large house, and personal lawn, while they listened with muted amazement. This was years ago, of course: India’s very different now. But the comparison still holds. We were from two different worlds, my cousins and I. It was amazing we could still relate.
The next morning, I took a cab to the market. The house was empty, and my brain was rotting from the combination of heat, humidity and inactivity, and I figured I’d see a little of the world for myself. On the way, a little girl knocked on my window, offering to sell me a small plastic rose for 5 rupees. I was about to decline, but I rolled down the window, and fished through my wallet and gave her a 5 rupee note. She walked away in apparent happiness, her young callused feet bare on the muddy quicksand. As we drove away, I saw her hand the money to an older man, who hugged her, and offered her a bite to eat. She refused, though I could pick out her bones from her shirt, and picked up her roses again, and prepared for the next wave of jaded Mumbaikar.
I went home early that day. Mumbai’s new consumerism was a lot less appealing than I’d thought.
The suburb took quite a different shape at night. There, as the city cooled and its gutter-stench faded, the night walkers came out, most just a few blocks from my mother’s home, offering their services to passerby. Some barely appeared to have entered their second digit. Loud young men stood on street corners, chewing on succulent paans and whistling at all women, young and old, who had the misfortune to walk past. The hawkers packed up for the night, leaving the sidewalks empty and free, caked with only the dirt of the day.
When I awoke again, the next day, the city was bathed in light, and Mumbai’s heartbeat, the honks, the crowds, the bustle, had started again. But today was a business day, and I stepped into a taxi with my family and headed towards Dadar, to my father’s home, in downtown Mumbai, where India’s corporations hide from the realities of a divided city.
Dharavi lies directly between the suburbs that stretch to the northern end of Salsette Island, and proper Mumbai, which is delineated by Mahim in the north to Colaba in the south, where the vast blue plain of the Arabian S1ea beckons forth. Its squalor is unmatched in the world, as a million people inhabit one-story shanties that are prone to collapse in wind and flood during rain. Garbage coats the ground, and cows crowd out people in the narrow streets.
Dharavi was originally called Koliwadas, and inhabited by fishermen, as was most of Mumbai. But, in the mid-nineteenth century, under the British Raj, in an attempt to stop epidemics coursing through the overcrowded city, a number of people were removed from peninsular Mumbai and thrown into Koliwadas, which quickly turned from a small village to an overflowing slum. A number of polluting industries, like tanneries, were also expelled from the city and moved to Koliwadas, providing jobs for displaced citizens but also driving more people into a slum that already suffered from inadequate infrastructure and living space. By Indian independence, the slum was already the largest in world, and it still is growing today.
It’s heartbreaking to drive through and see what people consider home. Small, rickety and without insulation, these shanties even lack proper floors to guard against the seeping muck of monsoon, or the stifling heat of summer. In monsoon, the streets overflow, and many lose everything in the fetid floodwater, while in the summer, children’s bare feet burn on the steaming dirt as they walk to search for clean water, another rarity in the slum.
It was even more heartbreaking to watch children stare from the inside of their shanties into the windows of our taxi, their faces carrying struggles that we consider inhumane, their bodies bearing the scars of a life as the other half. They watched with wide, knowing eyes, and I paled in their gaze as we drove by, and eventually chose to stare blankly ahead, hoping that the unpleasant encounter with my own fortuity would end quickly.
But it seemed last for hours. We passed row after row of shanties, and the smell worsened as we went deeper and deeper. Just as I thought we’d entered the abyss, our small Fiat taxi emerged and stepped into the sun. We could see the city unfold beneath us, small shanties growing into towering silver skyscrapers, offering beautiful views of the relative calm of downtown Mumbai. Clean restaurants and dressy waiters replaced the street-hawkers, and luxury cars replaced the loud rickshaws. The city seen past Dharavi is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the beauty and mystery in the world.
Dadar was a major region in South Mumbai. It was still rather north, before the business districts, but it carried the unmistakable aura of a city; a living, breathing city. For one thing, it never slept. The many shops lining the sidewalks were open to obscene hours, and people could be find walking by at all times of the night. Young men and women packed themselves into trains throughout the twilight hours, returning from a foray into downtown’s sparkling nightlife, while the Mumbai harbor covered the vast expanse to the east, with Navi Mumbai on the other side.
My father’s home was recently renovated, so its newly tiled floors and shiny bathrooms hid the dirt and heat he spent his life in. We walked down his street and entered his building, a relatively short structure that, with its muck-stained walls and squat appearance, seemed out of place next to the towering Sena Bhavan. But entering our level, atop the building, was an entirely different experience. The floors were lined with marbled tile, and the walls were painted a clear white, while large windows illuminated each room. A cleaning lady took a dirty rag, soaked in soapy water, and dragged it across the smooth floor, and moved backwards until the balcony, at which point she turned and wiped the floor dry.
The balcony overlooked both the nearby squalor and the far-away wealth, as the dirt and crowds beneath gave way to shimmering silver buildings and black gilded automobiles. One could see all of Mumbai from this angle, each intricacy stacked upon the other, while casual observers staring into darkened windows peeled away the layers of human secrecy, and saw something true.
And me? As a man of relative affluence who was unacquainted with the misery of the poor, but also unaccustomed to the excesses of the wealthy, I felt alone, caught between two equally unfavorable extremes. I was either, and neither, within and without, both enthralled and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of the city.
My fellow middle-class men walked through the city with an air of enforced ignorance, enjoying some of the revelries of the south while remaining bound to their northern hideaways. They avoided Dharavi, and left their windows closed to the poor children selling flimsy toys and roses at crowded intersections, and averted their eyes when a deformed man tried to cajole them into giving money. They expressed outrage at governmental incompetence, but kept their memories short and malleable, immune to both disappointment and fervor. They went to temple each day, and spoke of the Lord’s grace, while at home they argued uselessly with their spouses and purposelessly attacked their children.
The government announced new policies, and elections appointed new officials, but these people remained the same, untouched by both the hands of God and democracy. Their lives were frozen in time, and they moved through the syrupy air with calm, colored, caution.
They were the middlemen, Mumbai’s silent majority, and theirs was the only way to live, in a city where a man could walk from rags to riches in less than 10 minutes.