Bombay – or Mumbai – is the largest city in India and the largest city I have ever been in. Mumbai is like the New York of India; it’s the economic capital and a melting pot where people from all over the country come to make better lives for themselves. Being the capital city of the state of Maharashtra, the official language in Mumbai is Marathi, but most of India’s main languages are also spoken there. Also similar to New York, Mumbai is situated on a long island and is connected to the mainland mainly from the northern end.
When India was a British colony, Bombay was the headquarters of the British East India Company, which meant that it was an important port city and developed with a strong European influence. On my first day in Mumbai, I visited the colonial part of the city, in the Colaba and Fort neighborhoods. Here, the streets are lined by stately buildings that are a mixture of European and Indian styles. A long, curved coastline called Marine Drive stretches out on the west side. Though there is no beach here, the promenade is filled with people in the evening enjoying the view of the skyscrapers on the other side of the bay. Just east of Marine Drive, there is a large field lined by grand buildings that reminds me of the National Mall in Washington, DC – except for the fact that this field is filled with hundreds of cricket matches!
Among the colonial buildings of Mumbai is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum. The museum has a very nice collection of art from around India, mainly of a religious nature. There are entire galleries for stone and bronze statues of the Hindu gods, as well as galleries for Hindu miniature paintings and Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan Buddhist artwork. The top floor of the museum contains two galleries of European paintings.
Moving further east, towards the other side of the island, the tourists begin to converge, passing through a sham security checkpoint before reaching a small bit of reclaimed land upon which stands the Gateway of India. This arch was intended as a welcome for the king of England on his visit in 1911, but it was not completed in time. Instead, its big moment was England’s farewell, as the last British personnel passed through the arch on their way home in 1948.
Though the streets of Mumbai are incredibly busy and always jammed with traffic, Mumbai could not hold its eighteen million people in such a restricted space if it didn’t have slums. Millions of people come from all over India to live in Mumbai, and many of these people end up living in slums. In fact, over half the city’s population lives in slums, of which there are several thousand. On my second day in Mumbai, I took a tour of Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world. With nearly a million people living in an area that is less than one square mile, there is a lot of activity, though not much room for vehicles apart from on a handful of streets. We walked through narrow alleyways between shanty houses, sometimes only shoulder-width apart. There are obstacles everywhere – low-hanging power lines and doorways from above, open drains and steps from below, and people from all directions. People live in tiny one-or-two room units accessed by narrow openings covered with either a door or a curtain; during the monsoon season, the streets and ground floors often flood, forcing people to squeeze into the second-floor rooms.
Yet, I was surprised by what I saw in Dharavi. I had always had the impression that slums would be destitute, miserable places. It’s true that the living conditions are not very nice, but in Dharavi, there is a thriving economy. People are employed in a wide variety of industries: suitcase and handbag manufacture, textile production, pottery-making, plastic collection and recycling, and baking, just to name a few. Some of these small businesses even sell their products abroad, and the economic output of Dharavi is over one billion dollars annually. On a per-person basis it’s not much, but it’s enough to incentivize the people to continue living in the poor conditions of Dharavi instead of returning to their rural villages.
After leaving Dharavi, I went just a ten-minute drive away to a very different part of town to have lunch. The Bandra Kurla Complex is not a tourist attraction, but rather a collection of modern glass office buildings. It looks pretty similar to a typical business park in the United States, and there are several trendy restaurants catering to office lunch outings, with prices that nearly rival their Western counterparts. It was the most expensive lunch I have had in India, and in an area that is a far cry from nearby Dharavi.
To round off my stay in Mumbai, I met up with my friend and former colleague Owaiz, whose return to his home city was perfectly timed with my visit. He gave me a personal tour of his university and some of his other favorite places in the city, with plenty of stops for some great food that I would never have been able to find on my own! We also visited some sites associated with the terrorist attacks that occurred in Mumbai in 2008: the Leopold Cafe, where the terrorists opened fire on diners, and the Trident Hotel, which was overtaken and held hostage for several days. The beautiful Taj Mahal Palace Hotel next to the Gateway was also held hostage and suffered significant damage. However, apart from some bullet holes, very little visible damage remains at these sites. The most noticeable outcome of the attacks is the presence of security checkpoints everywhere – in the Metro, at tourist attractions, and even at some restaurants and cafés. However, the scanning technique does not seem very effective, so I’m not sure how much these checkpoints help.
Owaiz also helped me fulfill one of my unofficial goals for this trip: to visit the original Maharaja Bhog. This is a Mumbai restaurant specializing in Gujarati vegetarian cuisine (from the state of Gujarat in western India) that has three other locations, including one in Houston that I go to often enough to be recognized by some of the waiters. I even celebrated my birthday there once! Look at the photo below to see why I love it so much – the waiters keep coming around to provide unlimited refills of everything, so it’s impossible to leave without eating more than enough!
Mumbai is a huge city with so much happening. There is the typical Indian street life with open air markets and food stalls, congested with traffic created by eighteen million people (at least…). Then, as in any modern city, there are businesspeople suited up and rushing to work. Some of India’s richest people live in high-rise apartments overlooking the sea, while the city’s millions of poor people live and work in cramped and dirty conditions in the slums. The famous actors and actresses of India’s film industry, Bollywood, also live in Mumbai (I watched a Bollywood film in Mumbai – more on that in the next post!). So, with all of this crammed onto one little island, Mumbai a fascinating place to visit. Many people had told me it wasn’t worth more than a day or two, but I’m glad I chose to spend four full days there. From Mumbai, I fly north to Jodhpur, in the state of Rajasthan and yet another one of India’s many distinct cultures, so I’ll have an update on that soon!