“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.”—George Bernard Shaw
“It’s actually a rare and precious thing to discover what it is you love to do, and I encourage you to remain unapologetically consumed by it. Be faithful to your gift and very confident in its value.”—Jonathan Ive
I wrote a travel article on Mumbai sometime last year and realized it was never published online. It’s 2500 words, so make you sure you’ve turned off the oven. And apologies to Tumblr followers for clogging up your feed.
“This is Mumbai, my love,” chants the chorus of a classic Hindi song, ‘Mumbai, Meri Jaan’ from the 1956 Bollywood movie ‘C.I.D.’ “There are buildings, trams, motors, and mills. You’ll find a lot here, particularly a heart’s thrills. Be wise, be street-smart, this is Mumbai, my love.”
The song echoes the sentimentality of an English classic like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” or “What a Wonderful World.” Hum the tune to any Mumbaikar, or Indian for that matter, and they’ll most likely complete the first verse for you. The musical sequence from the movie, played over the song, evokes stunning visuals of a 1950s carefree, happy-go-lucky lifestyle in a newly populated urban city. As the protagonist freely sings, struts and dances along with the song, a tram runs across a newly graveled street populated by people, cars and rickshaws. Cutting in between shots of the protagonist are some of the sights of the city every Mumbaikar lives and dies by, even today. Depicted on the black and white celluloid is a glimpse of the towering clock at the entrance of the Victoria Terminus Station, built during the British raj and visibly so: its similarity as glaring as ever to the endlessly ticking Big Ben, some 1,000 miles away. Another is a low-angle shot of the Gateway of India, which stands poised on its pillars and looks invitingly to the Mumbai cityscapes on the other side of the Arabian Sea; its symbolic stature admired by everyone who passes by. As the song begins to come to a close, the protagonist glides by a group of children in his imported ‘50s Austin Martin, waving and nodding in a carefree way.
The musical sequence from the 1956 film projects an image of the perfect city, leaving you with an intriguing visual of what the good old days must have been like. Sadly, visit Mumbai today, and you will witness a drastically different picture from that depicted. Today, while a Mumbai street still has its people, cars, rickshaws, and buildings, it is also not without its pollution, unfinished construction, and street-side slums. The Big Ben-esque clock in front of VT Station has lost its usefulness to the 2.5 million daily commuters, who are now better aided with the ever-changing timetable of upcoming trains. The Gateway of India, once known to be the landmark of Mumbai, is now just an after-thought for any tourist — the main attraction replaced with the Bollywood star-studded suburb of Bandra, where you just might catch a heart-throb of millions waving out of his four-storied bungalow on a good day. With a population of 20 million people, all cramped within the space of just 603km² (nearly half in terms of New York City, and with over double its population), Mumbai has gone from being the city of feel-good friendly folks to people, pollution, and palpitation.
A typical Mumbaikar today has to commute for nearly forty to fifty minutes to his workplace. Having landed after 18 hours of travelling as I did, you won’t find yourself in any position to deny that statistic. Going from the airport to my uncle’s apartment in New Mumbai, I was welcomed to the so-called city of dreams with a two hour commute. All through it, the air conditioner in the car was perhaps the only consistent part of the journey: the car stopped every minute or so because of the traffic congestion; the classic Hindi songs in his car’s CD player changed every three minutes; and the view outside my window morphed and reshaped at every blink, as if to give me a planned tour of what I was to expect over the next few weeks.
Looking back, the introduction to the city is the part of your stay you will most endear. As you hop from airport to airport, you’re treated royally with marbled floors, cross-terminal transcalators, greeting air hostesses, and continental food. Land in Mumbai, and all of that goes away. Instead, striking and eye-opening visuals make their way across your windscreen. A five year-old girl collecting water from the street-side gutter; a scooter roving with a family of five seated one behind another; clusters of lower-class housewives washing clothes by clouting them on rocks, aptly called the ‘Dhobighat’ (literally, ‘a suburb of dry cleaners.’) What you witness in your initial commute are unmistakable scenes of life in the maximum city. ‘This is Mumbai,’ you say to yourself. ‘The city of twenty million beating hearts and dreams.’
Visitors will find a lot to acclimatise themselves with in the initial part of their stay. Not having visited the city for a few years, I was no exception. Even though December is supposedly the ‘crux of winter’ in all of northern hemisphere, Mumbai shows little sign of it. The humidity is something which packs a punch to the face from the moment you disembark your flight, and doesn’t leave you until you board it once again to depart. If you’re unsure about what 80% humidity feels like in blistering hot weather, imagine having a long, steamy shower with sizzling water, and then standing in the hazy bathroom without letting a drop of cold water or fresh air hit you for ten minutes. This is Mumbai in its most natural condition. Unless you’re staying at Taj or Oberoi hotel, you can forget using tap water to cool yourself off, too. Drinking Mumbai’s tap water without boiling or purifying it, they say, is suicide. I learnt this in the worst way possible, when I once at age nine drank a glass of water directly from the tap and had to face four days of terrorising fever and sickness. Luckily, my uncle had his fridge stacked with bottles of boiled water in my latest visit — as many Mumbai residents do — and I didn’t get sick this time.
Water and humidity aside, food is also something you’ll need to look out for. The street food you will find in the city is best kept away from for anyone other than local Mumbaikers. Aloo Chat, Bhel Puri, Pani Puri, Paw Bhaji, Vada Paw, it all sounds tempting until you realise that water, the essential ingredient in most of them, comes directly from your not-so-friendly neighborhood water tap. Add to that little inconvenience the extremely spicy, ‘Indian hot’ masala which is used as topping, and you’ll be sure to be in for a ‘treat’ must you concede to the temptation. Thankfully, there are slightly more hygienic locations to eat the things you’ll observe on the street, albeit without the added baggage.
Before this starts sounding like a “Why Not To Visit Mumbai” or “101 Things To Avoid in Mumbai” article, let me be the first to admit that there is a lot to like about the city. From the vocal and comedic taxi driver to the kind-hearted old lady in the fruit stall, you will find people of every colour, age, race, personality, and credence in Mumbai. Despite the reputation of the city, Mumbaikars are some of the most kind and welcoming I have experienced in India. For instance, in merely the second day of my visit, my uncle had a taxi driver booked to show me all there is to see about the city. The driver turned out to be one of the most entertaining and helpful people I met on the trip. As he planned out the day for me, he inferred that I might be into technology gadgets, and included a stop which ended up being one of the biggest surprises of my visit. In a part of the city termed locally as the ‘black market,’ he took me to a shop where I could buy 30GB iPods for $50 and Sony Handycams for $70. (If you guessed I came home with an empty wallet that day, you’d be right.) Chugging along the Mumbai highway with occasional stops, he also kept me entertained with his commentary on nearly every aspect of India: politics, sports, movies, religion. By the end of the ride, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Somebody give this guy a radio show!”.
No matter where you are in the city, there are two things you will never be deprived of: people and entertainment. The centre of India’s Bollywood industry, the place shimmers of stars, movies, dancing, singing, and festivals. It won’t take a visitor long to notice that Bollywood, which produces over five hundred movies every year, is big in India. The BBC recently concluded that Shah Rukh Khan, known across India as the ‘King of Bollywood,’ is seen by about 1.5 billion people, making him the single most watched actor in the world and about 500 million ahead of Tom Cruise. As a longtime fan of Khan — my mother used to take me to his movies before I could even speak or walk — a quote from a recent interview of his comes to mind. “When I first came to Mumbai as a struggling actor, I was naive enough to think that I would own the city one day,” the star admits in the interview. “Today, the city owns me.” And that it does. As my tour driver showed me Khan’s four-acre bungalow ‘Mannat,’ I couldn’t help but notice the wave of people eyeing the superstar’s house, even without his expected or intended presence. There is good reason why they call Mumbai the city of dreams, and Khan is a living and breathing exemplification of it.
From the taxi driver outside the airport to the ‘coolie’ (Hindi term for ‘day labourer’) at the train station, everyone is here to help in Mumbai. Around 80% of middle-class households in the city employ a part-time helper, and the average salary for such people, alas, isn’t excessive of even $50/month. Of course, some have to work multiple houses to make their living – wash dishes, do the laundry, sweep the floor — but meeting them won’t ever give you the feeling of a lower-class labourer, but indeed a close family member. In the earlier years of my life, I remember going to my grandmother’s Mumbai apartment for summer vacations, and practically growing up with the three helpers and servants she used to have around. To them — treated with a TV in their kitchen, the food they would make for everyone else, and a clean environment — it was a much better option than the slums, and to my grandmother, she needed the help. There was never any bad blood, either, and they were practically family members.
Help is cheap and easy to find in Mumbai, like many other aspects of the city. Come with a spending budget of $500 - $1000, there are not many things you won’t be able to afford. From Starbucks Coffee ($1) to genuine Levi jeans ($40), Mumbai is a shopper’s dream, and perhaps the most affordable place in the world for any kind of traveller. If listening to the city’s history and diversity bores you to death, take a taxi down to one of the many shopping malls in the city, and you won’t come away empty-handed, albeit with an empty-wallet. In the last five years, six shopping malls have been built in the city, and if ‘Western influence’ is what you’re looking for, that’s what you’ll find in them. With a food plex on the ground floor, clothes on second floor, technology on third floor, and a multiplex theatre on the fourth floor, Mumbai shopping malls don’t show a marble of difference to any in the Western world. Infact, you’ll find Mumbai probably as developed as any other city in commercial terms: a stark contrast to the poverty and slums you first noticed when you first walked out of the airport, or gasped over in Slumdog Millionaire.
As a traveller seeking to assimilate to a new culture (and not just sip margaritas at the beach), Mumbai is the perfect destination. Recently termed the ‘maximum city’ by a popular Indian author, Mumbai is a blend of extreme poverty, diversity, affordability, and luxury. There is no other place in the world where you will find all four within two blocks from each other, and that’s why Mumbai is more than just a place to go on a holiday: it’s a place to live, learn, and be inspired.
Any visitor would also agree that Mumbai is arguably the most vibrant and breathing city in the world. Except in the rarest of occasions, this statement probably holds true. Admittedly, my last visit was in 2007, and while I did not see the city during or after the events of the 26th November terrorist attacks, I could feel the resurgence of the city as I watched from afar. While countless media outlets showed pictures and accounts of terrorists pouring water over its shimmering candle, there was also a strong sense of convergence to be noticed after the events had transpired. Thousands took part in a candle light march to signify their commitment and harmony toward the 200 people who lost their lives in the tragic event. Co-incidentally, the march took place around none other than the Gateway of India, opposite the Taj Mahal Hotel, as if to reclaim the lost monument after years of neglect and disregard, the pillars gleaming once again as I had last seen it in the ‘50s ‘Mumbai Meri Jaan’ sequence. V.T. station was also once again populating with the many millions of people who used it everyday to commute to work or travel from the city, just a mere two days after the open fire which had killed fifty. While a lot of it had been destroyed, the timelessness of the place had not been lost. In a sense, the events that occurred gave the city a much-needed jolt, and brought together many residents to think once again about its state. On Indian news channels, the classic ‘Mumbai Meri Jaan’ played over countless times as they mourned and gave tribute to the loss of the victims involved in the attacks, also reinvigorating again the togetherness of the place which had been lost over the years.
While I knew that little had progressed despite of so much transpiring, I couldn’t help but imagine a 21st century version of the sequence where the protagonist was once again free to sing, dance, and strut along sparkling streets, greeted with more bona fide nods than shunning looks in the dusty haze. In the end a city of dreams, was I dreaming?
“This is Mumbai, my love. Yeh hai Mumbai, meri jaan.”
“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”—