Mumbai: second stop in the new world

mumbai cityscape
The Colaba area of Mumbai, as seen from our apartment window.

We touched down in the Mumbai airport just before midnight five days ago, and didn’t get to our hotel until around 2 a.m. Our driver, clad in loose-fitting white cotton pants and a shirt, spoke very little English and stopped twice along the drive to ask other cabbies hanging out on the side of the road for directions.

Some of the sights on our 40 minute drive were familiar to me. There were shacks of tarps and corrugated metal lined along the side of the road housing various small businesses like you’d see in Mexico or Ghana. But we also saw massive horned cows grazing in gutters and hundreds of people – adults, children and families – sleeping out in the open, under the freeway overpass or in cars and autorickshaws.

Though I’ve traveled a fair bit, India is unlike any other country I’ve been to in more ways than one. It’s the first country I’ve been to in Asia, the first where the predominant religion is not Christianity, and the first where the native language is written in a script other than the Roman alphabet (I’m discounting Greece here because the Greek alphabet is fairly close to the Roman one and thus somewhast discernable).

Ghana, where my dad lives and works, is probably my closest reference point. Like India, it’s a former British colony with an ethnically diverse population speaking dozens (or hundreds) of individual languages. English is nominally the official language in both places, but most working class people in Mumbai, as in Ghana, speak only enough for basic commerce. Hindi is the lingua franca in much of north and central India, and Mumbai has evolved its own Hindi dialect called bambaiya, which is spoken on the streets. India, though, is an entire subcontinent, while Ghana is roughly the size of Oregon. And here, Spencer and I are traveling alone, not in the company of someone who knows the country well.

All of which is to say that since I arrived, I’ve felt like a fish out of water. Today is my fifth morning in Mumbai, India, and I still struggle to describe it, but I’m going to try anyway.

Mumbai, the island city

Home to about 22 million, Mumbai is India’s largest city and one of the world’s 10 largest urban areas. Seven distinct islands were united by backfilling and reclamation projects to create the peninsula, which sticks out into the Arabian Sea and forms the bulk of the city.

map of Mumbai
Map of Mumbai: green areas are swampy, brownish areas are higher elevation.

Originally colonized by the Portugese, Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1996 as part of a larger push to remove colonial names from monuments and roads) was given to Charles II of England as a wedding present when he married Catherine, Princess of Portugal. He quickly leased the islands to the British East India Company, who set up their headquarters here in 1687.

The British were responsible for subsequent projects to merge islands and unite Bombay with the mainland through a series of bridges. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Bombay was perfectly positioned to become a major trading hub – the Gateway to India, as it’s now known.

Today, Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city of glaring contradictions. It’s the financial capital of India, home to the Bombay Stock Exchange and India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who has the distinction of owning Antilia, the most expensive residence on earth after Buckingham Palace. (Outfitted with a helipad, the skyscraper is worth about $1 billion and requires a staff of 600 to maintain.) India’s Bollywood film industry is also housed here, with many famous Bollywood actors occupying northern suburbs with beach views where the streets are lined with palm trees.

It’s easy to see this version of Mumbai at night, riding in a speeding taxi along Marine Drive, which has beachfront on one side and high-rise buildings with Western chains on the other. Last night, as we drove back from a wonderful dinner with a family in a north Mumbai suburb, the glitz and glamour of the city showed through for the first time since I’ve been here. I was so enchanted by the rainbow-colored lights on the bridge across the sea that I momentarily forgot my upset stomach. If you’d told me I was in Hollywood, I probably would have believed you.

By day, walking around the city, Mumbai is oppressively humid and packed full of people. Horns blare constantly, sidewalks are narrow and packed, and people dangle out the doors of trains and buses during rush hour. Aldous Huxley famously described the city as “the most appalling of either hemisphere.” I tend to agree more with some Indian-Americans I know, who simply say it’s “crazy.”

The 21st century city

When I was in Mexico City earlier this summer, I read a travelogue by journalist David Lida called First Stop in the New World. He argued that in contrast to the planned metropolises that defined the past two centuries (Paris the 19th, New York the 20th), Mexico’s sprawling city of 20 million was a new type of city – a vast, unplanned, forever-expanding and wildly unequal metropolis – that would define the 21st. After all, half the world now lives in cities, and the majority of them look more like Mexico City or Mumbai than the carefully laid out grid of Manhattan.

I suspect if I knew more about the history of urban planning, I might be able to complicate this argument somewhat. I can’t tell you what New York City or Paris looked like when they were rapidly expanding, nor can I predict whast Mumbai will look like in 10 or 50 years. From the history of Mumbai book I’m reading now, Mumbai has certainly been planned in some capacity (otherwise, it would have remained seven distinct islands). But I think there’s something to this argument that’s more than the white Westerner’s unfamiliarity with cities that look different than the European model.

Whether I’m right about that or not, I’ve spent much of my time here thinking about the evolution and future of cities. Wealth inequality is a fact of life in any major city, and I couldn’t say how Mumbai compares to San Francisco or New York in that regard. Here, it’s much more visible to me, perhaps because I’m less able to block it out in a place that’s unfamiliar.

We’ve made our temporary home here in the rented bedroom of a 29th story apartment building. It’s a modest place belonging to a retired teacher whose globetrotting daughter helps her manage the space on Airbnb. There are two helipads visible from our bedroom windows and dozens of high-ride buildings that house Mumbai’s rich and powerful as far as they can get, vertically, from the bustle of the streets.

Many of Mumbai’s residents sleep, eat and earn their living on the streets, and a majority are engaged in the informal economy. Fruit stalls, street food, people hawking giant balloons at tourist landmarks, cab drivers, beggars and more crowd the sidewalks and make up the bulk of the 22 million who call Mumbai home. The smell of the street changes every few steps from charcoal to pungent fruit to sewage to generic humidity. In a tropical city where so many sleep outside, I found myself wondering how homelessness is conceived of here- whether housing itself is seen as a large challenge, or if policymakers focus more on sanitation and healthcare.

Immigrants from all over India come to Mumbai in search of work, many migrating seasonally and returning home during the monsoons to work on their family farms. The median income here is about $2,000 per year, or about $7,700 adjusted for purchasing power.

Since we’ve been here, Spencer and I have spent the bulk of our time wandering the streets and taking walking tours of monuments and neighborhoods led by young people who want to impart a realistic vision of the city. Yesterday, we took a bus to the central market area, spent an hour or so trying to get Spencer a cell phone, and hopped on another bus to a wealthy suburb for a home-cooked Indian meal. Neither of us has quite taken to the city, and I think we’ll be glad to hop on a train tonight and head to a tiger reserve near Nagpur in centra India. But Mumbai has gotten me thinking about a lot of things that will keep churning in my head long after the lights of Bollywood fade into countryside.

2 thoughts on “Mumbai: second stop in the new world”

  1. Another engaging introduction to a world that I am sure must be overwhelming on initial encounter and which leaves one with much to try to sort out. FYI: the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán was planned, with four districts defined by a grid of streets and canals. The Spanish City of Mexico imposed upon it followed this plan, as it was also the “modern” urban model of the Renaissance which sought to replace the labyrinthine medieval cities of Europe with a rational order. Other cities created by the Spanish in Mexico–Puebla, Morelia and Guadalajara for example–were laid out on planned grids at their centers. Mexico City did not expand until the end of the 19th century, and then with planned “colonias” like Roma and Condesa, modeled on the Paris of Napoleon III. It wasn’t until after WW II that migration from the countryside into the city and a population explosion overwhelmed the order and created the giant amoeba that Mexico City and its metropolitan are now are.

    1. Thanks, Reed, for that extra bit of history! It seems like many of the world’s newest supercities are similar in that regard – initially planned, but growing so quickly that they’ve vastly outstripped their original boundaries. Puebla definitely had that feel of European organization around the city center.

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