Published: San Francisco’s Expat Journal on May 29th 2014.
Title: Mumbai, Meri Jaan.
Mumbai, the name itself associates an immediate sense of chaos, noise and commotion to the people that belong or have visited it. One would imagine its roads possessing a topography of its own; overcrowded with lazy cattle. Try hard fast bikes, rickshaw drivers that would put Tokyo drifters to shame, trucks, vendors, an occasional elephant and then people. Sometimes it seems like the island was overtaken by the sea, a sea of people. Being diverse and a hub to people from all over India, it has created a sense of ethnicity for itself; borrowing generously from various rich cultures and rituals.
Mumbai’s most endearing quality is also its most annoying, most beautiful, and also its most tiresome: the sheer volume of people versus space. In a city where more visitors find jobs than homes, there isn’t a chance to be alone. As you walk you’re surrounded by people carrying out their own itineraries, trajectories and destinies. You are part of their journey; they, a part of yours. You become covered in the cities sweat, its tears, and its dirt but most importantly, you become covered in the cities stories.
This chaotic, cosmopolitan is India’s finance powerhouse, cultural centre and its most dynamic city. Described as the Manhattan of India, Mumbai is unlike the rest of the subcontinent. Its 14 million inhabitants, more than half of whom live in slums, are all crammed into a narrow peninsula that reaches out to the Arabian Sea.
With a whirlwind of sounds, colours, tastes and smells that is as enchanting as is confounding. There isn’t a single part of the city that doesn’t grasp at your attention, from the turbulent streets of the flower markets in Matunga and Dadar to the dazzling Bollywood sets in film city, from the wailing hawkers of Hill Road to the curries at Khau Gali (Eat Street) and smell of kebabs on Mohammed Ali Road, from the erratic auto-rickshaw drivers that choke every highway to the sacred cows that clog every road.
Mumbai, a city so fast paced and busy that people recite communal hymns in praise to the Hindu god’s on their way to work on the Churchgate fast train, get their lunch delivered at work by 4,500 Dabbawallas (Lunchbox delivery men) who collect and deliver 175,000 packages all over the city in a matter of few hours in the very same trains. And after most people end their day with Mumbai’s mighty grime and dirt, their clothes go on to be relentlessly pounded at the Dhobi Ghat, a huge open-air Laundromat consisting of row upon row of concrete wash basins, all with a flogging stone. Here, a traditional laundry-man will collect your dirty linen, have it washed and returned neatly pressed to your doorstep for the next week of chaos repeat.
But for all that Mumbai throws at the senses; it throws as much at the heart. It’d be false to claim that everyone falls for Mumbai as soon as they arrive. For many, the experience is too intense, the people too abundant, divided into the ones that live in high rise skyscrapers that stand 100 meters away from the ones that live in slums and shanties. It almost has a remarkable yet absurd balance to it and becomes cohesive and functional by the people that never sleep.
When people refer to Mumbai as the city that never sleeps, they’re actually referring to stock market investors at Dalal Street and Dharavi. Dharavi, made famous by Slumdog Millionaire and often dubbed as Asia’s largest slum, to me in reality is ‘Asia’s largest enterprise’ Walking tours of the place help explore the different facets of this world, including the many industries which thrive here. From potters to recyclers to tie & dye to perfumes and to soap making can all be noticed by a mere walk around the place. Dharavi generates business worth $500 million from leather goods alone every year. They don’t just follow designs but also set fashion trends.
Another main reason for keeping Mumbai restless and alive is the city’s top nightlife spots. Barhopping is recommend with a start at enjoying the sun downer with a cocktail at Aer, a bar that’s located on the 34th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel and is open air, breezy, and provides panoramic views of the city. Move then to Dome, a sensuous and seductive rooftop bar to enjoy another cocktail and the lighting up of the Queen’s Necklace a sparkling row of lights by Marine Drive. Follow that by live gigs or plays at either The Blue Frog or NCPA. From live jazz performances to electronic world DJ’s, Contemporary dance exhibits to Classical Music orchestras, Cinemas and pubs to luxury sushi bars, the night life here can keep you high, pockets dry and still strung.
One has to walk to truly discover the heartbeat of Mumbai. To understand what makes it click, tick and move. Various routes can be explored to visit remarkable art and architecture like the historic Dockyard Road, the Kala Ghoda Art District for dog eared copies of all the books and bestsellers, sleepy lanes of old Colaba, and arcades and bazaars along Victorian style D.N. Road.
To test your bargaining power explore a maze of Bazaars and markets like Crawford Market, Mirchi Galli (spices market), Zaveri Bazaar (Gold Market), Phool Galli (Flower Street) and lastly Chor Bazaar (Theives Market). The key is to quote nearly half the price and then walkway until they grumble and call you back.
And lastly remember that even though Mumbai can drown you with its sea of people and noise, don’t write it off just yet. Let it consume you. It may seem tiresome, but you won’t get tired of it. It might overwhelm you into leaving, but hang on awhile longer and you’ll be back to discover more. Mumbai is the place to be at least once in your lifetime; so give it a fair try, after all 14 million people can’t be wrong.
Remember the buzz of the city will drive you crazy, but the constancy and calm of the sea will call to you.
There’s a famous Bollywood Hindi song that sums up my advice
“Ai Dil Hai Mushakil Jeena Yahaan
Zara Hat Ke, Zara Bach Ke
Ye Hai Mambai Meri Jaan”
“Oh my heart, life is a struggle living here
Duck a little, watch out..Save yourself little
This is Mumbai, my love”