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Published: August 26th 2011
India as a whole nation has always had the air of being the domain of the spiritual traveller, but over the last few years Mumbai has slowly begun to be more frequently thrust into the public eye as a “cool world city”. Of course one of the main factors of westerners becoming more aware of this over populated city was due, not to someone wanting to make it cool, but by a group of people hell bent on destruction. However out of the ashes of the Mumbai terrorist attack has risen a fervent western interest in the city with a population the same as that of the whole of the British Isles! We are now all aware of the size and poverty of their slum city thanks to Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning film Slum Dog Millionaire, some of us have basic knowledge of the criminal underworld thanks to Gregory David Robertson’s Shantaram, Bollywood churns out 20 films a day, we all know Shilpa Shetty and now, even the ridiculously spiritually lacking Gordon Ramsay has made a TV food show focusing on the delights of India, and mainly Mumbai. If Gordon Ramsay is there, it is official, the masses consider it cool.
Whether or not this is a good thing is a decision only you can make for yourselves. But in this short piece I would like to give you a glimpse of my favourite city.
The first thing you notice on arrival in Mumbai I alluded to above. It’s the sheer volume of people. India has a population of over 1 billion, Mumbai alone has an official population of 60 million (which is probably more like 80 million) and everywhere you look there are human beings on the move. We arrived at night and had an hour drive from the airport to our hotel off the Colaba Causeway. On every street we drove down, expressways, alleys, dual carriageways, main roads or tracks, there were people sleeping on the pavements and on the sides of the road. Some had camp beds, others sheets. Others had nothing but folded arms behind their heads but one thing was sure – there was no room if anyone wanted to walk on the pavements! During the day these people are not so lazy as to keep on sleeping. They, along with the other 40-60 million people of Mumbai are out and about making some kind
Mumbai's famous ex-pat cafe
of living, and it is on the streets this living takes place. On the roads of Mumbai people drive cars, trucks and buses, ride bicycles, motorbikes, donkeys and cows; walk, run, saunter and conduct their daily conversations . The incessant sound of horns is not an angry one – it is a crowded city of individuals letting each other know where they are – and it works. During our time in Mumbai we saw very few road traffic accidents on streets that were literally crammed with every moving thing imaginable, oh, and I forgot to mention – elephants.
Coming from the least polite city in the world, London, this was hard to comprehend and although everywhere you look there are literally thousands of people, Mumbai does not feel oppressive or intimidating. Mumbai feels like millions of people passing by each other who would rather have a mass hugging session than engage in any unseemly road-rage or the like. They know they are in a stupidly busy city – and they seem to love it, even if the car they are being driven in is stuck behind an ox pulling a cart driven by a blind man who has just
collided with a chai stall! It’s all taken with a smile. Mumbai is a paradox in every form of life – the biggest slum in the world sits next to some of the fastest growing high rises in the world – Mumbai is apparently booming and slums are springing up to provide workers for the construction. In a standing panorama at the Gateway to India one can see the most expensive hotel in all of India; The Taj Palace, The Historical Gateway to India, modern glass sky-scrapers, and slum dwellers doing laundry in the river next to their plastic bag built communities.
Fifty year old beaten up old Ambassador taxis ply their trade outside the Taj Palace Hotel and most of the clients emerging don’t care whether they get into this beaten up classic with a seventy year old driver, or the air-con Mercedes behind it driven by a young chauffeur in an Armani suit – this is Mumbai and anything goes.
This follows in the food available in the city. During my time in the vibrant no-sleep city I ate some of the best street food I have ever tasted – spicy little hand-fulls for 5p a
pop washed down with Chai while chatting with wrinkled and wizened old men was a gift. Although these stalls are always on back-streets, so are the entrances to some of the city’s top restaurants and on more than one occasion we walked out of a relatively expensive (£50pp) treat, and bumped right into a cheap cheap sweet seller who gave us something for the walk home –or to the next bar!
Mumbai is also the home of colour. Even in the rain the word “drab” just wouldn’t be applicable anywhere in the bustling metropolis. Women from all walks of life dress in garish saris, the brighter the better; decorated with copper, brass or gold depending on wealth. Men are not averse to a very British pair of chinos and a polo shirt but all of them wear as much bright jewellery as possible and glam up like veritable peacocks at any opportunity. Buildings compete to be the loudest and proudest on the street without noise and even people’s teeth are stained bright red by the incessant chewing of Paan.
It is due to these beautiful dichotomies of existence that Mumbai works as one of my favourite city destinations in
the world. Everyone appears to have little negative intrusion on each other’s lives, smiles are free and for the rich and poor alike it is a gift they are more than willing to give on a regular basis. The food is phenomenal – both street food and fine restaurants impress the eyes and delight the taste buds. The sights are definitely worth the flights but it is however experiencing Mumbai’s people as a friendly, warm, welcoming and excitable mass of humanity that make it what it is.
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