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Published: March 18th 2013
"Slumdog Millionaire" or "Shantaram" can't do this city justice. How can they? My tourist brochure and guidebook both rightfully fawn over the city's stats and records. For instance, this peninsula city is the second biggest city in the world after Tokyo for population. Half of those, though, populate the biggest slum in Asia. Less than 5km from the slum is the most expensive house in the world. The city produces an unbelievable 40% of India's total GDP and is home to the flourishing art, literature, business and finance sectors of India, if not Asia. Bombay is as famous for her huge cinema industry as she is infamous for her crime. It's a city who's population has swollen beyond the perameters of human decency, yet continues to adapt, housing thousands of refugees and street families that arrive here from all over Asia and the Middle East each day. The facts are fairly impressive and they point to a metropolis that empitomises the Indian civilisation- from the Raj era through to the modern day. In the "land of contrasts" this is truly the capital. I'm at the end of my second stint here, after 5 days total in Mumbai, and have decided it's a city I can see myself living in one day.
From Bhopal, I stepped off the train at midnight onto the empty platfrom of Mumbai's Victoria Terminus - the busiest train station in Asia, apparently - and was hit instantly by the muggy heat that only a polluted inner city can generate. It was also very quiet - where were all the car horns!? Despite the unnaturally large rats on the tracks, the odour carried on the light breeze was not the usual sewage and rotting rubbish, but the smell of fish. This all made a terribly pleasant change, even if the stench of fish in the 30 degree heat isn't the nicest smell either. I got a taxi to a guest house I'd been given the card of by a tourist friend, and was depoited outside a grotty-looking building, in an alleyway where colour clearly came to die. I took the lift to the stiflingly hot fifth floor hostel and took a room. I found it very difficult to sleep.
Over the next two days, I made it my mission to see all the main sites, as I had not yet decided whether I'd return to Mumbai or head straight down to Goa. I first took a ferry from the Gateway to India (generic large arch, much the same as any other in the world but still swarming with tourists for some reason) which took me through the grimey harbour on southern Mumbai to Elephanta Island. The island might've once been a paradise, but has been utterly spoiled by industry and oil. The caves on the islands were reletively poor, espeically with the benefit of hindsight have seen Ajanta and Ellora now also.
I still had the whole afternoon to take in the southern tip of the city - from Colaba (tourist district) to the more up-market Fort area. My guide book, which is proving to be more hit-and-miss by the day, had mapped out a very good walking tour through the city, which I embarked on with gusto. The European and gothic architecture on the original buildings here is quite stunning, and very out of place. It really does feel like you're teleporting between London and Delhi as you walk. The city even has double decker buses and red telephone boxes! The most impressive of all the buildings is the train terminus that I'd blindly left the evening before. There are gargoyles, plinths, cloumns and arches like those on the exteroir of the natural history museum, yet the building blends these with a Taj Mahal-like array of domes and parapets that crown the building and somehow look totally normal atop the imprewssive structure. I bravely commanded a spot in the middle of the wide road to take anoptimally angled photograph of the front of the building only for a rage of taxis, bikes, motorbikes, buses and trucks to burst from behind me and engulf me in their chaotic hordes. It's not uncommon in Asia to find yourself in such a situation, and I now accept the circumstance as an opportunity to play real-life Frogger.
After walking lazily around some pretty dull modern art galleries (India still has some way to go in this department) I decided to go and see the slum that I'd read and heard so much about over years of geography class case studies. I took the new suburban train service to the nearest station. The squat slum settlements that illegelly but indefatigabally line the rail lines whizzed past as I hung out of the open doors to enjoy the cooling breeze (still a novelty and one that I'll miss when I return to the tragic Southeastern train service of Kent). Dharavi is the slum that the main characters find themsleves in at the opening of the Slumdog Millionaire film. It is fairly accurately portrayed. I was directed over the rows of railway lines, dodging rats and excrement, to the "other side" of the city by some nice Indian people who were amazed that I actually followed their direction. In response, I tried to swagger over them as if this is something I'd been doing all my life, and consequently came within 3 or 4 seconds of being obliterated by a train - they are surprisingly quiet! I must remember to look both ways before crossing the rails..
I was welcomed on the other side by some energetic kids. I'd swung my camera over my shoulder to the "not in use" position so as to cause no offense, but I was instantly asked by all the slum dwellers to take their photos. They laughed hysterically when I showed them their portraits, as if I'd performed an incredible magic trick. I was invited to sit down with some men who were playing a childrens' board game with real absorption; I was amused but quickly moved on into the slum. One of the kids who was particularly fascinated by the ability of my camera to take photos followed me in. I asked if he wanted to take me around, and he grinned and bounded away, doing cartwheels over the muddy ground. I had a guide. The lanes of the slum were claustrophobically small. the walls of houses eaither side really did lean in on one-another so that hardly any light penetrated through to ground level. I was plunged, therefore, into a dank and dark termite nest of alleys and walkways. I had to step into doorways to allow people through. Passing residents were fairly stunned to see me there - I think, though some tour operators do tours of the slums, they don't go to the parts accessed by crossing over 6 sets of railway lines. Like I'd read in Shantaram (a book that describes India and Mumbai in excellent detail, if anyone fancies devouring it's 1000 pages) the people of the slum were all friendly and clearly there is a great sense of community there.
I was just trying to gauge how much I could trust the happy kid who was weaving ahead of me, potentially leading me to some mafia boss in the depths of the slum, when we emerged back into the light in a reletively wide street. It was the main "high street" of the slum, and was the most bustling street of all those I've so far seen in India. I know I only penetrated an outer layer of the slum, and maybe one of the most affluent, but I was impressed with the level of sophistication that had developed there. Every single piece of scrap material or rubbish had been collected and was being laoriously sub-divded into towering piles of colourful trash on either side of the street. Tiny chai stands, fruit sellers and entreprenurial frying pan-weilding fried food salespeople were barking at the passing crowds. Business was clearly thriving in Dharavi - my guidebook reliably informs me that the annual turnover of the slum tops some $665million! I asked to be lead out of the slum to the public access point (a bridge over the tracks) and the kid jumped away again through the traffic of people. We passed little industries along the whole way, including little sweat shops and independant schools, clinics and gyms. After an hour in the slums, the boy proudly raced up the steps of a bridge ahead and thrust his arms out triumphantly. I shook his hand and was about to give hime some money when he bounded away again to rejoin his friends. Maybe hanging out with a "cool" foreigner was payment enough. I'm sure the slums are still awfully horrible in many places, but much of the slum that I explored felt legitimate, friendly and clean ("India clean", not "England clean"). All over the slum area, high-rise housing could be seen shooting up to try to accomodatethe slum dwellers in some kind of order and with electricity and running water. Perhaps the government and charities are finally acting to better the lives of those forced to live in Dharavi.
The slum was probably the most interesting experience I had in Mumbai. I've also been out drinking with some Indians and a middle-aged Frenchman in the infamous Leopold's Cafe, amoungst others. I even caught some of the Grand Prix and the WHU Chelsea game!
I will be leaving down the coast tomorrow morning on a catamarn. I have nothing booked, I just fancy finding a little chunk of paradise to collapse on for a week!
Hope all are well and continue emailing me with news etc - it's always nice to hear from home.
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