Maximum City*

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July 1st 2012
Published: July 9th 2012
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Like most things in Bombay/Mumbai, the terminal stop of the Central Railway has two names: Victoria Terminus and/or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
Bombay. Mumbai. The city of seven islands, and even more names. Legend has it that when the Portuguese first anchored their ships in the natural harbor created by a series of mangrove-covered islands off India’s western coast, they called the area Bom Bahia, the good port. Anyone with a working knowledge of the Portuguese language can tell you that there’s a discrepancy between the masculine adjective and the feminine noun in this name, but so the story goes. Throughout its long history, the island city has additionally been known as Mamba Raksasha, Manbai, Mambe, Mumbadevi, Bambai, and countless other names, until 1995, when the native Maharashtrians christened it Mumbai. But everyone I met still calls it Bombay. Forgive me if I follow suit.

There’s nothing I can say about Bombay that hasn’t already been said (better). There’s no justice I can serve the maximum city with simple words. Descriptions can only take you so far. Bombay is a city that has to be experienced firsthand; it has to be felt (dozens of bodies crushed against you in the train), to be breathed in (exhaust of rush hour traffic) and sweated out (in rivulets down your back on muggy afternoons). It’s a city of extremes that evokes similar emotions. Love it or hate it – or as is sometimes the case, love it just as vehemently as you hate it – there’s no in between.

As for me, it was love at first sight, or rather love at first lack of a hassle. I rolled in on an overnight train from Delhi, preparing myself for the horde of drivers who normally wait like vultures for dying prey at the exits of train stations. But there was no one there. Sure, the station was full of the normal hurried commuters and bedraggled beggars, but none of them were in my face or trying to fleece me. I had to go out to the road and actively look for a rickshaw. The first two I flagged down even denied me! I finally found a driver willing to take me to Yari Road and tried to negotiate a price with him – but he wouldn’t have it. Not because he had a fixed number in mind that a girl so white as myself should pay, but because all the rickshaws in Bombay run on meters. I loved not having to haggle. I didn’t even mind that he drove me around in a few circles, lost – the disorientation and its accompanying apology were genuine.

But there was more I loved about Bombay than metered rickshaws. I loved its similarity to Costa Rica: the bright red flowers of the May tree in full bloom; the tropical air heavy with impending rain; the sea breeze that made the humidity bearable, and the possibilities to go salsa dancing. I loved the echo of its colonial past: impeccable accents, imperial buildings of domes and spires and vine-covered English estates with flaking facades and battered balustrades. And I loved that there was a Cinnabon facing the sea on Carter Road – globalization never tasted so sweet! But what I loved most about Bombay was that in a city full of people living in less than human conditions, it had an incredible humanity.

Home to 21 million people, Bombay falls just short of being the most populous city in the world (that honor goes to Shanghai with 23 million inhabitants), but with an average of 20,000 people per packed square kilometer, it takes the cake for the world’s most densely populated city (Shanghai has plenty of space to stretch with only 3,600 people/km2). The key word in the previous sentence is average. With roughly 65%!o(MISSING)f the city’s inhabitants crammed into less than 10%!o(MISSING)f its total area, the amount of human beings in one square kilometer in Bombay is much closer to 30,000. While these numbers translate into a social service catastrophe, they also form the basis for a community the likes of which I haven’t witnessed anywhere else in the world.

What I saw in the streets of Bombay were people who have nothing, but who share everything, unconditionally and indiscriminately. I saw people who care for the old, the sick and the weak. And I saw people who are tolerant and respectful, even when they aren’t shown the same tolerance or respect. One afternoon while walking through a slum by the railroad tracks, I had an urge to push aside the plastic sheet marking the entrance to a hut and beg to be taken in. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be amongst people who work hard for a pittance, then give it all to their families with a smile. I wanted to climb a rickety ladder to reach my 3rd story hovel and watch the children running around naked and barefoot below me. I wanted to listen to the gossiping of the old women squatting in the lanes. I wanted them to teach me how to live, to really live, in the moment and happy with whatever the world brings my way.

Contrary to popular belief, homelessness isn’t a problem in Bombay – everyone has a home, even if it’s only a three-meter swath of sidewalk. In the endless battle for space, families fight with street dogs (all of whom are fatter than their human counterparts), tea stalls and stacks of spare tires to secure an area to call home. Used as living quarters, there’s no room left for the footpaths to serve their intended purpose as pedestrian pathways. Instead, everyone walks on the road. On certain miraculously unoccupied sidewalks, people still prefer to brave the shadeless, congested roads rather than walk on sidewalks composed of loose bricks, excrement (human and dog alike) and dead rats in varying stages of decay. During the monsoon, a lack of proper drainage turns these same sidewalks into veritable lakes of urine, feces and rat carcass. And, therein, lies the real problem of Bombay, the lack of proper sanitation facilities, waste disposal, and clean water.

After two weeks in Bombay, I was invited to go for a run on Juhu beach at six in the morning. Many people might consider this an indecent proposal, but I was stoked. I hadn’t been running in five months, and I hadn’t been running on a beach in even longer. I was so excited that the night before I kept waking up in half-hour intervals, Is it time yet? At 4:50, I couldn’t take it any longer. I got up, got ready and grabbed a rickshaw to the beach. The first light of day fell on a sight I wasn’t prepared for. Waves of waste splashed against the beach, if it could be called that. It was where the sea met the land, but I wasn’t sure there was any sand beneath all the empty plastic bags and bottles, the discarded corncobs, the rotting puja flowers and stranded shoes. It wasn’t a place where you’d ever want to walk barefoot and you definitely wouldn’t want to splash in the refuse-tainted waters. At both ends of the beach, lines of men squatted in the shallow surf making deposits, their stink blowing in with the sea breeze. It was exactly the type of sight that makes Westerners cringe at the mere mention of India, then go wash their hands in their germ-free bathrooms. I won’t lie. I too cringed, and turned up my nose. Then I got over it and accepted the reality of Bombay, my affection for the city wholly unaffected.

Another reality of Bombay is that with so many people who have so little, labor comes cheap. As a member of the middle class, you have the luxury of never having to do anything for yourself, if you should so choose. You can afford to have someone cook your meals, another person clean your floors, and yet another person drive your car. You can even afford to have a personal assistant of sorts, a person known as a “man.” Need to deliver some important papers? No worries, just send your man. “Stay there, my man is coming.” Other peoples’ men are likewise sent to you. Everything can be delivered directly to your front door – even a single cigarette. With people coming and going on various errands all day, the doorbell becomes a common background noise in the middle class homes of Bombay.

Besides a constantly ringing doorbell, the middle class of Bombay suffer many of the same inconveniences as those in the slums, just not to the same degree. Running water and electricity can be shut off at any time, without any notice, for any length of time. Buildings crumble, ceilings cave-in, paint peels, elevators malfunction, and worms find their way into the bathrooms of fourth floor flats. Things are shoddily repaired to ensure the future work of repairing it again. And of course, space. Space is always an issue in Bombay. With essentially 20,000 neighbors, privacy doesn’t exist. Every window has a view into the window of the opposite flat, rendering it impossible to walk around naked in your living room (sorry, Alanis).

The only exception I found to this phenomenon (besides the high-rise apartments of the super-rich that line the trendy seashore promenades and the plastic-lined huts of the super-poor that line its rocky shores) was the home of my CS hosts in Santa Cruz. Their windows looked out onto the training field of the nearby police academy. In the mornings, uniformed cadets lined up to perform synchronized drills. In the afternoons, rummaging pigs and dogs took over the grounds. And in the evenings, it was overrun by street kids playing football (or, for my American brethren, soccer). Men ride by on rusty bikes and women stroll past with bags of vegetables, their saris fluttering in the gentle breeze. A small group of young boys forms just below the kitchen window. They take turns dropping their pants. The other boys poke sticks at their friend’s exposed member, mentally judging it against their own. It seems that boys will be boys, the world over. And for a moment, looking out the window, you forget that you’re in the middle of a teeming city.

Maybe I haven’t painted the prettiest picture of Bombay. Maybe you won’t be rushing to buy a ticket on the next plane here. But, you’re really missing out if you never give it a chance. Bombay is more than the sum of its filthy parts. It’s a city of dreams and disappointments, of riches and waste. It’s a city of many contradictions and few answers or explanations. There’s no denying that it’s dirty. It’s filled with poverty and too many people – but it’s alive. And beautiful in all of its squalor. With an infectious optimism and resolution, Bombay has taught me how to be comfortable in a crowd, and allowed me to see humanity in a whole new light. It may be that the city suffers from a severe case of Multiple Personality Disorder, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to know it. Just like with people, the best ones are often the crazy ones. And, like I’m fond of saying, everything is worth a try – at least twice.

From the unknown millions to the handful of special souls who took me in and showed me around, Bombay would be nothing if it weren’t for its people. So, while I’m always grateful to the people who touch my life during my travels, I feel especially compelled to thank the beautiful Bombayites who’ve shared their city with me over the past month. To Chris, Capucine, Junaid, Jodot, Pankaj and Kim, thank you for giving me a place to rest my head, an ear to share my stories and endless avenues of entertainment. And a special thanks goes out to Umber and Zarine for teaching me how to accept compliments (even if I haven’t quite perfected the technique yet); thank you for all the compliments. But, more than that, thank you for so wholeheartedly adopting me into your lives. I love you guys. You will be greatly missed.

*The title of this blog comes from a book of the same name by Suketu Mehta. I highly recommended it for those interested in reading more about behind-the-scenes Bombay.

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10th July 2012

Glad to see my favourite blogger on the front page! Another lovely, thought provoking piece, and you have not turned me off BOmbay
10th July 2012

How about the food
Sounds very cool - I'm curious if you felt comfortable trying the street food there, or if the sanitation problems made you decide against it. I'm planning to travel to India next year and am most excited (though a bit concerned) about eating what the locals eat.
10th July 2012

hey girl! Glad to hear you still have a sense of adventure and will to explore and meet and love your community. I love reading your blog. Miss you mucho.. xoK

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