About ten years ago, my daughter undertook a gap year where she visited Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. She had been back packing for many months, so on her final leg of her trip which took her to Mumbai, we (my wife and I) booked her into the Holiday Inn Hotel in Mumbai where she would enjoy a bit of luxury by way of a change, and made arrangements to meet her there.
Mumbai is almost certain to be a shock for the first time visitor. It is a city where extremes rub shoulders. We initially felt imprisoned on the fifth or sixth floor of the Holiday Inn because we were somewhat intimidated by the images of poverty visible outside from the hotel widow, just across the road from the hotel entrance. What is more there was a dump heap which seemed to attract human scavengers searching for anything of value though it was difficult to imagine what such a heap could yield. This was in marked contrast to the throng of people who emerged in the evening to walk along the beach which doubled up as a broad promenade. It was quite a charming sight, from our hotel window, to see so many people of all ages strolling so casually, males often walking hand in hand wihout any hint of anything other than brotherly feelings.
Fortunately for us, we discovered that one of our old London friends, Firdous Ali, writer, artist and film maker, was living permanently in one of the hotel suites, and it is not difficult to image our mutual shock and delight to run into each other in the hotel lobby for the first time. Thereafter Mumbai began to open up, and we were able, in the company of Firdous to venture out into the immediate vicinity. We visited a tailor’s establishment and were able to get measured up for suits and dresses for delivery within a week and where I was able to order a new pair of glasses – all at a fraction of London prices. After a spell in Goa, we returned to Mumbai for the last few days of our stay, and by then we were prepared to venture out into the heart of Mumbai without the protective presence of Firdous.
The most astonishing feature of Mumbai, I thought, was the sheer crush of people. it is difficult to imagine a city in which people co-exist so peacefully living cheek to jowl. Shop fronts, it appears are at a premium, and are tiny compared to London High streets and a testimony to the hive like commercial activities of its inhabitants. As there is no social security to speak of, it seems to be every man for himself (women are not so high profile in these small establishments) which probably explains the high level of human industry. I don’t recall seeing any evidence of the sort of laddish hanging out at street corners, or bars or outdoor domino playing witnessed in other societies.
The crowds are so dense in places that it is astonishing that everything appears to be so much in harmony. I am reminded of film footage of shoals of fish who move in and out of each others space, even at high speed when pursued by predators, without ever colliding. Traffic lanes, meant for three vehicles abreast will accommodate twice that number, making allowance for bicycles and three wheeled vehicles, not to mention human traffic and even animals, mainly cows who seem to take advantage of their privileged status to roam as and when they like. The overall impression is one of miraculous co-operation resulting in a live and let live philosophy.
The down side is of course evidence on places of crushing poverty on a scale that is astonishing in a country which is being credited with being one of the rising commercial giants in the world. It is a tribute to the human instinct for survival that people can live let alone thrive in such conditions, with a whole sub strata of the city it seems, rising from the very pavements and gutters. Many children have little alternative to beg, often weaving in and out of traffic to do so, and strategically congregating at traffic lights, but they do so with good humour and graciously accept whatever they receive.
Again, one is reminded of the destructive nature of the seasonal monsoon. It takes its toll on the appearance of the city, as many of the buildings bear evidence of the wear and tear of months of torrential downpour. It seems that even building that are a pristine white at the outset will retain little of its original state by the end of the monsoon.
Yet all these material consideration cannot, it seems, damped the spirit of the city which is so very expressive of the human spirit. By our last day in Mumbai, melting into the mass of humanity, I regretted that we had not ventured out earlier and more often. It is a city which you sense could grow on you. I recall seeing a number of Europeans who had been living in India for a long time, perhaps even from birth. I can’t say with any certainty how I knew this to be the case as it is difficult to be precise about the evidence. But they were unmistakably Indian. No bad thing, I thought, on reflection.
Leaving Mumbai was a wrench. Back at the hotel, Firdous schooled us in the art of discreet tipping without robbing the recipients of dignity. At the airport we were taken under the wings of an enthusiastic entrepreneur who insisted ongetting us to follw him to bypass the long queue of locals that snaked around the side of the building. Grabbing hold of a trolly reserved for disabled people, he led the way, depositing us at the head of the queue which was sufficiently disordered for us not to be noticed. He then demanded £20.00. which in those days was a month’s salary for the majority of the population, but in the end somewhat grudingly accepted a quarter of that. Needless to say I felt guilty for the advantage it gained, but it is doubtful if we would ever had made our flight otherwise, but it was difficult not to admire his enterprise.
It was sad to see Mumbai disappear into the distance as we took off for a very different world. And even at that stage,it was difficult to believe that a city which seemed so ramshackle from the air, should hold so may delights.
Alda’s film, Streets of Mumbai, has brought back many of those half forgotten memories, and more importantly has introduced me to other aspects of India that escaped my notice on that first and only visit to date.
Memory of a visit to Mumbai