According to a number of surveys I am now in the world’s most populous city, Mumbai (i.e. the city formerly known as Bombay).
I read Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City before I left the US. It was good reading but it didn’t exactly make me want to spend much time here as it’s largely about how criminal gangs run the city, how Hindu-Muslim violence could flare up at any time, and how you can put a contract out on someone’s life for a very reasonable $50 or so. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance doesn’t paint a much rosier picture. I think the lesson we can take from this is that putting a lot of people in one place has its downside.
I believe Mehta said that there are more people in the Mumbai area than in 173 countries. I’ve run into a few Australians who’ve pointed out that there are as many people in this island city as in their whole island continent.
So far the Mumbai I’ve seen — i.e. the affluent upscale side mostly — is not what I expected. This is apparently where India keeps its wealth. Streets that seem more New York than New Delhi show off Porsches and Benzes. Big billboards drip jewels and show off scantily-clad models with the latest Western fashions. But to get back to basics, yesterday I visited Elephanta Island where there are caves carved out of the rock, much like Petra in Jordan, which are attributed to the area’s original inhabitants. (Although Petra definitely wins, Elephanta would still make for a good Indiana Jones backdrop.) Speaking of the boat trip to the island, here’s my first riddle for you: How do you make 18 million people disappear? Just sail a half mile from shore it seems — then the city fades into its own smog and hardly a building can be seen.
After Elephanta, I had a nice lunch overlooking the Gateway to India memorial at the Sea Lounge at the very nice Taj Mahal Hotel.
This morning I watched the scene at the city’s dhobi ghat where they say 5000 people do their wash by hand. It’s a pretty dramatic scene; certainly not the sort of thing you see at home. Then I headed over to the Oval Maiden. The maiden is basically an open public park much like The Mall in DC — the difference being in Mumbai it is covered by games of pick-up cricket. Did I mention that they really like cricket here?