|Our Really Big Adventure|
Bombay - Mumbai
| Mumbai: even its
name is a contradiction everybody calls it Bombay. This is just the
first in a list of paradoxes that makes Bombay one of the most stimulating
cities in the world. The huge number of people is the first thing that strikes
you - it is as packed as a Japanese commuter train, leaving another more
accurate simile to be discovered for Bombay commuter trains. This massive
population, agitated by the confines of Bombay Island, thrashes like fish
on the deck of a trawler.
The surrounding waters, that made Bombay the great trading port it is now, threaten the city, squeezing it to the point of destruction. The city has already burst its seams and is supported by a hundred kilometres of urban sprawl, stretching right up the peninsula and onto the mainland. Relaxing on a train into Bombay and seeing this combination of high-rise and adjoining slums flash by it is easy to think that it is a massive line of people waiting for their turn make their fortune on the island.
Like New York this is a city of dreams. Home to Indias richest people and with the glamour of Bollywood it has a sirens call, however, for many of Bombay inhabitants, trapped in a cycle of poverty, there is no hope. Slums line the streets taking up the space between building and road, which most cities would call footpaths, converting them into two story mezzanines housing large families that spill onto the streets. Even walking through the slum free areas in the early morning you are forced onto the street by the carpet of homeless that lay down their bedrolls on whatever space they can find. The few prized sheltered spots have all been claimed and the lucky pavement families, having nothing else, hand them down to their children.
Bombay may be a city of dreams, but it is not a city that never sleeps. No matter where you are or what time it is there are always people sleeping, sometimes on the most bizarre objects and in improbable positions. Ice cream men asleep atop their two-foot square cart when the heat of the sun drained their entrepreneurial spirits; taxi drivers sleeping on hoods, roofs and trunks; porters amongst a pile of luggage so uneven it contorts their bodies. As they sleep Bombay can be what they came here for, the city of dreams.
The normal hustle and bustle of a city is here replaced with screaming and shouting contrasting against the colonial architecture. Travelling elsewhere in India it is easy to be detached from the west, but here the comparison is glaring and unavoidable. I suppose this is why so many tourists find Bombay difficult; they see the squalid poverty next to gleaming tower blocks and imperial magnificence. Walking past the phenomenal Victorian railway terminal and the attached post office it can feel like Paris on a particularly balmy night, but the stench of life and hailing hawkers rapidly bring you back to India.
Travelling across the city it can feel as if the gulf between the have and have-nots is a deliberate divide with money and time devoted to maintaining the status quo. The suburban train system is so overcrowded people ride on the roof, yet the government has seen fit to build a series of mind bogglingly expensive and seemingly empty flyovers that keep the few with private transport above the stink of the city.
The image that I feel captures the city perfectly is the grubby face of a boy tugging at my shirt and begging me to give him money for food. He did this while eating an ice cream, obviously unaware of the contradiction he represented. Bombay is just that, a massive contraction that forces you to blink, look twice and wonder if it can really be happening.