Essay On Mumbai My City

[ Rameshwari Takle is an Indian native who came to the US to study architecture at IIT. She was kind enough to write this piece for us about Mumbai, Indian, where she previously lived – Aaron. ]


Photo Credit: Flickr/Dey
“Mumbai is a beautiful city, but a terrible place” ~ Architect Charles Correa
After having lived in Mumbai for almost 8 years, I completely agree with the above statement. How much ever ironic it sounds, the city of Mumbai is extremely beautiful in its own essence, yet it is a terrible place to live. It is a city of extremes. Even average middle class life in Mumbai is below acceptable levels. And yet despite that, thousands of people migrate to the city every day. It has always left a question in my mind that what is it about Mumbai that makes it a desirable destination to so many people in India. Through this brief article, I would like to take the opportunity to introduce the non-Indian audience to the magical city of Mumbai.

Mumbai is the largest city in India, a city full of dreamers and hard-laborers. A place where you will encounter stray dogs and exotic birds, artists and workers, the poor and millionaires living together in this maddening city. The city is the home of the most prolific of film industries (Bollywood), one of Asia’s biggest slums (Dharavi), and the largest tropical forest in an urban zone.

In many ways, I see a lot of similarity between New York and Mumbai, with their roles in the United States and India respectively. Mumbai is India’s financial capital, fashion powerhouse, and a center for many religious and political matters. It has some of the world’s most expensive real estate with property rates soaring sky high, some of them up to 100,000 INR/SF. A rapid growth and development has made the city a concoction of skyscrapers and malls in between the slums and shabby areas. It is also one of the most populous cities in the world with a population of 21,290,000 as of January 2012.

In the urban context, Mumbai has portrayed a very ironic image of itself. The most common image of the city and the one the world knows about is the slums. But, at the same time, the luxury developments and tall buildings due to rapid urbanization has given rise to a lot of speculation and debate about the urban sustainability and economic equality both in local and global discussions.

In terms of employment, 81% of the city’s population works in the services sector, including communications, social, and personal services. In Mexico City the service sector is around 43% and in Shanghai is around the 32%. Johannesburg, New York and Berlin see 37%, 46% and 40% employed in services, respectively. Most famous among the services produced in Mumbai is cinema. Bollywood churns out more than 900 films a year — more than any other film center (yes, Hollywood included), with many people directly and indirectly employed by this industry. Although every part of the country has its regional film industry, Bollywood continues to enthrall the nation with its winning escapist formula of complete entertainment with typical song and dance sequences (widely popular among foreign audience). Cinema in India is a phenomenon, the form of media that has the ability to create the greatest impact on the masses. Bollywood stars can attain near godlike status in India. Their faces appear in advertisements around the country. According to me there are only two things most popular in India, especially Mumbai — Bollywood and Cricket.

Mumbai is very well known for its fast paced lifestyle and the citizens of Mumbai are believed to be the most active in the entire country. Most of the cities in India are laidback in terms of the lifestyle and people, but Mumbai is completely opposite of that. People in this city are very hard working. They also have to travel long distances to reach their work. Almost 80% of the citizens rely on the Mumbai local train system, which is the lifeline of the city. Everything in Mumbai carries a high price tag, which may be why everyone works so hard. Residents often take up extra part time jobs to earn more money. People from other parts of India come here to earn their living and make money. This makes Mumbai a cosmopolitan center, with many ethnic groups among which Maharastrians form the majority.

Street food and vendors are a common sight in Mumbai especially in the working district of the city. Mumbai is well known for its local food joints and street food is very popular amongst the citizens. Other cultural staples include Indian festivals like the Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali, and Holi are celebrated in Mumbai. These festivals are celebrated in grandeur and unite all the citizens of Mumbai irrespective of caste and creed.

The globally popular film Slumdog Millionaire showed the world the city’s slums. 60% of Mumbai’s population lives in its shantytowns and slums. Contrary to what is shown in the movie, life in the slums is pretty normal. The residents of the slums pay rent. The building materials for these houses might range from flimsy corrugated-iron shacks to permanent, multi-storey concrete structures. But most houses have kitchens and electricity. The children there go to schools – most of them to the municipal schools with affordable fees as compared to the private schools. Many families have been here for generations, and some of the younger Dharavi residents even work in white-collar jobs. Dharavi has Asia’s largest leather tanning industry. Based on my personal interaction with the slum dwellers during a school project, I realized that the residents of these slums often choose to stay in the neighborhood they grew up in. Whether it is because of the fear of discrimination or the fear to accept change, they are certainly more comfortable living where they are and the surroundings they are familiar with.

I believe one should take the time to get to know Mumbai and appreciate the city for what it has to offer. The luxury lifestyle of south Mumbai and the slums, the crazy traffic and the local trains, the street vendors and the high end restaurants, the humid climate and the cool breeze of the Marine Drive, the historic architecture and the market places, the movies and the cricket, the urban and local character. The city will suck you in if you let it.

Filed Under: Mumbai, Urban Culture

Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai. Photo courtesy Andrew Adams.

Experiencing Mumbai on a “local tour”

Mumbai (Bombay) is a frenetic city, a city that never sleeps, never even really slows down. It is liquid reality, hot and humid most of the year, built on a series of connected islands that jut into the Arabian Sea. Mumbai is India’s economic engine and its glamour factory. It is also home to Asia’s largest slum. Mumbai is a poet drunk on life and howling at the moon. It seduces you with a promise of dreams and romance and then its mood shifts and you tumble from hopeful to heartbroken. Mumbai is a grand place, there is nowhere else remotely like it. And Mumbai’s citizens know it. Through tragedy and triumph they stick together in their own unique way and show an unmatched resilience of spirit. Though I live in Delhi when I am in India, I have a soft spot for the maximum city, and try to vist every time I am in India.

Last winter, when I was staying in Mumbai with my friend, photographer Andrew Adams (who specializes in Indian wedding photography), we went on a very unique tour called Mumbai Local with Mumbai Magic. The two things unique about this tour are: it is guided by students and it takes you around Mumbai “like a local,” on buses, trains and taxis.

Our guide Eshwari.

Living local in the maximum city

Our tour was guided by a student named Eshwari, who wants to be a professional guide. She was delightful — warm, knowledgeable and very personable — and I am sure she will make a great professional guide when she graduates.

Andrew was living in Mumbai at the time of the tour, and I have lived in Delhi, so we were actually two “locals” going on the tour. Yet we both found it fascinating. We went to a few places we had never been and learned a lot about the city we never knew. Altogether a wonderful day in an exciting city. Note: All the photos on this blog are by Andrew Adams (using an iPhone 5).

Flowers for puja, Mumbai. Photo courtesy Andrew Adams.

Mumbai Local Tour itinerary

  • Met guide (Eshwari) at Gateway of India, where she gave us a brief history of Mumbai/Bombay, the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the statue of Shivaji Chatrapati
  • Walked by many of Mumbai’s most historical buildings, such as the Yacht Club, Police Headquarters, Prince of Wales Museum, Victoria Terminus, Watson’s Hotel, the High Court, the Clock Tower and the Oval Maiden
  • Took a bus to Mani Bhavan, Gandhi’s home in Bombay
  • Took a taxi to Swati Snacks where we feasted on delicious and top-quality Bombay street food in a hygienic environment. We ate: baked masala kichidi (spicy lentils and rice), panki chatni (rice pancakes in banana leaf) and dahi sev puri (potatoes mashed with onions and spices) and more
  • Walked through a bustling vegetable market to the Grant Street train station
  • Took the train to Mahalaxmi Station where we watched the men doing laundry at the famous Dhobi Ghats (top photo)

Vegetable market, Mumbai. Photograph courtesy Andrew Adams.

Street scenes and landmarks

The Mumbai Local tour takes you past both scenes of everyday life unfolding on the busy streets as well as momentous landmarks. Mumbai’s rich history is told in buildings both frayed and modern, and so many stories are born at the intersection of cultures. Watson’s Hotel was the grand old hotel of Bombay — named after its original owner, John Watson. It’s India’s oldest surviving cast iron building: it was fabricated in England and constructed onsite between 1860 and 1863. As legend has it, this was the hotel that Jamsetji Tata was barred from entering, as only British were allowed. In 1898, in retaliation, he built the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which still stands in magnificence on the seafront, while Watson’s is sorely dilapidated.

Many luminaries stayed at Watson’s during its heydey including Mark Twain, in 1896. His book Following the Equator describes the scene at Watson’s. “The lobbies and halls were full of turbaned, and fez’d and embroidered, cap’d, and barefooted, and cotton-clad dark natives … in the diningroom every man’s own private native servant standing behind his chair, and dressed for a part in Arabian Nights.”

The site of Watson’s, the grand hotel of old Bombay. Photo courtesy Andrew Adams.

The freedom fighters

Jamsetji Tata was an early advocate for home rule in India. But the subcontinent’s most famous freedom fighter, Mahatma Gandhi, also lived in the city — and was famously arrested from his home in Bombay, Mani Bhavan. It was from here that Gandhi initiated the Non-Cooperation, Satyagraha, Swadeshi, Khadi and Khilafat movements.

Mani Bhavan is located on a relatively quiet, leafy side street and is now a museum and memorial to the father of independent India. We were moved to quiet introspection as we toured the building’s exhibits, library and especially his room, it’s stark yet elegant simplicity preserved behind glass. Both Andrew and I walked out onto the balcony outside this room, and for a moment just watched the street scene below in silence together, thinking about how Gandhi stood on this very balcony. The home is a testimonial to the power of one man’s convictions, which changed the course of history and have lived on and on.

Gandhi’s room at Mani Bhavan, his home in Bombay. Photo courtesy Andrew Adams.

A city of foot-path poets

And of course, Mumbai is not just all about five-star hotels, famous landmarks and saintly heroes. It is in fact a city of “foot-path poets,” to paraphrase Suketu Mehta who wrote one of my favourite books about Mumbai, Maximum City. Everywhere Mumbai swirls with people on the go. The dhobi wallahs (laundry men) of Dhobi Ghat, pictured above (top photo), have become a tourist attraction for the way they laboriously wash and dry laundry in open pens — an urban concession to the traditional method of washing clothes in the river and beating them on rocks. Only the dhobi wallahs of Mumbai are all men, whereas laundry as a chore is traditionally done by women.

But everywhere you go in Mumbai you will see people in various stages of industry, from the prosaic and traditional Bombay wallahs to the ultra-modern Mumbaikers. And the Mumbai Local tour gives you a taste of the spectrum of life in Mumbai.

Barbers, Mumbai. Photo courtesy Andrew Adams.

Barbers, Mumbai. Photo courtesy Andrew Adams.

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