Shining back up towards me, as I looked out into the dark night sky as we made our final descent into Mumbai, were hundreds of small lights flickering colours of yellow, green, pink, blue, white and gold. These were the lights of life shining out of Asia’s largest slum. This is often the first image a visitor to Mumbai is greeted with (as the slum is located next to the airport).
Once made up of a collection of seven islands, Mumbai was captured by the Portuguese in the early 16th century. They named it ‘Bom Bahia’ pronounced ‘Bombay’ and meaning the ‘good bay’. In the early 1800s work began to fill in the swampy marshlands creating one large island which perches on India’s western coastline. Mumbai, as it is now known, is India’s largest city and is home to, an estimated, 12 million people.
As the heat of the mid-day sun, that’s sent many into hiding, falls away people begin to descend onto the promenade of Marine Drive’s 4km boulevard. The air here feels cooler. The promenade is edged by fancy hotels, offices and apartments. Look north, through the hazy mist that hangs over the crescent-shaped bay, and you can see the exclusive hideaways of the Malabar suburb.
As evening descends, the lights hanging from the lamp posts framing the long coastline form a necklace (or as locals call it the ‘Queen’s Necklace’).
Marine Drive is alive. Life flocks towards the boulevard. The crowds thicken. Walkers set off. Joggers run up and down in their expensive trainers (or look upwards and you’ll see older people walking laps on their roof tops). Families arrive. Groups of teenagers giggle as they tap into their phones. Food vendors set up their stalls and the air is filled with delicious smells of vada pav, pani puri and other treats being cooked up. Bare-footed children try to sell me bracelets made of flowers. The click-click of cameras can be heard as photographers capture the scene. The faint calls of tea-vendors echo around you. The sea is calm, quiet and laps gently against the rocky shore. Boats can be seen far out in the distance.
We all absorb the flaming sun as it sets over the Arabian Sea kicking back a myriad of deep red colours. There is something absolutely incredible about how the natural light falls in India (I think it gets more vibrant the further south you head). The natural colours of the environment look different to anywhere else I’ve ever been. The light looks somehow warmer, it’s softer and the tones and hues are brighter giving light a really unique aspect in India. I try to explain this to my friends who haven’t visited but they don’t seem to understand. I don’t think it can really be put into words. It’s a sensory experience. You just need to go and see it for yourself.
As the sun sets, the city prepares to busy itself deep into the night. Mumbai doesn’t sleep.
I wake up early next morning and look out of my hotel window. The crowds from the evening have disappeared and all that are left are lines of people lying on the pavement sleeping at the waters edge.
Mumbai is a city of huge contrasts.
In your mind try to balance the lives of those living in the glamorous homes that dot the Malabar district against those living under the corrugated iron roofs of the Dharavi slum area (which is home to more than 1 million people).
Watch those children dressed smartly in their school uniforms walking to school and those other children selling coca colas on the street.
As you drive in your comfortable air conditioned car back from the airport, look out of your car window and consider the lines of men, women, children and babies that you will see sleeping on the road sides as your taxi navigates the streets to your hotel at 4am.
Talk to your taxi driver and he will tell you about his Mumbai. Listen as he tells you he is the best tour guide in Mumbai (and then watch later in the evening from your window as it dawns on you that he’s been sat waiting for you all day and you know he doesn’t have a real home to go to in Mumbai and you see him settle down to sleep in his car).
Talk to the 15 year old boy in your hotel who serves you your breakfast as he tells you he traveled to Mumbai 3 years ago to work from the South.
Watch the lines of blacked out air-conditioned luxury top-end cars drop designer clad executives off at shiny new offices, or for shopping trips in the luxury malls.
When you lie in bed at night and you consider the extreme polarity of the wealth and poverty that live side by side here you will feel the nausea.
But as you attempt to try to understand this deep economic gulf around you, you’ll also see that in someway this environment is content in its own way. There is something – something intangible – but something that softens the pleats of these deep economic divides in Mumbai. Talking to a local girl, her view was that Mumbai is a city that belongs to no-one. Rather, everyone who lives in Mumbai owns a part of it and has a stake in it. People flock to Mumbai because it’s the city of dreams. It’s the city where anything is possible. And it seems to me, it’s this somewhat odd chimera which creates a sense of contentedness for Mubaiites.
India is definitely challenging for the first time visitor but this country is amazing. It will get under your skin and make you fall in love with it. My advice is don’t be mentally fixed in what you want to get out of your trip or where you want to go. Traveling in India requires patience and flexibility!