Tuesday, December 20, 2011


My South Asian adventure began in Mumbai, India's largest city and its commercial and cultural capital.  When you apply these superlatives to the superlative that is India, the result is a unique madness.  Much has been said about this city's baking, teeming streets, frenetic pace and juxtaposition of rich and poor, but it is still a rambunctious site to take in.  In Shantaram, there is a one-liner about Mumbai that encapsulates its essence: "The impression was of a plodding, indefatigable, and distant past that had crashed intact, through barriers of time, into its own future."

Mumbai isn't packed with sights, so is usually just an entry-point for tourists to India, but I found its less famous aspects the most engaging: the energy of too many people in one spot, the strata of agrarian Indian society grafted onto an urban setting, slums and roof-top bars.  It's a city you feel more than see, and for that it will either agree with you or it won't; it agreed with me.

Flying into Mumbai, you can see the geography that's formed its modern reality; once several islands, akin to a subcontinental Manhattan, the channels between them have been filled in to create a long, densely populated peninsula, known as "South Mumbai/Bombay".  Roughly the same size as its American cousin, more than twice as many people call it home.

Over half of Mumbai's population live in slums, which meander around and through the richer, more permanent, parts of the the city.

If there's an open space, it will be used, for commerce, socialising, or perhaps sleeping.

The Southern tip forms an arch around a broad bay, one side being the business centre and the other (pictured) Mumbai's nicest neighbourhood.

Leopold Cafe, a Mumbai institution and nexus for tourists, ex-pats and locals alike.

Gateway of India, built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay and its grateful citizens of the Empire.  Physical affection between same-sex friends is common in India, as these two buddies show.

Marine Drive rims the bay and is nicknamed "The Queen's Necklace" due to its appearance when lit up at night.

Towering over the expanses of slums and middle class neighbourhoods are ostentatious piles, such as this one, owned by the head of Kingfisher.

Mumbai is also the address of the world's most expensive private residence, with a price tag of over $1 billion, it was built by Mukesh Ambani for his family, but stands empty most days of the year.

Population of India in 1891: 25 million.  2011: 1.2 billion.

Ghandi's room in Mumbai.  On the desk sits a sculpture with three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.

Mumbai's India's financial capital and most progressive city, but you don't have to look too far to find the caste-laden reality of traditional India.  The open laundry vats, where the Dhobis toil for about $3/day.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (née Victoria Terminus), a bit of colonial impracticality in the middle of a tropical city, through which more than three million commuters pass every day.

We were there on a Sunday, which is a slow day, but it was still brimming with the peoples of suburban Mumbai and its hinterlands.

India's infrastructure, though agéd, is superficially familiar.  Its usage, however, is entirely Indian; roads designed for vehicle traffic is used by everyone and everything that needs to get from A to B: cars, busses, bikes, cows, goats, people.  There's no delineation of space; if a space can be used for a purpose, and is not already occupied, it will be taken up.

Though it's India's wealthiest city, it's not immediately apparent to the eye.  Even in the most expensive sections of South Mumbai, buildings are crumbling around their tenants.  I am told that this is because there are rent control laws in Mumbai, so landlords get no return from improving their buildings; it is more profitable for them to allow their buildings to decay and fall down so they can then sell the land or rebuild at market rates.

Of all the slums in Mumbai, Dharavi is its most famous.  Though the natural Western instinct upon seeing a slum is pity, it is not entirely appropriate.  Yes, the residents are poor, but they are also industrious; there is an entire economic world in the slums, making every possible scrap of resource commercially viable.

South Mumbai's skyline.

There're no permanent gay bars in India.  The only one Russ and I got to on this adventure was a monthly event held at an otherwise Chinese restaurant.  Though Mumbai won't be competing with the capitals of the Western world any time soon, it was a viable gay bar and a good time.

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