Ever since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the principal gateway to the Indian Subcontinent has been Mumbai (Bombay), the city Aldous Huxley famously described as “the most appalling of either hemisphere”. Travellers tend to regard time spent here as a rite of passage to be survived rather than savoured. But as the powerhouse of Indian business, industry and trade, and the source of its most seductive media images, the Maharashtran capital can be a compelling place to kill time. Whether or not you find the experience enjoyable, however, will depend largely on how well you handle the heat, humidity, traffic fumes and relentless crowds of India’s most dynamic, Westernized city.
First impressions of Mumbai tend to be dominated by its chronic shortage of space. Crammed onto a narrow spit of land that curls from the swamp-ridden coast into the Arabian Sea, the city is technically an island, connected to the mainland by bridges and narrow causeways. In less than five hundred years, it has metamorphosed from an aboriginal fishing settlement into a megalopolis of more than sixteen million people – India’s largest city and one of the biggest urban sprawls on the planet. Being swept along broad boulevards by endless streams of commuters, or jostled by coolies and hand-cart pullers in the teeming bazaars, you’ll continually feel as if Mumbai is about to burst at the seams.
The roots of the population problem and attendant poverty lie, paradoxically, in the city’s enduring ability to create wealth. Mumbai alone generates one third of India’s tax income, its port handles half the country’s foreign trade, and its movie industry is the most prolific in the world. Symbols of prosperity are everywhere: from the phalanx of office blocks clustered on Nariman Point, Maharashtra’s Manhattan, to the expensively dressed teenagers posing in Colaba’s trendiest nightspots.
The flip side to the success story is the city’s much-chronicled poverty. Each day, an estimated five hundred economic refugees pour into Mumbai from the Maharashtran hinterland. Some find jobs and secure accommodation; many more end up living on the already overcrowded streets, or amid the squalor of some of Asia’s largest slums, reduced to rag-picking and begging from cars at traffic lights.
However, while it would definitely be misleading to downplay its difficulties, Mumbai is far from the ordeal some travellers make it out to be. Once you’ve overcome the major hurdle of finding somewhere to stay, you may begin to enjoy its frenzied pace and crowded, cosmopolitan feel.
Nowhere reinforces your sense of having arrived in Mumbai quite as emphatically as the Gateway of India, the city’s defining landmark. Only a five-minute walk north, the Prince of Wales Museum should be next on your list of sightseeing priorities, as much for its flamboyantly eclectic architecture as for the art treasures inside. The museum provides a foretaste of what lies in store just up the road, where the cream of Bartle Frere’s Bombay – the University and High Court – line up with the open maidans on one side, and the boulevards of Fort on the other. But for the fullest sense of why the city’s founding fathers declared it Urbs Prima in Indis, you should press further north still to visit the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), the high-water mark of India’s Raj architecture.
Beyond CST lie the crowded bazaars and Muslim neighbourhoods of central Mumbai, at their liveliest and most colourful around Crawford Market and Mohammed Ali Road. Possibilities for an escape from the crowds include an evening stroll along Marine Drive, bounding the western edge of downtown, or a boat trip out to Elephanta, a rock-cut cave on an island in Mumbai harbour containing a wealth of ancient art.Read More
Mumbai originally consisted of seven islands, inhabited by small Koli fishing communities. In 1534, Sultan Bahadur of Ahmedabad ceded the land to the Portuguese, who subsequently handed it on to the English in 1661 as part of the Portuguese Infanta Catherine of Braganza’s dowry during her marriage to Charles II. Bombay’s safe harbour and strategic commercial position attracted the interest of the East India Company, based at Surat to the north, and in 1668 a deal was struck whereby they leased Bombay from Charles for a pittance.
Life for the English was not easy, however: “fluxes” (dysentery), “Chinese death” (cholera) and other diseases culled many of the first settlers, prompting the colony’s chaplain to declare that “two monsoons are the age of a man”. Nevertheless, the city established itself as the capital of the flourishing East India Company, attracting a diverse mix of settlers including Goans, Gujarati traders, Muslim weavers and the business-minded Zoroastrian Parsis. The export crisis in America following the Civil War fuelled the great Bombay cotton boom and established the city as a major industrial and commercial centre, while the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the construction of enormous docks further improved Bombay’s access to European markets ushering in an age of mercantile self-confidence embodied by the grandiloquent colonial-Gothic buildings constructed during the governership of Sir Bartle Frere (1862–67).
As the most prosperous city in the nation, Bombay was at the forefront of the Independence struggle; Mahatma Gandhi used a house here, now a museum, to co-ordinate the struggle through three decades. Fittingly, the first British colony took pleasure in waving the final goodbye to the Raj, when the last contingent of British troops passed through the Gateway of India in February 1948. Since Independence, Mumbai has prospered as India’s commercial capital and the population has grown tenfold, to more than sixteen million, although the modern city has also been plagued by a deadly mixture of communal infighting and terrorist attacks.
Tensions due to the increasing numbers of immigrants from other parts of the country, and the resultant overcrowding, has fuelled the rise of the extreme right-wing Maharashtrian party, the Shiv Sena, founded in 1966 by Bal Thackery, whose death and cremation in 2012 brought the state to a standstill. Thousands of Muslim Mumbaikars were murdered by Hindu mobs following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992–93, while in March 1993, ten massive retaliatory bomb blasts killed 260 people. The involvement of Muslim godfather Dawood Ibrahim and the Pakistani secret service was suspected, and both Ibrahim and the Pakistanis have been linked with subsequent atrocities. These include the bomb blasts in August 2003, which killed 107 tourists next to the Gateway of India; the subsequent explosions in July 2006, when co-ordinated bomb blasts simultaneously blew apart seven packed commuter trains across the city; and, most dramatically, the horrific attacks of November 26, 2008, when a group of rampaging gunmen ran amok across the city, killing 166 people.
Despite these setbacks, Mumbai has prospered like nowhere else in India as a result of the country’s ongoing economic liberalization. Following decades of stagnation, the textiles industry has been supplanted by rapidly growing IT, finance, healthcare and back-office support sectors. Whole suburbs have sprung up to accommodate the affluent new middle-class workforce, with shiny shopping malls and car showrooms to relieve them of their income. Even so, corruption in politics and business has drained away investment from socially deprived areas. Luxury apartments in Bandra may change hands for half a million dollars or more, but an estimated seven to eight million people (just under fifty percent of Mumbai’s population) live in slums with no toilets, on just six percent of the land.
Mumbai or Bombay?
Mumbai or Bombay?
In 1996 Bombay was renamed Mumbai, as part of a wider policy instigated by the right-wing Maharashtrian nationalist Shiv Sena Municipality to replace names of any places, roads and features in the city that had connotations of the Raj. The Shiv Sena asserted that the British term “Bombay” derived from the Marathi title of a local deity, the mouthless “Maha-amba-aiee”, Mumba Devi for short. In fact, historians are unanimously agreed that the Portuguese, who dubbed the harbour “Bom Bahia” (“Good Bay”) when they first came across it, were responsible for christening the site and that the later British moniker had nothing to do with the aboriginal Hindu earth goddess.
The name change was widely unpopular when it was first imposed, especially among the upper and middle classes, and non-Maharashtran immigrant communities, who doggedly stuck to Bombay. A couple of decades on, however, “Mumbai” seems to have definitively taken root with the dotcom generation and even outgrown the narrow agenda of its nationalist originators – just as “Bombay” outlived the Raj.
Film is massive in India. The country produces around 1200 movies annually, half of them in the studios of north Mumbai. Known as “Bollywood”, the home of the All-India cinema industry has experienced a sea change over the past decade, as its output has started to reach mass audiences of expat Indians in Europe and North America. The resulting global revenues have financed much higher production standards and a completely new approach to plot, acting styles and scripts – rendering redundant the old cinematic stereotypes of the so-called “masala format”, which dominated Indian film for decades. Big song-and-dance numbers still very much have their place in the modern Bollywood blockbuster, as does melodrama. But the overall tone these days tends to be much more sophisticated, with glamorous foreign locations, more plausible story lines, cutting-edge camera work and even state-of-the-art CGI deployed to wow cinemagoers at home and abroad.
Whereas in the past, hit movies tended to incorporate a bit of everything – romance, laughs, fight scenes, chases, lurid baddies, a set of instantly recognizable stock characters and convoluted plots that emphasized traditional values – now the industry is making big bucks from more nuanced genre flicks. The four highest grossing movies of the past decade were a feel-good comedy (3 Idiots; 2009), a dark psychological thriller (Ghajini; 2008); an action movie (Don 2; 2011) and a sci-fi superhero blockbuster (Ra I; 2011) – all radical departures from the Bollywood mainstream.
Some elements, however, remain consistent. Not even the most serious Indian movie can do without at least two or three “item numbers” – the set-piece song-and-dance sequences that give all hit films their essential anthems. And the cult of the Bollywood star shows no sign of abating. A-listers in the industry enjoy almost god-like status (only the country’s top cricketers come close to matching their exalted mass appeal). Images of the current heartthrobs appear everywhere, from newspapers to cheesy TV ads.
At the top of the heap stands the veteran, white-bearded eminence grise of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, whose record-breaking career as a screen hero saw a startling revival in the 2000s after he came out of de facto retirement to host India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, called KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati). Only a notch behind him comes rival Shah Rukh Khan, the smouldering lead of countless romantic blockbusters and the man the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the world’s biggest movie star” in 2011. In box office terms, however, neither the Big B nor SRK can these days claim the appeal of Aamir Khan, the actor-director-producer behind hits such as Lagaan and 3 Idiots – the latter the highest grossing Indian movie of all time. Other leading men of the moment include John Abraham, Hrithik Roshan and Bollywood bad boy, Salman Khan.
Not surprisingly in such an image-obsessed industry, female leads tend to have a shorter shelf life than their male counterparts, although contemporary starlets such as Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor are tackling increasingly demanding roles in an attempt to prove themselves as serious actresses.
Even so, their off-screen antics and romantic dalliances continue to capture more attention than their acting skills, as do any public appearance of India’s biggest celebrity couple, star actor Abhishek Bachchan (son of Amitabh) and his wife Aishwarya Rai. A former Miss World whose extreme beauty and svelte figure are often credited as spearheading the crossover of Bollywood into Western cinemas, Aishwarya has maintained her great popularity despite having had her first child in 2011. The career trajectory of Bollywood actresses has tended to be downwards after marriage (the assumption being that Indian audiences aren’t prepared to accept a married woman, or even worse, a mother, as a romantic heroine). But with two other Bollywood queens – Madhuri Dixit Nene and Karisma Kapoor –making comebacks after starting a family, the times may well be changing.
Mumbai’s size and inconvenient shape create all kind of hassles for its working population. One thing the daily tidal wave of commuters does not have to worry about, however, is where to find an inexpensive and wholesome home-cooked lunch. In a city with a wallah for everything, it will find them. The members of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (NMTSCT), known colloquially, and with no little affection, as “dabawallahs”, see to that. Every day, around 5000 dabawallahs deliver freshly cooked meals to 200,000 suburban kitchens to offices in the downtown area. Each is prepared early in the morning by a wife or mother while her husband or son is enduring the crush on the train. She arranges the rice, dhal, subzi, curd and parathas into cylindrical aluminium trays, stacks them on top of one another and clips them together with a neat little handle.
This tiffin box is the linchpin of the whole operation. When the runner calls to collect it in the morning, he uses a special colour code on the lid to tell him where the lunch has to go. At the end of his round, all the boxes are carried to the nearest railway station and handed over to other dabawallahs for the trip into town. Between leaving the cook and reaching its final destination, the tiffin box will pass through at least half a dozen different pairs of hands, carried on heads, shoulder-poles, bicycle handlebars and in the brightly decorated handcarts that glide with such insouciance through the midday traffic.
To catch them in action, head for CST (VT) or Churchgate stations around late morning, when the tiffin boxes arrive in the city centre to a chorus of “lafka! lafka” – “hurry! hurry!” – as the dabawallahs rush to make their lunch-hour deadlines. Nearly all come from the same small village near Pune and are related to one another.
Famous foreigners who have taken more than a passing interest in the dabawallah phenomenon include Sir Richard Branson (the Virgin tycoon spent a day accompanying a tiffin carrier on his round), Prince Charles (who invited some to his wedding with Camilla Parker-Bowles) and Bill Clinton, who took a tiffin lunch during a state visit.
Dharavi: the £700 million slum
Dharavi: the £700 million slum
Sprawling over 550 acres, Dharavi’s maze of dilapidated shacks and narrow, stinking alleyways is home to more than a million people. An average of 15,000 of them share a single toilet. Infectious diseases such as dysentery, malaria and hepatitis are rife; and there aren’t any hospitals.
Despite the poverty, Dharavi has been described by the UK’s Observer newspaper as “one of the most inspiring economic models in Asia”: hidden amid the warren of ramshackle huts and squalid open sewers are an estimated fifteen thousand single-room factories, employing around a quarter of a million people and turning over a staggering £700 million (US$1 billion) annually. The majority of small businesses in Dharavi are based on waste recycling of one kind or another. Slum residents young and old scavenge materials from across the city and haul them back in huge bundles to be reprocessed. Aluminium cans are smelted down, soap scraps salvaged from schools and hotels are reduced in huge vats, leather reworked, disused oil drums restored and discarded plastic reshaped and remoulded. An estimated ten thousand workers are employed in the plastics sector alone. Ranging from Rs3000–15,000 per month, wages are well above the national average, and though Dharavi may not have any health centres, it does hold a couple of banks, and even ATMs.
As India’s most iconic slum, Dharavi has also found an unlikely niche in the history of Indian and international cinema. The district provided many of the settings for Danny Boyle’s multiple-Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, as well as several of its leading child actors.
Despite its burgeoning international fame, Dharavi’s future remains uncertain. The entire district is living in the shadow of a proposed US$40 billion redevelopment project which aims to bulldoze the entire slum. In return for agreeing to eviction, residents will be entitled to apartment space in new multistorey tower blocks. Schools, roads, hospitals and other amenities have also been promised. Opposition to the scheme among Dharavites has been all but unanimous, however, with slum dwellers insisting any future development should focus not on erecting a swanky new suburb but on improving existing conditions.
Finding accommodation at the right price when you arrive in Mumbai can be a real problem. Budget travellers, in particular, can expect a hard time finding decent but affordable accommodation. The best low-cost places tend to fill up days or weeks in advance, so you should book well ahead to avoid a stressful, sweaty room hunt. Tariffs in mid-range and upmarket places are also especially high for India. State-imposed luxury tax (currently ten percent), and service charges levied by the hotel itself further bump up bills; both these add-ons are included in the prices quoted in the following reviews. A short ride from the railway stations Colaba makes a handy base, and is where the majority of foreign visitors head first. The streets around the Gateway of India are chock-full of accommodation, and the area also offers more in the way of food and entertainment than neighbouring districts. At the western edge of the downtown area, swanky Marine Drive (officially Netaji Subhash Chandra Marg) is lined with four- and five-star hotels taking advantage of the panoramic views over Back Bay and the easy access to the city’s commercial heart.Book a hostel in Mumbai
Mumbai is crammed with interesting places to eat, from glamorous rooftop lounge bars to hole-in-the-wall kebab shops. The cafés, bars and restaurants of Colaba encompass just about the full gamut of possibilities, while a short walk or taxi ride north, Kala Ghoda and Fort are home to some of the best cafés and restaurants in the city, including its last traditional Parsi diners, whose menus (and sometimes decor as well) have changed little in generations.
The city is renowned for distinctive street foods – especially bhel puri, a quintessentially Mumbai masala mixture of puffed rice, deep-fried vermicelli, potato, crunchy puri pieces, chilli paste, tamarind water, chopped onions and coriander. More hygienic, but no less ubiquitous, is pao bhaji, a round Portuguese-style bread roll served on a tin plate with griddle-fried, spicy vegetable stew, and kanji vada, savoury doughnuts soaked in fermented mustard and chilli sauce. And if all that doesn’t appeal, a pit-stop at one of the city’s hundreds of juice bars probably will. There’s no better way to beat the sticky heat than with a glass of cool milk shaken with fresh pineapple, mango, banana, chikoo (small brown fruit that tastes like a sweet pear) or custard apple. Just make sure they hold on the ice – which may be made with untreated water.
Mumbaikars have an unusually easy-going attitude to alcohol; popping into a bar for a beer is very much accepted (for men at least), even at lunchtime. Colaba Causeway is the focus of the travellers’ and local students’ social scene but to sample the cutting edge of the city’s nightlife, you’ll have to venture to the suburbs, where the trendiest places have turned the city’s Draconian licensing laws to their advantage by serving gourmet food to complement the range of imported beers, wines and cocktails.
Despite a 1.30am curfew (only clubs within hotels are allowed to carry on later), Mumbai’s clubbing scene remains the most full-on in India. Tiny, skin-tight outfits that show off razor-sharp abs and pumped-up pecs are very much the order of the day for boys, and spray-on mini-dresses and kitten heels are de rigueur for the girls. Dancefloors get as rammed as a suburban commuter train and the cover charges can be astronomical on weekends. Door policies and dress codes tend to be strict (“no ballcaps, no shorts, no sandals”), and, in theory, most clubs have a “couples-only” policy. In practice, if you’re in a mixed group and don’t appear sleazy you shouldn’t have any problems.
Mumbai is a great place to shop and prices compare well with other Indian cities. Locally produced textiles and export-surplus clothing are among the best buys, as are handicrafts from far-flung corners of the country. In the larger shops, rates are fixed and credit cards are often accepted; elsewhere, particularly when dealing with street vendors, it pays to haggle. Uptown, the central bazaars are better for spectating than serious shopping.