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 Maharashtrian 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, hassle, 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 over sixteen million people – 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 biggest 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 Maharashtrian 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.
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 nearby Surat, 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 cotton 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 outside 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, a self-confessed admirer of Hitler. 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 coordinated bomb blasts simultaneously blew apart seven packed commuter trains across the city; and, most dramatically, the horrific attacks of November 26, 2008, during which a group of rampaging gunmen ran amok across the city, killing 172 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.Read More
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus)
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus)
Inspired by St Pancras Station in London, F.W. Stevens designed Victoria Terminus, the most barmy of Mumbai’s buildings, as a paean to “progress”. Built in 1887 as the largest British edifice in India, it’s an extraordinary amalgam of domes, spires, Corinthian columns and minarets that was succinctly defined by the journalist James Cameron as “Victorian-Gothic-Saracenic-Italianate-Oriental-St Pancras-Baroque”. In keeping with the current re-Indianization of the city’s roads and buildings, this icon of British imperial architecture has been renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, in honour of the famous Maratha warlord. The new name is a bit of a mouthful, however, and locals mostly still refer to it as VT (pronounced “vitee” or “wee-tee”).
Few of the two million or so passengers who fill almost a thousand trains every day notice the mass of decorative detail. A “British” lion and Indian tiger stand guard at the entrance, and the exterior is festooned with sculptures executed at the Bombay Art School by the Indian students of John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard’s father. Among them are grotesque mythical beasts, monkeys, plants and medallions of important personages. To minimize the sun’s impact, stained glass was employed, decorated with locomotives and elephant images. Above it all, “Progress” stands atop the massive central dome.
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-Maharashtrian immigrant communities, who doggedly stuck to Bombay. Some fifteen years 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.
The 2008 Mumbai attacks: 26/11
The 2008 Mumbai attacks: 26/11
Despite all the previous terrorist outrages against Mumbai, none succeeded in capturing the world’s attention in the same way as the attacks which rocked the city in November 2008, during which a group of Pakistani gunmen embarked on a three-day orgy of murder and destruction at a string of high-profile locations across the city – India’s own 9/11, and a chilling display of Islamic militancy at its most deadly.
The ten attackers, all men in their early twenties, travelled by boat from Karachi (hijacking an Indian fishing trawler and killing its crew en route) before coming ashore at Cuffe Parade on the evening of 26 November. Two of the attackers headed to CST station, where they opened fire in the main hall, killing 58 people before fleeing the scene, after which they continued to run amok across the city, machine-gunning seven Indian policemen and attempting to massacre patients and staff at nearby Cama Hospital before being intercepted by security forces. Two others headed to Leopold’s café and began firing into the crowd, murdering ten people before escaping. Two more seized control of the Jewish centre at Nariman House, holding its six inhabitants hostage – all were subsequently killed, apparently after having been tortured. Two bombs were also left in taxis which later exploded, killing a further five people.
The main focus of the attacks, however, were two of the city’s most prestigious hotels, the Oberoi Trident and the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. At both, gunmen entered, firing randomly at guests in the hotels’ public areas, before retreating upstairs, where they began setting off explosives and taking large numbers of guests hostage. The sight of smoke pouring out of the central dome of the old wing of the Taj became an almost permanent fixture on TV screens around the world, as Indian commandos began the hazardous task of flushing the terrorists out of the hotels and freeing their hostages, fighting floor by floor to clear the buildings – a job which took three days in the case of the Taj.
By the end of the attacks, some 172 people were dead, including 28 foreigners from sixteen different countries ranging from Mexico to Mauritius as well as 17 Indian policemen and commandos (including Mumbai’s own Anti-Terrorism Chief, Hemant Karkare). Given the chosen targets, including two landmark luxury hotels, a Jewish centre and a café heavily patronized by westerners, suspicions inevitably pointed towards the various militant Islamist operations based in Pakistan. The Pakistani government initially denied that any of its citizens had been involved in the attacks, attempting to place the blame on jihadi organizations in Bangladesh and Indian criminals. Despite Pakistani denials, however, it soon emerged that all ten gunmen were in fact Pakistanis, all of whom had been trained by Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the leading Pakistan-based militant organizations, originally founded to fight the Indian presence in Kashmir and subsequently connected with a string of high-profile attacks in other parts of India. Interrogations of the one surviving terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, revealed that the gunmen had been hand-picked during Lashkar-e-Taiba training camps in Pakistan, given advanced training in weapons and explosives and sent into “battle” fuelled by a heady mix of LSD and cocaine. Kasab also stated that the gunmen had hoped to kill five thousand people, an aim in which they mercifully failed. In November 2009, Pakistani authorities belatedly arrested seven men in connection with the attacks, though the Indian government continues to insist that those self-same authorities have not done enough to bring those responsible – the leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba in particular – to justice.
Its name suggests some kind of fowl curry, but Bombay duck is actually a fish – to be precise, the marine lizard fish (Harpalon nehereus), known in the local dialect of Marathi as bummalo. How this long, ribbon-like sea creature acquired its English name no one is exactly sure, but the most plausible theory holds that the Raj-era culinary term derives from the Hindustani for mail train, dak. The nasty odour of the dried fish is said to have reminded the British of the less salubrious carriages of the Calcutta–Bombay dak when it pulled into VT after three days and nights on the rails, its wooden carriages covered in the stinking mould that flourished in the monsoonal humidity.
Mumbai’s size and inconvenient shape create all kind of hassles for its working population – not least having to stew for over four hours each day in slow municipal transport. 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 4500 to 5000 dabawallahs deliver freshly cooked meals from 175,000 to 200,000 suburban kitchens to offices in the downtown area. Each lunch is prepared early in the morning by a devoted 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, not unlike a slim paint tin, is the lynchpin 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, he carries all the boxes to the nearest railway station and hands them over to other dabawallahs for the trip into town. Between leaving the wife 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 plough with such insouciance through the midday traffic. Tins are rarely, if ever, lost – a fact recently reinforced by the American business magazine, Forbes, which awarded Mumbai’s dabawallahs a 6-Sigma performance rating, the score reserved for companies that attain a 99.9 percentage of correctness. This means that only one tiffin box in 6 million goes astray, in efficiency terms putting the illiterate dabawallahs on a par with bluechip firms such as Motorola.
To catch them in action, head for CST (VT) or Churchgate stations around late morning, when the tiffin boxes arrive in the city centre. The event is accompanied by a chorus of “lafka! lafka!” – “hurry! hurry!” – as the dabawallahs, recognizable in their white Nehru caps and baggy pyjama trousers, rush to make their lunch-hour deadlines. Nearly all come from the same small village near Pune and are related to one another. They collect around Rs350–400 from each customer, or Rs5000–6000 per month in total – not a bad income by Indian standards. One of the reasons the system survives in the face of competition from trendy fast-food outlets is that daba lunches still work out a good deal cheaper, saving precious rupees for the middle-income workers who use the system.
Business leaders 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. If you’d like to do the same, contact the NMTSCT via its website, wwww.mydabbawala.com, and look for the link to their “Day With a Dabbawala” scheme.
Dharavi: the £700 million slum
Dharavi: the £700 million slum
Flying into Mumbai airport, your plane’s undercarriage will almost skim the corrugated-iron rooftops of the vast shantytown spread across the middle of one of India’s largest slums. 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 largest and 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 Mira Nair’s seminal portrait of the city, Salaam Bombay!, and has also featured in numerous other Bollywood and Tamil flicks from the 1970s onwards. Dharavi’s defining moment of celluloid fame, however, came in 2009 with Danny Boyle’s multiple Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. The slum provided many of the film’s locations, as well as several of its leading child actors – although controversy subsequently dogged their involvement in the project, with one British tabloid making (unsubstantiated) claims that nine-year-old Slumdog actress Rubina Ali had been offered for sale by her father to an undercover reporter for £200,000 following the film’s global success.
Despite its burgeoning international fame, however, Dharavi’s future remains uncertain. The entire district is living in the shadow of a proposed $40billion redevelopment project which aims to bulldoze the entire slum. In return for agreeing to eviction, Dharavi’s residents will be entitled to 225 square feet of apartment space per family in new multi-storey 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. Despite these protests, and extended bureaucratic delays, a new masterplan for the project was approved in early 2010 amidst rumours that private investors had already begun buying up thousands of shanty properties in the expectation of imminent redevelopment. Exactly when and how this will happen, however, remains unclear.
Performing arts in Mumbai
Performing arts in Mumbai
Mumbai is a major centre for traditional performing arts, attracting the finest Indian classical musicians and dancers from all over the country. Frequent concerts and recitals are staged at venues such as Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, KM Munshi Marg (t022/2363 0224), the headquarters of the international cultural (Hindu) organization, and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Nariman Point (NCPA; wwww.ncpamumbai.com).
For more contemporary live music, the leading venue is Blue Frog, in North Mumbai at D/2 Mathuradas Mills Compound, NM Joshi Marg, Lower Parel (t022/4033 2300, w www.bluefrog.co.in), opened in late 2007 and recently named by the UK’s Independent newspaper as one of the world’s top live music venues. Performances are staged inside a huge old warehouse in Mumbai’s former mill district, showcasing leading Indian and international live music acts and DJs – anything from rock to hip-hop.
For theatre, head out to the Prithvi Theatre (t022/2614 9546, wwww.prithvitheatre.org) on Juhu Church Road, a small but lively venue focusing mainly on Hindi-language theatre, along with some English productions.
The home of the Hindi blockbuster, the “all-India film”, is Mumbai, famously known as Bollywood. Visitors to the city should have ample opportunity to sample the delights of a Hindi movie, traditional or otherwise. To make an educated choice, buy Time Out Mumbai magazine, which contains extensive listings and reviews. Alternatively, look for the biggest, brightest hoarding, and join the queue. Seats in a comfortable air-conditioned cinema cost Rs120–200, or less if you sit in the stalls (not advisable for women).
Of the two hundred or so cinemas, only a dozen or so regularly screen English-language films. The most central and convenient are the gloriously Art-Deco halls dating from the twilight of the Raj: the Regal in Colaba; the Eros opposite Churchgate station, and the Metro at Dhobi Talao junction – the latter was recently converted into a state-of-the-art multiplex. Down on Nariman Point, near Express Towers, the Inox (wwww.inoxmovies.com) is another big multi-screen venue, built only a few years ago in retro Mumbai-Art-Deco style.
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 budget places tend to fill up by noon, which can often mean a long trudge in the heat with only an overpriced fleapit at the end of it, so you should really phone ahead as soon as (or preferably well before) you arrive. Prices in upmarket places are especially high for India; state-imposed “luxury tax” (currently ten percent), and “service charges” levied by the hotel itself further bump up bills.
Mumbai is crammed with interesting places to eat. The cafés, bars and restaurants of Colaba encompass just about the full gamut of gastronomic 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.
Beware of service charges levied on your bill by some of the more expensive places.
Bars and nightlife
Bars and nightlife
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’ social scene but if you want to sample the pulse of the city’s nightlife, venture up to Bandra and Juhu.
Despite a 1.30am curfew introduced in 2005 (only clubs within hotels are allowed to carry on later), Mumbai’s nightclub 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, especially in venues frequented by Bollywood’s movers and shakers – and the pretty young things desperate to break into the industry. Dominated by filmi pop mixes, the music is far from cutting edge by the standards of London or New York, but no one seems to mind. Dancefloors get as rammed as a suburban commuter train and the cover charges are astronomical. 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 – they charge per couple on the door (with a portion of the entrance cost redeemable at the bar). In practice, if you’re in a mixed group or don’t appear sleazy you shouldn’t have any problems. At the five-star hotels, entry can be restricted to hotel guests and members.
Mumbai is a great place to shop, whether for last-minute souvenirs or essentials for the long journeys ahead. Locally produced textiles and export-surplus clothing are among the best buys, as are handicrafts from far-flung corners of the country. With the exception of the swish arcades in the five-star hotels, prices compare surprisingly well with other Indian cities. In the larger shops, rates are fixed and credit cards are often accepted; elsewhere, particularly dealing with street vendors, it pays to haggle. Uptown, the central bazaars – are better for spectating than serious shopping. The Zaveri (goldsmiths’) Bazaar opposite Crawford Market is the place to head for new gold and silver jewellery. Tea lovers should head to the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, which sells a decent range of Assam, Nilgiri and (especially) Darjeeling black and green teas.
In common with most Indians, Mumbaikars are crazy about cricket. Cricket provides almost as much of a distraction as movies in the Maharashtrian capital, and you’ll see games in progress everywhere, from impromptu sunset knockabouts on Chowpatty Beach to more formal club matches in full whites at the gymkhanas lined up along Marine Drive. In south Mumbai, Oval Maidan is the place to watch local talent in action, set against a wonderfully apt backdrop of imperial-era buildings. Something of a pecking order applies here: the further from the path cutting across the centre of the park you go, the better the wickets and the classier the games become.
Pitches like these are where Mumbai’s favourite son, Sachin Tendulkar, cut his cricketing teeth. The world’s most prolific batsman in both test and one-day cricket still lives in the city and plays regularly for its league-winning club side at the Brabourne Stadium, off Marine Drive. A kilometre or so further north, 45,000-capacity Wankhede Stadium is where major test matches are hosted, amid an atmosphere as intense, raucous and intimidating for visiting teams as any in India.
The Indian cricket season runs from October through February. Tickets for big games are almost as hard to come by as seats on commuter trains, but foreign visitors can sometimes gain preferential access to quotas through the Mumbai Cricket Association’s offices on the first floor of Wankhede. Few other spectactor sports get much of a look-in, although the horse racing at Mahalakshmi draws large crowds on Derby days. Previews of all forthcoming events are posted on the back pages of the Times of India, and in Time Out Mumbai.