Thursday, March 05, 2009
"13.7 million people call Mumbai home, but not everyone in Mumbai is lucky enough to have a home."
Recently I made a 36-hour stopover in Mumbai on my way from London to Hong Kong.
28th February 2009
Following advice in the guide book, I ordered a "pre-paid" taxi inside the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. In just under 40 minutes, I was dropped off at the YMCA near Mumbai Central train station. The YMCA is an excellent hotel if you don't mind the fact that it is not located in the touristy South Mumbai. In fact, it turned out that the location was pretty convenient for visiting a number of interesting sites in the city. And how can I not mention the tasty buffet dinner, which is included in the very reasonable room price.
Having filled up my water bottle, I was ready to brave the 37C heat. Initially, it did not feel as scorching as I had expected. However, the combination of heat and constant car-horning was quickly doing my head in. Instead of wandering in the general direction which I had expected to take me through the Kalbadevi neighbourhood, past Crawford Market and onto Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Terminus (CST), I decided that I should take out my map and follow a more precise route. Having previously been to Delhi and several Rajasthan cities, I had an idea of how tough life can be in cities for the less privileged. Walking down the side streets, I soon realised that life in Mumbai for the marginalized was no better than what I had witnessed before, if not worse. The clusters of corrugated iron-roof huts (for the more lucky ones) hiding timidly behind the main thoroughfares were a constant reminder of the millions of slum dwellers in Mumbai, who ironically serve as the unsung powerhouse of the city's economy.
I soon arrived at the first stop, Mumbaidevi Temple in Kalbadevi. Mumbaidevi is the patron goddess after which the city took its name. The entrance to the temple is notoriously hard to find, but the guidebook clearly said there would be a long queue of faithfuls, which I could join to enter the temple. People were busy running around in all directions, but no queue of any description was to be found. I referred to the guidebook again, it also clearly said it is closed between noon and 4pm. Of course I had just managed to overlook this minor detail and had arrived during their siesta. Doh.
Finding Crawford Market was easy enough as it stood right by an unsightly flyover. A lot of the stores were closed when I arrived, but the cover market provided a much needed shelter from the increasingly tormenting sun. After bidding farewell to puppies housed in tiny cages (which presumably would one day be sold to someone with a stronger belief in animal wellfare), I carried on walking along the flyover to reach Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. I had once read that the train station was home to hundreds of street kids. I did not see any when I was there. Part of the exterior of the station was undergoing renovation, but the grandeur of the place still made it a magnificent sight to behold. From the grandeur of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, I crossed a busy road Indian-style to reach the convenience that is universally known as McDonald's. In an attempt to not feel completely shameful visiting McD in India, I ordered a McAloo Tikki. Sadly, it tasted not much different from any of the other McInventions. It did the job nonetheless.
With a full stomach and a pair of less tired legs, I ventured further south to visit the Horniman Circle and the Ballard Estate / Dockyard districts. The broad tarmac roads provided perfect venues for many impromptu cricket games. Luckily for all those aging colonial buildings, tennis balls were used. And of course passing cars have to give way to the cricketers. I was disappointed to find that the whole of the waterfront was a restricted area due to national security, so no glorious view of the Gateway of India from across the water.
It was time to make my way back to the YMCA. I passed Mohammed Ali Road on the way. The religious divide (or harmony, depending on how you look at it) in India cannot be better illustrated than by the two surrounding neighbourhoods: the Islamic neighbourhood to the east and the Hindu neighbourhood to the west.
1st March 2009
After a hearty breakfast at the YMCA, I decided to walk to Malabar Hill and to the Hanging Garden. The garden was not all that, but any excuse to sit around in the shade was a good one. Visiting the excellent Jain Temple on the way, I descended the hill taking Walkeshwar Road to reach Chowpatty Beach. Looking out onto the Manhattan of Mumbai across the bay, the beach does not only provide a weekend escape for millions of Mumbai residents but also another plot of land for the marginalized to sleep under the stars.
I finally gave up walking and took the train from Charni Road to Churchgate. The guidebook did not paint a very appealing picture of this mode of transport, which is an integral part of the daily lives of the millions of Mumbai commuters. The journey was painless enough and in no time I arrived at Churchgate. With students playing crickets in a quintessential English setting, Churchgate would most certainly get Michael Palin's approval.
Not far from Churchgate was the Gateway of India, which had been built to commemorate the visit and King George V and Queen Mary to Mumbai, and the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel. A sombre mood surrounded the imposing hotel, which was still undergoing renovation following the terrorist attack on the 26th of November, 2008. There was a sense of defiance as local and visiting Indians gathered along the waterfront to reflect upon what had happened.
My stay in Mumbai was quickly coming to an end, but not just yet. It was 4:45pm and seeing that I had to be back at the YMCA by 7pm to catch a taxi for the airport, I had to decide whether to take a taxi from Churchgate back to the hotel or to take the train. Taxi would be the more comfortable option but there might be a chance of being stuck in the horrendous traffic. Somehow, the train seemed to make more sense at that time. I thought, if I ran to the train station quickly, I would just manage to beat the rush hours.
It turned out I was very wrong. I got onto the train without any problem as Churchgate was the right at the end of the train line, but when more and more people poured inside the carriage as the train made its way north, I came to realise that taking the train was essentially a very bad idea. I had to get off at the next stop, Mumbai Central, but I was stuck in the middle of the carriage, naively hoping that people would somehow make way for me to exit the train. The fact that I was not sure which side to leave the carriage did not help. It became obvious that I was going nowhere as the train ground to a halt. People were already literally fighting their way onto the train. Next thing I knew, the train was in motion again. While my predicament provided entertainment for some fellow passengers, others took sympathy and urged me to push my way towards the door (incidentally there were no actual doors) in preparation to do battle at the following station. I was in pole position, but the whole world collapsed on me when a tsunami of bodies came crushing in before the train even came to a stop. I did finally make it off the train, but not without getting an elbow in the face. It was simply the most traumatic experience. I had to take the train in the opposite direction to get back to Mumbai Central. Luckily, the train going south was quite a lot less packed. Standing by the door as the train zoomed past industrial estates and residential high-rises, I was still struggling to get over the previous shock.
The taxi journey to the airport was blissful by comparison. I tried to absorb the smell of this truly overwhelming city. I tried to understand the contrast between the rich and the poor that I was seeing outside the taxi window. Under a bridge, I saw a family sitting around a dimly-lit fire. 13.7 million people call Mumbai home, but not everyone in Mumbai is lucky enough to have a home.