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Chaos and harmony coexist in Mumbai

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

It took me 59 years to visit Asia for the first time and I still wasn’t ready for Mumbai, a city of jarring contrasts that overwhelms the senses.

It is crowded – bursting at the seams with a population roughly the same as Texas packed into 233 square miles. (I’ll save you the look-up click: Texas is more than 1,100 times larger, at more than 260,000 square miles.) And more than half of Mumbai residents live in its famous slums.

But it is also friendly, with people happy to help you, and speaking that sing-song hybrid of colonial British with a Hindi accent. Most of them also practice one of the oldest religions in the world that seems very focused on finding the good in ourselves, finding the good in others, good karma, and happiness. What's not to like?

Mumbai traffic may be the best metaphor for the place. A never-ending procession of cars, motor-scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians mingle in a state of constant motion, often coming within inches of each other. The tooting horns seem to say 'excuse me, please,' rather than 'outta my way!' and there is hardly ever a raised voice. If someone cuts in front of you, it is only because they got to a spot a microsecond ahead of you. You slow down, let them pass, and everyone keeps moving.

It's as if someone at some point said: “Look, there are a lot of us here. If we sit politely and wait for each other, or stand around yelling about cutting the line, we’ll never get anywhere. Namaste. Just keep moving.”

It's a messy city. The combination of a poverty, a tropical climate, and density the likes of which we don't see in the most crowded American cities, means that the streets are not tidy. Now throw in the fact that cows, considered sacred in Hindu culture, walk the streets freely, leaving the occasionally patty on the sidewalk or street. Mumbai is, um, lived in.

But there are also oases of calm, from temples, mosques and churches, to high-rise apartments, luxury hotels, fancy shops and restaurants. Our lodging – booked on points – was at the legendary Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, on the water in downtown Mumbai. It was built almost 120 years ago by an Indian businessman tired of being excluded from places that were only for the British and other white patrons. He vowed to build the most beautiful hotel in the city, and that it would welcome all guests. He did.

The Taj remains one of the best hotels in Mumbai. It is an architectural landmark on the city's waterfront, adjacent to the Gateway to India, a relic of the Mumbai's days as a center of British colonialism. The Taj strikes a perfect balance between Indian tradition and modern elegance and amenities. And it has cool factor as the place where Ravi Shankar taught George Harrison to play sitar in 1966.

Normally I am more of a stroll-around-and-explore-the-city guy. But Mumbai cries out for hiring a local guide/driver. It is simply too sprawling, with the aforementioned traffic challenges. We used a travel agency to book several tours, none of which disappointed.

One highlight was a trip to one of Mumbai’s three primary railroad stations, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. It is impressive to see the trains pull in one after another, disgorging massive crowds of commuters into the city. The station serves three million people per day, a staggering number when you consider that Grand Central Terminal in New York serves about 750,000. (And remember, it's one of three Mumbai terminals.)

While throngs of Mumbai commuters flowed past us near the entrance of the station, we were on the lookout for a small cadre of white-hatted riders who arrive every morning at about 11. They are the Dabbawala, part of a lunch delivery service that goes back more than 120 years. This low-tech DoorDash delivers more than 200,000 hot, home-cooked lunches every day. According to one of our guides, Indians place a high value on a fresh-cooked, healthy lunch. This demand spawned the Dabbawalas.

The process starts in suburbs, or neighborhoods outside downtown, where Dabbawalas fan out to workers’ homes to gather the fresh-cooked lunches every day at about 10 a.m.. Once loaded on trains, the lunches converge on the city in luggage cars, where they are taken off and sorted using a number and color-code system, then delivered to offices throughout the downtown.

The whole system costs users about $15 per month, and has been studied by business efficiency experts. One can imagine an American approach involving smart phones and gadgets like conveyor belts and sorting machines. Mumbai gets it done with people, hand-carts, bicycles, and codes written in sharpie on lunch boxes.

We also stopped at a busy downtown overpass to look out on the Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest outdoor laundry. From above it looks like a sea of clothes lines, with drying linens, blue jeans, tee shirts and other clothing stretching out almost as far as you can see. A closer look reveals concrete washing pens on the ground, each fitted with its own flogging stone.

Mixed in among the washing stations are rickety shacks, mostly covered with corrugated plastic panels. This, our guide said, is where the several thousand washers who work there live. They wake up six days a week and clean more than 100,000 pieces of clothing.

As we drove around town, our guide pointed out various religious temples and symbols. The majority of Indians practice Hindi. But there are also Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Zoroastrians, Jainists - noted for their strict vegetarian lifestyle – and a surprising number of Catholics. The last group is a reminder that India was originally colonized by the Portuguese, who were followed by Jesuit missionaries.

We expressed interest in visiting a Hindu temple, and soon found ourselves walking into a midday gathering. At the front of the room a religious person seemed to be making his way through a ritual blessing of a shrine with flowers and incense. At one side of the room a group of musicians played a lively, repetitive musical tune as a cantor and many of the people present repeated the Hare Krishna mantra. Most people were singing along and dancing. I watched one musician put down his instrument and dance, with an unmistakable expression of happiness on his face.

Our guide, a Catholic, gave us a brief lesson in historical theology, explaining that Hinduism believes that each person contains a small part of God in their soul.

"When you respect one person as a God, you are not going to do them harm," he said. "That's why in the Abrahamic tradition we say: 'Peace be with you.' Why? Because of that."

We were at the temple for at least 20 minutes and the music never stopped. Mary and I both agreed that we walked out feeling better than we walked in. It was a great experience.

Another highlight was an early morning visit to the Sassoon Docks fish market, one of several in the city. As one might imagine in an ocean-front city originally built on a series of seven islands, seafood is a staple part of the diet. Every day fleets of small fishing boats offload their catch into markets like this, where they and vendors engage in a race against the rising sun – and the fish-rotting Mumbai heat it brings - to buy and sell their wares. Deals are often settled after impromptu auctions, which seem to pop up without warning.

We walked among the stalls, jumping out of the way of carts and ducking our heads to avoid being hit by some of the larger species, including a swordfish carried over one man’s shoulder. The odor was powerful, but not unpleasant. As one who grew up near the water, I recognized it as the smell of truly fresh fish.

Other visits included several of the city's bustling markets, where we walked among exotic fruits and vegetables, beautiful flowers, colorful spices, and textiles.

Mumbai also offers the gamut of dining options, from high-end restaurants to food carts. We had a memorable evening meal at Chowpatty Beach, where food trucks gather along the wide sandy expanse. Some have chairs and tables nearby. Others put out rugs, her their customers can claim a spot on the ground.

We also ate at the Leopold Cafe, a no-nonsense dining spot made famous in the best-selling novel/memoir "Shantarum," by Gregory David Brooks. The closest thing I could compare it to would be the Billy Goat in Chicago, or the Union Oyster House in Boston - a well-worn spot that attracts a certain number of tourists, but mostly locals looking for a drink and some good, basic, affordable food.

It's hard to convey what is so unique about Mumbai, and I'm not sure I'm doing a good job. It is a city of close proximity and constant motion, with no inhibition.

The slums are hard to miss and hard to reconcile. The casual visitor might assume that they are simply the place where the poor people live, like any number of tougher neighborhoods in a U.S. city. Then you see one - you can't miss it when you land at the airport - and realize they are massive, uninterrupted jigsaws of make-shift shacks. And then you realize that more than half the people who live in Mumbai live in a slum. That is many millions of people.

One guide urged us to "do the math" as we looked around at the bustling downtown. His point was that many of the people we were looking at, dressed in normal clothes and headed to work in offices or shops, lived in slums.

This may explain the energy of Mumbai, where rich and poor and in between live together in such close proximity. In the heart of Mumbai stands Antilia, a 27-floor residence owned by Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani. We drove by it, and were told about it, each time with a tone somewhere between pride and awe, several times in our three-day stay.

It has more than 400,000 square feet of living space, a 168-car garage, and it cost more than $1 billion to build in 2012. Many of the floors in the building feature extra high ceilings, meaning it is actually as tall as a typical 60-story building. It has accommodations for a staff of 600.

The tower is a short scooter ride from the Dhobi Ghat, the aforementioned outdoor laundry. The workers there, when they wash themselves from buckets and climb hand-made ladders into make-shift rooftop shacks, can see it easily. They can also see other luxury high-rises, and the gleaming offices of most major global corporations. Mumbai, remember, is the financial capital of India, a nation of 1.4 billion people.

I urge anyone with an interest in experiencing new cultures and different ways of living together in close proximity to each other, to visit Mumbai. I know we won't soon forget it.

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