Mumbai (Bombay)

The City:

We crossed the entire city of Mumbai from north to south – 40 km. just in the city itself. With 16 million inhabitants, Mumbai is the largest city in India, and it took us the entire day to cross its length. The heat was intense, my migraine was intense; I tried to concentrate on the road and on the traffic, the only real aim being to make it through the city alive. My head almost killed me. The traffic almost killed me. Some of the drivers were insane. It scared the crap out of me.

We crossed about a dozen bridges, saw the markets from the overpasses, the palms and the mangroves with their hanging roots, and an interesting assortment of architecture – many buildings in the “colonial” style, reminiscent of 19th-century British architecture. We also saw a National Park right in the middle of Mumbai that looked like a jungle from our viewpoint on top of one of the bridges. Wild tigers inhabit the park – right in the middle of Mumbai! And there are high-rises on the other side of the bridge!

We biked through the world’s second-largest ghetto (Asia’s largest). It seemed to stretch on forever. Thousands upon thousands lived on the sidewalks. One tent followed another, full of holes and falling down. Children walked nude in the streets, doing their business on the sidewalks where the tents were located. Clothing lay drying on the streets and hung from rocks. Naked babies hung in mosquito netting from tree branches. An unwholesome stench filled our nostrils.

We arrived in South Mumbai in the late afternoon, and were immediately aware that people in Mumbai beg like nowhere else – incessantly, persistently. It’s everyone, it’s everywhere: men, women, children, the old, the young. Sometimes, even where our hotel was located – which was far away from the ghetto – you had to step over people sleeping on the sidewalk just to walk by. It’s a shame for the children, but at least they don’t have to worry about being too cold.

Some people lived in the stairways of our hotel, and others just slept on the steps in the daytime. We fought the cockroaches daily – they won. Our hotel was in a Muslim neighborhood, and the women wore black burkas, which covered everything except for their eyes. The men often dyed their hair an orangish color, like the Hindu men. The hotel’s clientele was mostly African, Arabic, and Israeli. A lot of big African mamas came over to Mumbai to buy cloth and busied themselves wrapping huge parcels in the corridor to ship off.

Above all, Mumbai is a modern city – India’s largest cosmopolitan commercial center. Unlike other cities, it is possible to see young women wearing jeans in public (though still rare). Though not as charming as some other Indian cities, Mumbai is still an interesting city because of its cultural events and because of its large range of Indian and continental food. It is a large port city, and anything and everything can be found here. It has a large immigrant base, and people of many religions and cultures live side by side.

We spent one day biking 35 km. around the city, and what we saw was a city of contrasts. The divide between the classes seems more evident than ever in Mumbai. The very rich live and work alongside the very poor. Certain neighborhoods have fancy apartment and office buildings, plush residences with luxurious gardens and elegant mansions, and impressive colonial-era architecture, while other neighborhoods are poor and rundown, a mass of rubble, “tent cities.” These tent cities were sometimes just across the street from the fancy office buildings.

We crossed the narrow, crowded streets of the market district in south Mumbai, full of men pushing and pulling their long wooden carts laden with goods, and we crossed wide, orderly streets full of cars and taxis. We walked along the water’s edge at Chowpatty Beach. But the single, overriding thing that stayed with me all day was the smell. Everywhere we went, a hideous smell rose up and filled our nostrils – a stench of urine and decaying trash. It was by far the worst by the sea, and especially at the entrance to Chowpatty Beach, where the smell was absolutely unbearable – the worst I’ve smelled in India (as bad, or perhaps worse, than the stench of rotting urine at the end of our street in Delhi). The sea was black with pollution; parts of the beach and other port areas were covered completely in trash. The dock leading to the Haji Ali Mosque was littered with garbage, which flowed onto the rocks and into the sea. It was dirty, smelly, nauseating. We biked for quite a while by the sea, with Mumbai’s skyline as a backdrop, and the sea breeze brought the smells to us. They stayed with me for the day and beyond. Quite a contrast to the romantic picture conjured up by the palm and mangrove trees that lined many streets!

Mumbai is not only remarkable for what it has, but also for what it does not have. Noticeably absent were all the animals that form such an integral part of every other Indian village and city. Here, we found no donkeys, no pigs, no camels, no elephants, no monkeys, no buffalo, no cows, even. Only some stray dogs and cats, and some horses by the Harbor that pulled wagons for tourists.

In many other cities, it is the bulls or oxen that pull heavy loads. In Mumbai, it is the men who sweat to push or pull heavy carts through the streets. One in front pulling, a rope sometimes around his shoulders, and one in back, pushing, through heavy traffic, pollution, and the honking of horns. There were no bicycle or auto rickshaws, only red buses and black taxicabs, reminiscent of London.

Two of the more interesting sites that we visited are Victoria Station (a Victorian-era railway station) and Elephanta Island (Hindu temples carved into the rock on an island 10 km. into Mumbai Harbor). Both are World Heritage sites classified by the UNESCO and you may find more detail on them by clicking on the section entitled “UNESCO sites” under the Indian flag.

The Haji Ali Mosque was worth a visit, mostly for its ambiance. It is the tomb of a Muslim saint who died while on pilgrimage to Mecca. It is believed that a casket containing his mortal remains floated and came to rest on a rocky bed in the sea, where devotees constructed his tomb and the mosque. It is situated at the end of a long dock in the Sea of Oman, whose dock is submerged at high tide. The courtyard is peaceful and similar to other Muslim tombs that we have seen.

Though the white marble building, flanked by palm trees, is beautiful in its setting by the sea, the abundance of trash detracts from its overall appearance. Wooden stalls rise from the sea all along the dock, and men sit on top of them, selling toys, drinks, and food. The dock is invaded by beggars – young and old alike – and especially of amputees, who have most likely lost their limbs due to polio. It seems as if all of the amputees in Mumbai have flocked to the wharf to show their stubs to the world and to beg for money. Several groups of them lay in circles on the ground, chanting and wailing away. One man had no legs – just two big feet attached to his trunk where his legs should have started. Children grabbed onto passers-by relentlessly, begging for money and sodas. Men stood in piles of trash, obviously oblivious to the stench.

The inner courtyard of the mosque was like a refuge, its tomb like others we had seen. As in other mosques, Hindu traditions had obvious influence on the Muslim traditions. Incense was lit and offerings (flowers and coconuts), though less in number than in Hindu temples, were still offered to Allah. Many men, women, and children wore heavy black eye makeup to ward off evil spirits.

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One of the treats of being in Mumbai is the endless variety of food that is available. Everyone told us, “You can find everything in Bombay!” And indeed you can! Especially food. And…drum roll…after 2 months of dreaming of chocolate cake – yes, literally dreaming of it! – I found all the chocolate cake I could ever want and more!!! Chocolate’s a scare commodity in India, virtually unknown by most of the population. And here, there are bakeries everywhere!!! Maybe it’ll cure my craving for the next 6 months! Yoohoo! Plus, they also have brownies and banana bread!

We ate fish curry, tandoori chicken, pineapple, strawberries, sugar cane juice, potato sandwiches, and even steak (didn’t know they served steak in India! It was our first time in 1½ yrs.!) But the strangest was the green chili ice cream – made with real, hot green chili peppers! Kind of bizarre.

Oh right, and in the local shops, we also found American peanut butter, Kraft Velveeta Cheese, Ken’s Steak House dressing, Poptarts, Heinz ketchup, Hershey’s chocolate syrup, Kraft mayonnaise, Cheez-it crackers, granola bars, Quaker oats, Oreos, Betty Crocker cake mix, Pringles potato chips, and Wheatables crackers, among others! Can you imagine! We passed it up, though – boohoo! – because, for example, it cost $5 for one box of crackers. I stopped looking there. Import costs are high. But still…it’s available!

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Arts Festivals:

We were lucky enough to be in Mumbai during two annual arts festivals: the Mumbai Festival and the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. The first had nightly performers and singers by the Mumbai Harbor. The second was more of a street festival: dance, theater, literature, art, visual arts, cinema. We saw six dance performances, all quite different. There was physical theater, traditional Indian folk dances inspired from all parts of India (fabulous!), Hindu story telling, flamenco, classical dance, contemporary dance, a compilation of Bollywood musicals. The folk dances and Bollywood numbers were especially energetic and spirited.

The story of Hindu gods and their loves and jealousies, as told through English narrative and Sanskrit chants, was interesting. As the dancer told it to the sound of a tanpura and a wooden flute, an Indian princess, Parvati, goes against her father’s wishes by marrying a poor Sadhu holy man instead of a rich nobleman. When she hears years later of a big party at the palace, to which they were not invited, she transforms into a goddess of war in a blind rage. Her several arms hold fierce weapons, she sits upon a tiger, and she spits blood, her long tongue red with bloodlust. “Turned on, as only Shiva could be,” he acquiesces in her desire to see her father. She returns in her normal form to the palace, where her father insults her husband: “He has only a loincloth to cover his body, is covered in ash, carries around a bowl to beg, and is thin as a corpse.” (description of a holy man). Fire flashes from her eyes, and she retorts, “Well, if he is only a corpse, than I am a corpse, too, and I am proud to defend his honor.” She throws herself upon the fire and bursts into flames. Her husband must wait another 1000 years to meet up with her again, in a reincarnated state.

The last dance was to the story of Krishna, the god who is known to have had over 1000 wives and many lovers. His greatest love was with Radha, wife of another, who despairs because of his many affairs. She describes her passion as he lays his head on her breast and caresses her. “Come, take this jeweled girdle from my flowing hips which protect the cave of my pleasure.” She begs him to dress her so that he can undress her once again.

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A Traditional Maharaja Wedding:

It was a Friday night, on a holiday, and we were walking along the Mumbai Harbor towards the Gateway of India, following the sounds of a marching band and the explosion of fireworks. We thought it was another Hindu celebration, like so many in India. But it was a wedding procession of a rich maharaja (Indian ruler – traditionally, the kings and princes). Tradition is still alive and well in India, and tradition dictates that a rich groom continue in procession through the streets so that the local people can see him. It serves the purpose of introducing yourself to the neighborhood before arriving at the place where your bride is waiting for you.

The young maharaja was drawn in a chariot by four white horses extravagantly decorated in a highly colorful fashion and preceded by a small group of family and friends and a red-plumed Hindu marching band. The group of men and women, dressed in golden silk turbans and suits and glittering dresses, respectively, sang and danced to the sounds of clarinets, trumpets, drums, and recorded music. As the music got faster and louder, the dancing got more lively and ended in a frenetic crescendo. Walking alongside the procession were young men carrying lamps and small chandeliers on their heads and shoulders. The maharaja, who wore a white suit, a silk turban threaded with gold, and a large sapphire and diamond broach and a large necklace of enormous sapphires and diamonds, sat looking bored atop his place of honor in the chariot. The chariot was covered in an abundance of hanging garlands – yellow, orange, red, and violet. It was beautiful. The glittery procession stopped their progress down the street at about every 50 m., at which point fireworks exploded above, through the palm trees. It took over one hour to move only about two city blocks! The procession ended at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the most expensive in India, at which time the Hindu hired band dispersed in the street and the King descended from his throne.