“More dreams are realised and extinguished in Mumbai than any other place in India” – So said Gregory David Roberts in his famous novel Shantaram about India’s largest city. Officially home to roughly 19M inhabitants, although estimates vary, locals will tell you there are upwards of 22M people in Mumbai. It’s a city with an energy that can be sensed as soon as you punctuate it’s outer suburbs which turns into a heaving mass in the inner city circles, before giving way to a somewhat regal aire in the downtown Fort/Colaba area. The latter being steeped in history with evidence of its former colonial master, also, enriched with craft beer, fancy eateries with no tuk tuks and no cows. It’s for this reason Mark really wanted to make sure Martina checked it out.
As we pushed through the thick sea of people and vehicles of midtown area the contrasts of India are stark as ever, with corporate HQs on one side of the street, and slums lining the other, suits brushing shoulders with hand drawn rickshaw carts carrying heavy loads to inner city construction sites for apartments, shopping malls or more office space. Being a slum dweller in the ‘Maximum city’ isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s not even particularly unique, with up to 60% of the cities residents calling one home, and there are plenty, over 2000 dotted around all over. One such slum, the largest in India, 5th largest in the world, is Dharavi, made famous in the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, Despite the fame, the title is perceived as a swear word and while attaching “dog” might have been a catchy marketing ploy, the locals loath it for the way it portrays their home. That’s a lot of people to piss off, over 1’000’000, yep, not a typo, they are crammed in at a rate of 70’000 per sq.km!
Mark had been to Dharavi last time he visited and by way of description Martina had always been curious. Luckily, tours are still available, with a small group heading off we trotted through the city to look at a few important landmarks before piling on the local train to take us out there. A lot of people may be prompted to give pause at the sound of ‘slum tour’, perceiving it as some voyeuristic poverty porn, straight out crazy, or plain unsafe! That couldn’t be further from the truth. To go here is to learn about the complex micro economies taking place. For instance, most of Mumbai’s plastic is recycled here, as well as paint tins that get a spruce up before being sent back for re-use. Cooking oil cans get the same treatment, with the spare oil being put to use elsewhere in the slum to make soap, oh, speaking of soap, all the spare soap from hospitals & hotels gets mixed up and put into circulation as dish soap. Dharavi even has its own leather factory and shop, Mark can attest to the quality, still touting a wallet he got here six years ago.
Sure, it’s not all glamorous, it’s tough grinding manual labour, but it’s all unskilled rural people can do to make what they can to support their families. It is also dirty, thanks in part to the mini plastic and aluminium smelters, but on top of the air there is A LOT of rubbish and pollution clogging the river flowing (however hard it has to try) unfiltered into the Arabian sea. We wade through a sea of women making papadams, up to 7kgs per day crazily, and have lunch with a family on the residential side of the slum, (the commercial and the more day-to-day shops, schools, living quarters etc are separated) before moving further into the city to the largest open air laundry in the world (in the book of records they were at pains to point out) Dhobi ghat. Dhobi is as the name suggests is where the dirty laundry is aired. Among other businesses, Indian railways for example send sheets here to get washed in one of the 1200 tubs on offer. It’s quite interesting to walk around and see the men beating the laundry on a stone with their bare hands, and it clearly takes a plenty of effort, evidenced by their ability to sleep in the most unlikely of nooks and crannies scattered about the laundry. The main feeling you get walking away from the visit is an appreciation of the lives of those living in the slums. You may expect to feel pity or sympathy due to the circumstances they face, but in reality, you feel primarily admiration about how they go about making these vital cogs in the Mumbai machine keep turning, whilst carving out a living or in some cases creating new business ventures and employing others.
To go completely full circle, we made our way down to the Marine Parade, also dubbed the Queens Necklace (due to the street lights curving around the shoreline) to take in sunset – with what seemed a significant portion of the populace – before retiring with a lovely pint of craft beer not far from the Gateway to India monument. The next day we made our way across the road to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. As it transpired we were in possession of a gift card that the lovely Kathmandu staff had bestowed upon Martina. We’d been looking for something fitting to use it with, and we found the perfect thing. No, not a night at the Taj Hotel, but a royal high tea. It’s not something we might have thought of otherwise but it was amazing! The spread consisted of a culinary delights from chicken wings, high-end takes on Indian street food, and of course, incredible desserts, so thanks to everyone at Kathmandu that allowed us to interlope on the wealthy for a day.
It had been a memorable time spent in Mumbai and we had the small matter of a 30hr train down the coast to Varkala (Kerala) for some beach time. With our train at 15.40pm we looked forward to taking our time, getting some pastries and relaxing before making our way to the station. Mark checked his phone late morning to ensure the train wasn’t delayed. Far from being delayed, it was on time alright, at……..11.40am, shiiiiiiiiiiiiiite! Somehow we’d got our wires crossed and had 20 minutes to get to a station 40 minutes away, this does not compute well. We grabbed our bag, with only one solution, due to the shape of Mumbai the train has to go North to get back to the mainland before heading South down the coast. Google maps calculated it would take 1hr 29m to get to the 3rd station, where our train was arriving in 1hr 27m. Posthaste, we enlisted the help of an unassuming taxi driver who reassured us “Sir, Madam, I will do everything to try get you to that train!”. He turned, put on his driving gloves, slammed it into first and vroom, we sped through traffic, zipped between pedestrians and bumped over potholes doing his best Bond style chase scene impression. Mark kept one eye on Maps and another on the train Apps while Martina checked on available flight backup plans and upcoming traffic congestion. It was a minute by minute thing, as Sir Alex Ferguson might say “squeaky bum time”. Revving his engine all the way we came to a screeching halt, throwing our courageous driver a bundle of notes, requesting him to wait 5 minutes in case we missed the train and sprinted. We ran for our lives, making up for all the times we’ve been shunted out the way, and made our way to the platform, to see our train rolling in, right on queue, well, actually 5 minutes late, so if it was on time we would have seen it rolling out the wrong end. But, fortune favours the brave, and our fortune was to be resting on a beach, just 30hrs hour away. Phew.
Remember to @catchustravelling on Instagram