Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mumbai Mambo

First view of Mumbai from the night train

(Written in Mumbai – February 5th)

Picture a city like this:  take every single Canadian on the planet, all 35 million of us, and stuff us into the same urban area.  Add millions of vehicles, all with very loud horns, and throw in some livestock wandering the streets just to mix it up a little.  Put those 35 million Canadians milling about on the street or driving maniacally around corners, and take away their natural Canadian politeness so that there is no such as lining up or taking your turn; it’s a mad free-for-all of pushing and shoving to be the first at the tea counter or on the bus.

That’s Mumbai.  It is astonishingly large, and overwhelming for the sheer crush of humanity on its streets (there are, actually, 35 million people, I’m not making that up).  The gap between the richest and poorest is horrifying; there is clearly some money in Mumbai, judging by some of the cars on the streets and the high-end stores on offer in some areas, but there is shocking poverty as well.  

Slums are not a thing of the past here; we went past some on the taxi ride from the train station where tens of thousands of people lived cheek-by-jowl in falling-down piles of stone or brick topped with a sheet of tin for a makeshift roof; indoor plumbing and sanitation is non-existent, and open trenches down the narrow lanes serve as sewers.  These are not people who found the streets of Mumbai paved with gold; for them, it’s a daily struggle just to find food to eat.

Not far from some of the slums, the difference is mind-blowing, as you gaze at British-Raj-era colonial buildings and graceful wide streets lined with trees.   Women stroll the streets in richly coloured, embroidered saris or (less frequently) haute-couture Western clothes; men sport Rolexes and sharp suits as they talk incessantly on the very latest model of mobile phone.  

The over-the-top opulence of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (site of the bombings a few years back) at nearly $4,000 a night for the most luxurious suite is not that far from crowded streets with ramshackle shops and people burning trash on the streets at night.  Tourists ogling the expensive designer brands on offer in chi-chi shops are not that far away from the places where people wash their laundry on stones in the sea.  Lavish Bollywood film sets rub shoulders with alleyways with desperate women sell their bodies for a few rupees to buy food for their children.

There’s something wrong here.  The richest of the rich, and the middle class, seem to be getting ahead quite nicely as those layers of Indian society rush headlong towards a more secular and westernized way of life.  There is enough to go around, surely, that the poorest of the poor could be lifted up a step or two, given better education and eventually better jobs, housed in places that didn’t breed disease and death.  But it doesn’t seem to be happening; the ones who were already doing okay are doing better and better, but the masses of poor continue to wake up each morning wondering whether or not they’ll eat that day.  

I don’t know what the solution is.  If the Indian government came to ask me how to fix the problem, I wouldn’t know how to answer, except to say, “Do more.  Try harder.” I leave again later today, so I won’t be spending enough time here to figure anything out.  

Thank God I live in Toronto, that’s all I can say.  Hey, rest of Canada, we’re not so bad after all!

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