After the stillness of South Goa, Mumbai felt like a rushing, snarling, whirling animal; tuk tuks and people crawling over it’s hide like flies and garbage dripping from it’s panting jaws. I emerged from the harsh fluorescent light of the train station into darkness, and was immediately assailed by a throng of shouting tuk-tuk drivers. Bouncing through the frantic streets under a smoggy, moonless sky; I gasped as trucks thundered past inches from where I sat, clutching my day sack in the back seat of the tuk-tuk. Motorbikes zipped through red lights, weaving through five indistinguishable lanes of traffic, and small, dirty faced children crowded around, hands outstretched, at every stop.
People say that all life is in India, and Mumbai is India’s pumping, heaving heart. From the high ceilings and Victorian grandeur of Central Station the local train snakes through the city, rattling past tall brightly painted apartment blocks, wastelands of rubbish and leaning slums, streets brightly lit and noisy with people and traffic and the sizzle of food vendors. At rush hour people crowd the platforms 20 deep, straining at the edge as the train pulls in. Elegant women, a moment ago composed and regal in their saris, surge forward pushing and shouting to board the train, and men in shirts and polished shoes pack themselves like sardines into the tin can carriages. In places the slums border the train line so closely that the business commuters leaning from the open sides can catch glimpses of hollow faced men crouching in doorways, skeletal dogs skulking down dark alleyways and dirty faced children playing on the edge of the tracks. A skyline of towering glass skyscrapers shimmers on the horizon, set against a foreground of unimaginable poverty.
Walking through the Colaba district from Churchgate, past groups of hollering boys playing cricket on the expansive Maiden Oval and down wide leafy streets in the shadow of the High Court and University buildings, it is easy to forget the clamour of the surrounding city. Sellers stand underneath faded parasols on every corner selling chai and puris and sweet lassis; business students in collared shirts browse at the outdoor book stalls and a shaft of sunlight glows through the branches of the trees that line the pavements. Onwards towards the sea the streets are lined with vendors; vintage Bollywood posters vying with leather bags and polished trinkets; books piled to head height, sweets and fizzy drinks and toasted chickpeas. Everywhere there are faces, everywhere bodies weaving through the traffic or walking to a meeting or lying prone in a dirty blanket in the gutter.
From the rooftop vantage point of the Intercontinental hotel bar, Marine Drive sweeps around the coastline in a blur of headlights to disappear at the horizon in a haze of smog. Down there on the promenade, horns blare and children beg in tattered dresses; but up here Mumbai’s wealthy and beautiful sip Rs1000 cocktails, the distant noise muted by soft music and the smells of the street carried away on a cool breeze.
All of India’s infinite contradictions are here, in this city of 13 million people. Bombay clamours, squalls and preens; modernity colliding with tradition and the dreams of the forward thinking and affluent crowded by the realities of many thousands who cannot afford the luxury of dreams. Beggars crouch at the feet of entrepreneurs and socialites as the slum dwellings crowd around the feet of office blocks, students in jeans and designer sunglasses share pavements with women in elaborate saris and men in kurta. All life is here, and it is life that makes Mumbai at once challenging and exhilarating, frustrating and vibrant.