The Real Mumbai

by Patricia Escalon

The real Mumbai as experienced through Patricia's senses of sight, sound, and smell.

Overhead of Laundry Hanging at Dhobi Ghats, Mumbai, India
Overhead of Laundry Hanging at Dhobi Ghats, Mumbai, IndiaPhotographic Print
Johnson, Dennis
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Careening through the streets at night, Sheba and SP showed me the Queen’s Necklace, a bay formation in a semi circle. At three in the morning, the lanterns gave it a heart wrenching quality, reminiscent of Southend or Brighton. The only difference was the amount of garbage and the distinct lack of fun rides. Other than that, it was all there, palm trees, posh apartment buildings, vendors and cabbies.

However, at three in the morning, everything looked bleary and dilapidated. It was only once I’d seen the Queen’s Necklace during the day that I realised how fabulously wealthy the residents were.

In the bright harsh sunlight, Mercs and Beamers glinted their way through the streets, encasing their occupants in an air-conditioned cocoon. Outside, the real Mumbai perspired, breathing in fumes, smog and pulverised cow dung.

Ah, the sweet aroma of cow dung! I am still in awe of a herd of cows traipsing through the main roads of Mumbai, alongside auto-rickshaws, buses, scooters, motorbikes and pedestrians. Only small amounts of cow dung reach the air in this millionaires’ domain. No cows venture this far into town. It’s the dust, mixed in with the crap (literally) which travels with the wind, that reaches your nostrils and embeds itself into your lungs.

Bombayites don’t seem to notice it. They also do not seem to notice that there is tobacco spit covering all surfaces, horizontal or vertical, indoor and outdoor, across Mumbai.

Mumbai’s residents still call it Bombay, despite the official name change. Most of them seem to thrive in the chaos and melee that characterizes India’s largest metropolis.

On every footpath there seems to be some kind of market. Clothing, shoes, produce, statues, art, furniture, you name it, it’s there for the lowest prices you can find. Take an Indian friend, though. I managed to get completely ripped off because I travelled alone to the airport.

You need a certain amount of energy to haggle with a taxi driver and a luggage carrier. Everyone wants a piece out of the firangi, who’s really fresh meat for the taking in this dog eat dog city.

Speaking of dogs, it’s their paradise here. Packs of dogs terrorise the suburbs, biting children and adults, plundering roadside stalls. The few lone dogs you see are runts, bullied by the alpha dogs into isolation. All are infected with rabies, among other diseases.

They roam with such impunity that even JJ Hospital, one of the state run hospitals in Mumbai, is riddled with them. The hospital is another eye-opener. The staircases and lifts are covered in brown spit marks. The floor is grey with dust and dog shit. The rubbish bins overflow with visitors’ waste. Cats and dogs roam the hallways at will. Emergency patients wait for days to be seen. Overnight patients sleep in the hallway seats when there are no beds for them.

My host, Healthy, a registrar with the hospital, tells me that doctors have to clean up the patient, the operating theatre, the utensils and the beds themselves. There are no orderlies and the nurses don’t do any triage or cleaning work. In fact, the nurses don’t look after the patients. The doctors teach the patients’ relatives how to look after them. Without their relatives, the patients die.

This is a side of Mumbai the middle and upper classes don’t know about or don’t want to know about. The middle class is preoccupied with making money or emigrating to Canada. They are looking for a quality lifestyle. The conditions eighty per cent of the population in Mumbai endures does not concern them.

This is evident if you visit any suburban café. Inside the air-conditioned bubble of a Barista, Cuppa Café, or Mocha, young men and women dressed in the latest trends sip on a frappe, imagining themselves as embodying the Hollywood ideal.

As they alight from their auto-rickshaws or their cars, they step over men sleeping on the footpath. They brush away beggar kids’ hands. They bypass the chai wallah with his cart. They are on a mission: to fulfil an image in their head. Beware all who wish to deter them from this path. Their eyes are starry and can only see the cast of Friends waiting for them on a couch.

Women Balancing Fish Baskets at Fish Market on Sassoon Dock, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Women Balancing Fish Baskets at Fish Market on Sassoon Dock, Mumbai, Maharashtra, IndiaPhotographic Print
Stribley, Dallas
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Shiny stores stocked to the rafters with goods entice the young and recently employed. All that matters in this brave new world of this new young workforce is buying power. The hundreds of call centres that are transferring to India have created a new generation of late teens and twentysomethings who are financially independent. Seventeen year olds can afford Nikes and Reeboks. Twenty one year olds are team leaders. Thirty year olds like Kabil own call centres themselves.

This wild wild East is out of control economically. A few hundred million are graduating from high school and going straight to IBM, Dell, 3, Vodafone or Sprint for their start in life. Vani, a twenty seven year old, has just put a deposit on an apartment in trendy Bandra. This would have been unthinkable a five years ago.

Thanks for sharing with us, Patricia!

Enjoy Patricia Escalon's blog, All the Lonely People.

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