Warming up in Bombay

Prince Wales Museum

Freshly retired and suddenly benefiting from the otherwise rare combination of time and money, my mom had given me the task to organize a family holiday in India, a country that I had visited often enough to act as a tour guide. My favourite state Kerala was set, and I added Bombay for a city experience and Goa as a classic tourist destination on the way. Starting in Bombay, we would work our way South to Goa, Kannur, Alleppey and Cochin.

Warming up in Bombay

The 12 million city on the West coast was founded by Portuguese colonists, who called it Bombay, meaning “the nice bay” in their language. The name was kept until 1995, when it was suddenly decided that “Bombay” was not Indian enough and should henceforth be called “Mumbai” after the local goddess Mumbadevi. However holy the reference, the similarity between the old and new name is certainly no coincidence – with the huge array of Indian gods, it could not have been too difficult to come up with one sounding like Bombay, I think. In practice, at least half of people still use the old name, and both names are used and accepted in maps, official forms etc..

The Portuguese bought Bombay, which was then a cluster of separate islands, for some ridiculous amount around the worth of a Starbucks Coffee. The area had primarily been used for fishing and was now developed into a trading post. Islands were gradually joined to build the peninsula that exists today. 10 km off Bombay’s coast, Elephanta Island is a reminder of the region’s early geography. The island today is most well-known for its UNESCO protected ancient cave temple with its columned halls and grand relief sculptures that is majestically carved into a rock. At its entrance, a huge rock-caved elephant sculpture used to welcome worshipers, which inspired the Portuguese to give the island its name. This however did not hinder them from transporting the elephant to mainland Bombay later on, where it still stands.

When the British rose in power and Portugal married England, Bombay was given away as a dowry, and subsequently managed by the East Indian Tea “Company” – the colonial branch of the English kingdom whose name never quite reflected its actual activities and power.

Many of the majestic old buildings with their hybrid oriental-European look were built under the British. Colaba and Fort in South Mumbai are full of buildings from these times, which makes them a popular choice for tourists. Victoria Terminus, Bombay University, High Court, and the Regal Circle are just the most famous examples.

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Sadly, many stunningly beautiful residential buildings of that time are poorly, if at all, maintained. Given the enormous real estate prices – Bombay’s housing is the world’s second most expensive, which makes such buildings multi million properties– this negligence is difficult to understand. I was told that some buildings were even so poorly maintained that they collapsed along with their inhabitants.

Average Mumbaikars do not live in South Bombay, let alone in one of these majestic houses. This privilege is reserved for families who have inherited real estate from the old days, the rich and tourists like us. This was told to us by our – by the way superb – “Reality Tours” tour guide and confirmed by a friend of mine from Bombay. Again, this information somewhat contradicted the fact that not all buildings in the South are posh and sometimes even worn-down by Western standards – certainly not the typical shelter of the upper class. I am thus suspecting that my sources referred to “livable” apartments only, mixed with the fact that I know from Chennai that Indians do pay loads for centrally located apartments that would not be considered acceptable from a German perspective – whether voluntarily or by sheer necessity.

Despite Bombay’s crazy real estate prices and the fact that Bombay is India’s richest city, the income levels are much below Western standards. My friend, a top 5 business school graduate with several years of job experience in Indian top concerns and international exposure, told me that when he came back from Paris, his Bombay salary was only 2/3 of his previous internship compensation.

Because of this, most employees live in Northern Bombay and commute to work every day by train, the lifeline of Bombay. Without the public trains, my friend says, business in Bombay would collapse. I immediately believe him, remembering an experience where I tried to go from North to South Bombay during rush hours, which took me two hours.

The high real estate prices do not only drive people North, but also into shantytown areas that we call slums. In fact, more than 50% of Mumbaikars are said to live in slums – a figure that is hard to digest, but equally misunderstood. It is difficult to understand how an economy would fail in such a way that half its population has to live under such conditions. But that is just one side of the coin. On the other side, many slums, and in particular India’s biggest called “Dharavi”, known from “Slumdog Millionaire”, are rather a close-knit district for small businesses, low income families and farmers from the country side looking for off-season income than the miserable accumulation of unemployed, beggars and sick people which the West and their media often imagine. Just as Dharavi is a symbol for poverty and the difference between poor and rich, it can also be regarded as an entry point into Bombay for the unskilled.

We did not get this insight before visiting Dharavi ourselves together with our guide, who was a former slum dweller himself. Looking at the houses, the dresses and the activities of its inhabitants, the parts of Dharavi we saw did not seem much different from a working class neighbourhood in India. You can tell that it is a slum by its narrow footpaths instead of streets, and the general lack of privacy. The occasional dirt and smell was no different from many street corners outside of slums. Though illegal, there is even a real estate trade with the slum’s typical two story houses – we were quite astonished to hear that the current per square meter price is the same as that of cheap neighbourhoods in Berlin – around 1000 Euros. About half of Dharavi’s population own houses and live on the second floor, the remaining tiny space on the ground floor – typically around 10 square meters – is rented out for a couple of hundred Euros, often to entire families. We visited such a typical room and learnt that it only has a few hours of water per day and only a simple wash corner, which is only used by women. Men do their bathroom business outside in a shared bathroom.

Despite its obvious shortcomings, the residential areas of Dharavi do not represent the poorest of Indian living standards. Stretching it further, Dharavi could even be called an affordable housing option in a relatively central district with a close and functioning social network – a daring, but not very far-fetched point of view that was also shared by our guide. In this context it can be understood why a majority of Dharavites do not want to exchange their houses with an apartment in one of the apartment buildings, which the government keeps offering. Westerners need to take into account this perspective as well before making the usual victimizing judgments.

So where is the dire poverty, if not in the city slums?, the naïve tourist wonders. On Bombay’s pavements and in the countryside, I suspect. When we made a remark admitting our surprise our guide tells us that “only” 2% of the Indian population is begging, of which about 20% beg “for their stomach” and not as a business. This figure may sound small, but given India’s large population it still means 25 and 5 million people respectively. However, percentage wise it is probably lower than many Westerners believe.

It may also come as a surprise that Dharavi has functioning government and NGO run schools – though everyone tries to go to the NGO schools, where schooling is given in English language and on a higher level. Still, I somehow assumed that slum schooling would not be great and not allow for higher education, but again I was proven wrong when our guide revealed that his college degree is not an exception among former slum kids. The degree of socio-economic permeability in India seems to be higher than in Germany, something that had already been confirmed by previous personal experiences, including my own boyfriend’s path.

The impression of Dharavi as a more or less normal district for the not-so-well-off changes when we enter the business area, which in many parts feels like a mixture of middle ages and working conditions during industrialization. Workers, all of them men, sit in shady wholes by the road without ventilation, going about their manual labour in either recycling, tanning, making food or sewing.

Plastic packaging is shredded, sorted and melted with the most basic of machinery; tin cans are refurbished using a small hammer from inside; leather is made by various mostly unpleasant steps; fried snacks are prepared from large mats of dough lying on the floor; and young men sew basic clothing.

None of the jobs looked very comfortable, but the worst of all must have been aluminium recycling. The fumes escaping the gaps of the small, windowless and unventilated huts were so toxic that the guide advised us to take a distance and only spend a few seconds to peer inside. Workers spend 24 hours at their workspace, either working or sleeping on the floor. Their life expectancy must be about half of mine, I figure. Still, they keep coming from the countryside and refuse to wear breathing masks because this would make the air even hotter – a dangerous mix of economic need and lack of education. The business owner in turn does not care enough about his employees to install even a simple ventilation system – he can be assured that there will always be enough demand for his jobs. Just lifting the light corrugated sheet roof a bit would have helped, my brother and me note incredulously.

Similar, if not as harsh, are the working conditions at Dhobi Ghat, Bombay’s biggest outdoor laundromat, where laundry from all over the city is washed by hand (=beaten against a stone) and ironed, pick-up and delivery included. Just like in Dharavi, Dhobi Ghat is not one business, but rather a conglomerate of many micro businesses of typically 3 people who together rent one of the hundreds of basins that are provided by the government along with a few hours of water supply per day. One does the pick-up and delivery, one the washing, and another the drying, ironing and finishing. Washing lines seem to be shared among businesses using an ingenious labelling system that I failed to understand.

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Standing on a bridge and watching the exhausting labour, one immediately thinks of the efficiency of washing machines and the tremendous relief it would be. How cheap must their labour be to be more economical than a washing machine? Wouldn’t it make much more sense if everyone worked together? Can’t three people take up a loan for a washing machine and wouldn’t that pay off soon? Are these intelligent or naïve questions I am asking? One longs to understand the crux of the problem. My boyfriend later lectures me that one reason for the existence of Dhobi Ghat is also the lack of constant water supply, which would not be workable for washing parlours. Still, I have my doubts whether this is a sufficient explanation to justify the sense of Dhobi Ghat.

While no development of Dhobi Ghat towards modernity is in sight, creative destruction is already paving its way, with the growing middle class increasingly preferring their own washing machines over external services. Also for quality reasons I can imagine – silk, wool or lingerie is just handled better by a computer-driven extra soft programme than by violent beating and wringing. However, what is an agreeable development for most means a loss of jobs for the washers of Dhobi Ghat – that is the cost of development, and there are those who therefore oppose it.

After having seen the kind of basic Indian life that is most criticized, but also most patronizingly romanticised by Westerners, the posh lifestyle on Malabar Hill poses quite a steep contrast. It is the most expensive district of Bombay with well-maintained, guarded houses and Western style cafés and boutiques, beautiful Kamala Nehru Park with its view onto the long bay called “Queen’s Necklace” and tranquil, almost Mediterranean Banganga Water Tank (which is more of a lake then a tank). Bollywood’s celebrities live here.

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Malabar Hill is also home to the world’s most expensive house called “Antilia” of multi billion tycoon Mukesh Ambani. The 27-story building that is used only by his family cost him 2 billion dollars and occupies about 600 staff. We spent quite some time wondering how so much money could have been spent on a single building, and what on earth 600 people are busy with on a daily basis. Ambani’s prestigious residence is of course famous and much talked about, not without interpreting it as an obscene provocation of the neighbouring poor and symbol of India’s social injustice.

India is in fact not known for its inclusive political system, which does not seem to foster fair play and a competitive market place. In this context, the contrast between Antilia and the simple dwellings in other parts of Bombay is a good example for what works and does not in India. However, assuming that Ambani has earned his money rightfully, I fail to see how criticizing a private man, and not the state’s systems, and envying wealth, rather than reducing poverty, would contribute anything to India’s economical well being. One should also not forget the 25,000 jobs Ambani has created through his concern “Reliance” before making any judgements about his selfishness. By the way, the tip of Malabar Hill also houses the Chief Minister’s huge estate as well as the state’s luxurious guesthouse, both people-funded.

Ambani’s 600 strong staff is extreme, but not very unusual for India. The over-abundance of people is a general phenomenon here, which is only logical given its 1.2 billion population. To the first time tourist, this may be first visible by the number of service staff in shops, where it is not unusual to see more staff than customers; if he dares to enter a market area, he will experience the flood of people dragging him along down the streets; and if he visits a well-known temple, he will witness the massive queuing and assembly line worshiping that does not leave any room for silent meditation.

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India is generally a people-oriented country – not only by volume, but also in transactions. Most interactions are done through people rather than systems, and the level of service orientation is much higher than in countries like Germany. For example, most sales are still done offline, and when classifieds are put online, it is expected to still do the deal in person or at least over phone, email will not work. In case of formal invitations within the family, the family head is supposed to show up in person if he is around. When documents or deals have to be signed, this is also preferably done in person, even if it involves long travels. Servants serve to an extent that sometimes appears almost slavish, at least from a Western do-it-yourself perspective.
In restaurants and shops, it is normal to ask for extra services like adjustments to your food or trousers. Even the small mobile phone booth close to our YMCA hostel in Bombay went out of his way to help me set-up, activate and install my Indian SIM card – something that most German shops would have expected me to do by myself. Another example comes from the optician chain Vision Express, where my entire family was more professionally serviced than at any optician I had been to in Germany (not to mention the much lower costs). This degree of service orientation I think is one of the reasons why traveling in India is enjoyable.

That being said, tourists do get ripped off a lot, with taxis refusing to turn on the meter, taking different routes to their friend’s souvenirs shops, shopkeepers inventing tourist prices etc. This in my experience was worst in Delhi, which I therefore do not hold in the best of memories. However, the further South one travels, the more conservative and composed people tend to be, and the less ripping off happens. During the three times I have been to Bombay, people were mostly welcoming and trustworthy, a few taxi scams being the exception.

Bombay’s masses of people are matched by the immense city traffic, which does not surpass the congestions in other Asian cities I have seen, but appears much more extreme because of its chaos and constant honking concert that accompanies it. As a pedestrian, you have to learn to predict the flow of traffic and become part of it rather than wait for traffic lights or cross-walks to be respected – that won’t happen. Add heat and the penetrating exhaust fumes of standing cars and Auto Rikshas, and you know why AC usage in cars is so popular in India.

From the sun and heat hungry German perspective, Indians tend to overdo the AC thing. In cars, malls and restaurants it is sometimes so cold that you have to wear a shawl or jacket. Just like Germans tend to over-grill themselves in the sun on the few occasions it comes out, air-conditioning in India seems to be a relief from the heat, smell and dirt of the outside world.

For similar reasons, it is difficult to find outdoor cafés and restaurants. Our craze for sun is not really understood in India, they just have too much of it; and unlike us they are not exactly keen to get a tan either. I remember when me Indian boyfriend, who back then was still new to the West, felt offended by the cheerful remark of a colleague about him having fetched a tan during his holiday. The commenter was probably a bit like my brother, whose main indicator of a successful holiday is the depth of his tan. Or my mom, whose first expectation of a good make-up is to conceal her “paleness”.

Not surprisingly, we ended our stay in Bombay with a European Christmas dinner on the rooftop terrace of “Indigo” restaurant surrounded by other Westerners. A truly Indian experience! What reminded us of the country we were in, apart from the obvious fact of the weather and the brown-coloured Christmas-hat-wearing waiters, was the blandly spiced European food – a funny side effect of Asian cooks who seem to think that Europeans do not take any spice whatsoever. (Understandable nonetheless, our limitation to salt, pepper and the occasional rosemary or thyme is quite limited comparatively).

Most countries are best at their own cuisine – except for Germans of course who have extended their self-criticism to food matters and are these days best at Italian food. We liked our food best at Delhi Darbar in Colaba, a largely non-touristic restaurant that is only frequented by Indians. Another, even less expected favourite of mine is Rajdhani, a chain of Thali restaurants that is only found in malls like High Street Phoenix. Famous “Leopold Café” by contrast was an overcrowded, overpriced disappointment with average food quality and not even a nice interior. I guess people go because it is or at least used to be “hip”, it serves OK Western food and these days maybe also a bit because of its history as an attack site during the terrorist attacks of 2008, of which bullet holes in the wall and security guards at the entrances are reminders.

I think almost half of the Indian population are vegetarians. Accordingly, the choice of vegetarian dishes is abundant and tasty, and unlike in Europe you don’t get the feeling that something is missing when you forego meet. Plus – the latter is usually not bone-free, and animal husbandry probably wouldn’t meet European standards, judging from the animal transports I have seen on the street.

Now that we are at it, some more practical food related differences to Europe: You remove yourself from the food or it is removed from you immediately after you have finished – everything else means you are still in the process of eating and need more. Also, in most Indian restaurants, there is a “wash” where you are supposed to wash your hands before and after eating. The latter is necessary because you traditionally do not use cutlery, but eat with your right hand (the left one being “dirty”) – a real challenge with rice or a big piece of Indian bread and a very liquid curry. Depending on the restaurant, I either use cutlery (especially in upmarket places this is anyway done) or secretly use my left hand to at least hold my bread when I tear it. In traditional South Indian restaurants with tin plates and cups and only Dhoti-wearing Indians around I usually manage with my right only and apparently even manage to look casual doing it (evidence being that I was once asked whether I was really only from Germany or maybe a little bit from India). Like in the rest of Asia, munching and leaning over your food is OK, something that is sometimes difficult to get used to.

Indians don’t have alcohol with their food. There is no wine culture, only beer and hard drinks are available at dedicated parlours – alcohol is usually not served in restaurants. The more Western (i.e. touristic or upmarket) the joint, the more exceptions from that rule, as is the case in some places in Colaba and even more so in Goa, as I will show in the next chapter.

We kept Bombay as a beautiful and yet “crazy” (as my brother later summarized) city in mind and left it full of impressions and new insights. Most of us were happy to move on to the next, significantly less hectic destination. With Goa, we would next get to know another Portuguese conquest that unlike Bombay even today has not much to do with India.


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