Mumbai. Dirty, crowded, rich and be wonderful
‘On July 27, 2005, Mumbai experienced the highest recorded rainfall in its history: 37 inches of rain in one day. The torrent showed the best and the worst about the city.’ It is the start of an article, written by the Indian-American writer Suketu Mehta (1963) for the New York Times. His story: ‘Dirty, crowded, rich and wonderful’ is a must-read for everybody inter-ested in slums.
‘Hundreds or people drowned. But unlike New Orleans after Katrina hit, there was no wide-spread breakdown of civic order; though police were absent, the crime rate did not go up. That was because Mumbaikars were busy helping one another. Slum dwellers went to the highway and took stranded motorists into their homes and made room for one more person in shacks where the average occupancy is seven adults to a room. Volunteers waded through waist-deep water to bring food to the 150,000 people stranded in train stations. Human chains were formed to get people out of the floodwaters. Most of the government machin-ery was absent, but nobody expected otherwise. Mumbaikars helped one another, because they had lost faith in the government helping them.’
The story that Suketu Mehta shares with us is fascinating. According to the author, not the old American city of New Orleans, but the Indian megacity of Mumbai is exemplary for the urbanization process in the 21st century. Everybody watched the outburst of violence in the streets of New Orleans, but it would be better to follow what is happening in Mumbai.
‘With 15 million people, Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is the biggest, fastest and richest city in India, a city simultaneously experiencing boom and civic emergency. (…) Be-cause of the reach of the Bollywood movies, Mumbai is also a mass dream for the peoples of India. Everything - sex, death, trade, religion - is lived out on the sidewalk. It is a maximum city. (...) Every day is an assault on your senses. The exhaust is so thick, the air boils like a soup. There are too many people touching you - in the trains, in the elevators, when you go home to sleep. (…) It doesn't stop when you're asleep either, for the night brings the mos-quitoes out of the malarial swamps, the thugs of the underworld to your door, and the booming loudspeakers of the parties of the rich and the festivals of the poor.
‘Why would anyone leave a brick house in the village with its two mango trees and its view or small hills in the East to come here?’ Suketu Mehta asks. He does not hesitate to provide an answer. It is because ‘someday the eldest son can buy two rooms in Mira Road, at the northern edges or the city. And the younger one can move beyond that, to New Jersey. Dis-comfort is an investment. Like ant colonies, people here easily sacrifice temporary pleasures for the greater progress or the family. One brother works and supports the others, and he gains satisfaction from the fact that his nephew takes an interest in computers and will probably go on to America.’
So, why do people want to live in Mumbai? ‘Mumbai is a bird of gold’, a Muslim man in the Jogeshwari slum told Metha. His brother was shot and killed by the police in the riots and he lives in a shack without running water or a toilet. ‘A golden Songbird flies quick and sly, and you must work hard to catch it, but once it’s in your hand, a fabulous fortune awaits for you. This but one reason why anyone might still want to come here, leaving the pleasant trees and open spaces of the village, braving the crime and the bad air and water.’ So there is more. Mumbai is also a place ‘where your caste doesn’t matter, where a woman can dine alone at a restaurant without harassment. And where you can marry the person of your choice. For the young person in an Indian village, the call of Mumbai isn’t just about money. It’s also about freedom.’ Continue reading on the website of the New York Times.
© Julian Bound, Dharavi, Mumbai. Via Dreamstime.com
© M M from Switzerland. Dharavi. Mumbai, India, 2010. Via Wikimedia Commons