The D&O Diary’s Asian tour continued last week with a stop in Mumbai, India’s most populous city and the country’s financial and commercial capital. I travelled to Mumbai for business meetings and for an industry event, as described below, but while there I also had a chance to encounter one of the world’s most distinctive cities. It is an experience I will not soon forget.
Mumbai is perched on the Arabian Sea, on India’s west coast. As a result of its seaside location and its rich cultural heritage, the city encompasses a broad range of beautiful sites, such as the lovely view from the top of Malabar Hill (pictured left), and well-known landmarks, like the iconic Gateway to India (a late colonial era archway of yellow basalt adjacent to the city’s harbor, pictured at the top of the post).
Mumbai is massive, in ways that are almost beyond description or even comprehension. Its population of over 12.5 million makes it the fifth-largest city in the world. Its metropolitan area population of more than 21 million is almost as large as that of the entire continent of Australia.
I was fortunate on my arrival day to have an insider’s tour of the city from my Mumbai host, Burzin Somandy. Burzin clearly enjoyed showing off his hometown, including the upscale hills of Juhu, where he grew up and where he also now lives –and, as he pointed out, where many of the Bollywood stars reside. We also visited Juhu Beach, a popular seaside area on the Arabian Sea, and we toured the Sri Sri Radharasabihari Temple, the marble headquarters of the Hare Krishna movement. We then visited the site of the ruined Portuguese colonial era Castella de Aguada fortifications, at Land’s End in the Bandra district. From the ruined fort’s ramparts, we could look across Mahim Bay to the impressive skyline of the city’s financial district and the beautiful new Bandra-Worli Sea Link, a 3.5 mile long cable-stayed bridge that connects central Mumbai with the city’s western suburbs, as pictured above.
The next day, I toured South Mumbai on my own, in a hired car. I visited the Haji Ali Dargah, a fifteenth century mosque and tomb built off of the coast on a small island accessible only by a walkway that is submerged at high tide. I also toured Mani Bhavan, pictured right, the modest house where Mahatma Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1934 and from which he launched the Satyagraha movement as part of his efforts in support of Indian independence. Despite the wiltingly hot sunshine and steamy conditions, I joined many family groups for a Sunday afternoon stroll in the lush gardens at the top of Malabar Hill and then visited many of the landmarks of the British colonial era, some of which are shown in the pictures at the end of this post.
While I was in Mumbai, I also had the chance to enjoy a sample of some of the many different kinds of cuisine available, including a memorable meal of spicy South Indian vegetarian food at a restaurant called Banana Leaf in the Western suburb of Bandar (first picture, below) and Gujarati food at Soam in Chowpatty District in Southern Mumbai (second picture). The range of tastes and textures was truly extraordinary.
There is much to be impressed with in Mumbai – such as the luminous new airport; the beautiful Sea Link bridge; and the gleaming skyline of the city’s modern office buildings. Yet for all of the city’s evident dynamism and for all of its diversity and rich history, the most striking impression of Mumbai for first-time visitors may be the startling contrasts. Great wealth and extreme poverty sit side-by-side in Mumbai.
At the street level, Mumbai can be absolutely overwhelming. The first morning while I was there, I walked down the driveway of the Four Seasons Hotel where I was staying, with the idea of strolling around the surrounding neighborhood. The first picture below depicts the scene that greeted me immediately opposite the end of the driveway. As I walked south along the roadway, I saw people sleeping in improvised shelters along the footpath; crowds of pedestrians walking in the street; tradesmen pulling handcarts loaded with building materials; vendors with pushcarts full of baked sweet potatoes or corn; ranks of parked taxi cabs with their drivers wiping down their vehicles;, ramshackle buildings with laundry hung out to dry; motorcycle taxi cabs; makeshift food stands selling tea. Stray dogs wandered about, pools of stagnant water filled the many tire-destroying potholes, flocks of crows picked at random garbage tips in the roadway. This description doesn’t even come close to capturing the overwhelming kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and smells I encountered, and all of that just outside the hotel.
When I had walked out of the hotel driveway, the security guards said nothing, but gave me a raised-eyebrow look of surprise. When I returned, they smiled and said good morning. They were clearly relieved to see me back. When I later told one of my Mumbai friends I had toured the neighborhood alone on foot, she paused before saying, “Well, that was adventurous.” I am not sure whether or not it really was adventurous – but on the other hand, I didn’t venture out alone on any more walks for the remainder of my visit. I only left the hotel grounds in an automobile.
Instead of a comprehensive picture of this massive city, I have only a series of impressions – for example, the predawn sound of the morning call to prayers at the local mosque, which awoke me even on an upper floor of my upscale hotel. At many intersections, beggars and street vendors would tap insistently at the car window, only relenting after the light changed and the car started to move. On the road to the upscale residential district of Malabar Hill, an old woman with a large metal urn balanced on her head led a cow by a tether. A man on a motorcycle sped past my taxi cab, his two small children and his wife dressed in a burqa crammed into a sidecar.
One particular incident stands out. When I was at the Gateway to India, a monk approached while I was attempting to take a picture. I motioned him away, but a street vendor who saw what was happening came over and said, “No, no, no, please sir, do not drive him away, he will give you a blessing for the Ganesh festival, it will bring you good luck.” I shrugged my shoulders and allowed the monk to tie some colorful yarn around my wrist; he also handed me some small candies and he said a short prayer. The street vendor then said, “The blessing is free, but you can make a donation to the temple if you wish.” I became concerned the street vendor and the monk were working a scam together, a concern that was reinforced when the street vendor offered that if I gave 1,000 rupees (about $16), the monk could study and pray at the temple for a whole year. I turned to the monk and said, “A whole year for 1.000 rupees?” and the monk said, “Oh, yes, sir.” Somewhat surprised by the extreme austerity implied by this statement, I asked, “And what could you do with 2,000 rupees?” The monk said, “Please sir, do not give me 2,000 rupees. I need only 1,000 rupees. I do not need 2,000 rupees. 1,000 rupees would be a blessing, 2,000 rupees would be a curse.” I drew a 1,000 rupee note from my pocket and gave it to the monk. He tapped me lightly on the head, and then shook my hand and said, “God bless you, sir.” After the blessing, the monk set off in one direction, the street vendor in another. I stood blinking in the intense sunlight, the perspiration soaking through my shirt, a rivulet of sweat running down my spine. After a moment, I collected myself and then recalled that I had meant to take a picture of the Gateway to India. The picture I took is the top of the post.
Readers may recall that before visiting Mumbai, I had first travelled to Singapore, a city that is shiny and modern and very easy to understand and appreciate. Mumbai may be about as different from Singapore as a city could be. If Singapore is, as is often said, Asia for beginners, then Mumbai is the advanced level course. As attractive as Singapore is, it is also, by contrast to Mumbai at least, superficial. Mumbai may be chaotic and challenging, but it is also diverse and complex, full of many meanings and messages. I doubt any one person could every fully understand it. With my first visit, I have started the process of trying; I hope to be able to continue the process in the future.
At the outset of my trip to Asia, I flew west in a large arc across Canada, and then along the eastern edge of the Asian landmass, before heading across Southeast Asia to Singapore. From Singapore, I flew across the Indian subcontinent to Mumbai. For my return home from Mumbai, I continued to head west, flying across the Middle East and on to Frankfurt, and then over the Atlantic Ocean, back to the United States. By the end of the journey, I had circumnavigated the globe. I had also traveled a very long way as well, literally and figuratively.
I am pleased to report that the industry event that was the primary reason for my visit to Mumbai was a great success. The event, which had been organized by a group of industty friends including Burzin Somandy (the Mumbai tour guide mentioned above) and my good friend Aruno Rajaratnam, was called Bima Gyaan, which means “insurance knowledge” in Sanskrit. The event drew a capacity crowd of over 120 people to an afternoon session at a banquet hall facing the Arabian Sea. I congratulate the committee (pictured below together with all of the speakers and panelists) for a very successful event.
I enjoyed the chance to meet so many industry colleagues and to make so many new friends. It was an honor and a pleasure to be a part of this excellent event.
I was delighted to learn that many of the event attendees are regular readers of The D&O Diary, including in particular several readers who had traveled to Mumbai for the event from a variety of far- flung locations in India, such as Chennai, Hyderabad, and Pune. It never ceases to amaze me – I sit in my office in Cleveland and type up my little blog posts, and when I hit send people as far as away as Hyderabad and Chennai read and appreciate what I have written. The Internet is an amazing thing.
More Pictures of Mumbai:
The Haji Ali Mosque and Dargah
University of Mumbai, Clock Tower
Sri Sri Radharasabihri Temple
Shade Seeking Crowds Outside the Gateway to India
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
The Gateway at Night