I arrived in Mumbai scared. It was a little after midnight, not an hour when I like to make the acquaintance of a foreign city. I had asked my hotel to send a driver to meet me at the airport and had no good reason to think they would. It was my first trip to India, a country that, by all accounts, stands alone in its ability to bug-eye visitors. And I had read "Maximum City."
No book read before visiting a place had so successfully made me want to stay home.
"There will soon be more people living in Bombay than on the continent of Australia," Suketu Mehta portentously begins, before presenting a tableau of the more colorful residents: religious gang leaders, mobsters, hit men, bar girls, the ever-multiplying poor. He describes a city so fraught with divisions -- Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor, natives and newcomers -- that it resembled a volcano about to blow. He so vividly captures the slums, the millions of people deprived of plumbing and running water, that I seriously expected to have trouble finding toilets.
Out of his 542 pages I gleaned two encouraging lines. One claimed that, despite the city's fabulous wealth and searing poverty, there was very little street crime. You may get mugged in Delhi, he said, but not in Bombay.
The other came at the end of a beautiful passage describing a departing commuter train. It is packed solid but, as a man comes running down the platform, arms reach out to pull him up. They belong to people who are already impossibly squeezed and damp with sweat. At that moment, he writes, no one thinks of the man's religion or place of origin, only his need, like everyone else's, to get to work. No one wonders how he will fit.
"Come on board, they say. We'll adjust."
Actually, the middle of the night is not such a bad time to arrive in a city like Mumbai, as darkness hides a multitude of sins. The same cannot be said of smells. A gust of sewage hit me as we trundled across an overpass. (My hotel had come through on its promise of a driver.) Back down on the street I saw my first homeless, three men curled atop a low brick wall, evenly spaced and fast asleep.
My hotel was in Colaba, the touristy tip of the city. In the morning, in a little dining room off of the lobby, stretched a buffet of curried vegetables, dhal, rice, roti. Indian breakfast: one of the beauties of being in India.
I headed for the Gateway of India and made a wrong turn, walking for blocks in the opposite direction. It was seeing my first cow, and a garlanded temple, that threw me off. By the time I found the famous arch, I was a little weak. Painted wooden boats bobbed atop the brown Arabian Sea, here where King George V arrived in 1911, and women in saris licked conical-shaped ice cream on sticks. Behind me rose the great mass -- domed pinnacles and echoing arches -- of the Taj Mahal Hotel. I went in for lunch and used the restroom.
Mumbai's carnivalesque character, I soon discovered, was centered here, in the hotel-and-trinket district. The tourists attracted hustlers, vendors -- stalls cluttered the sidewalks of Colaba Causeway -- and street kids scandalized by the condition of your shoes. They swung battered boxes of brushes and polishes and looked at you with insistent stares. Most people performed a service (contributing to the city's vitality); begging seemed to be the domain of young women with babies and the deformed. One morning, a young man rolled toward me on a wheeled board, his stiff legs crossed and pointed straight up behind him.
Once you passed Chhatrapati Shivaji (a.k.a. the Prince of Wales Museum), life returned to a certain (Indian) normalcy. Walking up Mahatma Gandhi Road, I was surprised by how quiet the largest city, and financial capital, of the second-most populated country was at 9 in the morning. Cars passed on the street, a tireless horn section, but the sidewalks were fairly deserted.
Finally, I spotted a pedestrian. Feeling a kinship, I asked for directions.
"Cross the road," the young man said. "If you survive that you'll go straight up till you reach Victoria Terminal."
He wore dark trousers and a light-colored shirt open at the collar. He was, he told me, originally from Madras. (Are Westerners the only ones who call Indian cities by their new names?) I asked how he liked Mumbai.
"From a working point of view I wouldn't live anywhere else," he said. "There's a certain level of efficiency here that you don't get elsewhere. People are fairly punctual. They help each other. But it's going downhill."
"In what way?" I asked.
"People are not so law-abiding. Mugging is not going to happen to you. At night, women can go out without a problem. But people will drive through red lights. I stop at the lights. I throw trash in the bin. And I expect others to do the same.
"We just had Diwali. People are not supposed to use fireworks after 10 o'clock. But after 10 o'clock you heard them. My children could not sleep."
Then he wished me a good day and headed off to his job in a nearby bank.
Mumbai: The gateway to India
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