23.2.08

mumbai

A city physically smaller than Toronto, absolutely heaving with its 18 million inhabitants. Thousands of millionaires live in urbane, tropical luxury while steps away, 9 million Mumbaikers live in street slums on $2 per day- life without housing, clean water or sanitation. A frenzied hot zone with endless racing commerce, ambition and organized crime, and a steady schedule of overloaded trains packed with Indian migrants from the countryside hoping to get lucky in this overheated metropolis.

Walking the streets I found overwhelming- being face to face with clashing opposite worlds every few blocks. Real estate more expensive than Manhattan's morphs into endless communities of beggars on streets and in medieval markets; swarms of black and yellow taxis play impossible games of chicken on potholed, broken roads without street lights or signs. Time warped Victorian architecture in lush colonial gardens circa 1880 looks out at tiny street urchins, 4 or 5 years old, begging on traffic medians and racing through deadly traffic to no one's concern. Air conditioned SUVs carry the new upper middle class as their private drivers deposit them along a daily circuit of luxurious stores and expensive restaurants and armed guards keep the unwanted out of their rarefied retail world.
The air pollution is crippling, while swirling dust, filth and trash are omnipresent. Yet, almost magically, Mumbaikers are usually immaculate; dressed in pristine, styled and pressed clothing, regardless of station. Rickshaw drivers and food vendors show more pride in their appearance than most of the North American middle class.
There is fierce ambition and creative energy in this city which houses the nation’s film industry, playboy millionaires and much of its aggressive business development, but the abandonment of half of its people to the worst penury in teeming slums make this place one of the strangest, most unsettling, and sometimes odious I have visited.
For more photos and thoughts on Mumbai, please check my flickr page.

5 comments:

Wanderlusting said...

Gorgeous thoughts, gorgeous photos, gorgeous you :)

Bombay Beauty said...

Though I don't share your reactions, I do think many of your observations are correct. Powerful cities in the end evoke subjective reactions that are neither right or wrong, but expressions and extensions of where one has come from, where one wants to go, one's ideals and pragmatism.

Having grown up with Bombay, but lived abroad a lot, I both experience and am frustrated by the local ability to overlook what goes on under and above their noses. But then I have a similar feeling about the wild disparities of New York, which though different in scale and quality are quite powerful as well.

Inequality, energy, ambition, these things somehow go together. And those who live in places such as this have to find their own way to live, whether they are poor and seeking survival or whether they are rich are seeking success and ignore the rest.

In my own case, the best I can do is to seek and find beauty where it exists. And I find much of it in Bombay, coexisting in a strange symbiosis with the many ills you speak of.

BB

j said...

We are social animals, BB. We nurture and care for each other (at least those in our group which is becoming evermore widening) much like Rajasthani elephants. We owe our present existence to this biological fact. Callousness toward our brothers and sisters (those in our group) is learned (or a form of insanity). To say this callousness is merely a subjective reaction, neither right nor wrong takes subjectivity to the obscene. Callousness is wrong, biologically and morally, but too often accepted. India, New York, or where I live, there are no exceptions.

Bombay Beauty said...

J -- You are right of course and that is exactly my point -- it is not that callousness is subjective. It is out there and wrong wherever it exists. The thinking man or woman knows it, even if they don't see it. But the question instead is how we all learn to cope and with all the terrible things in the world. I feel myself no better than an someone in Mumbai who rolls up her window when a beggar comes knocking at a street corner, simply because I happen to be in London and that child is not knocking at my window. If we truly open ourselves to what we know is out there, we know we are all horribly guilty, some of us with the luxury to sit back and think about it others on the front lines.

I don't condone callousness, but ask instead how someone like me or you would react and adapt to living in Bombay or Baghdad or Buffalo. The same us but without the luxury of sitting back, out there on the front lines instead. I hope I wouldn't be as willing to overlook the ills around me as many I know, but then I wonder whether that is easier for me to see and say in some city other than where I live.

In the end, I come back to two tricky questions. Are the world's problems our problems, or are our problems (define our as narrowly as you want) ours alone? I feel the truth in both. I do feel responsible for the world in my own small way, but I also feel a different sense of responsibility to someone who is at my door rather than across the world. This is natural - we are evolved to respond socially to small groups, not abstractions. That is what I find hard about India, and to a lesser extent about New York, and to even lesser extent about London. People who live in difficult cities learn to be hard to survive, and that is a pity and something I try to fight. When I see a homeless man on the street here in London, I often see someone (me? a concerned citizen? a social worker) stopping to talk to them, perhaps to help them. In New York you walk by the homeless man because you recall the 1980s when they emptied the insane asylums and everyone was afraid. And in Bombay you pretty much do the same, walk on. So no, I don't condone any of this this. Instead I am saying simply that there is suffering and beauty everywhere in the world, and I try not to close my eyes to either.

The second tricky question is: though individual human nature has a universality are there nonetheless social differences that arise at an aggregate level? Are some societies more compassionate? Are some societies more ethical? Are some societies more hard hearted? Personally, I do think the answer is yes. And this is where I think we climb off the slippery slopes of relativity into a much trickier terrain. How do we trust? Who do we trust? Who do we help? All of these vary from society to society, and it is entirely possible that there are two societies out there, with the same wealth and means, but one more compassionate than the other. And then you get into even trickier terrain -- are some religions more compassionate, more ethical, more violent?

I try to face societies the same way I do individuals -- to seek understanding, to see ugliness, to see beauty. It's all out there.

Returning to my native city, I find it filled with more beauty and more ugliness than most cities. Returning to my adoptive city, New York, I feel much the same. Why do I choose these places? In part, they choose me, but also because this unstable mixture is something that appeals to me.

Finally, that is why I enjoy reading the impressions of thoughtful, sensitive travelers such as Adeleine. They can see things which my eyes don't. They feeling things that I won't. I will see and feel differently -- I must! And that is beauty for me, not agreeing nor disagreeing, but sharing feelings.

BB

bomb.ass.ting said...

And you know what, many of those millionaires live in a bubble pretending that poverty does not exist. Real estate is tremendously expensive over there, you're very right! I lived in Bangalore till I was 9 years old though, then moved to Toronto. I can barely remember Mumbai at all, but the story is the same all over South and South-East Asia in general. Really great pictures you took!