The 26 hour journey from Kolkata to Mumbai passed with alarming ease. It was alarming that my laziness is such that I am quite happy to sit and do next to nothing for an entire day, but even more alarming that a 26 hour journey feels like nothing in India. How strange that I was once aghast at the prospect of a 5 hour journey back in England.
And so we arrived in Mumbai relatively refreshed, with expectations again markedly low, and plans to look at a few sights if we felt like it – or weren’t scared into the refuge of our hotel, as in Delhi. Fortunately for us, our train arrived straight into one of the architectural gems of the city; CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) train station, which is said to be modelled on St. Pancras. For anyone who has ever seen said station before, or doesn’t want to have colonialism shoved in their face – this wasn’t too appealing, but beautiful all the same. Our taxi ride to the hotel showed us that much of the architecture was of a similar nature, in that it resembled London. And so you can’t comfortably say you found the buildings beautiful, without condoning the fact the British forced their own culture upon the place. I enjoyed the view out of the cab window nonetheless; if not only for the fact that it made me feel like I was a little less far from home.
Again, I’m not sure whether I ought to feel guilty or not for saying the small part of Mumbai I experienced was incredibly pleasing to me. We stayed in the up and coming ‘artists quarter’ – Khala Ghoda – which was already filled with starkly white loft style coffee shops and rustic organic pastry cafés, that could have been lifted directly from the trendy side streets London. Seeing young girls out of the traditional saris and in slim fitting jeans and tee shirts, was as much a shock to the system as the wide tree-lined streets, which were wonderfully free of the wild dogs that had been bothering us most days in India.
This city scene catered for young rich professionals; who demanded new glass tower blocks to live in, trendy restaurants, bars and art galleries to hang out in and the wide streets to park their new cars on. Any young Indian wanting to make money would have aspirations to be a part of this liberal and progressive movement, where jobs and opportunities far surpass anywhere else in India.
Ashamedly, I forewent the opportunity to visit some of the contemporary art galleries with Sam and instead indulged in some retail therapy. The shops consisted of boutiques of beautiful Indian designs made from ethically sourced fabrics and home decor, such as hand painted glass lanterns and dark wood carved furniture. All of the specialty handicrafts from across India had been brought here, and presented in air-conditioned shops, in one easily accessible place – with fixed prices – which you can see as either a blessing or a curse.
Apart from these wares, nothing much we saw was particularly ‘traditionally Indian’; from the bars and eateries, to India’s answer to the arc-de-triomph (The Gateway of India) – there was a very Western European feel. Mumbai was so full of culture, and yet was simultaneously so devoid of it. Must being progressive always come at the expense of traditional values?
But alas, we saw only a tiny part of this huge city, which is home not only to artisans and trendy young business people – but infamous slums, the largest of which covers 550 acres and is home to more than one million people, all of whom share 70 toilets between them. Impossible that these two spheres should coexist; with high rise glass buildings only metres away from families sheltering under corrugated metal canopies in veritable sewage. Even the slums turn over £700 million a year through the many factories on site. Can anything stand in the way of the productivity of Mumbai?
It is a hauntingly fascinating city, which gives you one impression only to rip it away and present you with another. From what we saw, Mumbai not only holds the torch for a modern and progressive India, but the sickening roots of poverty that hold it back.