The city of Mumbai, India has a bit of a public relations problem.
Tell anyone you’re going to the former Bombay and their eyes widen. “Are you sure? Are you ready?” they ask, as if you were about to venture into the rainforests of Borneo unprepared. Mumbai has a certain reputation, and it’s not entirely deserved.
The traffic is legendary, as are the crowds. Yes, it is a giant, sprawling, crowded metropolis, seething with life. And having listened to my friends’ dire warnings, I had myself worked into quite a state about it. I half-contemplated not going out into the city at all; I’m at a point in my Asian travels when I’ve had all the urban chaos I can take for a while.
What a mistake that would have been. Mumbai is much more manageable than I’d expected. It is regal and elegant and expansive and eminently walkable. I cringe at the cliche “world class”, but architecturally I’d put it on par with any of the capitals of Europe. Who knew?
We began our tour at the Gateway of India, a spectacular archway on the harbour that was built to welcome George V (It wasn’t finished until long after he’d come and gone; he did get to marvel at a cardboard model of it, though. There’s something very Spinal Tap about that.) Nearby is the grande dame of Mumbai hotels, the Taj Mahal (not THE Taj Mahal but the hotel named after it); it has been exquisitely remodelled and re-dedicated after the horrible attacks of 2008. From there, we wandered far and wide soaking up the colonial architecture. The jaw-dropping Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (say that five times fast) is Mumbai’s biggest and best museum, and absolutely gorgeous from the outside.
I wasn’t surprised to see the strong British colonial influence in the buildings; what I wasn’t expecting was all the Art Deco architecture, such as the Regal Cinema. I do love that stuff, and what a treat it was to see it in a uniquely Indian context.
The street photography was challenging. The avenues are so packed with people that it’s tough to isolate anybody, and finding an uncluttered background is virtually impossible. And you do have to be careful as you walk. I wasn’t worried about street crime—just traffic. Fortunately the drivers are liberal in the use of their horns if you get anywhere close to them. (I’m fairly sure you can’t get a driver’s licence here until you can demonstrate your ability to lean on your horn at least 40 percent of the time you’re at the wheel. Seriously.)
Despite the chaos, I found the street life rich and fascinating. There are shoe-shines and sock salesmen and jewelry merchants everywhere, and the variety of street food is mouth-watering. Yes, there are signs of poverty—occasionally heart-wrenching—but overall the local economy appears to be bustling.
Did we see cows in the street? We did not. Well, ok, just one but it wasn’t wandering at will; somebody was taking care of it. All in all, I was forced to leave my Indian prejudices behind for this city: Mumbai, I learned, will be experienced on its own terms.
I really think you should see it.