Mumbai in May

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The contrast between Japan and India could not be greater.   I left Osaka where organization, precision and cleanliness are at their highest level — and arrived into Mumbai where buildings are disintegrating for lack of maintenance. Since I was last here, the silhouette of the city has changed greatly.  Numerous tall skyscraper buildings now ring the water and the downtown area.  It rained here 2 days ago, very unusual for this time of year, and there is a haze that covers everything from the heat and humidity.  I am here experiencing a small taste of India through the courtesy of Waterstone in the U.S. and Platinum by Trans India in Delhi, who are guiding 5 of us on a short luxury trip to Mumbai and South Kerala for 8 days.

Our group at the Oberoi at Sunset

From the Mumbai Airport to the city, there is now a connecting bridge, reducing travel time by 45 minutes and further bridges are now under construction to further shorten long commutes .  What struck me the most upon arrival from Japan was that the large expensive buildings along the Marine Drive waterfront, some of them quite new, and some of them the art deco apartment buildings from the 1930’s, are not being cared for and have black mold, window frames that are rusting, and exteriors very much in need of repair.  I was told later by our guide that the problem is rent control which has made it difficult or financially impossible to justify moving and eliminated any incentive by owners to maintain their buildings.  The result are two classes of buildings throughout the city, all the buildings of the wealthy, where apartments are owned and fees are paid for upkeep and then all the other buildings which are in severe need of repair — and they are often right next to each other.

New and Old

After I checked into my 2-room suite at the Oberoi, one of the most luxurious hotels in the city, with a view overlooking the Arabian Sea and the full sweep of Marine Drive, my group of 5 women plus our host meet together for the first time and we walk a few block away to our restaurant for dinner.  And then I am reminded of the India I know:  broken sidewalks, plastic garbage in the street, traffic lights that are totally ignored, continual honking by the black and yellow taxis, cars and auto rickshaws (called tuk tuks in other countries), and hawkers selling food from carts.  A raucous symphony of life.   I love it. One of the women in our group is in a small electric wheelchair although she can stand up and manage a few steps as necessary and I can’t imagine how she will deal with the lack of accessible options over the next week.

Lest you have forgotten, the Oberoi and its related neighbor, the Trident, along with the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel were some of the scenes of the bloody seige with hostages and many deaths in 2008 by Pakistani extremists.  These hotels were afterwards closed and totally renovated to forget this unpleasant past but there is a marble memorial in our garden to the guests and staff who were killed – but time moves on and the beautiful spaces breath freely again, although there is strict security upon each arrival with screening of bags and a quick search with wand for weapons by armed personnel.

I get up early in the morning and join a significant numbers of people walking on the esplanade by the water right across the street.  There are individuals exercising, families out together, and friends gathering before the sun makes it unbearably hot.   There is a breeze from the water.

Along Marine Drive at 6:00 AM

Our excursion today was a walk around old Mumbai and we have an excellent guide for the day, a highly educated woman who is passionate about the city’s history.   We drive to the Gateway of India and walk around this iconic structure which once welcomed in the arriving English and which was used symbolically to usher them out as well in 1947.  Large crowds are there and there is a carnival atmosphere of holiday enjoyment as every visitor here, almost all Indians, comes to see a part of their past.  The structure is presently under renovation so we can’t get within touching range but we are told some history about it and about the historic buildings that surround it.

At the Gateway of India
Facing the Gateway of India:
The Old Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (on left) and New Taj Mahal Palace Tower (on right)

Because of the heat, rather than walk the historic district, we drive slowly around in our air conditioned van with our guide pointing out to us and discussing the various British-built and foreign inspired buildings such as the Yacht Club, The Asiatic Society Library, Elphinstone College, University of Bombay, David Sassoon Library, Army & Navy Building, and an old cinema hall where I once watched a movie with my group of college friends a long time ago.  All of this walk reminds me of why I love being in India so much – the necessity to constantly think about the present and the past, the effort to interpret what is going on around you and bring it into your US-trained consciousness, to look for differences and similarities in life styles and points of view, and, basically, to feel alive and be grateful for the varieties of human life.

Central Railway Station
Elphinstone College
University of Bombay
An old cinema house still survives in the midst of historic Mumbai

As it approaches lunchtime, we stop by the historic center of the Mumbai lunch crew, the Dabbawallas,, where post-Covid about 2000 lunches (way down from former times) are picked up from private homes in the morning and delivered to offices in time for lunch by a highly organized system run by a mens cooperative who has been doing this work since 1890.

Lunches sorted into a destination group for delivery
The dabbawallas on their way to deliver the lunches (photo by Rajesh)

We also visit the site where the Dhobiwallas (and I am told the suffix ‘wallah’ is now considered a derogative term in India for some people) where clothes are still dyed, and washed by hand by a community proud of its heritage who collect clothes and a monthly fee from their patrons for their livelihood. Now in the shadow of the new Mumbai, I wonder how long they will be able to continue this profession.

The Dhobi laundry workers under the growing world of modern Mumbai

We have high tea at the magnificent old Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, built in 1904 and the host of many historic and famous meetings.  We are shown a suite where the Beatles jammed with Ravi Shankar and I enjoyed the striking architecture in the old part of the hotel.

High Tea at the Taj
Inside the Old Taj Palace Hotel

A short stop at the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum, where Gandhi stayed when he was in Mumbai. Then a brief rest and dinner at a restaurant at the Oberoi where a special vegan menu was arranged for me.  Enjoyable company and delicious food.  

Our last Mumbai experience was on the way to the airport to leave for Cochin: A Bollywood dance class. Yes, almost all of us learned a brief routine to a song called “Super Duper” something or other . . . if you want me to send you the music, let me know!

On to Kerala!