Mazes, Money and the Magic of Mumbai

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If I were to ever settle down anywhere in India, it would be Mumbai. I've visited the city several times over the years, and each time I go I look at it with a set of fresh eyes. With each return, Mumbai has changed a little, and I have changed a lot.

The last time I was in India was sometime around 2002. I was in Ahmedabad, Gujarat during the Hindu-Muslim riots. It was like watching a clip from a cable news network, except it was all so much more real than that. From the backseat of a taxi speeding on its way to the airport to catch a last-minute flight out, I saw people running screaming through the streets, shops being set on fire, terror everywhere.

This time I spent most of my trip in Mumbai. Thankfully, I didn't witness any senseless acts of violence like last time. Instead, I fell in love with Mumbai all over again - its people, its food, its dilapidated buildings, its pigeons that perch on apartment terraces, its million cows sitting patiently beneath skyscrapers. If I were ever to move to India, Mumbai would be the place. I could deal with almost every thing that makes living in Mumbai miserable - the traffic, the pollution, the bureaucracy, the corruption, all of that - for just a moment sitting on a patch of dirty Juhu beach sand, sipping on coconut water, watching lovers hold hands over the Arabian Sea.

But I don't know if I could ever deal with the fact that money rules Mumbai. Some might say money rules the world, but this fact is compounded 10 times over in Mumbai. I was only there for a short time over winter break, but even I could easily discern that in one month.

Money divides the city - it's a class society, and where you are is where you are. If you're anywhere in the lower class, good luck making your way out. But if you have money, you can live a very nice life in Mumbai. Even a simple middle-class home in Mumbai typically employs at least one servant - someone who comes and washes laundry daily, does the dishes three times a day after breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wealthier homes can have anywhere from two to six servants - and then there's always Mukesh Ambani, who has a whole floor of his personal skyscraper dedicated solely to his housekeeping needs.

Ambani's Mumbai mansion is the perfect example. Ambani is a business tycoon, currently the fourth richest man in the world. The thing rises 27 stories into the sky. The first six floors alone serve as a parking garage housing his many, many imported cars. One floor is a gymnasium, another floor serves solely as his live-in servants' quarters. The roof holds three helipads.

But directly opposite Mr. Ambani's home, you will find collapsing buildings with their paint chipping off, and beggars on the street corner. In Mumbai, the wealthy live in extreme luxury right next to extreme poverty, and it all seems to make no difference to anyone. The juxtaposition is the one sore spot in the middle of all of the city's incredible potential and beauty.

"If you want to see the real Mumbai, go to Dharavi." When an older cousin of mine offered to take my brother and I on a tour of Mumbai, this was my 16-year-old cousin's retort. Dharavi is one of the world's largest slums, with a population estimated somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million. I did actually request so see Dharavi during my trip. But no one would take me there. My older cousin flat-out refused - "It's a maze. Once you get in, it's very difficult to get out."

And that's how it is for much of Mumbai's have-nothings. In Mumbai, poverty is an elaborate maze. Even if one wants to get out, there's no clear way to escape the mess. Who are the emaciated kids sleeping on dirty floors in Dharavi supposed to turn to for help? The government provides little, if any, welfare. While I complain of having to shower with a bucket of lukewarm water in a spacious flat rising 11 stories above the dusty street, on that very same street there is a girl younger than me who doesn't even have access to a toilet or clean water and lives in a room the size of my bathroom.

Despite all my affection for Mumbai, living in the city for a month was mentally exhausting. All around Mumbai is privilege side by side with poverty, and no one seems to care. Maybe the next time I visit Mumbai, it'll be different. For now, I'll just remember the sweeter parts of the city - the hazy skyline at dawn, the fuchsia-hued saris floating orb-like in alleys and the fact that in Mumbai, you're never alone.

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Meander through memories of Mumbai with Shweta at [email protected]



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