Call it Mumbai or Bombay; it’s a city that has no time to sleep. A massive mega city, some was planned and built, but the rest just evolved, sprawling over about 70km of islands and mangrove swamp. It has a population of 22 million but was only built to sustain a population of about 4 million. Its expansion has been so rapid, that it has been impossible for the building of the infrastructure to keep up. If you want to get anywhere in the day you have to leave by 7:30 in the morning as by 10 the city has hit near gridlock and to travel a mere 30km could take 4 hours. A city with mega slums which have been built in layers, one community above the other. These are home to some of India’s poorest people, but they are also neighbours to some of the richest. There is also a population of street people who have no home, but live from morning to night on the street, eating, sleeping and foraging off it. There is also a unique population of cattle who have never in their lives grazed in an open field, but live of the streets, fed by the inhabitants of the city.
With all its faults, this city has a vibe and culture of its own. There is no real demarcation between rich and poor areas, residential and office parks. This city is an intertwined web of everything all in one. There is a 30 story villa, the most expensive private residence in the world, build over a semi slum, derelict crumbling buildings and windy streets filed with kids playing cricket. That’s Mumbai.
The city has some of the most beautiful ancient architecture. Some in pristine condition, other falling down and overgrown with strangler figs. Mass accommodation apartment blocks that look like concrete washing lines touching the sky. Other buildings with a patchwork of massive security bars on each floor going up 40 stories, you wonder if there are some bandits in the sky that will swoop out at any time and rob them. The years of rust from the bars weeps down the sides of the buildings and to the street below.
There is such a vibe on the street, the manic traffic dominated by black and yellow cabs just seems to be able to cope as it slowly snakes forward, powered by hooters that are a constant sound that envelops everything. Brightly coloured street vendors populate the side walks sending pedestrians into the traffic to add to the chaos with nowhere else to go. Things just seem to happen, everything works, moves and eventually gets where it’s meant to.
There is the constant waft of incense in the air as one passes small shrines or temples, in this manic environment, no one harasses you, or bumps you off the road. Somehow everyone just glides past each other. As easy as you step out into the madness, you can take 2 steps off the street and into a different world. One can step into a small local shop, little eatery or restaurant of world class standard.
So why can’t the city sleep? Is it the night life, or just the hyperactive bustle of life, what is it? In order for Mumbai just to maintain functionality the city needs every second of the day to keep it going. As soon as the day traffic stops so the evening services kick into shape, trucking in fresh water to the millions, removing the waste that piles up on the streets. Then there is the catch-up of infrastructure that will never end, building and upgrading roads, trying to do something with the raw sewerage that leaves this distinct smell over the city, trucking in building material and replenishing the massive markets that feed the city.
Bombay is a crazy city but I love it; it’s got a heart and soul.