Mumbai: Organized Chaos!

Mumbai was our first port of entry on our initial trip to India. It was our first experience in India and certainly the largest city either of us had ever been to at that point. We approached it then with a little apprehension and caution. Ten years later, and much more experience and confidence in the world of travel, Mumbai was now ours for the taking. We arrived from Aurangabad very early in the morning- too early to check into our guesthouse. So we dropped off our packs and walked down to the Gateway of India, the iconic Bombay landmark, just a few blocks from where we were staying. It's a very peaceful place to be at that time in the morning and from there we watched the sun come up over the harbor. Within a couple of hours though the streets of Mumbai filled with people, cars, buses, and bumblebee-colored taxis. It's absolute chaos. Our first couple of days in India's largest city was spent getting stuff done and seeing the sights that everyone comes to Mumbai to see; the beautiful colonial buildings from the British era of rule- such as the grand Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the High Court building, the University of Mumbai, and the spectacular Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (the Victoria Terminus railway station) to name just a few. Our last couple of days in Bombay however, we wanted to see and understand how a city of nearly 20 million people can function as well as it seems to do. In order to do this we needed to get away from the normal tour bus circuit and see what really makes the city tick. Some of the things we did to achieve this insight included a visit to the gigantic dhobi ghats near Mahalaxmi (an area of Mumbai where the city gets its laundry washed), followed around some “dabba-wallahs” (people who deliver Mumbai's lunches), and took a walk through Mumbai's (and Asia's for that matter) largest slum- Dharavi. It may seem all a bit boring but it's actually quite the opposite. Seeing these places and people is the real Mumbai and the real India- it's hard, it's hectic, it's emotional, and it's inspirational, all at the same time.

The impressive Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus

The Mahalaxmi dhobi ghat is Mumbai's oldest and biggest. Thousands of kilograms of Bombay's befouled laundry ends up here daily. Then, hundreds of dhobi-wallahs beat each piece clean once again in hundreds of water-filled cement tanks. Just the day before, this is where our rank travel wear came. Miraculously, each article of clothing that comes through here ends up with its proper owner at the end of the day, despite the fact that each piece is separated by style, color, and so on. It's a system doomed to work anywhere else in the world, but one that never fails in Mumbai. But this isn't just a place where hundreds of people come to work, this is also where they live. The whole area around Mahalaxmi has grown into a village within a city in order to serve and support the dhobi industry. We walked around the ghats for more than an hour mingling with the workers and their families.

Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat

The dhobi-wallahs do laundry and the dabba-wallahs do lunch deliveries. Not just a few of them either. Around 5000 dabba-wallahs in Mumbai deliver close to three-quarters of a million lunches each day. Every work day the wives of workers prepare home-cooked lunches for their husbands and it's then up to the dabba-wallahs to pick-up and deliver these lunches to the respective places of work while they're still hot (within a couple of hours). This involves packing, sorting, transporting them by trains, unpacking, resorting, repacking, and finally delivering them by means of road carts and bicycles, and a lot of weaving through traffic. Most of the dabba-wallahs can't read so addresses are of little use to them. Instead, a brilliant system of simple letters and numbers (a kind of code) corresponding to districts, buildings, floors, and office numbers, is used to ensure its rightful destination is reached. Fewer than one in ten million mistakes are made. It's amazing to watch these guys giv'er.

Dabba-wallah in Churchgate Station

One of my first memories of Mumbai on our first trip was driving from the airport to our home in Colaba and passing by the many shantytowns that lined the tracks and motorways. Even then I really wanted to explore some of these slums to see the conditions and how it's residents were living with my own eyes. We never did though, mainly because of our perception that these were places unsafe for outsiders. Sometime in the last few years though, more and more outsiders are entering these slums as part of organized “slum tours”. But slum tourism is a bit of a contentious issue these days. One argument against such tourism is the obvious… it's commercial social voyeurism- a way for the “haves” to gawk at the “have nots”. Some tour groups attempt to avoid this charge by condemning the use of cameras. While this might eliminate the kind of people who just wants to snap photos of the poor to show their friends back home, it won't eliminate those who want to gawk. My feelings on the subject is this: you don't need to visit a slum to see poverty in Mumbai, or any city in India. It's sleeping in the streets, it's in the parks and public spaces, it's tugging on your pant leg, it's coming up to your rickshaw in traffic. It's everywhere, it's overt, and it will find you. So, comfortable with our own motives to want to visit, we headed to Dharavi, but not with any organized tour group.

A Dharavi woman prays at a Hindu shrine

Dharavi occupies around 1.75 square kilometers of precious Mumbai real estate and over one million people call Dharavi home. It is said that there is one toilet for every 1,500 of its residents. We were expecting the worst. But what we actually found was something very different from our expectations. It all seemed very clean (relatively speaking), organized, friendly, normal. During our two hours walking through the streets and alleyways not one person held out their hand for money. They were all too busy getting things done. Dharavi is loosely divided into distinct districts of industry. In one section people busily sort plastics, boxes, and metals for recycling. In another, pieces of pottery by the thousands are being turned, molded, fired, cooled, and stacked. There are areas devoted to leather work, tin box and metal utensil manufacturing, textile production and so on. We have never seen so many people so hard at work anywhere in India. As we walked through Dharavi, people were keen to show us their crafts- you could really sense the pride in these people. Without a doubt the one thing that a walkabout Dharavi will do is disprove the stereotypes that suggest the poor are poor because of laziness or some kind of ineptitude. The other thing we realized on our walk is that while these people may not have a lot of money and their living conditions may be deplorable by our standards, they have created something more crucial to their survival- a rock solid community with strong social and commercial networks. We were really glad that we finally got the chance to visit this amazing place.

Homes perched precariously over a canal in Dharavi

Mumbai is a city of contrasts. India's wealthiest and probably poorest live here. It's filled colonial gems and modern skyscrapers. It's frantic, over-crowded, polluted and noisy- but it all works. It's bedlam, but structured. It really is 'organized chaos' defined.

To learn more about this mega city, click on the link below.

Megacities: Mumbai

68.5 hours spent on rails and road.


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