Bombay (Mumbai), 2016. It’s been over a week now since returning from Bombay and having reflected on the visit, it seems pertinent to offer some initial thoughts. There is much more to discuss, analyse and present through the Anglo-Indian Project – all will be posted in due course – but, here are some initial thoughts.
We landed at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (Bombay) at 5.00am local time. The airport itself is very grand – no expense spared on the architecture and general presentation. The initial walk from the plane to the security checks is elegantly decorated, plush carpets, the smell of fine incense and calming Indian music purrs in the background. All has an air of a gracious welcome. As we departed the airport by taxi at approx. 6.30am, headed to Colaba, South Bombay, the sun was beginning to rise. For the first mile or two, the theme of elegance continues – clearly a fair amount of money has been spent on the airport and immediate surrounding area. This quickly disappears the further away you travel. Suddenly the roads are less smooth, the organised system at the airport is lost and the surroundings look weathered. People are walking in the (busy) road, washing themselves in the road, some even sleeping along the roadside. The traffic moves in the most organised form of disorganisation i’ve ever seen. It just works. No-one could explain how, but the traffic moves, the horns are pipped constantly by way of friendly ‘give me space, please’ (in contrast to the UKs aggressive use of the car horn – ‘get out of the way you @#%$’) and people somehow are not knocked over (although it should be noted that Mumbai does have a high proportion of road fatalities).
Travelling to Colaba, approximately 40km South of the International Airport, provided a mixture of views from people sleeping on the pavements, poorly constructed homes of corrugated metal sheets to weathered-looking concrete buildings and the elegant British buildings. The contrast between apparent poor and apparent wealth was stark, there was little separation, rather a melting pot of all. For example, a group of people (a family possibly) sleeping on the pavement outside a large (rather elegant looking) tower block of apartments, draped in corporate advertisements for watches, perfume and Amazon India. The image was one of ‘we don’t care about people, if you have money, you’ll be OK – please consume’ (Capitalist inequality played out in public view). This is apparent across many countries in the world (not least the UK – one of the most unequal societies) but, here in Bombay it’s actively visible to anyone with their eyes open. The extremes were sad to see.
It was nearing the end of monsoon season and it didn’t take long to get a taste of the dramatic weather change. Wandering around the local area in Colaba, it was bright and sunny, humidity high. We got talking to a pleasant local, elderly gentleman (who actually tried to sell us tours) but did give us a five minute warning of rain. True to his word, 5 minutes was all it took for the sun to disappear and for the rain to belt down on Bombay. On the whole, it was bright, hot and humid (temperatures never dropping below 26°C). It rained a few times – the worst coming on our final day, it didn’t stop.
The food in Bombay was exquisite. There are touristy-focused bars, cafes and restaurants which serve overpriced, bland food – but on the whole it’s delicious. The street food is every bit as delicious as expected (previous post provided some insight). Masala Chai and Pav Wada the highlights. Bhel Puri another exceptional food. There are many little gems around in Bombay. We followed the Rough Guide Book (I highly recommend it), which provides great advice for travellers on most budgets. More on the food in a later post.
The locals are generally very friendly, open to conversations and give advice – most speaking English or simplifying their advice so that we could understand. The hardest thing to adjust to is the constant staring. It’s the strangest experience to feel like a zoo animal being watched all the time. There’s plenty of debate and explanation across the internet on this (just search it in your web browser, you’ll find every possible answer given for why Indian people stare at non-Indians and at fellow Indians). In the end there is no definitive answer. But, it varies – it’s mostly males who stare (at women and men) and predominantly older men (the younger ones tend to want selfies and pictures out of curiosity). The older men seem much more perverse. What comes across from some is a sheer lack of respect for women. I’ve never seen such a patriarchy play out so obviously, everywhere (again, we can easily make this case in, for example, the UK – but not as ubiquitous). I’ll follow up on this one because I have some great case examples – how to deal with it.
I expected to feel – at times – unsafe in Bombay. But, I never did. Whilst you always have to be diligent, no matter where you are. Generally, it felt safe to walk the streets on a daily basis with little interference (save for the staring and tourist information hounds). Even on an (organised) visit to Dharavi Slum no issues with safety (I appreciate there are areas less safe and time of day, who you’re with effect this). This said, there was a constant feeling of tension in the air – perhaps due to the melting pot of people, the general lack of regard for (some) people, the horrendous Caste system (more on this later) or something else. But, generally it felt safe.
The trip was, in part, to explore some of the family sites identified through the Anglo-Indian Project. Those that we did explore were fascinating, new information discovered and a lot to take in – all will be presented though this blog soon. Overall, it was fascinating to be in the city where many of my ancestors once lived (and some of their offspring may still live there). There have been many changes to Bombay since the last known contact with any family in the city (1970s) – not least the rapid population increase – so the Bombay of 2016 will be very different to what those ancestors experienced. Nonetheless, it was fascinating.
Bombay certainly left an impression. I don’t think i’ve completely processed what that impression is – it borders extremes, the poverty, patriarchy and apparent lack of caring for its population to the happy, generous, vibrant people to the visible wealth to the staring to the family ties – my impressions are as befuddled as the city itself. But maybe that’s the beauty of Bombay.
The smells of Bombay will be difficult to forget. One moment you are hit with pungent body odour, then the beautiful aromas of Indian spice’s, then the choking fumes of the traffic-jammed roads, the stench of sewage/stagnant water and / or cow sh*t and rotten foods, then the energising sea air, then incense. Never in any particular order, but guaranteed fusions all day, every day.
The airport on arrival is impressive. On departure, it’s sickening. How a city with so much (visible) inequality and poverty can justify spending so much on its airport and not prioritising its citizens is criminal. It’s almost a metaphor for how corrupt India must be – lavishly expensive on the exterior, whilst ignoring what is within. More on this later.
I’m already plotting a return. Now i’ve seen and experienced it, i’m hungry to find out more – especially the family links. India (generally) is a fascinating country, one i’d like to explore more widely. Perhaps there’ll be a melding of this project and my professional criminological work in India – whatever happens, i’ll be returning.
Interact with the Anglo-Indian Project