The Paradox of Mumbai: Slums, Stocks, Stars and the New India

By Erich Follath

Mumbai is at the heart of India's growing economic power. But it is also the place where many of the subcontinent's paradoxes can be found in close quarters. Billionaires, Bollywood stars and slum dwellers all want to be part of the new India.

Bombay is a place where it is easy to die. But it is not possible, even for a second -- in this pulsating city with its unrelenting assault on the senses -- to forget that one is alive. Time Magazine wrote: "If you want to catch a glimpse of the new India, with all its dizzying promise and turbocharged ambition, then head to its biggest, messiest, sexiest city--Bombay."

Bombay, or Mumbai as it is now officially called, well-deserves its nickname, Maximum City. It is as avant-garde, trendy and hungry for superlatives as its Chinese counterpart Shanghai, a comparison that Indian politicians are happy to make. The city is home to India's oldest stock exchange, its most important banks, its wealthiest business moguls, its most beautiful movie stars and its most feared gangsters. Mumbai provides more than one third of all taxes the government collects, as well as hoarding vast amounts of illegal earnings. Forty percent of international flights to India land in this city, which already counts more than 18 million inhabitants today. According to a United Nations estimate, it will be the world's second largest city after Tokyo by 2015 -- and will have more inhabitants than either Australia or all of Scandinavia.

Bombay is Bollywood, where several hundred films are produced each year, productions complete with saccharine songs and studio rain causing saris to cling to hot bodies. Indeed, the Bombay film industry far outpaces Hollywood when it comes to sheer volume. Rents in the city's most exclusive districts are higher than in Munich, New York or London. World-class restaurants serve up uniquely Indian interpretations of haute cuisine, including such dishes as lobster in olive sauce over curried rice. It is not unheard of for powerful businessmen to arrive for business meetings at the city's top restaurants and hotels driving their Lamborghinis. From their Bombay headquarters, billionaire industrialists like Ratan Tata (steel, automobiles), Mukesh Ambani (oil, chemicals) and Adi Godrej (consumer goods) become global players as they embark on shopping sprees for attractive takeover targets, including major European companies. The news magazine India Today has even described recent Bombay acquisitions in Great Britain as evidence of "colonization in reverse."

But Mumbai also holds the dubious distinction of being home to Asia's largest slums where, according to government statistics, 60 percent of all city residents live. In 2003 there were 17 public toilets for every million people, and to this day at least one third of the city's residents have no access to clean drinking water.

The legions of Bombay's poor are growing by the day, as thousands of people migrate from rural areas to the big city, sleeping on its sidewalks and hoping for a better life in this harbor of hope. They send out their starving children to beg at strategic locations assigned to them by the Beggars' Club, an organization devoted to the needs of beggars. Some of the best spots, according to the organization, are in front of any one of the dozens of diet clinics or cosmetic surgery offices where the rich go for liposuction and are perhaps more likely to ease their bad consciences by handing out a few rupees. Bombay embodies the future of urban civilization on earth, writes author Suketu Mehta, who grew up in Bombay, moved to New York and has now returned to his native city. "God is on our side," he says.

Many creatures -- frogs, for example -- are granted special protection in this city. Provoked by the aid organization "Beauty Without Cruelty," the city has imposed a ban on the export of frog legs. According to the organization, frogs die a painful death when their legs are removed. The chemical bath into which their bodies are dipped is apparently so ineffective that the animals' torsos continue to twitch after they are supposedly dead. Only after slaughterhouses agreed, at least on paper, to disable each frog's central nervous system with a needle prior to amputation could the lucrative trade in frogs' legs be resumed.

Cows are sacred to Hindus. If a cow happens to be wandering down one of the city's crowded streets, drivers simply make a detour around it, careful not to harm the creature. Muslims are loath to touch pigs. Jains, anxious not to harm any creatures, including earthworms, use their hands instead of shovels to dig up potatoes. Parsis, who worship the prophet Zoroaster, depend on vultures for the environmentally friendly disposal of the remains of members of their religious community on so-called "towers of silence." There are laws regulating the minimum space requirements for donkeys, buffalos and goats on freight cars, and violations are punishable under the disciplinary rules of the state-owned railway.

Indeed, it seems that Bombay extends some form of protection to all living creatures, with one notable exception: human beings.

The doors of railroad cars in India's largest city are never closed, even when they are filled dangerously beyond their capacity. Passengers often have little standing room and no space for their belongings. The Harbour Line and Western Railway commuter trains, which link the suburbs with the peninsula that forms downtown Bombay, are the city's vital arteries and, as such, are both indispensable and unavoidable for its working population. Six million people crowd into the system's groaning outdated trains every day -- where there is only one meter of space for every dozen passengers and many hang adventurously from open doors and windows.

The plastic tarps that serve as housing for the poorest of the poor -- living near fire hydrants with their lice-infested children like the denizens of some apocalyptic nightmare -- flutter in the wind as the commuter trains clatter past the city's worst slums on their way to downtown Bombay. They pass mere feet away from the balconies of the middle class, where people wash themselves and dress, exposed to the outside world.

As the trains approach the Charni Road station, a collective sigh of relief surges through the masses of passengers, their sweaty bodies virtually glued together. A fresh breeze enters the cars as the ocean and the green of parks come into view. This is where Bombay, this cantankerous bride, suddenly seems more focused on beauty than on anything else. Exclusive Malabar Hill comes into view (for those few passengers with any view at all), as do the shoreline road dubbed the "Queen's Necklace," Churchgate Station, the Prince of Wales Museum and the city's many other examples of opulent colonial architecture. As the trains disgorge their disheveled human cargo, passengers quickly straighten out the wrinkles in their shirts and comb back the strands of hair stuck to their foreheads -- and hurry off to offices and the stock exchange to attend to the markets and to business.

The railroad is the city's pulse, a symbol of everything that is grand and gruesome about this metropolis in a permanent state of emergency. An astonishing sense of solidarity prevails among the passengers, almost as if brutal competition were temporarily suspended during the train ride. They extend their hands to the dozens of late-comers trying to jump onto the trains as they leave the station -- and the late-comers are confident they will be pulled safely on board.

Carelessness and excessive confidence are the leading causes of death in and around the Bombay railroad system, where about 3,500 people die in accidents each year. They are dragged along while crossing the tracks, they lean too far out of windows and are beheaded by power poles or they sit on the cars' roofs and crash into overpasses or become entangled in power lines.

But such accidents elicit little more than a shrug of the shoulders in Bombay. What really scares people here is terrorism, of the sort that ripped apart the city 14 years ago. That was when Mumbai residents stopped being neighbors and no longer defined themselves as cobblers, tailors or welders, instead defining themselves only as Hindus or Muslims, and when the hatred incited by religious fanatics cost thousands of lives.

Terrorism has returned to the city. Two hundred and seven people died on July 11, 2006, when bombs exploded and shredded train compartments at seven railroad stations within the space of 11 minutes. The city held its breath, ready for anything. But even though the authorities revealed that the bloodbath was the work of Islamist terrorists, there was no retribution. The city held together and successfully passed the test. The trains were running again within hours, and the stock exchange sponsored a fireworks display a short time later, as if to put terrorism in its place with an act of defiance.

While the government predicts 8 percent economic growth for the entire country in the coming years, growth in this bustling metropolis in the Indian state of Maharashtra will more than likely extend into the double digits. The unbridled, feverish euphoria among the local elite is infectious. Even the otherwise reserved Time writes: "Bombay is shaping India's future -- and the future of the world." The "Indo-German Chamber of Commerce" is already Germany's largest such body focusing on foreign trade. And the German Stock Exchange has just acquired a 5 percent share in its Bombay counterpart.

Many have assaulted this beauty over the centuries. Few have loved it and even fewer have left their mark. The Koli fishermen named their poor settlement on the malaria-infested coast after the Hindu god "Mumbai," and Hindu nationalists have now seen to it that the original name has been restored. The Portuguese called the place "Bom Baía," or "Good Bay." They gave it to their Princess Katharina of Braganza as part of her dowry. When England's King Charles II asked his new wife about the place, she responded that it was probably "somewhere in Brazil."

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