Mumbai: the Forgotten Imperial Treasure

If you are looking to experience the genuine India, Mumbai is probably not the best spot to get started. If on the other hand, you are weirdly drawn to post-apocalyptic settings, are a history buff, or simply have an active imagination, this city will leave a print nothing ever will clean away. Like the Ancient Greek Parthenon, towering over the modern Athens — completely out of place, out of time, forsaken British buildings tower over the modern India — a forgotten imperial treasure that has simply been left there, to face the Arabian Sea.

First Impressions

A fair warning for those who consider India a simple vacation destination. This country can and probably will change you forever. When arriving in Mumbai, a lot will depend on your luck, though — or on your taxi driver, to be precise. There are two ways to get to city center from the airport. One road will be relatively bearable for the offspring of western civilization. The other one... will take you through hell on Earth. Over 20 km (!!!) of refugee camp dwellings — the camp that has been there since mid 20-century Indian wars, and has only grown bigger, dirtier, more desperate. In retrospect, I wish I could have taken at least one picture, but my jaw dropped, my hands clutched my baggage, and my brain switched to "why did you not pay for a bullet-proof car" mode.

Jokes aside, this is a social disaster. Human rights, UNO — none of these exist here. I suppose any Westerner can imagine one homeless person in a dirty cardboard box under the bridge. Now, try to imagine thousands of them. Box, right next to a box, on top of yet another box, spreading over 20 km of the road. That will be the general picture; but, to be quite honest, words are not enough here. If by now you have imagined a place where dreams go to die, think again. Here, dreams do not even get to surface up.

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Crossing the Civilization Line

Now you can try and imagine the surprise when the taxi finally crosses the civilization line. And yes, this is an actual line after which you find yourself in a beautiful English quarter with its refined brown and white brick buildings, reserved facades, and picture-like balconies. The inside of these beautiful, late 19-century houses will be decorated in the southern style, with their small patios, white, simply furnished rooms, and huge ceiling fans. This is the part when, should you ever choose to visit Mumbai, you'll feel like the nineteenth-century British officer, looking at his new Oriental quarters for the very first time.

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Probably the first thing that catches your eye when you finally brace yourself for a short walk in the quarters (if you drove the hell road, this could take a while) is how weirdly the classic European buildings look with the tropical frenzy right outside the doorstep. The nature in India is something amazing — green, vigorous, completely untamed. Anyone coming from the continental parts will feel as if walking the jungle — right in the heart of stone and brick city.

The British Empire Welcomes You

Alt Text Bombay's (official name till 1995) economy boomed during the American Civil War, when all of the southern ports were blocked, leaving the cotton-trade-dependent Confederacy completely helpless. This made Bombay the leader in the international cotton trade market. Later on, the construction of the Suez Canal transformed the city into the most important seaport on the Arabian Sea. So, it is not surprising that most imagination striking buildings can be traced back to the mid-late 19th century period.

To be quite fair, a part of them is still relatively well preserved — especially the ones that have been nationalized and left to serve their original purpose — railway station, post office, hospitals, etc. The ones that have been turned into the residential quarters, on the other hand... I seriously do not want to sound racist, but if all people, not just the British, left Bombay, and the monkeys took over the city, tropical animals probably would have preserved the human heritage in a much better condition.

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All in all, walking through the streets creates a weird post-apocalyptic impression. In contrast to Delhi and other cities that are purely Indian, Mumbai is British to its core. Britain can be felt everywhere — from the 1940s red double-deckers, still circling the city, to the traditional Sunday cricket frenzy, played not only in the fields and the stadiums but also in the streets. Still, the glory of the colonial empire has been laid waste to unsanctioned markets, piles of trash, human (and bovine) excrement and homeless people sleeping right in the middle of the street. While this may well pass for authenticity in any other Indian city, in Mumbai it looks like an atrocity — at least to a person, growing up in the west. 'Striking' does not even begin to describe the cognitive dissonance this weird setting creates.

Places to See

Building

Surprisingly, Mumbai does not have too many 'classic' sights to offer. Even though the British obviously built it to stay (Bombay accounted for 20% of the total investment portfolio at the time), present day sightseeing will be limited to walking/driving the Marine drive (if you want a picture of the skyline and the Arabian Sea, better come in the afternoon — mornings tend to be very foggy), sauntering through the shady British streets, and — maybe — taking a 3-hour car tour with the local guide (if you are anywhere near the Gateway of India, you won't even have to look for them — they will find you). Personally, I've found the tour a bit overpriced (3500 rupees), but if you are pressed for time, this might be a good idea. If you're not, I'll quickly summarize the main stops on their way — the main function of the guide is to drive, anyway; plus, English in Mumbai is barely comprehensible — I could honestly understand only 15% of what he was saying, anyway. So, you might have a better chance to look all of those up on your own.

Mumbai Laundry Site

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To the Western eye, the picture may look a bit a horrifying. Still, in comparison to the hell refugee district, the laundrymen’s place looks like a palace. Sure, the work is tough (only men do the laundry), yet this place has some weird Indian authenticity of its own. And yes, if you ever come to Mumbai, chances are, your hotel towels and bed linen will be hand-washed here — even if you pick a really fancy place. This is just how the things go. On the upside, there is a pretty distinct smell of chloride in the air, so you won’t have to worry about lice. Still, if you are a germ-freak, there is only one piece of advice for you — don’t come to India. Ever.

Fishermen's District

Alt Text Another purely Indian place with its set of long and simple traditions. Sure, these people are not rich; yet, they are no beggars either. Small huts, plenty of old boats, curious children. A pretty dirty coastline. But once again, if you are a germ-freak, India is not a place for you. You will just have to embrace the country, open your mind and forget your polished up Western districts once you cross the border. Otherwise, you simply risk losing your mind.

Hanging Gardens

Alt Text The name is not very descriptive because the garden is not at all layered. It is a simple, nice place with a set of stairs leading to the front entrance. Inside, you once again forget that you are in India — this little site is 100% cosmopolitan, open for everyone and belonging to no one (which, to be quite honest, is a normal thing in any big port). Right across the road, there is a children’s park with an amazing viewing platform, opening up the entire Mumbai coastline for you.

Jain Temple

Jain

Hinduism places of worship are truly something. Small, beautifully decorated, absolutely cozy, and smelling of intense, foreign incense. Note, that you have to take off your shoes while entering any local temple. So, if you do not want to walk the marble barefoot, might be a good idea to come wearing some closed shoes and socks — the latter ones are allowed. Ladies should also cover their bodies — bare knees are not acceptable. All in all, I think it is a very good idea to play along to the local dress code everywhere, not just when visiting the religious sites — especially given that there are only 830 women per thousand men in India. Also note that entering the main worship hall is not always an option for the tourists. In the case of Jain Temple, it is not. But, of course, you can admire the inner patio and the outside decor of the temple — free of charge.

Parsi Temple

This site is basically a crematorium for the Parsi people, constituting less than 1% of Indian population. Remember Nitsche’s Zarathustra? Well, this is the prophet Parsi recognize. Even though Parsi are considered some of the most liberal Indian communities, no outsiders are allowed to the premises. So, do not expect any spiritual revelations from the fire worshipers. Pictures are not really an option either — the closest you can get here is the garden fence.

Mahatma Gandhi's House

Alt Text Even if you know absolutely nothing about Gandhi, this place will shed some light for you. The entrance is free, even though a symbolic donation is always welcome. Those who have zero idea about Gandhi’s life and work should better start sightseeing with the third floor — it has a very visual exposition of the major milestones in his life.

Verdict: A lesson to Learn

Modern Mumbai is something any Westerner should see. It teaches a vivid (and pretty hard lesson) of what is going to become to our precious order, structure, and values, should we choose to neglect them. The picture is so visual that unseeing is simply impossible. Personally, I believe that western countries should take high school students on an obligatory Mumbai tour — littering in the streets will be eradicated in no time. Still, this city is not really about the sights or the lessons it has to offer. It is one of those places that leave a striking, unforgettable impression — a print nothing ever will clean away. Mumbai is not about the facts or the rational words, describing it. It's about the sense of history, taking you back to the peak of British colonial times. It's about the blend of European architecture and Indian nature. It's about the cool, lingering evenings after sticky hot afternoons. And when I ask myself — would I want to stay and actually live here — my answer is a definite yes. About a hundred years ago, though; and maybe — hopefully — about a hundred years from now.


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