Mumbai: The Face of India

Entering central Mumbai is like entering a whole new India. It’s the India you witness on the TV – the showcase piece for the rest of the nation. This is the India they want you to see, steeped in colonial stuffiness and Hollywood pretension it might look close enough to your homeland that you buy into the dream temporarily.

If Mumbai were New York, Chowpatty Beach would be it’s Coney Island, boasting “world famous” street food and doting, pre-teen couples. If it were LA, Malabar Hill would be its Malibu, boasting some of the world’s most expensive real estate. If it were Antwerp, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus would be its Central Station, offering visitors a lavish welcome to the bustling city. And if it were Paris, the Gateway to India would be its Arc de Triomphe, introducing you to the grand boulevards of this cultural capital.

Made of a series of reclaimed islands, the old fort walls of historic Mumbai were removed long ago to make way for the city’s constantly expanding sprawl.

Mumbai is a world-class city and truly a rarity among India’s megacities. In the center city, there are trash bins, clean streets, and an absence of cows and rickshaws. It’s almost as if you’re no longer in India.

Initially, this new India is refreshing. Yet, after a time, central Mumbai feels stale. It feels sterilized, manufactured, and meticulously organized to appeal to Western investors. Business suits prevail, Indians bicker on cell phones instead of gossiping with each other on the streets, and only the Indian tourists are wearing saris.

But, who’s to say this is wrong. Often times we tourists prefer things to be exotic in order to feel as though we’ve traveled further and seen more. Perhaps, there’s nothing wrong with this “new India.”

Though you’ll hear the soundtrack blasting on each street corner, Mumbai is nothing like “Slumdog Millionaire.” In fact, many here were upset with the way their city was portrayed in the Oscar-winning Danny Boyle film. However, one thing the movie did capture quite accurately is the modern metropolis’ dizzying divide between the rich and the poor.

Mumbai is a town of grand houses and gritty hovels – a megacity centered around lavish gothic architecture, statued circles and tree-lined boulevards that spills out into one of the world’s largest slums on the far side of the horizon. It’s a city where rich and poor slide past each other without ever acknowledging the other’s presence.

It’s the India of the past fist-to-fist with the India of the future.

You’d be as likely to hear English on the streets of Mumbai as you would Marathi or Hindi. The GDP here is three times that of the rest of the country. A hotel room in Mumbai is double or triple the price of nearly everywhere else in the country and coffee at the faux Starbucks chains is equally dear.

In this modern India, caste and class are harder to decipher. The traditional system is obscured – distorted by business and opportunity.

India produces more films per year than any other nation on the planet, and the majority of these films are made in Mumbai. Home to India’s dream-making machine, grand cinemas dot the city, showcasing the latest and greatest Bollywood has to offer.

Producers are known to comb the streets for white, blond tourists to play roles as extras and backup dancers. They look for girls who’ll appear in clothing — or lack thereof — that no Indian woman would be caught dead wearing – girls that will dote on budding Hindi pop stars to make enough dough to extend their holidays.

Mumbai may be a city of dreams, but it is also a city of uncomfortable extremes.

The order of the daytime gives way to the disorder of the night. Men gather on Mumbai’s gritty backstreets, stumbling and stuttering the night away. The once polished avenues soon become the bedrooms of Mumbai’s other residents.

An early morning trip outside of the hotel reveals an entire family huddled along the steps – bare-chested and mud-marked. Small children wander around aimlessly with Disney-wide eyes and blank stares – stuck in the jail of their parent’s poverty and their caste’s fate.

Is Mumbai the future of India? If not, it’s certainly the face that it likes to portray not only to itself, but also to the world. It’s the good. It’s the bad. And it’s the ugly.

It’s a glittery dream floating above the smog of reality.

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Big Shots: Varanasi’s Cast of Characters

MarkontheMap is back in India!

Later on this week, MarkontheMap spends an afternoon with the undertaker at Varanasi’s famous burning ghat.