The streets of Mumbai


It was only a very small part of the total trip, the journey by car from Mumbai domestic airport to its international big bother. But it had a very profound impact on me.

The opulence of the new domestic airport is remarkable. It is a beautiful structure with impressive lines, aesthetically pleasing curves and clean polished marble floors. There are no hawkers or beggars, rather the place is filled with people happily going about their arrival and departure business. The whole place exudes wealth and joi de vivre. Again, like my first impressions of Delhi, beware judging a city by the arrivals area. Sometimes – like in Vegas when one is immediately assaulted by one-armed bandits, or New Orleans where Louis Armstrong is smiling at you through security – it is accurate. Here it was certainly not.

Stepping outside the airport there was the now familiar chaos and noise of Indian traffic. Our driver was at the end of the row of men holding up name cards, hoping to consummate their pre-arranged marriages with their passengers. He had parked on the side of the dual carriageway, and had to drive round to the car park for us to climb on board. This manoeuvre – between two points of about 10 meters apart as the crow flies, was about 20 minutes as the traffic crawls. And then the journey from here to the international airport took almost an hour. At macro level this was due to the sheer number of vehicles heading on the same piece of road. At the micro level it was due to an individualism which makes each driver push and shove and meander and manoeuvre to get himself (and they are all male) through this maze.

This they try to do as quickly as possible, with complete disregard for anyone else. As in Delhi, the rules of the road are entirely co-incidental in this exercise. The reality is that if everyone co-operated by staying in lane, obeying the rules and going easy on the pedals, the whole flow would be much better for everyone. In the same way as 50 mph speed limits in the M25 actually speed up the average journey time.

Here was a picture of Indian society as a whole in seemed. Each individual (understandably) looking after their own day-to-day business, whether that be survival, finding food or running their own small business at the side of the road. And there were plenty of these – shops and enterprises selling everything from meat to marble. But one wondered how much more effective co-operation and collaboration would be. That could be government controlled or by benevolent co-operation depends where you politics lie. But clearly the lower end of society, at least, like the seething mass of cars and auto-rickshaws, is inching along to its destination (wherever that may be) in a individualistic and competitive rather than a collaborative way.

So much for my amateur traffic queue theory and social anthropology – probably inaccurate and over-simplistic on both counts. The reality was that even as we complained about our tortuous journey, we were in a comfortable air-conditioned vehicle, well-dressed, heading to an expensive restaurant in a plush hotel, before waiting in our executive lounges for our business class seats back to our rich middle class western lives and our happy well-fed families.

And as we gazed out through the protected glass windows of our hire car, we saw the awful reality of the lives of thousands of other human beings, and most strikingly the children. Children born with the same bodies, capabilities, skills, minds and potential as my own. Yet by some accident of birth, born onto the unforgiving streets of Mumbai rather than to an English house with central heating, lights, TVs and high-speed broadband.

Here I saw families for whom home is a dirty hole under a flyover, a cramped room constructed of corrugated iron, covered with some fabric held down by rocks, or a lean-to shelter against a wall. Others were in tents made of sheets. Most of these so called dwellings were sandwiched between the heaving dual-carriageway and the walls of the hotels and businesses behind.

Others were simply living on the street with no shelter. As we rounded one corner early in our journey, there right on the side of the road was a family – a little boy of maybe 4 sat on the kerb, his bare feet on the tarmac. No point telling this little lad to stay away from the road and go home at night. This is his home. And he will still be there now – if he hasn’t been killed yet.

Further along some families were asleep on the central reservation of the dual carriageway. The noise of the cars and the familiar cacophony of horns must be almost intolerable. I wondered how they could ever sleep with this noise, on hard paving. What was the pollution doing to their health and life-expectancy? Why they would choose to sleep here, of all places? But we are peoples of choice – these people are not. It’s hard to comprehend.

Two teenage lads were lying with their parents on a blanket, jostling with each other and kicking each other. Here was a nuclear family who I guess at least talked to each other and co-existed in a manner we are losing in our western world with our laptops, instant messaging and computer games. But it struck me how totally bored the people must be with no access to any external stimulation or education. As much as wanting to give them food, one wanted to give them a book and the ability to read and a possible way out of this tedious and unrelenting groundhog day of mere existence.

One of my colleagues had been brought up in Mumbai – he had lived out in the slums for four years – the same out of town slums made famous, even glamorised – by Slumdog Millionaire. We had seen them out of our window as we landed – miles upon miles of brown building and bustling streets. As he described these – with their proper walls and floors and electricity, some bought or rented, they almost seemed comfortable in contrast to what we saw here in the centre.

He also explained that there was not really an unemployment problem. Indeed someone must be building all of the additional roads to carry the additional noise and chaos. The issue is the obscenely low level of pay, which may be just enough for food, but rarely provides enough to invest in buying or renting a house. Some manage to rent an auto-rickshaw to hire out as a taxi-service. A small step up maybe. My colleague had escaped through education – taking a degree even as he lived in the slums, getting a job with IBM and establishing a career in IT. Education and western investment do provide a way out. The huge growth of the offshore IT industry serving the western appetites has provided reasonably well paid employment for so many. I had shaken hands with dozens of such people in my visits round 4 IT companies that week. They were delightful and smiling people, with no attitudes, grateful for what they have, rather than sulking or bitter for what they do not have.

We were coming towards the end of our crawl. I was just staring out of the windows – more homeless people, more makeshift shelters, and towering above them, more five-star hotels, office blocks and advertising hoardings – all feeding the greed of the west, and no doubt also the greed of the higher eschalons and castes of Indian society.

And here was an almost poetic juxtaposition. One row of lean-tos was tucked under the shadow of an enormous advertising board, higher than 3 western houses. On this board, displayed above the daily lives of these poor people, whose only ambition is to eat and sleep, was a gigantic picture of an immaculately groomed western woman, with perfect shiny black hair, advertising Dove hairspray.

It’s hard to work out how this beautiful but obscene picture of the affluent west must be interpreted by those living under its shadow. How they cannot be cynical and bitter. But I have never seen a more striking illustration of the disgraceful inequality and injustice of the world we have created. Except of course this is no illustration. As you read this on facebook in your comfortable chair, in your comfortable house, these people are still there, thousands of them. With no prospect of escape. And with no hope – for to have any hope would only serve to crush them. I hope they find it within themselves to laugh at the adverts.

What can we do – what can I do? There is no doubt that western investment – however much it has taken jobs out of the west – has created opportunities in India. My company will effectively provide employment for 3 Indians in lieu of one UK worker (or as well as). As travellers we do bring in more money. I guilty at not having got out cash so that I could tip or give or buy more from street traders (everything was paid for in advance of with plastic, I write uncomfortably). I felt rather embarrassed at the competition we ran in Delhi to see which group could hire a rickshaw for the lowest price (55 rupees won – about 80p – “congratulations” to my team with our wealthy Indian)

I felt like stopping the car and dispensing cash. But that would be a quick palliative and no solution. A one-off drop in the ocean where a regular flood of help is required. There is an endemic structural and cultural issue in India, multiplied exponentially by the population growth and migration. Many come into the major cities from the villages in the hope of a better life. One wonders what percentage ever achieve it. There is free government hospital provision – including free jabs. And the people I saw were thin and underdressed but looked reasonably healthy. In the warmth of October, they would keep warm and dry. But in the monsoon, the conditions apparently become horrible. The answer has to be government intervention in housing and education. And whatever good work charities can do.

Seeing first-hand these poor people has affected me, as maybe you can tell. On TV, in films, poverty is distant and detached and we can compartmentalise it or switch it off when it becomes uncomfortable. These people were as real as I was. It was seeing the children which was most upsetting, and reminding myself how blessed and lucky we and our children are. Next time I scratch my car, lose a network connection, break a nail or find that Costa closed early, I will try not to complain quite so much.



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