Mumbai — Roads, Rails, and Water

Swallowing a malaria pill, I was enjoying the “inflight entertainment” of scores of seagulls flying alongside our ferry to Elephanta Island. The ferry was laden with Indian tourists going to see the “city of caves.” It took about an hour for the little boat to make the 12 kilometres to the island, puttering out from the Gateway of India, past the naval base with its aircraft carrier museum, weaving through dozens of ships at anchorage, and finally past an oil terminal before docking at an ancient stone jetty.

A small ferry in the foreground, with shore in background
Ferry to Elephanta. Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway to India in background.

Being on the Arabian Sea, Mumbai has been an important port city for millennia, an important crossroads for products, cultures, religions and empires from East to West and back again. This fact excited me the most about the opportunity to visit India.

The city is on a peninsula that juts southwardly into the sea. Many times we drove down the western coast, past the beaches and the Haji Ali Tomb, a mosque and tomb on a small island half a kilometer off the coast. When the tide is low pilgrims make the crossing. Every time we drove into the city we took the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, a 5 kilometer long toll bridge. It takes only a few minutes to cross the smooth surface, and apparently it cuts off more than an hour of commute through the regular twisty streets of Mumbai.

in the background a long pier connected to a building, with two small boats in the foreground
Haji Ali Mausoleum as the sun sets

The northern side of the bridge is the neighbourhood of Bandra where one evening we went to the bazaar. The traffic and honking give one the impression of how many people are actually in this city. The shopping area of Bandra consisted of winding streets with single-storey storefronts full of people. Outside of the shops the sidewalks were lined with street vendors, often selling the same products as the store they were in front of. Shoppers slowly shuffled in line with shops on one side and street vendors on the other. While passing a clothing shop the store owner rushed out to berate a street vendor selling clothes — in direct competition and without a license. Elsewhere we halted in an underpass stairwell as a teenage boy shouldered a clothes rack loaded with women’s attire hauled his wares up the stairs: moving selling locations, likely something he did more than once that evening. We paused in a food area and I ate an “Indian hamburger” — a spicy, deepfried mashed banana patty in a white dinner roll — and picked up some brilliant cashew-based desserts in silver foil.

Bandra traffic 1
Busy streets of Bandra

The streets here are nowhere near as smooth as the bridge, or the streets of Delhi. Mumbai is under constant construction now, with new roads being paved and new subway lines being dug. The infrastructure here is dated and over capacity, but with elections coming up, money is being spent conspicuously.

These damnable roads, jammed with all this damnable traffic, was the source of my almost eternally sickened state in India. I stayed in very good hotels and was protected by my corporate minders who never let me out of their sight. I was only ever given the highest quality food and never suffered from diarrhea or vomiting. However I did feel queasy quite often due to all the driving. Bouncing along pot-holed, bumpy roads, weaving between vehicles and pedestrians who walk between cars (no sidewalks), and the stop-start jerky driving constantly triggered my carsickness. Rather than “Delhi Belly” I suffered from “Mumbai Motion Sickness.”

The ferry to Elephanta Island was a welcome change from all the driving. Heavily laden with Indian tourists it slowly passed through still waters to the island. We took a novelty steam train down the long jetty, then spend the day wandering around ancient 2200 year old Hindu and Buddhist caves, carved out of the basalt rock of the mountain.

Bas relief of a female deity surrounded by many smaller carvings
Carvings in the walls of Elephanta Caves. See all pictures here →

Despite these being a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an important cultural and historical site, I was amazed that basically nothing was cordoned off. There were tourists from all over India (and quite a few white people, more than I had seen anywhere else thus far), walking through the shady caves, right into altars, touching statues and lingams. We arrived on the first boat of the morning, so there were not many people, and the weather was still relatively cool. After viewing the caves we climbed to the highest peak to get a view of the city. There was a large military gun there (8” barrel… anti-aircraft?) watching over the bay. But it was from some previous crisis, left abandoned and rusting. Kids climbed all over it taking pictures. We rested here watching families feeding the monkeys on this gun emplacement from the last century, sitting atop a mountain carved out by holy men two millennia ago.

Girl feeds monkey
Girl feeds monkey on Elephanta

The return trip was even slower than coming. The boat was so laden with people that I feared we would sink! But everyone was in good spirits and enjoying the opportunity to sit down after hiking all day in the hot sun. I conversed with some locals on the ferry as we watched massive container ships and even spotted a submarine pass by. I had never seen one in the open sea before.

After returning to land, we walked around the Gateway to India plaza people watching for but before popping into the Taj Hotel to enjoy some air conditioning and a late lunch. A lovely way to wrap up the tour, but we weren’t done yet. Back into the car we drove through the center of town past the barracks, the law courts, the university, and past the street where we tried to go to the synagogue made by Iraqi Jews in the 19th century (closed for renovations). Driving north we went through some Parsi neighbourhoods where the driver pointed out some delicious bakeries. I recalled the wonderful honey sweets I ate in Iran in agreement.

Within a few minutes we got to our destination: the iconic Chhatrapaji Shivaji Terminus (CST), a train station built in the late 1880s. We took the stairs below the streets to the underground, and were assaulted by frenetic light and sound. The low-ceilinged passage under the road to the station wasn’t well lit, but was packed with hawkers selling belts, slippers, electric shavers, and flailing battery-powered mosquito-zapping fans that made the most terrible sound. Inside the station we were able to see the famous regional trains pull in, doors wide with people hanging out.

People on a train platform
Sunday afternoon rush at CST

Both the inside and outside of the station was under renovation and great care was taken to preserve it. The setting sun give the gothic station a sort of golden hue, a visage of imperious dignity — turns out the sun does set on the empire now.

Chad standing in front of the station taking a selfie with his phone
Taking selfies in front of the CST

Next time we will travel to Agra in central North India to see the Taj Mahal

Mumbai — Opportunity and Diversity

Andheri is a neighbourhood of northern Mumbai, just past the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, a beautiful wood-panelled facility where white paisleyed pillars gently swirl up to the ceiling covered in a pattern meant to resemble the feathers of a peacock, the national bird of India.

I had been in Mumbai for four days and was standing on the roof of an office park in Andheri, looking out at the surrounding hills. Green trees grow tall making the hills look like lush jungle, even though underneath that canopy are millions of people, a tangle of traffic, and blocks and blocks of factories. Andheri is home to the SEEPZ Special Economic Zone. Every factory here in these 100+ acres are building products that can never be sold in India. The building I stood on held software companies, all providing services overseas. The pattern of greenery was occasionally broken by the pastels of a slum complexes, boxy rooms stacked upon one another, each a different colour, all clinging to the hill. 40% of Mumbai’s 18 million population live in slums.

Andheri from rooftop

The sun was bright, it was warm (around 30 degrees C) but not hot. Winter in India means everything is very dry. Dust and sand settle on everything. I was feeling peaky, and looked it. The night before I was up all night with the shakes. Four days of sightseeing in the dry heat had dehydrated me, and I spent the morning undertaking Oral Rehydration Therapy. But I came into the office for a gentle lunch of yellow dal while drinking orange-flavoured Gatorade. Moving to the couches from the edge of the building I sat down to a very interesting discussion with the president of the software company and a visiting American investor representing a private equity firm based in Australia. This meeting was one of the best of my trip. Too bad it was while I was feeling the worst.

In the 1990s the computer giant Dell outsourced its manufacturing to Taiwan. As the internet boomed, driving more computer sales and more importantly services, Dell outsourced more and more of its computer manufacturing to increase revenue. Business was booming. But now all of Dell’s institutional knowledge and source of innovation were residing with one company on Taiwan. That company had everything it needed to start its own laptop brand and defeat Dell at its own game. That company was Asus.

China may be the factory of the world, but India is the services agency of the world. And we are not just talking about call centers, but software development. There is lots of innovation and product development happening locally, not just at the behest of foreign companies. Indians have the knowledge, the skills, and the capital. Check out this McKinsey report which shows how explosive the digital growth has been in the past few years. India has the world’s third largest population of billionaires, after the US and China. Foreign investors and PE firms are sniffing around more and more to get a piece of the action. Ycombinator is even holding interviews in Bangalore this year. And with brands like Ola — India’s domestic answer to Uber — recently launching in the UK, you can see how India seems it could be on the verge of its own Asus moment, taking the knowledge it has gained over years as a business process outsourcer, and building its own global brands. Furthermore, for foreign investors the politics (although not great) are much more amenable than China.

view of buildings and sunrise from a tall building window
Early morning smog and sunrise from my hotel window

I was stopped short by Indian politics the first night I arrived. After walking out of the airport into a smoggy night, a representative from the company I was here to see drove me in bumper-to-bumper traffic to my hotel. “Wow its is busy for 11 at night!” I said and the driver answered with a wry smile, “11 is just when Mumbai gets started!” Pulling into the hotel we were stopped at a guard hut. A guard stood in front of our vehicle and rapped boredly on the hood. The driver popped the hood and the trunk, as another guard walked around the vehicle, opening my door and letting a guard dog have a sniff inside the vehicle. We were waved through the front gate and pulled up to the front doors. There I had to put my bags through an X-ray machine and walk through a metal detector. It was a nice hotel, but I didn’t think it warranted this level of security. “It’s because of the 2008 terrorist attacks,” said my driver.

In November of 2008, Pakistani terrorists killed 174 people and wounded more than 300 in a series of coordinated attacks around the city. One of the places they attacked was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which I visited on my first and second days in India. We walked around the hotel, taking photos of the Arabian Sea (and the smog!), and the Leopold Café on the other side, another site of the 2008 attacks. Security was ever present (if ever bored).

The grand Taj Hotel, where terrorists attacked in 2008

Indian politics are complex as hell. I had read a few books and listened to a couple of lecture series before coming, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the amount of diversity in the country. Since Mumbai is the economic hub of India I was luckily exposed to Indians from all parts of the country (of all the people I met there, I think only one was actually born in Mumbai).

Besides Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Christians the country is cross-cut by dozens of languages, people groups, and distinct cultures. While visiting the Taj Mahal (the subject of a later post) the two Indian friends I went with (from Chennai and Kolkata respectively) spoke to our guide like they too were foreign visitors. My friend from Chennai is married to a woman from Delhi, and the way he described the culture clashes with his in-laws sounded a lot like my relationship with my Japanese wife’s family!

a mural with the quote "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. - Nelson Mandela" in all of India's writing systems, around a composite map of India made up of characters from different languages
Mural featuring the different languages and writing systems of India

For North Americans I use this analogy: India is a country made of up different, smaller countries. It is kind of like the United States of America taken to the extreme — imagine each American state as having its own language and its own ethnicity. Another analogy: imagine the European Union was just one country, where each country was a state, and had twice the population.

In India we celebrate the commonality of major differences; we are a land of belonging rather than of blood.

Shashi Tharoor, 2001

All these varied people groups make up a single community of 1.2 billion people, which makes national elections (like what is coming up in May) an amazing production. With 900 million eligible voters (large swathes of whom are illiterate) India’s general elections are the largest in the world. The last one in 2014 had 66% voter turnout, and it wasn’t like they had an easy choice: there are thousands of candidates representing hundreds of parties. It is truly mind boggling.

Western Canada is home to lots of Indo-Canadians, but many are of Punjabi heritage, from the north of India. Down the western coast, at the mouth of the Arabian sea I was exposed to many more varieties of Indian people and food. There were all sorts of wonderful seafood (not a common staple in Indian restaurants in my part of Canada), desserts, and even Indian pizza (the paneer and pineapple was my fav!) and Indian Chinese food.

India was not at all what I thought it would be like. And with 4000 years of cultural history it is endlessly fascinating. I look forward to visiting again someday!

Stay tuned for my next post where I will take you through Mumbai by car, sea and train.