Having just spent three months in south-east Asia I felt reasonably well prepared for what India was about to throw at me. The rich textured smells of freshly prepared curry, street hawks, religious guru’s and the contrast of desperate poverty set against some impossibly beautiful natural surroundings, were just some of the many expectations I had of the great sub-continent. While all of these things proved to be true, nothing could have prepared me for the indefinable tastes of the real India.
Arriving at a suitably crowded and hot Mumbai airport shortly after noon presented me with my first glimpse of what life was like in the second most populous city on earth.
Now words of warning here, if Mumbai is your gateway to India, ensure that you have some local currency to hand should you wish to make it out of the airport. We landed to discover that there were no cash machines, and but for the goodwill of an Indian women behind a taxi desk, we would more than likely still be lugging our 20kg packs the 35km to the city centre.
My first impression of Mumbai was one of extreme urban poverty amid a kind of crumbling decadence. The view as our plane touched down was a sea of poorly built shacks covered by unpainted metal sheeting that barely disguised the hive of activity that existed below.
In the cramped and filthy alleyways that passed for streets, devoid of any sanitation and access to clean water, I couldn’t bring myself to accept that there were 7 million people living in these conditions in this one city alone. I was even more dumbstruck to learn that Mumbai is ranked among the worlds top ten cities for billionaires.
Our first day in Mumbai was spent taking in the charming streets of Colaba, a popular district among foreigners and wealthier Indians alike. Lying on Thane Creek in the southern reaches of the city, Colaba is a wash with beautiful architecture and quiet leafy residential areas well away from the frenetic buzz of other districts.
What I immediately liked about the city were the sharp contrasts. We were finding Indian men serving up various local delicacies from portable street carts, sandwiched between colonial relics and high end boutiques. The Regal Theatre, Gateway to India and Taj Palace Hotel were all within walking distance and contributed greatly to the area’s ambience.
After a hard bargained taxi ride through the heart of the city passing historical sights such as the stunning C.S.T (Victoria Terminus), the Mumbai High Court and Mumbai University, we made it to the Dhobi Ghat, known to be the world’s largest human washing machine.
Perched on the flyover bridge of Mahalaxmi Station we watched with amazement as countless open air concrete wash pens were filled with activity. In the basking heat scores of men hurriedly soaked, scrubbed and beat what looked like the entire city’s laundry.
The ease with which you can engage with Mumbai and it’s people is something I have seldom experienced in a major international city. Beyond the perpetually accosting street hawks of Chor Bizaar, Colaba and Zaveri Bazaar, we were greeted with nothing but a genuine warmth and intrigue wherever we went.
One evening we took a wander along the long c-shaped Marine Drive and the lively Chowpatty Beach, stopping periodically to pose for pictures, sometimes individually, sometimes with entire Indian families. I think we finished the evening with about five business cards, several phone numbers and several wedding invitations.
Perhaps the greatest experience I took from my time in Mumbai was somehow finding my way onto a Bollywood set advertising shoe polish with two Indian child prodigies. On a chance encounter with a Bollywood scout in Colaba we were persuaded to meet at the YMCA the following morning for a day of filming, the promise of a good lunch and as much Indian chai as we liked.
Now not one to pass up the offer of something new in a city as exciting as Mumbai, I agreed albiet tentively expecting some sort of impending doom or scam at best. Aside from a long day, the tea did flow freely as promised and I even received 700Rupees as payment for a stella performance as an extra in a thirty second shoe polish commercial. The last place I expected to taste fame was in Mumbai, though with the worlds most prolific film industry on it’s doorstep, perhaps this was always set to be the venue for my big break in the TV world?
From sipping tea from expensive china in the suave surroundings of the luxurious Taj Hotel, and strolling through some of Asia’s largest slums, Mumbai is not a city you can easily call predictable. With more millionaires per square mile than Manhattan, you could find yourself in the company of landed gentry for lunch just as easily as you could find yourself fending off monkeys around the caves of Elephant Island.