This city has some nerve – holding on to 15 million people; squeezing them all into small apartments, small cars and even smaller cubicles; letting them stand head-to-armpit every day in crowded railway compartments; making them work round the clock; and still getting them to think they’re the luckiest people on earth.
Mumbai is that kind of city. Every street corner offers an opportunity for profit. Entrepreneurs support families of six on their pavement snack-stall business. Swish hotels such as the Four Seasons rise out of slums, reserving lower floors for service areas and letting guests look out to better views on the floors above. Stylish boutiques operate out of former garages, and kids make big bucks from minding people’s shoes outside temples. If you elbow hard enough, Mumbai will let you get to the top.
Of course there are too many people. Of course they’re all going in the direction you’re going, no matter where you’re headed, and at what hour of the day or night. Of course someone will be in your way. Mumbai is tiny, a little tongue sticking out of the west side of the Indian peninsula. More than 800 people come to the city every day, and every day there’s a little less room for you.
But everybody makes do, and there’s fun to be had while doing it. Plump housewives have shopped their way through the economic slowdown, buying everything they didn’t need from new malls and hypermarkets. ‘Fine dine’ is the phrase of the moment, with cocktail bars and multi-cuisine restaurants opening every other week. Multiplexes play out young urban stories made by young urban crews for a young urban audience. Mumbaikars are starting to understand just what it feels like to be home to cutting-edge art, cinema, design, theatre and music. They’re buying up city-inspired kitsch, originally intended for tourists, and learning to laugh at themselves. They’re even starting to look beyond themselves, rallying after November 2008’s terror attacks and forming civic groups to reclaim public space, deal with religious fundamentalists and outwit bureaucrats.
They’re also standing on nothing more than a reclaimed archipelago of seven islands. Mumbai – ruled by Ashoka in 300 BC, Raja Bhimdev in the 13th century, ceded to the Portuguese by Bahadur Shah in 1534 and disposed of to Britain as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry to Charles II in 1661 – didn’t become a city until the British reclaimed lands and erected a township in the century that followed. And it didn’t become a manic, fast-paced metropolis that sets the pace for India until after Independence in 1947.
Rivers have been choked, mangroves cleared and forests denuded to accommodate its shiny new office complexes, apartment buildings and department stores. The city floods every monsoon, reminding everyone just who’s boss. But eventually the rain clouds part, and Mumbai’s millions roll up their trousers, hike up their saris and wade through the waters to work. After all, what good is a city of dreams if you spend the day in bed?
Qatar Airways flies to Mumbai daily from QR1,040 return (excluding tax)
Where to stay
Hotel Residency, Fort (+91 22 6667 0555, www.residencyhotel.com)
14,350,000 (core city 9,925,000)
Where is it?
Capital of the state of Maharashtra, built across seven islands on the west coast of India, jutting into the Arabian Sea. Official name changed from Bombay to Mumbai in 1995.
Tropical. It has a short, comparatively cool winter, otherwise hot all year, with severe monsoons from mid June to October.
Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Tamils, Punjabis, Parsis.
Gateway of India, CST Railway Station, Dhobhi Ghat, Elephanta Caves, Rajabai Tower, Amitabh Bachchan’s bungalow, Dharavi, Marine Drive.
International bands at Blue Frog, thalis at Thakers, south Indian meals at Mani’s Lunch Home, Iranian-style berry pulao (fragrant rice with chicken or mutton) at Britannia Café, Mughlai menus at Kebabs and Curries, seafood at Trishna, chaat (sweet-sour crispy snacks) at Juhu Beach, pav bhaji (spiced puréed vegetables with bread) at Sardar, vada pav
(potato patties in a bun) from the nearest street vendor.
Where’s the buzz?
Railway stations, cinemas on the first day of a big release, Chowpatty and Juhu beaches, Bandra’s hip little restaurants and bars, Leopold’s barand restaurant in Colaba, the Marine Drive and Carter Road Promenade seafronts after sunset, strolling through Oval Maiden on a Sunday.
Record annual rainfall
3,452mm (1954). Mumbai has the most monsoon rain in India.
Percentage of the population living in slums
55 per cent (including 44 per cent of Mumbai’s police officers).
Tiffins carried a day
Up to 200,000 of these ubiquitous metal boxes, containing a hot lunch, taken by tiffinwalas from workers’ homes in the suburbs to their offices.
Films produced annually by Bollywood’s film industry
The city’s top Bollywood stars
Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Saif Ali Khan.
Solutions most likely to change Mumbai, least likely to be ready on time
Bandra-Worli Sea Link, Ghatkopar-Versova Metro.
Midnight’s Children, Satanic Verses, Salaam Bombay, Lage Raho Munna, Bhai, Deewar, Satya, Bombay Talkie, Slumdog Millionaire.
Arts & culture
Food & drink
Quality of life