Mumbai (Bombay) is India's most cosmopolitan and affluent city. Of course, it has its sidewalk sleepers, beggars, cardboard hovels, and slums (1,680 of them according to one statistician), but some parts of the city look so trendy and affluent you could swear you were in Miami Beach or Rio de Janeiro. Mumbai is also the one city in India, where power outages are uncommon, people show up on time for appointments and you can get a drink after midnight.
Mumbai is India's financial, media, advertising and entertainment center an the home of its largest port. . While Delhi is India's Washington, Mumbai is its New York. The Mumbai elite like to work hard in the day and party at night. When they visit Delhi the complain about a lack of nightlife. The downtown area has towering skyscrapers, rows of high-rise apartments, and tree-lined avenues. The wealthy suburbs feature the homes of film producers, movies stars and fashion designers. Red double decker buses whiz past Victorian buildings in the colonial district and beaches are filled with bratty children and hand-holding couples.
Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, attracts dreamers with sky-high ambitions from every corner of the country. It is a unique place where the past is mixed with the future and history meets modernity, a city that lies at the cross section of business and entertainment and beats to a pulsating rhythm of its own. Located by the Arabian Sea, Mumbai is an amalgamation of heritage and culture and glitz and glamour. So from historic art deco buildings, which are recognised by the UNESCO, to plush new-age homes of the super rich, Mumbai has it all!
Alex Kuczynski wrote in the New York Times: ““This is a city of almost unimaginable contradiction. It is home to more millionaires than any other city in India yet is also home to the largest slum in Asia. The city is home to the kind of shopping one could find on Rodeo Drive, as well as the kind of ferocious poverty that defines the third world....And unlike the first world, where the poor are cordoned off from the rich, here the wealthy and impoverished live in much of the city flank by flank, with patched-together shanties propped up next to gleaming apartment towers and housemaids returning to their tarpaulin shacks 100 feet from the air-conditioned bedrooms where their employers sleep on Pratesi sheets.” The writer Shoba De said: “If you are in Delhi, it's which minister you know. If you are in Chennai, it's all about which caste you are. In Kolkata, it's what your grandfather did. But in Mumbai, it's not about that kind of rigid social structure any longer. It's about what you have done.” She paused and added a thought: “And it is a city that is very cruel to losers. It can be heartless to losers.” [Source: Alex Kuczynski, New York Times, September, 23, 2007]
“The city's population has swollen at such a pace that it has overwhelmed its economic and physical infrastructures. India is emerging as a world player, while much of its society remains intensely spiritual and extremely poor....The ladies who lunch don't speak of their philanthropic work to end the city's abject poverty. “There are simply too many suffering,” one socialite explained. “So we focus on things we can actually have an impact on, like art and gardening.” [Source: Alex Kuczynski, New York Times, September, 23, 2007]
The historic center of Mumbai is filled with Gothic, Victorian and Art Deco buildings and has its share of billboards and neon lights. There aren't many sacred cows in Mumbai like there is in Delhi. It is the only Indian city with a law restricting bovines from the boulevards, an act the government was able to pass only after constructing a dairy farm to give 16,000 rounded up cows a place to go.
The Government of Maharashtra changed the name of the city from Bombay to Mumbai in December, 1995. Mumbai. Mumbai is named after the Hindu deity Mumbadevi, around whose temple Mumbai grew. Bombay is also believed to be the anglicize version of Mumbai. Some say is derived from the Portuguese Bom Bahia, meaning “Good Bay.” People from Mumbai are referred to as Mumbaikars, Mumbians, or Bombayites.
Mumbai is very humid and sometimes foggy place. Planes often don't take off and land before 11:00am between December and February because of the fog and smog. Mumbai has a tropical climate with four distinct seasons: 1) relatively cool in January and February; 2) pre-monsoon hot in April and May; 3) the monsoon season; and 4) the post monsoon season. The monsoon season is from May-June to September-October. The heat and high humidity of April, May, and October make life quite uncomfortable. The monsoon season brings a welcome relief although the humidity remains high. On average 196 centimeters (77 inches) of rain falls during the monsoon. Late November through February is cooler, although the days are still hot and sunny.
Alex Kuczynski wrote in the New York Times: “Founded as a fishing village that later prospered as a trading port, Mumbai...has been known throughout history by many names: in the 16th century the Portuguese called it both Bom Bahia, meaning “good bay,” and Boa Vida, “good life.” The Hindus knew it as Manbai, Mumbadevi and Bambai. In 1995, the Hindu nationalist party governing Maharashtra announced that Mumbai, the Anglicized name the British had given the city in the 17th century, would henceforth be known by its Marathi name, Mumbai, to refer to the Hindi goddess Mumbadevi and to Aai, which means “mother.” At the same time, the political party Shiv Sena also tried to eliminate the term “Bollywood,” which conflates the name of Mumbai with Hollywood, but with no success.” [Source: Alex Kuczynski, New York Times, September, 23, 2007]
The original inhabitants of Mumbai were Koli fishermen, who still head out into the Arabian Sea almost every day with the morning tide. Koli women sell their fish, sometimes called Mumbai Duck, in the marketplace. Some Koli continue to live in a village next to Cuffe Parade — the most important business district in Mumbai and Western India — after they got a court order to halt a reclamation project.
Mumbai began in the 16th century, when it was a fishing village given by a local sultan to Portugal who called it Bom Bahia ("Good Bay") which turned out to be the largest deepwater bay on India's west coast. When Portugal's Catherine of Braganza married England's Charles II, he was given the city as a dowry. The British crown initially leased the city to the East India Company for ten pounds of gold a year after the Earl of Clarendon in 1661 said that Mumbai was an island of no importance "within a very little distance of Brazil."
The geographical land area that makes up Mumbai today was actually spread over seven different islands. During the mid-18th century, the Hornby Vellard Project was launched where major roads and railways were constructed over the sea to connect these seven islands in one of the biggest land reclamation development drives in India. This move consolidated all the land and created a city that went on to become a major sea port on the Arabian Sea and trading center.
When the British took over Mumbai, the population grew very fast, especially after after the establishment of textiles mills there that began with an order of 500 socks in the mid 19th century. The British built India's first railroad and the first city water system in Bombay and the city later became the gateway for English arriving from their homeland. The city really took off when cotton starting flowing out of India after the supply from the United States was cut off by the American Civil War. In 1881 Mumbai was an industrial city filled with slums at a time when Kolkata was considered the Jewel of India.
To attract labor the British promised religious freedom to anyone who came to Mumbai's malaria-ridden islands. The legacy of this policy remains. In addition to nine million Hindus, Mumbai is the home to two million Muslims and handfuls of Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and Christians. With the exception of a few sporadic episodes of religious violence these groups have generally been well integrated and friendly with one another.
Mumbai was the birthplace of India's independence movement. On December 28, 1885, seventy-two lawyers, journalists and academics founded the Indian National Congress. For the first 30 years of it existence the Congress operated in Mumbai with financial help from wealthy merchants. Upon India’s independence in 1947, Bombay was incorporated into Bombay State. In 1960, a new state of Maharashtra was created with Bombay as the capital. Today, Mumbai is a stronghold for Hindu nationalists. They were the ones behind the name change from Bombay to Mumbai.
The Mumbai megacity is home to about 12.5 million people with a density of 21,000 people per square kilometers (54,000 per square mile) with about 18.5 million to 21 million officially in the Metro area depending on how it is defined, making it the 8th largest city-metro area in the world. As it is hard to count the flow migrants into the city and the number of people living in slums, many think the true population is 24 million to 25 million or even higher.
Mumbai grew from 2.8 million in 1950 to 18 million in 2000. It was expected to reach 28.5 million in 2020 and surpass Tokyo as the world's most populous city. In 2025 it is expected to be 33.2 million. Space is valuable and in short supply. Unlike other large Indian cities, which sprawl outward, Mumbai is limited to a 169-square-mile island and expands upwards and inwards rather than outward.
Mumbai has a ratio of about 5.5 men to 4.5 women. This is partly explained by the custom in which men come from villages to seek their fortune and are either unmarried or have left their wife and family in their villages. It is no surprise that Mumbai has a thriving red light district. The ratio was of four men to every three women in the 1970s and 80s, the increase in women can be at least partly explained by increased employment opportunities for them in the city.
Alex Kuczynski wrote in the New York Times: “The official population is about 20 million, but some demographers put the number closer to 24 million because of an influx of immigrants and the complexity of measuring the population of Dharavi, the city's central slum. Most estimates put the Dharavi population at one million, but the newspapers report frequently on thousands more shanties sprouting up. Mumbai is also one of the most densely populated cities in the world....As Suketu Mehta wrote in his book “Maximum City: Mumbai Lost and Found,” in Mumbai, “the greatest luxury of all is solitude.” [Source: Alex Kuczynski, New York Times, September, 23, 2007]
Mumbai People and Urban Life
The writer and Mumbai native Salman Rushdie once said, "People from Bombay think of themselves as being unlike people from elsewhere." Nearly 70 percent of Mumbai residents are Hindu. Muslims account for another 15 percent. The remainder is composed of Christians (mainly Catholics), Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Parsees and Sikhs. Some of these minorities — particularly the Parsees — are few in number but quite influential. Many of the Americans in Mumbai are of Indian ancestry. English is widely used in government and business. The main local languages are Marathi or Gujarati.
Features of Mumbai life include doors left open and people wandering in and out to share tea and gossip; a massive rush hour crunch on the commuter trains; huge areas of garbage packed into squares and open areas like leave piles in a suburbs American neighborhood; and people making a living selling rat poison and breaking apart ships. According to the Los Angeles Times: “But perhaps because of metropolitan Mumbai’s sheer density; 21 million people packed into a narrow strip along the Arabian Sea, residents have carved out enclaves where they can live among those who eat and worship as they do. [Source: Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2014 \*/]
Alex Kuczynski wrote in the New York Times: “Mumbai is an enormous city, cruel and heartless in the way huge cities are. Solitude is not easy to come by. Simply walking along a city street is an exercise in yogilike self-composition. If you walk, you must be comfortable with the press of warm bodies and the dense, meaty smell of skin and hair that has not been washed in weeks, perhaps months. [Source: Alex Kuczynski, New York Times, September, 23, 2007]
Mumbai as a Business Center
Mumbai is the commercial and business hub of India. Many commodities consumed in India pass through Mumbai at one time or another; nearly half the country's foreign trade passes though Mumbai's docks; and a third of all the country's fabrics are produced in the city's mills. Goods from Kolkata to Madras often detour a thousand miles out of their way to Mumbai instead of traveling directly between the two east cities because the transportation system in and out of Mumbai is more efficient.
Nishita Seth, an M.A Economics, wrote in Quora.com wrote: Mumbai “is one of the world’s top 10 centers for commerce in terms of global financial flows. It houses India’s biggest conglomerates such as L&T, Tata Group, Godrej and also the largest financial institutions like RBI, SBI, NSE & BSE....It is the wealthiest city in the country. Mumbai accounts for 25 percent industrial output, 5 percent of India's GDP and also 70 percent of the capital transactions in Indian economy.” [Source: Quora.com, June 3, 2016]
Mumbai is home to the country's busiest stock exchanges and the largest concentration of industries. About two-fifths of the country's total revenue from air and seaborne trade pass through the city. More U.S. banks and manufacturing companies are located in Mumbai than in any other city in India. By far India's busiest port, Mumbai handles 70 percent of India’s maritime trade, and twice the tonnage of Kolkata and Cochin combined. As India's financial capital, Mumbai is home to the most important financial institutions of the country such as: 1) the Reserve Bank of India; 2) the NSE (National Stock Exchange of India), the leading stock exchange of India; 3) the BSE (formerly known as Bombay Stock Exchange Ltd.), Asia's oldest stock exchange; and 4) the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). It is the corporate headquarters of numerous Indian companies and multinational corporations such as Indian Oil, Reliance Industries, Tata and Sons, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum, It is also home to some of India’s premier scientific and nuclear institutes and Bollywood, India’s film industry capital, which produces more movies than any other place in the world. . Even though the population of Mumbai accounts for only 1.2 percent of the country's total population its people pay on third of the country's income taxes and its business employ 20 percent of the Indian population. Land in some commercial areas sells for as much as $6,000 per square meter. In the early 2000s, Mumbai’s production was three times that of Delhi. Mumbai is regarded at a place of opportunities, where people can make their dreams come true through grit and hard work. According to one Indian journalist: "Almost anyone can find work. What they can't find is a decent place to live. Everyday Mumbai spins more and more out of control."
Mumbai Wealth and Affluence
Around a third of India’s billionaires and richest people live in Mumbai as well as hundreds of Bollywood actors, directors and producers, dozens of whom earned more than a US$1 million a year. There also rich families, some of whom have roots in the Raj-era cotton and opium trade, and thousands of professional who earn salaries approaching their peers in the West. Mumbai is a major diamond and gold trading hub.
Alex Kuczynski wrote in the New York Times: “Mumbai's social and economic life has in the last few years begun to resemble that of New York or Moscow. The country's booming economy has created a pocket of wealth in every city (in 2005 alone, 13,000 new millionaires joined India's rank of the super-rich), but Mumbai, with its combination of industry and entertainment, fashion and art, offers the most fertile ground for an American-style consumer culture to flourish.” Actress Juhi Chawla said Mumbai is “much more relaxed than the rest of the country.” Caste divisions, while still rigid, appear to be slowly giving way to a more American model: merit, or fame, or infamy divide those who have from those who have not. [Source: Alex Kuczynski, New York Times, September, 23, 2007]
““Mumbai used to be like Boston,” explained the wife of a billionaire over lunch at Tiffin, an airy power-lunch spot in the Oberoi Hotel where the wealthy dine on sushi. She spoke on the condition that I not use her name, because she is a member of the city's old-money crowd and would rather remain discreet about her opinions. “There was a very closed, entrenched society, and there were the kingmakers, the people who said who could be a part of society and who could not.” Now, she explained, “there are many social circles, not just one, and with enough money you can buy your way into almost any part of it.”
Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous in Mumbai
Alex Kuczynski wrote in the New York Times: ““Privé, a members-only nightclub complete with rose-petal-adorned wading pools, is another popular gathering place of the elite. Velvet ropes bar entrance to nonmembers, and even though hopefuls pulled up in chauffer-driven Mercedes-Benzes the night I visited, the doormen did not let them in. I was on the list, however. It felt like New York in the '80s. Except this time I got in.[Source: Alex Kuczynski, New York Times, September, 23, 2007]
“My host was Shrenik Zaveri, a jeweler responsible for outfitting the manicured fingers of many of Privé's patrons in bands of diamonds and rubies, gems the size of grapes bobbing on their generous poitrines. Unlike wealthy women in other parts of the world, the wives here were not tiny, starved to the existentially puzzling size 0. These women looked as if they eat. Although they had to be patient: cocktail hour started at 9 p.m., but the trays of food didn't appear until 1 a.m. As the crowd started flailing to Blondie and KRS-One on the dance floor, Rajesh Mehrotra, who is in the import-export business, jabbed his finger at men around the room and recited net worths: $100 million. $300 million. $1 billion. “We all own our own businesses,” Mehrotra said. ““So we party until 4. Then we go to work at 11.”
“This all-night wilding does not sit well with Mumbai's establishment. Pavi Lee, an artist from a prominent family, lamented that the city is now filled with wealthy people who don't know how to behave. “They cheat their houseboys, they don't pay their maids,” she said. “They think that once they get on Page 3, they are suddenly part of society.”
“The bubble is still growing, and nowhere is this more evident than on Apollo Bunder, where women carry $1,500 Yves Saint Laurent handbags and young couples sample the lobster risotto at Indigo, one of the city's chic restaurants. And then there is Mukesh Ambani, the second-richest man in India, who is building a 27-story skyscraper mansion for himself, complete with a home movie theater, a helipad and 600 staff members.
“Sangita Sinh Kathiwada, a real-life princess who wears an 11-carat diamond on her finger, owns a high-end clothing boutique here called Mélange and has lived in Mumbai for 30 years. “The city is a mess,” she said during an afternoon visit. We drank water flavored with saffron and sugar; she sent one of her houseboys from her house to the store on foot for ice cubes made from purified water, as a friendly gesture to a foreign stomach. “A 12-minute walk is a 30-minute drive. It's easier to get a mobile phone than a land phone. But the city has nevertheless become the heart of the country's art, culture, theater, society and fashion.”
“The change is one toward Americanization, said Gayatri Jhaveri, who runs an arts foundation. “I grew up when India was a socialistic society,” she said over tea in a cafe in Colaba, the city's shopping district. Despite the fact that she was raised in a palace with 30 servants, India's culture then, she said, was not one of constant acquisition: “We had a lot of money, but there wasn't anything to buy.” Now, she continued, “there is a burgeoning middle class, and they are very excited about being able to buy things.” Jhaveri and her husband decided to send their children to college in the United States rather than have them continue to grow up in this new India. “I thought my kids would grow up with a better life here,” she said. “But I had a better life.”“
Mumbai Pollution and Hygiene
Alex Kuczynski wrote in the New York Times: “In the face of incredible wealth and technological advances, Mumbai seems perpetually on the verge of infrastructural collapse... Directly behind the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, a five-star property built in grand Victorian style in 1903, children bathe in a trash-filled rivulet that runs along the side of the street. (Nearly half the city's population lacks running water or electricity.) Street names have been changed so often in recent years that taxi drivers simply refer to “the street by police headquarters,” or “the roundabout by the modern art museum.” [Source: Alex Kuczynski, New York Times, September, 23, 2007]
“At night, a yellowish corona of light hangs over the city, a cocoon of pollution from open cooking fires mingling with the soot from auto-rickshaws, diesel buses and coal-fired factories. On a bad day, Mehta reports in his book, breathing Mumbai's inversion-trapped air is the equivalent of smoking two and a half packs of cigarettes.
“In addition to the poverty, the slums, the terrible chasm between rich and poor, the pollution, the noise and the daily reports of corruption in the newspapers, the city presents hygienic challenges to hyper-clean American sensibilities. More than two million people in the city reportedly have no access to a toilet. I met the American filmmaker Tracey Jackson, who was filming a documentary about her daughter teaching at a school in a slum. One morning at 5:30 a.m. she watched hundreds of men walk to the ocean's edge in Khar, a neighborhood that is home to both the poor and the upper middle class, and defecate. At 6 a.m., hundreds of women did the same thing, only closer to the water so their personal issue would wash away into the ocean faster.
Housing, Infrastructure and Building Space in Mumbai
One of Mumbai's biggest problems, perhaps the root of many of its other problems, is a lack of decent housing and living space. Magnificent high-rise towers share the landscape with some of the world's largest slums. Some neighborhoods have 2,000 people per acre and some slums cram hundreds of thousands of people into a few city blocks. And when new housing goes up, the city’s infrastructure can not keep pace with all the construction. It was estimated that everyday 300 to 500 people pour into the city and passengers take eight million bus and train trips. The government long ago lost the battle of providing adequate medical care, water and sanitation.
In the 2000s, Mumbai was ranked as the world’s forth most expensive city. Real estate prices were the second highest in the world after Tokyo. In the 1990s, office space went for $645 a square foot and commercial land in some parts of Mumbai costs four times as much as prime commercial real estate in New York. According to the Washington Post, one U.S. consulting firm found it cheaper to set up shop in the city's most expensive hotel than rent commercial office space.
The downtown area has been experiencing a building a boom for several decades now. Even Donald Trump wanted a piece of the action. The demand for land has spurred economic and financial growth. Some people have made a killing in the real estate markets. In one case a vacant sold for $1.9 million was purchased at an auction three months later for $7.4 million — an increase of 289 percent.
New office buildings, hotels and shopping malls have gone up. New neighborhoods are being created for the middle class. In some places self-contained complexes with offices, shops and apartments have been built. In some cases shanty towns where people have lived more than a decade have been cleared away and no new places to live have been provided for those who lost their homes.
Mumbai Slums and Poverty
Even though Mumbai is India's richest city about 41 percent of its residents live in slums and some of these live on the streets or in beat up hovels or huts made of pieces of tarpaulin, tin and cardboard. Thousands of people in Mumbai make their living through begging. At least 100,000 people live permanently on the street. Many people in Dharavi, Mumbai s largest slum, make a living of recycling. In the early 2000s, some earn 15,000 rupees ($480) a month, twice as much as a truck driver or a college professor.
Journalist John Scofield visited one seven-by-nine foot house in a Mumbai slum in the 1980s. Stuffed inside it were five people, clothes, tin and cardboard suitcases that doubled as tables, old drums with water, a kerosene stove, pots and pans and sleeping mats rolled into a corner. Many houses this size had shrines with Hindu deities and incense burners. The rent was $2.40 a month including running water from an outside tap that sometimes ran all day, sometimes only for a couple hours. Electricity was available but to expensive for many slum dwellers. [Source: "Mumbai, the Other India" by John Scofield, National Geographic July 1981]
Some slums have been removed with bulldozers. Between December 2004 and March 2005, 80,000 homes were destroyed in this way and 200,000 people were left homeless. In some cases the houses were substantial structures made from brick and people had been living there for 13 years. In many cases the people who lost their homes received no compensation even though in many cases lots of money had gone into their homes. Most were simply told to go back to their villages. Some felt betrayed by the Congress Party which said it would rehouse anyone who was living in a slum before the year 2000.
Dharavi is regarded as one of Asia's two or three largest slum. An estimated 700,000 people to 1 million are crammed into an area of about 2.1 square kilometers (0.82 square miles) of narrow alley, hovels, hut, squatter camps and deteriorating buildings. A hundred people might share a single toilet. Many don’t use a toilet all. V.S. Naipaul wrote: the "general impression" was "of blackness and greyness and mud...then black mud with men and women and children defecating on the edge of a black lake, swamp and sewage, with a hellish oily iridescence. the stench was barely supportable."
Hundreds of thousands live in Dharavi on platforms with five feet of headroom and no furniture because it would interfere with space for sleeping. Alex Kuczynski wrote in the New York Times: “Toward the end of my visit, exhausted, I decided to spend the afternoon in Dharavi. The car I was driven in could barely move as we passed miles and miles of people living in cardboard huts held together with metal tape, thatched in plastic, bamboo, mesh, scraps of corrugated metal. Their clothes lay on top of the roofs, the only place to store them. “I transferred to an auto-rickshaw in order to go deeper in. In most of Dharavi, open sewers run between the shanties; these are the playgrounds for children and where mothers wash their cooking utensils. (Typhoid and malaria are common.) There were beggars, leather makers, ironworkers. The place was both a hive of activity and the picture of lassitude. [Source: Alex Kuczynski, New York Times, September, 23, 2007]
“We stopped for coconut juice, and I took pictures of a boy with a wandering eye...I saw a tableau that remains impressed in my memory....a girl of maybe 4 years old, her lithe, nude body splashing around in a brown stream. She kicked up one leg and executed a perfect fouetté, turning and spinning on one leg, propelling her body into the dark hole that was her home, her body divided momentarily by sunlight and shadow....The name Dharavi translates into “loose mud” in Tamil. Weeks after my visit, an intense monsoon submerged the slum entirely. I wonder what happened to the girl. Was her tarpaulin home washed away?”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020