Three stories about Bombay’s underbelly: dirt, delusion and dreams


It was a beautiful weekend somewhere back in the 80’s when I first set foot on the ground in India. I was still a kid and I was on a spiritual journey with my father. We landed in the city which was then still called Bombay and took a taxi to our final destination. At the end of our journey – after having spent six weeks in India – I’d not only developed a very strong affection for this immense country, but I also knew I would come back here one day. On the last day of our journey, we travelled back to Bombay and explored the city. It’s hard to recall every detail, every smell or every impression, however, there is one thing that’s still on my mind: the scorching heat and the extreme poverty. The last couple of years, I’d spent many days in the city of dreams. I had had dinner in the fanciest restaurants within the city and also walked in the grittiest of neighbourhoods. I do really enjoy going for a splurge, while staying at a fancy 5-star hotel. On the contrary, walking around in some of the less fancier neighbourhoods is even more appealing. Without having romanced poverty in any way, I’ve seen so many colourful people, all struggling to make a living within this immense city.

Dirt: Number of fascinating books about Mumbai. Have you never been to the city of dreams or are you just interested to learn more about it? There are a couple of must-read books that I would strongly recommend. These books go far beyond the Gateway of India or the Taj Hotel, because they’re actually portraying the underbelly of the city. Firstly, I would recommend ‘Shantaram’, Gregory David Roberts novel about his time as a drug lord in the darkest slums of the city. Roberts is an Australian bank robber and former heroin addict who escapes from prison and travels to Mumbai. After being robbed on the way back to the city, he was forced to live in the slums. Whilst some are claiming a lot of elements in the book are not based upon true facts, the way he portrays the city is spot on and one can smell the dirt and hear the loud noises of the city while reading the book. Another great book about the city is Suketu Mehta’s ‘Maximum City’. This book has been the number one on many non-fiction top 10 list in the year of its publication 2005. The book, a finalist Pulitzer Prize non-fiction category, describes all elements of this immense city. He takes the reader on a journey within the underbelly of Mumbai: from rivalry between Hindu- and Muslim gangs to the brothels of South Mumbai and to the colourful but very harsh Bollywood industry…it’s all in this masterpiece. Another recommendation is Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize winning book ‘Behind the beautiful forevers’, a grim but truthful portrait of Mumbai’s slums.

Dreams: the city grows with approximately 5000 people a week. One of the well documented areas in these books is a place called Dharavi, infamously known as one of the most densely populated places in the world and Asia’s largest slum. I’ve seen many slums within India, so I don’t feel the need to go visit this. People who’ve never visited the Indian Subcontinent would feel remorse to see this area. However, despite the enormous hardships a lot of these people in Dharavi are facing, it’s not a place where people would cry the entire day. Yes, the underlying pain of not having proper access to common facilities is hard and the incomes are considerably low. But there is also a different side which is very inspiring; there are many small businesses in Dharavi, producing leather goods, recycling plastic and creating pottery. An estimated 5000 business entities operate out of this area. In the 18th century, when Dharavi was founded, the area was far away from the old city centre. What a contrast with the current situation, where Dharavi is now considered to be in ‘South Mumbai’. In once travelled to Thane, one of the northern suburban areas in Mumbai, when I checked my phone to see the distance to the Gateway of India. It showed from Thane to the Gateway of India, part of the Colaba – the older part of the city with many buildings built by the British – is a journey of 41 km’s, without having to pass any empty piece of land. And the city is still expanding. The population grows by 1.2% a year, which means approximately 240.000 persons will arrive into the city. This would be 5000 a week! All of these people would most probably have one thing in common: a dream. They’re dreaming of getting married, starting a business or becoming a celebrity. The 2008 film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is a sad but accurate story of the lives of many in Mumbai. Gangs, violence but also the aspirations to become the next Bollywood movie star are the raw elements of this film.

Delusion: most people will be confronted with this harsh reality .The Bollywood film industry is not only the biggest film industry in the world based on the number of yearly releases, it’s also the world champion of selling dreams. Almost every Bollywood produced film follows a pattern: a handsome boy falls in love with a girl, but the girl rejects him. He then will start to dance with his buddies and finally they will get together. For most people who arrive into Mumbai, some of these dreams will turn into a delusion: while some of these people could definitely clime to the higher ranks of the Maslow pyramid, however, most others will be confronted with a harsh reality. Becoming the new Shah Rukh Kahn is probably more challenging than winning the million-dollar lottery. And starting a business in the city of dreams is tough; not only is the competition very strong, but getting approvals and documents is a disaster especially if one is not willing to bribe the necessary individuals. However, one of the beauties of this country is the somehow opportunistic mindset of its people. In addition: even the people with the simplest jobs carry out their work with pride. From Mumbai’s chai-wallahs (tea sellers) to the iron workers near South Mumbai’s Crawford Market, every order is handled with the same love and dedication.

Depending on the definition of what’s part of the city, Mumbai is home to at least 19 million people. While it’s easy to talk about large groups of people – the dabbah wallahs, the Uber drivers – the city would have at least 19 million stories to tell. I can’t wait to travel back to the city of dreams and walk around observing its amazing inhabitants.


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