Ever since I’d set foot in Mumbai for the very first time, I developed a deep love for the city of dreams. From the Dabbawalla’s to the fancy high-rises in Malabar Hill, every single part of this immense metropole tends to fascinate me. Moreover; every time I’m in the city, I notice new things, observe small details an experience strange stories. It has been more than 9 months since I’d visited the city, so I thought it would be good to go back again, especially now that hotels are operating in full capacity. As the restaurants in Mumbai were not allowed to open their doors for guests, picking the best hotel was also a matter of picking the best restaurant. After considering multiple options ranging from the Taj Palace to the St Regis, I finally booked a room at the Oberoi Nariman Point.
Unfortunately, Pune and Mumbai have been hit very hard by the Covid Pandemic. Not only are the number of new corona cases still on the rise but they are also record breaking. There is hardly any other place in India with so many per capita cases as Pune and Mumbai. It is therefore no surprise that the local authorities are still keeping several businesses shut, paving the way for the safest unlock possible. Staying at a hotel is allowed and it’s even ok to travel without an e-pass, but bars and restaurants are still closed. Additionally, a lot of potential pleasures are not open to visitors: museums, temples, the zoo and the Gateway of India; these are all still closed.
With some of the horrific but fascinating stories from Suketu Mehta’s 2004 masterpiece ‘Maximum City’ at the back of my mind, I put on my walking shoes for a couple of inspirational walks in the city of dreams. While walking I’m not only clicking pictures, but am also capturing my thoughts. After returning back to Pune – my base – I went through all my notes and three larger stories emerged:
Mumbai can be divided into thousands of small or larger communities: I definitely have lost count, so I’m guessing that this was my 11th or 12th visit. I’ve travelled from East to West and from North to South within Mumbai, seen the grittiest slum areas but also had a couple of drinks at the fanciest bars and restaurants. Thus, I’ve seen enough of the inequality in the city of dreams and even in the saddest of neighbourhoods. Nothing actually shocks me anymore. And while most people will divide Mumbai into two parts – the haves and the have nots – this is way too simple and doesn’t do justice to the thousands of other smaller groups. Not only are there many small and larger social communities in Mumbai, even if they’re not wealthy it doesn’t mean that they experience feeling poor. One would not expect it, but there are a couple of really old catholic neighbourhoods in Mumbai and they all had a prominent place on my ‘walking in this neighbourhood list’. Especially the small enclave of Kotachi Wadi near Chowpatty beach is worth noting. Another good one is Matarpacady in the beautiful neighbourhood of Mazgaon. When you enter the small enclaves, it feels as if you’re entering a South-Portuguese village, with colourful brick houses with nameplates that will sound like the best Latin song title: Anita Menendez & Alphonso Gonzales, it’s like walking into an old era. One other observation is the cleanliness; while it could feel as if I’m criticising other religions or communities, I was struck by the level of cleanliness in these small neighbourhoods. I reached this neighbourhood while walking from Crawford market and Chor bazar. Especially the area between Chor bazar and Mazgaon this was new for me. I would not recommend walking through this area during your first visit to India, because this Muslim dominated area felt a bit ‘rougher’ than other area’s within Mumbai, though it was fascinating. And while walking and observing the people for some time, I noticed something funny; while almost every individual was wearing a mask during the first part of the walk, almost none of the people was wearing it in this neighbourhood. It was amazing to see so many people without a mask and it was even more stunning to see the huge differences per neighbourhood.
With so many businesses closed, it felt a bit apocalyptic at times. Especially when I’m in a city more often, I love to try understanding the place from an anthropologist perspective; I really want to understand every little detail, always questioning things; why is this building here? For what purpose? Why is it crowded here or why is it not? The current pandemic – while being one of the saddest things that has happened globallty in decades – could be an anthropologist dream destination in many cities because there are so many mysteries and so many stories. For instance, all the closed businesses. In some of the areas which I’ve explored during this small trip, I calculated that between 30-40 percent of the businesses were shut down. And behind every closed door of a shop, factory or office there is a different story. It is my assumption that a lot of these businesses will never return. Most probably they could not afford to pay the rent anymore and/or did not have the staff to start up operations again because again a lot of these workers have returned to their villages. The owners or managers of these business are probably struck in the most impactful dilemma they’ve ever faced; stop the business and/or sell the inventory? Or should the monthly rent be paid without any monthly income? Some of the owners of these brick and mortar businesses have moved up the social ladder by working really hard but this seems to be all gone now. And the big question is this; what is he and/or she doing to pay the bills.? And what’s next? I expect to envision tens of millions of families being put down one or two steps on the social ladder within India. If they own a family home, they won’t need to move out. But this perspective shifts drastically. While most of the families in India are already living with a short financial horizon, the perspective will become even more severe. They are not making plans, dreaming away about any future holiday destinations. Instead they need to put all the efforts towards paying the bills. Walking through the beautiful heritage neighbourhoods of Mumbai, I exactly know what this means for the setting; investments for maintenance will be postponed at best or discontinued at worst, which will have a devastating effect in the long run; a lot of architectural masterpieces are already worn out and this will become worse over the next decade.
Versova – a small enclave in the North of Mumbai – is my new little gem. Especially if you’ve visiting a city very often, it is very tempting to go back to the places you’ve already seen before. If you recognise this feeling, you should not feel guilty at all because this is actually very human and normal; like listening to your favourite music again, it is very ‘satisfying’ to visit evergreens you’ve seen before. If you want to break this chain of travel habits, it’s important to enforce yourself to go off the beaten track. In a city the size of Mumbai, it’s a bit challenging to just start walking and see what happens because distances are immense. Having spent an hour or more behind my iPad, I found a couple of potential gems and one of them made it to the top of my list; Versova. It’s 31 km’s north of Colaba and the Fort area, a 450 INR (5 euro) taxi ride which can take up everything between 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the traffic conditions. Versova, while being part of greater Mumbai, feels like a small fishing village; walking through the narrow main street, which looks you’re you are slowly entering a middle eastern medina, is an amazing experience. After a hundred steps, it feels as if you’ve travelled back in time. All the houses in this village are open, you can almost walk into each house, and chickens, pigs and more than a dozen cats are stroling around the small streets of this lively neighbourhood. In contrary to some of the other off the beaten tracks in India, I experienced a lot of kindness while interacting with people here. Toddlers where playing with clay while their parents where smiling at me and testing their English vocabulary; ‘Yes sir, where going’.
Like in almost every smaller or bigger city in India, even while it feels like a close community, there are some stark differences. The ‘well to do families’ in Versova are all residing in concrete two- or three-story houses, with proper furniture and the inevitable flat screen tv, one of the biggest signs to let the outer world know about one’s social status. The actual fishermen families were settled outside of the village. Not far from the wooden fishing boats, their houses were made out of bamboo and all the plastic thay they could lay their hands on. Life’s seems rough for the fishermen, but the friendliness was overwhelming. Inside the village the setup reminded me of a Moorish medina and it was no surprise to read a couple of Portuguese names on the doors; Dasilva, Feirreira and Santos amongst others. Just around the bustling neighbourhood, there’s a beautiful Saturday market, with tens of women selling today’s catch of the day.
Conclusion: Mumbai is in dire straits. It’s always good to be back in Mumbai. While walking around the city of dreams, it more than often happens that I’m actually saying to myself: ‘I really like this city’. No one could compare Mumbai with any other metropole city like New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong or London. Mumbai is definitely different. It’s raw, challenging and full of unexpected surprises. But Mumbai is also facing a very dire situation, due to the Corona Pandemic. Without a beacon of hope, a lot of families are not only struggling to survive, but also in total confusion about what lies ahead next. And as a lot of people are getting their guidance in life through religion it is extra heart-breaking to see that the temples and other places of worship are still not open to public.