Mumbai And Me
I love the city of Mumbai. It’s the maddest, busiest, craziest place in the world. Mumbai is the home of India’s biggest film industry, Bollywood. But it is more than that. It’s also the cultural, fashion and financial capital of India.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit six or seven times both for work and as a tourist with Sukh and the kids.
I have a special relationship with the city that never sleeps. Sometimes it’s quite love and hate. Every time I visit, after a number of intense days of work I’m ready to leave it’s craziness for the sanity of home. But after a year or two, I find it drawing me back. And setting foot on a plane bound for that madness again is exciting.
Mumbai is an easy place for me to navigate. I understand the language well and can speak it almost fluently. Punjabi was the first language in my house and I learned it alongside English. However, watching Bollywood films all of my life helped me gain a good grasp of Hindi. I’ve always practised speaking it with colleagues and each time I visit Mumbai I surprise myself with how well I can communicate.
I can get about the city quite easily too. Of course, this has come with time but I know the north from the south, the suburbs to the city. Auto rickshaws, or three-wheelers as they’re also known, are the best way to get around. They’re cheap and cheerful and run on a meter. The starting rate during the day is eighteen rupees – that’s a mere 20p. And fifty to sixty pence gets you further than you might imagine – a journey you may pay a few pounds for at home.
Of course there are buses, taxis, a local train and Uber too. But nothing brings me more joy than to flag down a rickshaw – or rick, as they’re better known. They’re really versatile vehicles and can zip through traffic easily. Most of the drivers come from villages in other states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to make a living. They send their wages back to their families and most of them only go home to visit two or three times a year.
The rickshaw drivers work long hours and sleep in slum-style huts or in their rickshaws. But you never hear them complain. I always make sure I tip them twenty or thirty rupees. It’s only pennies for me but will buy them an extra couple of meals. I love chatting away with the drivers and entertaining them by singing Bollywood songs. Most of them just smile with gratitude for giving them a few giggles, others get really involved and start singing along.
Driving on Mumbai roads is scary to say the least. I always tease the drivers and joke that I’d like to get home in one piece for my kids. It’s a serious matter but you can’t do anything to change the traffic or the driving system so it’s just something you have to get used to. The constant blaring of horns can be annoying but as I sit here in silence writing this, I miss that sound.
Even crossing the road in Mumbai is a mission. You can’t ever just wait for the cars to stop at a red light. Sometimes you just have to start walking. The Mumbaikars usually gesture with their hand for oncoming cars to stop as they cross. It’s a gesture I find actually works and is one I’m quite used to now.
Mumbai has always been hot when I’ve travelled there. I’ve always visited from November to February and it’s thirty-two degrees even then. It’s a nice change from the cold and icy conditions of home and if you find yourself getting too hot, all of the big shops are air conditioned so you can always escape the heat for a while.
You get stared at – a lot – by both men and women. It’s the same in Mumbai as anywhere else in India. I won’t pretend that it’s OK because some of the time I do feel uncomfortable. Some of it is men and their wandering eyes. But there’s a lot of curiosity too, especially from the women. You can see their minds ticking away, wondering where I’m from, what language I speak, how I live my life. It’s obvious to them I’m a foreigner so they automatically make unspoken assumptions about me – that I’m wealthy, I only speak English, I’m a lady of leisure. I sometimes wish they knew just how hard I work, that I don’t have a nanny or a maid as is quite the norm amongst middle-class families in big cities across India. Yes, I have a cleaner but she comes in once a week and that’s only a luxury I’ve had in the last couple of years.
One shop assistant I met on my recent trip was curious about my life and asked me lots of questions. I didn’t mind setting him straight on a few things. He was shocked that I do indeed cook my own meals, look after my own children as well as having a full-time job. He was surprised I didn’t employ a driver, again as is normal for many families. If I did the job I do in Mumbai, I would have a very comfortable life, probably a staff of three or four. Now there’s a thought!
This time I was in Mumbai for eleven days. After the working part of the trip was over, I bid farewell to my colleagues as they headed back to England. I tagged on a couple of extra days for myself. In all the time I’ve been there, I’ve never just been able to do my own thing. I had some shopping to do for a couple of upcoming family weddings so now was the perfect time to shop for outfits for Shalini and I. I also bought a couple of outfits for Shivam, as he loves to dress traditionally at weddings. I’m planning to write two separate blog posts on food and shopping so if you’re interested in visiting Mumbai, there will hopefully be some helpful tips for you.
I had come across a really unique boutique hotel online over Christmas and booked my stay. It’s called ‘Le Sutra’ and is based on Indian mythology with each floor attributed to a different human characteristic. Each room is individually designed and I’m looking forward to sharing more about the ‘art hotel’ with you in another blog post in future.
It was nice to be free in the city and just go where the mood took me. I enjoyed eating at my favourite places, which I’ve discovered over my last few visits. It felt so good to just have the confidence to ‘nip’ out to one of my favourite cafes of restaurants.
I also enjoyed shopping without worrying about anyone else. I was able to just grab my bag, jump in a rick and take my time. I’m usually a fairly quick, no-nonsense kind of shopper. If I want something, I will get it. Indian outfits are different though, especially when you won’t be able to return them,as they’re custom-made (all of that to come in my shopping in Mumbai post soon). I bought a few bits and bobs from Bandra market as usual – fridge magnets, necklaces and scarves. Be prepared to haggle hard. That’s the fun of it.
It was mainly in Bandra market that people approached me – mostly children – asking for money. They would follow me for a fair distance until either I gave in and handed them a few rupees or until I entered a shop. You will come across people begging across Mumbai just like the rest of India. The poverty levels are shocking. You can’t give to everyone and over time you will find you just have to learn to say no, no matter how heartbreaking that may be. I try my hardest never to say no to a child and always keep a few ten rupee notes in a separate pocket to hand out.
When you’re in a car and you come to a standstill, it’s an easy decision to make. You either roll down the window or you don’t. When you’re travelling in a rick it’s a different story. It’s an open vehicle and sometimes you get people on either side who refuse to leave until you give them something. Like I said, sometimes you end up giving and sometimes you don’t.
Driving around Mumbai, you will see many families who live on the pavement. I don’t think I will ever get over it but in a strange way, you just get on with it. I never leave leftovers at a restaurant. I get them packed and then give it to a family I pass on the street. Sometimes it’s the food and not the money that means the most to them.
It’s strange to see extreme poverty next to extreme wealth. Mumbai has so many high-rise buildings, luxury hotels, office blocks and apartments. Just across the street or on the pavement below, you will see people struggling to make ends meet. It’s all a part and parcel of life in the city. It’s strange to say but people just get on with their daily lives. Everyone in Mumbai is grafting and working hard for their families.
The best part of my trip – apart from the shopping and eating all of my favourite foods – was being able to spend time talking to people working on the streets. Every time I passed a fruit and vegetable seller, a florist or a man selling tea or fresh juice, I would ask them about their lives. Small children would come and talk to me and tell me all about themselves. I would ask them questions, tell them about Shalini and Shivam and show them photographs. The kids would call me ‘didi’, which means sister. They would giggle away as I teased them, their parents smiling at me and I would always give them a couple of sweets. They would want to hold my hand and tell me to stay a bit longer. They told me just spending a bit of time talking to them made their day.
The one thing I dread every time I visit is getting unwell. Yes, that ever-joked about delly-belly. I always drink bottled water and even brush my teeth with it but for some reason I always end up with a stomach infection. Sometimes I’ve even been physically sick. It’s probably down to the ice in my drinks, which is obviously not made from bottled water but you can’t always avoid ice. The bug only lasts a couple of days and even less when you visit a doctor straight away. Luckily, being a big city, there are health clinics and walk-in surgeries everywhere. It’s easy to get an appointment and cheap too. The medical industry in big Indian cities is second to none. This time I was able to see a doctor within minutes and it cost me around eight pounds for my appointment and medication. The tablets took effect more or less straight away and I was feeling normal again by the end of the day.
Before I sign off, I must mention Mumbai’s international airport, Chhatrapati Shivaji. It’s certainly amongst the best airports in the world.
It’s recently been redeveloped and it’s certainly boasting with shops of all kinds, both Indian, international and designer.
Allow yourself plenty of time before your flight because you will want to spend a fair bit of time here. It’s airy, spacious and there’s so much colour and vibrancy you’ll want to take your time exploring.
This time round I had a couple of hours before my flight so I did a bit of souvenir shopping and stopped at the food court for some lunch before heading to my gate.
Mumbai is infectious. It’s like no other place in the world, with its mad traffic, blaring horns, friendly people, amazing food and shopping. I really am in love with the city that never sleeps and I can’t wait for my next visit.