Monday, 6 September 2010

First Impressions of Mumbai

[Originally posted on the Study India 2010 Blog on 16/08/2010]

Flying in over Mumbai is interesting, to say the least. At first, it looks like a swamp, with pylons and craggy buildings looming out of it at random intervals. But then the plane banks around, and you get a sweeping view of this enormous, heaving city; greener than any you have seen before, but filled with filthy old buildings, its arteries clogged with traffic, and the unmistakeable blue plastic-roofed slums. But this is just a plane eye-view, skewed by its remoteness and with as many layers of preconception as there is glass in the little plane portholes. This perspective does little justice to the people of this city, their situations or their aspirations. Just talking to an ageing beverage stall worker reveals that he regularly travels to London to help work in his relative’s business; at least four times a year! He certainly has one up on me in terms of international travel. And he’s not just helping any old relation – a sir! Sir Gulam Noon MBE. I get a card as he is appalled that I have never heard of the business (the Noon Group) and now it’s my turn to feel judged. This wonderfully friendly ageing gentleman has more things going on than I ever would have imagined, thought possible or probable. But that seems to be Mumbai all over, and I’m sure it will prove this right many times over during the coming weeks. I look forward to it.

Our first full day turns out to be Indian Independence day, which is a stroke of luck, as we get the opportunity to see Mumbai and its inhabitants letting their hair down, celebrating their history and what it means to be a sovereign nation. At the flag raising celebrations at the H.R. College Mumbai, our host university for the Study India Programme, words such as ‘superpower’ are mentioned; India in the modern world is no wall flower. This is a rapidly growing, self-assured nation which can throw its economic weight around, especially now the rest of the world is floundering in the face of unstable financial systems and crippling state deficits. And Mumbai certainly seems to be at the centre of powerhouse India – commerce brings prosperity is the motto of H.R. College, and this strength of conviction will see Indian charging ahead in the decades to come. This attitude is also embraced by the amazingly persistent street vendors along Colaba Causeway, some of whom will not give up in their efforts hours after first talking to you! Despite my unwillingness to part with even rps.100 for a drum I had no room or desire for, one particular seller approached me no less than four times offering it for rps.500, and would not take no for an answer. Annoying, but certainly a commendable spirit towards salesmanship. This entrepreneurial attitude, from the poorest street salesman to the Chairman of the Tata Group, will surely see India well in the difficult years to come.

These first couple of days in Mumbai have opened my eyes to the diversity, spirit and friendliness of its inhabitants; the madness that are its packed streets and the ramshackle but beautiful nature of its buildings. These streets lined with crumbling but regal Colonial buildings also give a glimpse into Mumbai’s past and the legacy this history has left. Both the foundations for the prosperity of the city, including things such as the railway network and its education system, were laid under British Colonial rule, but these buildings also serve as reminders of the often brutal and exploitative nature of Colonial rule, which ended on 15 August 1947, allowing India, and Mumbai, the freedom to forge its own path for the future, which I will hopefully get an insight into on the Study India Programme 2010.

Laurence Conneely

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