Meltdown in Mumbai
With each step forward I drew more and more attention from the mangy dogs and ragged people inhabiting the sidewalk of this two-block street. My heart began to pound and the muscles in my shoulders tightened as the many pairs of eyes stared at me, wondering what I was doing there.
It was just before 8 a.m. on Saturday morning on Nowroji Fardonji Road somewhere in the middle of downtown Mumbai. The streets were just beginning to stir. I knew I wasn’t too far from my hotel, but it felt a world away. I scanned the street for the designated meeting spot, but I saw no signboard, no logo for the non-profit through which I’d optimistically arranged to tour Dharavi, India’s largest slum, home to more than a million people. At this point, I’d been working and traveling in India on my own for the better part of two weeks. Though this was only my second solo trip abroad and my first trip to India, I was determined not to let it get the better of me.
Business had brought me to India, but my trip had been far more rewarding than that might suggest. Under the tutelage of Indian colleagues, I had ridden a motorbike through the busy streets of Bangalore, fallen in love with homemade chai, seen magnificent Mysore Palace illuminated by thousands of sparkling lights, and learned how to correctly eat a masala dosa using only my right hand. But my time in Bangalore had also been stressful. Working against a deadline in a culture so different from my own was far more challenging than I’d expected, and on top of that, a city-wide strike had cut out one full work day. But now the deadlines had been met, the business was done, and I had spent a few days in Rajasthan seeing the great palaces and forts of the maharajas. Since all the flights from Rajasthan to Bangalore went through Mumbai, I had ended up with one extra day in Mumbai at the tail end of my trip.
I had splurged and booked a room at the opulent Oberoi Hotel, suspecting that I might need a refuge near the end of my time in India. When I had arrived the night before, I’d been greeted by crisp white linens, a huge gleaming bathroom, and my own personal butler — an unnerving luxury I’d never experienced before. That cushy hotel room with its unending view of the Back Bay was a pristine reprieve from the noises and smells of the trip, but it was actually too different, too far from the rest of my experience in India, and it made entering back into the din and commotion outside the hotel much more difficult.
Buying myself a little time, I fixed my gaze on the crumpled piece of paper in my hand: “Nowroji Fardonji Road. Signboard next to the Laxmi Vilas Hotel.” I was in the right spot, but I was 40 minutes early, and I couldn’t stay there, standing in the middle of the road with all those penetrating eyes. Head down and eyes still focused on the paper, I began to move toward the sidewalk. On my first step, I heard a strange crunch as my foot landed unevenly — on the carcass of a large dead rat.
I’d already been on edge after bickering with the wild-eyed taxi driver who’d dropped me off here. I’d hailed him just outside my hotel, and the short distance to my destination had signaled me an easy mark. He’d insisted that the meter was broken and that the five-minute ride was worth the huge sum of 800 rupees. After a few rounds of arguing back and forth, I’d finally proclaimed, “You are ripping me off!” He didn’t care. He’d seen the opportunity to get a little something extra the moment he’d spotted me outside the Oberoi. Not knowing exactly how badly I was being ripped off, I’d cut the sum in half and begrudgingly put 400 rupees into his grasping hands. (I learned later that the real fare was 50 rupees – one-sixteenth the requested amount!)
After the rip-off and the rat came the meltdown I’d been doing my best to avoid. Suddenly I felt the full weight of my time in India. All the honking, all the noise, all the jostling, pointing, and full-body stares. I can’t remember if I gasped or cursed, but anyone watching me couldn’t have missed how that single step changed my entire expression and sent me scurrying far from the offending carcass, tears welling up in my eyes. Across the street on a patch of sidewalk in front of a bank with a security guard, I urgently tried to gather my thoughts. What next? Where should I go until 8:30 a.m.? Was I actually going on this tour?
Through my tears, I saw one of the most instantly recognizable and often maligned symbols of America around the world — the golden arches. Right across the street was a McDonald’s! Now I knew exactly where I would go and what I would do. I would drink a Diet Coke at McDonald’s and figure out my next steps.
Inside, McDonald’s was cavernous, aggressively air-conditioned, and practically empty, a perfect spot to sip my Diet Coke and regain a little composure. Despite the fact that it was still early morning, American pop music from the ‘80s was blaring at full volume. I found a table, and over the speakers came a familiar refrain:
“In this world we’re just beginning to understand the miracle of living
Baby I was afraid before but I’m not afraid anymore.”
“Ooh heaven is a place on earth …. We’ll make heaven a place on earth.”
It was a song I knew embarrassingly well, a song from my childhood, a song I’d listened to for days after dancing to it with my middle school crush at the seventh grade dance. I couldn’t help but smile now at the ridiculousness of the timing — as I sat in the middle of Mumbai feeling anything but at ease.
As the chorus chirped, “Ooh heaven is a place on earth,” the question still remained — was I going on this tour?
I hadn’t paid anything yet, but I’d hoped to learn more about the other side of Mumbai — the poorest people living and working in the slums, who I knew I was unlikely to see in any meaningful way as a tourist. But could I handle seeing, hearing, and smelling the world of Dharavi? Was that too much to ask of myself at that moment, traveling for the first time in the developing world? Or was I just weak for not wanting to go alone? I wrestled with the options, and in the end, fear of Dharavi kept me at that table until the time for the tour had come and gone.
I felt terrible that I’d made arrangements ahead of time and then bailed at the last minute without notice or explanation. I told myself that it probably happened all the time, but even if it did, it didn’t make me feel any better. Despite feeling a little relieved, I also regretted missing the tour almost immediately — even while still sitting at that dirty table in the middle of McDonald’s. I wished that I had summoned the courage to go on the tour because it represented a distinctly different India from what I’d seen so far. Slums are home to more than half of Mumbai’s population, and Dharavi alone has been estimated to contribute somewhere between $600 million and $1 billion to Mumbai’s economy from the many workshops, recycling, pottery-making, embroidery, leather tanning, and other business conducted within its borders.
But I had missed the opportunity to visit and learn about Dharavi, at least for this trip. Still, this was my last full day to explore India before I began the long trip home, and it was time to make the most of what was left of it. So I walked back into the marbled lobby of the Oberoi, past the shiny red grand piano, and asked for help. “I need a guide,” I said to the concierge. A few phone calls and about 30 minutes later, I met Mark — a tall, slim Indian man with a shoulder-length ponytail, aviators, and a casual ease. He could just as easily have fit in on the streets of London or New York as he did in Mumbai, or Bombay as he called it.
It was still only late morning when I started the day again with Mark at the top of Malabar Hill taking in the spectacular views of the city’s crescent-shaped bay and walking amidst the whimsically manicured greenery of the hanging gardens. It’s impossible to get a feel for a city as large and diverse as Mumbai in a single weekend, let alone in one day, but Mark and I made a valiant effort. And the city again became a fascinating jumble of sights and sounds, instead of an antagonistic mess of noise and confusion.
We marveled at the sheer size of Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest outdoor laundry, where men diligently rinsed and slapped sudsy clothing against concrete slabs, forcing the water and soap out of the clothes. They then hung the clothing to dry from one of the hundreds of clotheslines strung overhead, before it was folded and packaged for delivery. We lingered at Mani Bhavan, the house where Ghandi lived when he was in Mumbai and where he developed his philosophy of non-violence, and found that we’d arrived on the anniversary of Ghandi’s assassination. We watched as men carefully arranged marigolds and a garland around a sculpture of the father of Indian independence. We walked the winding alleyways of Crawford Market among the dizzying array of produce, household goods, and pets for sale. We set off for the spice shop, and after smelling and inspecting a seemingly endless number of options, I settled on some garam masala to bring home.
We crossed the city, and Mark pointed out other notable buildings and shared stories of the city’s history. We developed an easy rapport, and he answered all of my questions, even the ones I’d been hesitant to ask so far. I learned that Mark was his given name, that he was a Christian, and that Christians were a small, but ancient minority in India. He called the city Bombay because that’s how he had always known it. He’d grown up there and had no intention of ever leaving, except to travel. And for Mark, travel meant Ladakh, a region known as “the land of high passes” that lies in the Indian Himalayas not far from Pakistan, where he also led group tours. So after leaving Crawford Market, we made an extra stop not on the normal tour at the Jehangir Art Gallery, which was featuring a photography exhibit including photos of Ladakh by one of Mark’s friends.
As we walked, we talked about art, life, politics, and the differences in our cultures. Our conversation was long and winding, like our path through the city — the kind of unique conversation that only seems to arise when traveling. We passed the historic Victoria Terminus railway station and talked about the terrorist attack that had taken Mumbai and the world by surprise a little more than 2 years before. Ten armed terrorists brought the city to a standstill, taking hostages at more than a handful of locations across the city, including Victoria Terminus, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, and my hotel, the Oberoi. Mark called it India’s 9/11. More than a hundred lives were lost, and hundreds more were injured before the terrorists were finally stopped.
The last stop on our tour was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the nearby Gateway of India, an arch constructed in honor of King George V and Queen Mary’s visit and as a formal landing place on Mumbai Harbor for British governors. After dutifully taking pictures of the famous arch, we walked through the hotel lobby, much of which had been destroyed in the 2008 terrorist attack and had only recently been freshly unveiled. It seemed that even the apparently pristine luxury of these two hotels had another story to tell.
The sun dipped toward the horizon, and we left the lobby of the hotel in pursuit of dinner and a spot to watch the sunset along the crescent-shaped bay. We turned a corner still deep in conversation, and I realized that we were back on the same street where my morning had begun. Right in the shadows of the stately Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was Nowroji Fardonji Road. I only recognized it because I briefly caught a glimpse of the Laxmi Vilas Hotel, next to the signboard that had served as the slum tour’s designated morning meeting spot. The rat was gone, and people were now gathered around a handful of food carts. The street smelled of spicy food, hummed with friendly chatter, and glowed with the warmth of streetlights.
There are many Mumbais, many Indias, too many to see in one visit, or maybe even in a lifetime. But in that moment this tiny street gave me a glimpse of how these different Mumbais came together, not in contrast, but in harmony. And the next time an opportunity arose during my travels to visit a slum and learn more about the lives of hardworking people far away from the tourist traps, I wouldn’t hesitate. I wasn’t afraid anymore.
Angela Petersen is a freelance writer, traveler, and Texan living in San Francisco. She’s also a lawyer and proof that having a full-time job does not have to get in the way of a desire to explore at home and abroad. Visit her website at angelafoxpetersen.com.