Bombay – city of light and dark

Bombay – city of light and dark

From the air (a view few of its citizens will ever see), the peninsula of the city of Bombay appears like an open hand – reaching and grasping into the Arabian sea. Its familiar districts transformed into the constituent parts of the lower arm; the thumb of Colaba’s museums, backpacker lodges and monuments closes on the fingers of Malabar Hill’s Hanging Gardens and exclusive apartments while the exposed palm of Marine Drive’s wide curve and Chowpatty Beach’s boisterous fun wait to grasp and hold the unknown objective of the stretching arm. If the cocked foot of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula, poised to strike the island of Sicily reveals that particular country’s national sporting obsession, then the grasping hand of Bombay is a metaphor for the city’s Raison d’être; the force that holds the city together and that makes it the world’s fastest growing city (poised to become its largest by 2020); the pursuit of dreams – wealth, power, fame, security or even just a living wage. It is what brings the multi-nationals, the Bollywood starlets and wannabees, the businessmen, artists and writers and the countless thousands of virtually destitute migrants from across the country.

Like a hand, the beauty may be lavished on the fingers and palm – home to Bombay’s most notable building’s and attractions, its historic and most picturesque streets but the true power is located further up the arm in the economic powerhouses of Bombay’s new (post-colonial) suburbs – Bandra, Andheri, Juhu and the film studios of Goregaon. It is in these muscular districts that Bombay’s recent strength has been generated. It is here also that Bombay’s lifeblood abides; the millions of skilled and unskilled labourers, sweepers, tiffin boys, maids, cooks, waiters, chai wallahs, porters, bell-boys, office clerks, taxi drivers, sugar-cane grinders, lime-squishers, puri-vendors and shoe shiners in Bombay’s infamous slums. The slums fill the gaps between the gated high-rise apartments, cling to otherwise unbuildable coastlines and spread north of the city’s official limits. The British may have shaped the hand by joining together the 7 islands that preceded it but its native inhabitants have provided its modern growth and strength.

Continuing the metaphor of the hand, we see the dysfunctional and certainly ghee-clogged blood vessels of the city transport the lifeblood up and down its length – to the extremeties and back. The arteries and veins are dangerous and lives are lost daily but it is merely a drop in the almost inexhaustable bank of willing labour that floods the city daily.

The suburban railways operate at far beyond their capacity and the roads are (in)famously congested. Bombay is also surely one of the world’s largest cities to operate without an underground metro system. And it is astonishing how this arm/hand continues to operate despite an inadequate infrastructure and exponential, unfeasible growth. The population of Bombay is close to (and will soon exceed) that of Australia but covers an area of approximately 750 km², Australia is 7,600,000 km². Bombay is also the most densely populated metropolis on the planet with an astonishing 25,000 people per km² (Manhattan has just 10,000) which puts huge strain on the infrastructure – sewers, water, electricity, transport all of which are barely adequate for half the population. But the city (like its mother country India) is held together by a sheer strength of will – a collective desire to make it work as well as that all-consuming pursuit of dreams which drives its population to tolerate occasionally unimaginable living conditions. The city also survives (and this is sort of the point of this essay) because of the symbiotic and mutually sustaining relationship that has developed between its rich and its poor.

Mumbai/Bombay – in a reflection of its schizophrenic identity, the city has two personalities – a light and a dark. There is the side where a oil magnate builds a 27 storey skyscraper as a family home, where real estate prices rival and occasionally exceed those of London and New York, where apartments are decked in imported Italian marble and furnished with priceless Indian antiquities and rich youths drive from expensive boutique to expensive bar in expensive, imported sports cars. And then there is the city of the slum – where 51% of the population reside, where 200Rs ($4) a day is a good wage, where you are more likely to have a tv than a toilet in your house and where your unsanctioned shack suffers the daily threat of being torn down.

Like New York (moving from metaphor to comparison), Bombay is the economic powerhouse of its mother country. 70% of India’s (official) business transactions take place in Bombay, it is home to the national stock exchange and virtually all the major national and international corporations base their India operations there. Like New York, Bombay outshines the country’s true capital; it is bigger, richer, younger and frankly, more loveably than Delhi. Bombay’s location on a peninsula (hand), shared with Manhattan (a less definable appendage of land) has contrived, through a shortage of space in which to expand laterally, to push property prices, along with the apartment buildings, skyward.

Next to these dazzling riches is the abject poverty of the poor, some of whom live out their entire lives on pavements or traffic islands, who share a toilet with hundreds and who may survive on a few litres of water for all their needs per day. The arithmetic of Bombay’s poverty actually requires some analysis to understand. Whilst food and essentials are cheap – an all-you-can-eat thali can be as little as 15 Rs and a bus journey of many hours rarely exceeds 50 Rs, this is in the context of an average daily wage of around 200 Rs ($4). Even a doctor working in a public hospital will earn as little as 300 Rs ($6) a day. When this is juxtaposed against the costs of Bombay’s other life, it makes the gap between rich and poor even more extraordinary; an average Mumbaiker would need to work for a day and a half to buy a beer in one of Bombay’s trendier bars, a week for a dish in one of Colaba’s best restaurants and three months for a single night an the Taj Mahal hotel.

But the relationship is symbiotic and accepted; each side of the city needs the other to survive. The poverty stricken clean the houses, wash the clothes, cook the food of the rich. They help build the enormous apartment buildings and skyscrapers with rickety bamboo scaffolding and a mobile village moving up with them as they build skyward. The wealth of cheap labour gives Bombay its energy and drives it booming economic and global status, it fuels the rampant construction industry and draws the outsourcing multinationals. And for the poor, Bombay offers a chance to work their way out of poverty and to escape the caste straightjacket of the villages. Bombays dynamism and free-marketism is the one of the few avenues of escape for those at the bottom of India’s complex and rigid caste system.

Western discourse on Bombay tends to focus on the inhuman conditions in the slums. In reality, the conditions in the slums vary hugely; many are semi-permanent and have a relatively highly developed infrastructure with water, electricity and drainage. The communal aspect of the slums where childcare or maintenance is shared amongst residents is a great help to working families and is closer to the’village’ life that most would have come from. Slum life is often a deliberate choice; many of those who have been given one of Bombay’s sought after social housing apartments continue to live in the slums while renting out their apartment to make extra cash.

Of course, its important to remember that many of Europe’s oldest and grandest cities would have started out life as what would now be considered slums (how else do you explain London’s chaotic street plan or Paris’s narrow, mazy backstreets). The difference with Bombay is the sheer scale of the population and the vast chasm between the rich and poor which is exasperated in the context of a global economy. 30 years ago, India’s richest would have been considered merely well-off by Western standards, now they litter the World’s richest lists. Bombay’s status as a world city has also resulted in 1st world property prices with (for the majority at least) 3rd world wages. The unofficial (and therefore cheap) slums are what allows the majority to actually live in Bombay.

No doubt the city’s rulers and elite understand this. It is why slum-clearance remains largely rhetoric (clearing the slums would not be beyond even Bombay’s stretched infrastructure). Slum clearance also raises the prospect of re-housing the inhabitants which, even in towers, is usually impossible at the same density of the slums. Clearing the slums may also result in greater suffering that letting them continue. Therefore a kind of chaotic and unspoken Status quo is maintained with the slums continuing but never recieving official and permanent recognition.

The city remains divided and is unlikely to change in the near future. With India’s growing wealth seemingly shared amongst only a handful of (mostly Mumbai -residing) families and the flow of migrants into the city increasing – the wealth gap is growing. Bombay as the financial hub of the world’s second biggest emerging market is increasingly a focus of international trade and business putting further strain on rents and property costs. As it stands, the forces keeping the city as it is are stronger than those urging change. Bombay will grow and it will develop but the slums will remain because the city cannot exist without them. It doesn’t need to change and probably can’t; it will remain for the moment a city divided, a city of light and dark.

Mumbai city!

Mumbai city!

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About the Author

Tim is a graduate of Oxford School of architecture and the Westminster School of Architecture. He worked with OMA on the nearly completed CCTV project in China and more recently with Popularchitecture in London. In 2006, he recieved the RIBA dissertation medal for his dissertation 'CenterParcs'. His essays have been published in Mudot magazine and the Jounal of Architecture and he has been a visiting critic at Oxford and Westminster. He is currently travelling and writing in India.