Mumbai's Dizzying World of Slums and Millionaires
By Janhavi Acharekar

Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald and other Canwest newspapers, November 2009

Economics, nuclear technology and Bollywood dancing make for strange bedfellows. But then, in Mumbai, all's fair in trade and politics. While those in polite circles in India's commercial capital and tinsel town may cringe at the Bollywood-style dance that Canadian premier Stephen Harper was subjected to on his recent visit here, those in political circles - on both sides - were clear in their agenda.

Nothing sells like a bit of song and dance in India, or for that matter, within the Indian diaspora. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the bearer of the 2010 Olympic torch in Toronto should be Bollywood bling-and-action hero Akshay Kumar. Fresh in the minds of Indian movie-goers for his misadventures as bumbling Sikh country bumpkin 'Happy' Singh in the potboiler 'Singh is King', he seems the obvious choice given the considerable Sikh diaspora in Canada. And few know that dance choreographer Shiamak Davar - judge of Harper's Bollywood extravaganza - has dance schools and a loyal South Asian following in Vancouver and much of Canada.

Much to the surprise of its denizens, India - and Mumbai in particular - appear to be the flavour of the season. Gone are the days when one travelled out of the comfort zone of manic Mumbai environs and landed on other shores only to be quizzed about slums, poverty, tigers and men in saffron robes. Today's India is about global takeovers, a rising economy, the power of its youth - a new kind of tiger. And if Slumdog Millionaire brought Mumbai's slums their moment of glory this year, while the accent for some was on the word 'slumdog', for others it was on 'millionaire'.

As the face of this newly empowered India, Mumbai is rising to the occasion. Once an unlikely travel destination - a mere pit-stop to Goa and other more interesting neighbours - it is fast emerging as an experiential destination. After all, this is where colonial architecture jostles with masses of humanity. It is where local trains ferry millions to work and back to distant suburban homes. Where rickshaw and taxi drivers are as generous with Hindi expletives as they are with their honking, proudly maintaining noise levels at a shrill tenor at all times. Where the youth seek respite from newfound urbane pressures in thumping discotheques and chic lounge bars. It is where flamingos descend upon industrial areas in the month of November and where the BSE - the Bombay Stock Exchange - determines the mood of the city's glitterati. Amid the background drama, challenged for space to support its behemoth population, Mumbai carries on its flurry of developmental activity - building highrises, flyovers, expressways, the metro rail, sky rail; even an ambitious sea-link route that threatens to steal the thunder from its heritage neighbour in the Arabian Sea, the Elephanta Caves.

As it rides the economic wave, one can only hope that Mumbai will not forget its past. Activists, heritage conservationists and conscientious residents are determined to hold on to the city's vestiges of history and culture. Mumbai's colourful and vibrant local markets continue to thrive thanks to these efforts - the heritage Crawford or Mahatma Phule Market narrowly escaped the destructive arm of the municipal corporation hoping to cash in on its prime location in this city of unrealistic real estate rates. And while the antiques and bric-a-brac at Chor Bazaar or Thieves' Market are no longer stolen, they continue to be available for a steal.

As the people of Mumbai make their peace with the city's manic pace, much continues to be said about their famed 'spirit'. While cynics claim that Mumbai's spirit amounts to nothing more than a game of survival, others praise the grit and professionalism of a city that finds itself back on its feet in times of crises. However, Mumbai's spirit is also seen in the myriad colours of its festivals - both religious and cultural. Music festivals exploit the potential of the city's heritage sights by hosting Indian classical music performances by legends in the medieval precincts of the Banganga Tank, or jazz by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau, Ravi Coltrane, George Duke, among others, with the resplendent Gateway of India as spectacular backdrop. In Mumbai, there's a newfound cause for celebration.

If celebration is the leit motif, then the commercial capital makes for a heady cocktail with the neighbouring state of Goa. The latter's festive spirit is as intrinsic to its culture as its carefree, laidback attitude called sossegarde. Most claim that stress levels ebb miraculously once you hit this popular beach destination - until, that is, you find yourself the first cab or car rental. But hey, when in Goa, do as the Goans. Head to the nearest beach shack for some liquid therapy. That is, treat yourself to your first sip of the potent local brew - feni. And should you hear the Canadian national anthem being sung in Goa's home language, Konkani, don't blame it on the drink. It's probably a translation by Goan theatre director Marshal Fernandes, for a Konkani play staged in Toronto recently.

After a taste of some Mumbai mania, premier Harper would do well to unwind in Goa on his next visit to India. A bit of sun, sand and sossegarde may be a fitting conclusion to the Indo-Canadian dialogue and a great way to seal the alliance.


© Janhavi Stories 2009