What a great city. A city of contrasts with its old colonial architecture and its glitzy Bollywood industry (although sadly we didn’t experience the latter first hand). Then there are its “lifelines” in the form of overcrowded suburban trains, the dabbawallahs and the dhobi ghats plus of course its slums otherwise known as its beating heart. This all blends together to create a great Indian city and one that, for a western tourist, is pretty hassle free (give or take the odd scamming taxi driver). After all, who would be interested in selfies with us when you’ve got the Bollywood stars just around the corner?
We rode the suburban trains (reputed to be the busiest on the planet), admittedly not during the crazy extended rush hour period when apparently 8 million locals (similar to the population of Austria) are on the move, dodging fares and hanging out of the doors partly to squeeze on and partly to get some fresh air. The trains are wider than British trains and numerous and, of course, cheap (a typical return fare was 10 rupees (about 11 pence).
We watched the phenomenon that is the dabbawallah delivery system by which thousands of locals get home cooked food delivered to their office in time for lunch and the empty tiffin boxes are then returned home during the afternoon. In such a modern (and in many ways western) city, to see such a traditional system in play was amazing. No room for Deliveroo here: the Mumbai crowd want home cooked food which is collected from their houses and carried to the nearest railway station and handed over to other dabbawallahs for the trip into town. From start to finish, each tiffin boxes will be handled by 5 or 6 people before finding its destination. And apparently there are very few mistakes which is just incredible given the volumes involved and the short time period of operation (after all, nobody wants to be kept waiting for their lunch to arrive).
Another great Mumbai institution is the dhobi ghats: vast washing sinks where it seems that the whole city’s smalls are on display whilst drying in the urban sun. I’d never thought looking at someone else’s washing would be quite such a fascinating experience! Apparently, for 18 to 20 hours each day, over 7,000 people are involved in the washing, dying, bleaching, drying and ironing process before the clothes are sent back to different parts of the city.
And then there was Dharavi, now one of Mumbai’s most famous slums (backdrop to Slumdog Millionaire and many other films) which is one of the most densely populated places in the world and home to about a million people. Visiting this area in Mumbai was not what I had expected and was far more uplifting and positive and, of course, fascinating. While the houses are tiny and overcrowded (often comprising one room for extended families) and the toilet facilities pathetic (an average of 15,000 people share a single toilet) and the alleys between houses so narrow (less than one metre in places) that there is little natural light, Dharavi is a bit of an economic powerhouse: apparently the turnover is over £700 million annually.
A key industry here is waste recycling – a lot of Mumbai’s rubbish ends up here and is then meticulously sorted and reused and recycled where possible: as far as possible, nothing goes to waste. We saw plastic bottles (of which thousands are disposed every day in India) being ground down, washed, dried on roofs and then fashioned into plastic pellets ready to be re-used in some other product. We also saw other cottage industries e.g. leather tanning and ceramics. One that caught my eye in particular was women rolling out thousands of poppadums which they then sun baked on huge cane baskets before they were collected and sent to Mumbai’s restaurants for final baking and serving to clientele. This rolling process was just one part of a bigger industry – the dough was made elsewhere by another co-operative and their work was just one piece of a giant jigsaw all fitting together.