Maximum City, the City of Dreams, India's economic capital and melting pot. You can throw epithets and superlatives at Mumbai all day, but it refuses to be understood on a merely intellectual level. Like London and New York, it's a restless human tapestry of cultures, religions, races, ways of surviving and thriving, which evokes palpable emotion, and whether you hate it or love it, you can't stay unaffected.
From the cluster of fishing villages first linked together by the British East India Company (in 1668), Mumbai has swelled to sprawl across seven islands, which now groan under the needs of 19 million stomachs, souls and egos. Its problems - creaking infrastructure, endemic corruption coupled with bureaucratic incompetence, and a population of whom more than two thirds live in slums - are only matched by the enormous drive that makes it the centre of business, fashion and film-making in modern India, and both a magnet and icon for the country's dreams - and nightmares.
The taxi ride from the airport shows you both sides of the city: slum dwellers selling balloons under billboards of fair-skinned models dripping in gold and reclining on the roof of a Mercedes; the septic stench as you cross Mahim Creek, where bikers park on the soaring bridge to shoot the breeze amid fumes that could drop an elephant; the feeling of diesel permeating your bloodstream and the manically reverberating mantra of Horn OK Please as you ooze through traffic past Worli's glitzy shopping malls and the fairytale island mosque of Haji Ali. And finally the magic moment as you swing out on to Chowpatty Beach and the city throws off her cloak of chaos to reveal a neon- painted skyscape that makes you feel like you've arrived at the centre of all things.
Gothic towers and glass skyscrapers, mill chimneys and rice-sack shacks mingle below the sky. All around them are streets aswarm with panel-beaten double-decker buses, yellow and black taxis, long wooden carts stacked with hessian-stitched parcels being towed by teams of grimacing Bihari migrant workers, and white-hatted dabbawalas weaving their way through the chaos carrying stacks of metal tins - the guardians of a hundred thousand office lunches.
Hundreds of fresh migrants arrive in the city daily, and whether they come by plane, sweeping in over the crescent bays and the smog-wrapped slums bound for South Mumbai, where real estate is more expensive than Manhattan, or by packed train carriage through the endless sprawl of apartment blocks battered brown by too many monsoons to eke out a space among the poorest of the poor in Dharavi, Mumbai, somehow, finds a way to absorb them all.
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