Our guide in Mumbai assured us that Mumbai, formerly known by the British name Bombay, was at “the most organized city in India.” Heaven help India! And to think these guys are the code jockeys of the world, incredibly skilled at writing programs for the rest of the world, while India seems hopelessly caught up in meaningless bureaucracy and endless rubber stamps. From a distance we saw India’s nuclear research facility with its five reactors. It’s scary to think these guys have bombs, but in a weird way reassuring to realize that by the time a fatal decision could be reached and rubber stamped by 3,000 officials, someone in the chain should emerge with enough sense to call the whole thing off and go watch a cricket match.
The Brits, like some of the Americans who were in Panama during the US canal days, seem to believe the country went to hell when they left, but in neither country was that the case. India is an economic powerhouse that has done quite well despite the world financial crisis and has what is fast becoming the world’s largest middle classes. Think of what an emerging middle class means in a country with almost 1.2 billion people!
Even the Dharavi slum, the largest slum in the world, popularized in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, may be on its way out. It’s not just social reform, but the fact that land in Mumbai has become so valuable that a slum no longer makes economic sense. Plans are afoot to create huge blocks of public housing so what is now a little over a half square mile with 600,000 residents will be available for business development.
The “Gate of India”, built in 1911 to show off British power and celebrate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, is still mightily impressive and the center of Mumbai. Adjacent to it, and also overlooking the harbor, is the Taj Mahal Hotel, which the world watched burning and under terrorist attack for 60 hours in 208. The square in front of the Gate of India and Taj is a center for locals, Indian tourists and foreign tourists to take photos, feed pigeons and catch boats to the caves on Elephanta Island [more on that in a later post].
This is also a place where begging children and pickpockets hang out. While begging is now forbidden in Mumbai, there are still tiny children, organized by adults and sometimes their own parents, who beg from tourists and snatch what they can. I took pictures of some of these kids wandering amidst our legs, but what was most disturbing was the adults who were supervising their efforts and giving directions. One tiny boy wearing only a t-shirt was repeatedly sent back into the crowd and told to lift up his shirt so everyone would see he was naked and feel sorry for him. I’m sure his family needs to eat and he is their meal ticket, but . . . I had a strong urge to beat the shit out of the man who might well have been the kid’s father, and might have well just fathered the kid to have a meal ticket.
As I repeatedly tell our guests, the reason why you take a world cruise is to see the world and see how others live, and that while it may be “different” from the way we live, it doesn’t mean that our way is “better” or their way is “worse” . . . except maybe using a tiny little boy to support you.