Travel writer and adventurer Josh Ferry Woodard explores the bustling, vibrant streets of Mumbai, heartland of Bollywood and jewel of India's west coast.
My shirt stuck to my skin like cling film, as I strolled past the imposing basalt Gateway of India arch in the sweltering morning sun.
The murky waves of the Arabian Sea splashed into the seawall but the sound was drowned out by the constant beeping of car horns. Cardamom and cinnamon aromas filled the morning air with a subtle sweetness that would later be supplanted by the rancid smell of fish guts and hints of roadside cow dung.
Colaba market stalls. Image via Benjamuna
Hawkers approached me from all directions, trying to peddle all kinds of different products: “Masala-Chai-Masala-Chai-Masala-Chia.” “Fresh lemonade, sir?” “Come, see my jewellery, I give you good price.” “Mumbai tour: Washing laundry, Chhatrapati station, Dharavi slum.”
Though slightly bewildered, I managed to evade the street-sellers and plot a route through the crowded pavements to the storied Leopold Café on Colaba Causeway.
Colaba: the colonial quarter
Colaba Causeway. Image via Mandala Pictures
Leopold’s is more than a restaurant, café or a bar: it is a Bombay institution. Immortalised in Gregory David Roberts’s novel Shantaram, it retains a shabby elegance that draws in an eclectic mix of clientele.
The food and drink is merely adequate but there are few places in the city better to sit and watch the world go by. Beneath the whirring fans and famous antique clock, conversations between Mumbaikars, expats and tourists blossom over ice-cold beers and mounds of biryani.
After a session of people watching in Leopold’s, I braved the beautiful but busy Colaba streets. Colaba, Mumbai’s old British quarter, possesses some of the city’s most spectacular colonial architecture. Terraces of charming 18th-century Victorian mansions line the roads, green branches shooting out of cracks in the paint.
The Gateway of India at sunset
The British colonial quarter is now considered Mumbai’s premier tourist district. In addition to the aforementioned Gateway of India and Leopold Café, Colaba boasts attractions such as the ferry to Elephanta Caves, the grandiose Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the lively Sassoon Docks, the art deco Regal Theatre and a plume of high-end fashion boutiques.
Colaba is also home to some of the city’s best contemporary art galleries, such as newcomer Volte, minimalist industrial space Project 88 and the mammoth 50ft high walls of Gallery Maskara.
The intersection of a million stories
Chhatrapati Shivaj Terminus by night. Image via My Favourite Things
To my relief, the pavements got slightly quieter as I left Colaba along Mahatma Gandhi Road, though the metronomic car horns and bumper-to-bumper traffic remained.
Passing a vocal game of street cricket which was protected from traffic by a homemade bamboo barricade, and a succession of street vendors shaving sugar cane and slicing mangos beneath the shade of Banyan trees, I headed towards the iconic Chhatrapati Shivaj Terminus station.
Before I made it there, a young Indian man wearing a chequered shirt with a lazy posture and dark spiky hair introduced himself. His name was Rahul and he said he was a travel and hospitality student.
“I’m interested in visiting the Dharavi slum,” I told him. “But I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to just turn up. Do the residents mind being visited by tourists?”
“Ah, the biggest slum in Asia. You find some crazy things there my friend,” Rahul replied. “It is fine to visit the slum, but it is better if you go with somebody who knows the area.”
“Do you know the area?” I asked.
“To pay for my studies, I cook. I used to work in the slum as a chef at weddings and events,” he said. “I could take you for a tour if you like?”
A street game of cricket
Rahul said he needed to go and pick up a friend so we agreed to meet outside a restaurant that he recommended in an hour’s time.
After paying the equivalent of £1.20 for a large silver platter of rice, curd, pickle and chapatti with six ramekins of delicious vegetable curries, I met Rahul outside the curry house.
He was waiting with a shorter, slightly stocky, man about 15 years his senior, who said he was one of his lecturers from university.
Over three million people use the station every day. It is the intersection of so many lives and stories. On this occasion, I didn’t even make it to the terminus, but I still felt like my story was part of Mumbai’s beautifully chaotic tapestry.
Washing hangs out to dry in Dhobi Ghat
Rahul and his lecturer took me to Churchgate station, where we boarded a train to Mahalaxmi to visit the world’s largest outdoor laundromat.
Row upon row of white sheets hung beside colourful garments, slotting like Tetris blocks into narrow gaps between corrugated metal roofs and rudimentary concrete wash basins.
This cramped washing colony, which is advertised to tourists as ‘Washing Laundry’ but known locally as Dhobi Ghat, spans seven acres, has been around since 1890 and is home to around 8,000 workers.
Laundrymen known as dhobis collect dirty linen from expensive hotels and middle-class homes on bicycles. They take around one million articles of clothing per day to the open-air laundromat, which is known as a ghat.
Astonishingly the dhobis, who return the linen washed and neatly pressed by the end of the day, claim to make just two mistakes for every million orders.
Billion dollar slum
Next, we headed to Mahim Junction and crossed the bridge to Dharavi Slum.
Rundown rows of shacks, made from wood, concrete and metal, lined the debris-strewn road. Men, women and children trawled through stacks of rubbish, separating plastic bottles, metal cans, and wooden boxes into sacks for recycling.
An intense heat caused fusty vegetables and rotten eggs to stew on the dusty floor.
“These people live and work in the slum. If their workshops were turned into flats, they’d have no way of making an income.”
Mopeds, carrying anything from one sinewy old man to a family of five, weaved through the disorientating crowds, beeping at overloaded white vans and makeshift rickshaw pickup trucks. We stopped at a bar to cool off over a beer.
Rahul and his lecturer told me how there was a battle going on between developers and the slum residents.
“Dharavi is right in the middle of Mumbai’s financial district. It doesn’t look good for business to have one of the largest slums in the world on the doorstep,” Rahul’s lecturer said.
“Developers keep trying to offer people money, or new flats in high-rise buildings, but the residents don’t want to move,” Rahul added. “They live and work in the slum. If their workshops were turned into flats, they’d have no way of making an income.”
Local children playing in the slums
After the beer, we turned into an extremely narrow passageway. The floor was damp and little sunlight made it down to the slender pathway between the buildings.
We passed women with beautifully patterned sarees playing with giggling bare-footed children, skinny topless men chewing paan and idle cats, dogs and goats, as we strolled past hundreds of single-room residences. The houses didn’t have doors; families were only separated from the community by thin sheets hanging over the entrances.
After crossing an extremely polluted and foul smelling river, which Rahul said featured prominently in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, we visited a kiln and watched kumbhars spin clay into pots. The workshop became engulfed in noxious dark smoke when the potters fired up the furnace.
“The smoke makes people sick sometimes. They get throat cancer and other diseases,” Rahul’s lecturer said. “But gas kilns are too expensive. So what can they do?”
The bitter smell of toxic smoke was soon replaced with the nutty scent of oil, as we reached a street food stall on Larger Road, where a Chinese man was stirring noodles in a hissing wok.
“See those pink pots?” Rahul said, pointing to a store stocked to the ceiling with shiny jewelled crockery. “They were produced in the slum. In a workshop like the one we just saw.”
Across the road, a gang of teenagers with manicured hairstyles and snazzy shirts sat on mopeds chatting, smoking and drinking cups of chai.
“Even slums have hipsters,” I said to Rahul.
A city of beautiful chaos
The 500-acre slum is home to somewhere between 700,000 and a million people. 250,000 ‘rag pickers’ work in Dharavi to recycle around 80% of Mumbai’s waste.
In addition to recycling, pottery, textiles and leather are Dharavi’s largest sources of income. Each year the slum economy generates around one billion dollars.
Although sanitation levels are poor, education is not readily available and living conditions are cramped, Dharavi was very different to what I expected. The residents are full of life: the community rife with industry and innovation.
Rahul and his lecturer dropped me off on Marine Drive, a clean palm tree lined boulevard overlooking the Arabian Sea and some of Mumbai’s tallest skyscrapers.
“Masala-Chai-Masala-Chai-Masala-Chai,” a young chai wallah cried out, over the car horns, as he cycled down the pavement looking for custom.
In an instant, the sky turned black. The evening monsoon spattered the ocean with sharp pellets. Petrichor, that pleasant smell that accompanies rainfall, emanated from the pavement.
From grand colonial quarters to densely populated slums and wide-bayed boulevards: Mumbai is a beautifully chaotic city of a million possibilities, a million chai wallahs and a million car horns.