Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mumbai rising

Mumbai is massive. That's really the best way to describe it. Its spans endlessly in seemingly all directions. Getting your bearings seems impossible. The scale of the place compounded with the traffic mean that getting from one side of town to the other can easily take 2 or 3 hours. And the traffic, it almost defies description. I know that the traffic in India is renowned, but it really lives up to its reputation. A South African driving here would break down crying in about the first city block, thank fully I had a driver (thank you Paramin) and so had the luxury of being a fairly passive observer. The roads are a constant melee. It does not matter the time of day or night, there is a gridlock. Trucks and Buses vie for position with auto-rickshaws and scooters. The auto-rickshaws flock down the roads like huge beetles, they are really something to see.

What appeared to me at first to be complete chaos I later realised was the only workable system for traffic of this nature. The rule seems to be, take any opportunity you have (no matter how slight), but be constantly conscious that everyone else is trying to do the same. Thus if some one else has gotten there first you give up and let them through, its kind of like having right of way being set as whoever has there nose in front first. The maneuvers are death defying. Three lane roads can easily have five lanes of vehicles on them, all of different and varying size. To make a three point turn in the middle of this traffic is a completely valid maneuver. If construction barriers are too close to your car its fine to stick your hand out and push them away. But its strangely nonthreatening, perhaps I don't so easily, but the system just seems to flow. This stop start bump and bash seems to have a logic and life of its own.

The motorbikes are incredible. Families of three (or even four) jet down the road, all on a little Hero Honda 125cc. They weave through traffic with a reckless abandon, deftly avoiding certain collisions with buses and cars. The roads are full of pretty young women straddling the back of a bike holding onto their boyfriends or husbands in front, and older women behind there husbands. These women sit side saddle because they are wearing Saree's, and modesty (I think) stops them from holding onto the rider in front, so instead they just hold onto the seat they are on. No matter how sharp the turn or sudden a maneuver they never seem to to be anything but perfectly upright on the bike. It is like there is some invisible gravity that makes sure they just float along in perfect unison with the bike beneath then. It is an almost eerie sight.

The skyline is impressive. In all directions there are towering constructions of new residential towers or massive office blocks, all 50+ stories high. From my previous apartments (I am now in New Delhi) window I could see 10 of these huge towers within a few blocks, some are still being built but none of them are more than 3 years old. It is as if the city can no longer grow out (since it is on a peninsula) and the continual massive growth of the Indian economy is driving it up out of the ground.

The most striking thing about Mumbai though is the is the tangible sense of ambition. It electrifies the air, along with the scramble to survive. All the young men walk around in collared shirts, good pants and (ironically) leather shoes. They look like fields or accountants (though most of them I think work in call centers). It is so important to them to look successful and to constantly work to improve their position in life. Where western advertisers try to sell the idea of "cool", here they try to sell the idea of "success". You can see it on TV, on billboards and in the shops. The driving ambition permeates everything. Perhaps this is what America used to feel like when everyone started striving towards the American dream? In any case it is a monumentally powerful force, with a huge, young, educated workforce this ambitious it is no wonder that India grows year on year. It is an almost humbling realisation.

I wonder what Mumbai will look like in 20 years? it has the potential to become a beautiful city, right now the private spaces are exquisitely maintained but almost all the public spaces a dirty and broken. The obvious wealth of the city juxtaposed against the dirt and poverty is not strange for a person coming from South Africa, but is far more immediate a contrast. But perhaps the rising wealth will uplift the public areas, clean the streets, repaint the disastrously dirty old walls of old apartments (which are very nice inside). Right now Mumbai needs a bit of photo-shopping, but its electric will to succeed is irrepressible. This cannot but be one of the cities of the future.