This city, before it was a city, was a scattered seven islands in the choppy waters off the Indian mainland. Over the years, it was reclaimed from the sea, the seven masses joining, and claimed by the teeming country at its back. Dangling off the coast, it became India’s stock-trading and film-making capital and served as its window to the world.
But if the reclaiming was complete, the claiming never was. The city was tethered to the subcontinent by a land bridge in the northern suburbs, 32 kilometers, or 20 miles, from the upper-crust stronghold of South Mumbai, where mainland India felt remote. The rich were in India but not of it. News arrived of distant floods and famines, malfeasance and malnutrition, and they told themselves that theirs was a world apart.
Arriving from overseas, one encounters first this extroverted city. But in the layers below, a strange truth is buried. If the elite live in virtual exile, seeing Mumbai as a port of departure, the city teems with millions of migrants who see it in exactly the opposite way: as a mesmeric port of arrival, offering what is missing on the mainland, a chance to invent oneself, to break with one’s supposed fate.
The lens of Dickens or Horatio Alger offers an easy picture of Mumbai: wealthy and poor, apartment-dwelling and slum-dwelling, bulbous and malnourished. In office elevators, the bankers and lawyers are a foot taller, on average, than the less-fed delivery men.
Brilliant skyscrapers sprout beside mosquito-infested shantytowns. This is at once a city of paradise and of hell.
Anand Giridharadas thinks the paradox of heaven and hell in Mumbai is unique. I think it’s part of what Dicken always wrote about. As did Mark Twain for that matter.
The poorest of the poor realize a much greater leap from abject poverty to just being at the bottom rung of the urban stepladder. The difference is harder for the haves to perceive.
Still a terrific article.