Dirty, crowded, rich and wonderful


On July 27, 2005, Mumbai experienced the highest recorded rainfall in its history: 37 inches of rain in one day. The torrent showed the best and the worst about the city. Hundreds of people drowned. But unlike New Orleans after Katrina hit, there was no widespread breakdown of civic order; though police were absent, the crime rate did not go up.

That was because Mumbaikars were busy helping one another. Slum dwellers went to the highway and took stranded motorists into their homes and made room for one more person in shacks where the average occupancy is seven adults to a room.

Volunteers waded through waist-deep water to bring food to the 150,000 people stranded in train stations. Human chains formed to get people out of the floodwaters. Most of the government machinery was absent, but nobody expected otherwise. Mumbaikars helped one another, because they had lost faith in the government helping them.

On a planet of city dwellers, this is how most human beings are going to live and cope in the 21st century. Wherever we live, whether it's a hamlet in Holland or a skyscraper in Seattle, we will not be untouched by what happens in megacities like Mumbai. Disease and genius, crime and religion, poverty and wealth, are all maximized there, and, given the cheap availability of air fares, are coming soon to a theater near you.

With 15 million people, Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is the biggest, fastest, richest city in India, a city simultaneously experiencing boom and civic emergency; an island-state of hope in a very old country. Because of the reach of the Bollywood movies, Mumbai is also a mass dream for the peoples of India. Everything - sex, death, trade, religion - is lived out on the sidewalk. It is a maximum city, maximum in its exigencies, maximum in its heart.

Every day is an assault on senses. The exhaust is so thick the air boils like a soup. There are too many people touching you - in the trains, in the elevators, when you go home to sleep. You live in a seaside city, but the only time most people get anywhere near the sea is for an hour on Sunday evening on a filthy beach. It doesn't stop when you're asleep either, for the night brings the mosquitoes out of the malarial swamps, the thugs of the underworld to your door, and the booming loudspeakers of the parties of the rich and the festivals of the poor.

Why would anyone leave a brick house in the village with its two mango trees and its view of small hills in the East to come here?

So that someday the eldest son can buy two rooms in Mira Road, at the northern edges of the city. And the younger one can move beyond that, to New Jersey. Discomfort is an investment.

Like ant colonies, people here easily sacrifice temporary pleasures for the greater progress of the family. One brother works and supports the others, and he gains satisfaction from the fact that his nephew takes an interest in computers and will probably go on to America.

Mumbai functions on such invisible networks of assistance. In a Mumbai slum, there is no individual, only the organism. There are circles of fealty and duty within the organism, but the smallest circle is the family. There is no circle around the self.

India frustrates description because everything said about it is true and false simultaneously. Yes, it could soon have the world's largest middle class. But it now has the world's largest underclass.

And so with Mumbai: Everything is expanding exponentially: the call centers, the global reach of its film industry, its status as the financial gateway to India, and also the slums, the numbers of destitute, the degradation of its infrastructure.

The city's planners have set their eyes on Shanghai as a model for Mumbai. The government has approved a McKinsey-drafted document titled "Vision Mumbai," aiming to turn Mumbai into "a world-class city by 2013." As the architect Charles Correa noted of the plan, "There's very little vision. They're more like hallucinations."

Mumbai needs to upgrade dramatically essential civic services: roads, sewers, transport, health, security. But, as one planner said, "The nicer we make the city, the more the number of people that will come to live there."

Most migrants to Mumbai now come from the impoverished North Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Mumbai's problems cannot be solved without solving Bihar's problems. And that means that agriculture has to become viable again for the small farmer. Abolishing trade-distorting subsidies in the United States and the European Union would go a long way toward making, say, Indian cotton competitive with U.S. cotton.

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