Mumbai: India’s city of opposites

MUMBAI, India – Here on the opposite side of the world in this vibrant and extremely crowded city of nearly 20 million, I already have found (in just the 12 hours I’ve been here) that Mumbai is a city of opposites.

It was my first full day Sunday, after landing overnight as part of a business trip hosted by India-based Tata Group, owner of Warren’s Thomas Steel Strip and a multitude of other companies spanning the globe. A group of five U.S. journalists, including myself, will spend the week with top executives in Tata’s world headquarters, touring Tata Steel and Tata Motors’ automotive factories in Jamshedpur, India, and Tata aerospace facilities in Hyderabad, India.

I already have witnessed Mumbai’s wide divide between the haves and have-nots. While that is not unlike any large metropolitan area, it’s the never-ending sea of people and lack of personal space that magnifies the issue here.

As five-star hotels, like the Tata-owned landmark century-old Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, where we are staying, regularly host leaders of state, celebrities and well-to-do guests, outside heavily guarded gates, bare-footed children are directed by their mothers to hold out their tiny dirty hands to beg travelers for money.

The poverty level in the country is high, estimated at about a quarter of the population. Yet, the city is commonly referred to as “Bollywood,” because it is home to the successful and highly acclaimed Hindi film industry.

On the street, native women exhibit modesty, showing very little skin, despite temperatures soaring to the mid 90s on Sunday. Yet female foreigners wear shorts or skirts and tank tops without a second glance. (I’m told there is less tolerance, though, in other areas of the country.)

After three flights and 17 hours in the air, we were exhausted, but chose to push on to take in the culture of the city since this was our only free day.

The sights and sounds of the mass of people is chaotic, but an incredible experience none-the-less in this growing economy and developing country. Eager vendors, striving just to survive, quickly rise to their feet at the sight of approaching Americans, hoping to attract purchases.

When we stopped to browse, we were met with overly-accommodating and inquisitive vendors. Many wanted to chat, asking where we were from and, often, asking if they could take our picture, as if we were celebrities from America. When we obliged, it seemed to make their day.

We ate lunches of traditional Indian food at the crowded and popular Leopold Cafe in the Colaba area of Mumbai, just a few blocks from our hotel. As was our experience all day, the waiter was pleasant, asking where we were from and responding openly to our questions in exchange.

Acting as typical tourists, we took in the city’s most-visited monument, the “Gateway to India,” built by the British government to commemorate the early 1900s visit of King George V and Queen Mary. It sits on the waterfront of the Arabian Sea in southern Mumbai to greet visitors arriving by boat.

We also spent time observing native paintings and sculptures inside the National Gallery of Modern Art, also within walking distance of the hotel.

Linert, beginning her 20th year with the Warren Tribune Chronicle, this week will report daily on her experiences with Tata Group, as well as the sights and sounds of India.