A few days after arriving in Mumbai, a fellow first-year associate and I decided to explore the local neighborhoods. Venturing half a block from the Tata-provided hotel – which was comfortable and clean -- the relatively well-kept street immediately turned to slums. My friend and I tepidly walked past brightly-painted cardboard and sheet metal shacks, naked children, and adults relieving themselves by the roadside. The slum inhabitants seemed to be preoccupied with their own day-to-day activities – cooking, washing clothes, socializing -- and aside from a few curious looks, generally ignored us.
After about two blocks, the stretch of shanty town ended, and we were back on a main road with restaurants and supermarkets. I found the rapid atmosphere shift between absolute poverty and middle-class living astonishing – walking between the two neighborhoods was like walking in two different countries. As vibrant as this past month has been, reconciling the disparity between impressive wealth and oppressive poverty – often right next to each other -- has been the biggest challenge for me.
To the extent that the city’s stark contrasts showcase its fast growth, they also highlight its growing pains – infrastructurally, economically and socially. I typically keep a firm grip on my seat during my daily auto-rickshaw ride to work to avoid being jostled around too much by the innumerable road potholes. Indian driving habits and traffic congestions can be alarming at first – there is little concept for “right lane/left lane,” and my American sensibilities were challenged to find that pedestrians unambiguously do not have the right of way here. Additionally, as a foreigner – particularly a white-skinned foreigner – I am a prime target for unscrupulous rickshaw drivers and vendors, who inherently understand the dollar’s power over the rupee. Bargaining skills – and an instinct for when to walk away from rotten deals -- are a necessity. I’ve also quickly learned not to give money to beggars, who have no qualms about knocking on taxi windows or tugging on my pants pockets to elicit sympathy.
The “spirit” of Mumbai is further defined by religion – I still have not grown accustomed to the nightly Hindi chants and holy songs broadcast by microphone across my neighborhood. Religious illustrations and symbols adorn automobile windows and shop walls; in Christian or Catholic parts of town, pastel-colored plastic models of the Virgin Mary and Jesus preside near apartment buildings and roadside shops.
The crowded streets, pungent smells, and aggressive traffic are disorienting for any traveler. Living here, however, I have grown to love the dynamic assets of Indian society while coping with the more overwhelming culture differences. My new apartment sits behind R City Mall – the largest mall in Mumbai, and a bustling hallmark of Westernization. Many parts of the city are flush with luxury – fountains, palm trees and ornate Victorian architecture dot the neighborhood of one of my friends from college, who is a Mumbai native. Good food is also not hard to find – there is a plethora of restaurants serving Italian, Chinese and, of course, Indian food at most hours of the day. Good company is there for those who seek it – on my few nights out on the town, I have met some fascinating fellow expats, as well as enjoying the company of other Tata first-year associates. In the city’s own unique way, Mumbai is really a natural place to find young, educated, entrepreneurial-minded professionals.
I was prepared for excitement when I chose to work in Mumbai, and in many ways, I have not been disappointed. Living here is fast-paced, but socially and professionally, I feel I am earning fast returns. Every day brings new experiences and interactions, and as we reach the peak of monsoon season – for better or worse -- I don’t doubt my cultural learning curve will continue for some time.
I’d be interested to see how other traveler’s – or Mumbai resident’s – experiences compare to mine. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with any thoughts, questions or opinions. Feel free to comment via Project Firefly's website, Facebook, or Twitter page -- or my own Facebook page -- with any questions or stories of your own.
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