Not Black and White, but a City of Opposites

Girl waits to board ship with her father at the Gateway of India, South Mumbai.

Girl waits to board ship with her father at the Gateway of India, South Mumbai.

MUMBAI. I sit in the hotel room and hear the everlasting hooting and shouting from the street below, even with the windows closed and the thick curtains drawn.
The honest answer is: I’m overwhelmed by this city. It’s so beautiful. It embraces you from the first steps you dare to take outside to the street, comes on your skin, so close and so intense you feel both scared and fascinated at the same time.
In the morning I put on my jacket and polish my shoes, and walk five minutes to the conference centre where I sit with 120 other people in jackets watching a fancy film on water solutions for Mumbai. Some of the people present are local stakeholders, NGO workers and community activists who have dedicated their work and sometimes even their life to enhance water quality and safety for the 19 million city inhabitants, of whom half live in slums. Others represent academia, business, and the municipality.
The organiser of the event is a big company. It seems sincere in its interest to create solutions for Mumbai’s water usage based on a multi-stakeholder approach. As the keynote speaker the company’s Asia-Pacific director points out: Everyone in the room is privileged enough to not have the need to think about water. It comes out of the tab when we want to and where we want to, we are used to taking showers and visiting swimming pools. At the same time, 10 million people in Mumbai live in a different reality.
This controversy of rich and middle class versus the poorest of the poor is strikingly visible everywhere you look. Mumbai is said to be the wealthiest city of India. Next to one of India’s finest hotels, just on the other side of the wall, a slum’s huts and alleys stretch over some of the relatively most expensive real estate of the world. On the street, a well-dressed man in a suit passes two children, around the ages of nine and two, selling hats and candy. As the taxi driver took me through the city, he pointed out the museums, the five-star hotels, the state’s monuments. I saw entrances to slums where excrements and litter occupied the sides of the small alleys, clothes hung to dry over the roofs, women in saris and women in burkas, and people selling all kinds of things imaginable from giant balloons to ice cream to cleaning material.
I am a stranger to this culture, and moving around Mumbai I feel strongly how much I lack those cultural codes that would explain this place to me. Maybe ten days will make me less blind, less deaf, and more educated on this city of opposites.

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