We were originally supposed to visit India later this year after the monsoon season, but scheduling conflicts forced us to go on an April-May visit before the regional torrential rains began this time (luckily, our visas were already in order). Though we had tons of research items to check off for two projects, particularly in Mumbai and Kerala, I think we completed them in the most efficient way possible.
One of my favorite ways to start the day was to admire the epic sunrise, complete with the daily morning Muslim call to prayer. The call to prayer in Mumbai (or Bombay, depending on your point of view and preference) was definitely loud and clear, and more "professional" sounding than those we heard in more rural parts of the country. Always quite beautiful to hear.
Below is our host and BFF in Mumbai, Asif. As you can see, he's pretty excited to take us around the brand new BMW 730 LD, which is the first 7 series to be assembled in India. It was like being in a wifi-enabled spaceship/tank driving this monster around the insane Mumbai traffic, which was full of pedestrians, auto rickshaws, Ambassador cabs, crazy honking, beggars, etc. Despite the complete disregard that drivers seem to have for lanes, rules, etc., somehow we never witnessed any road rage or even a single fender bender.
The next day we were invited to an impressively thorough briefing of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Pakistan's ISI has a formidable presence in the region, and India's own RAW is currently busy revamping a lot of its internal structure.
The Taj Mahal Palace is probably the most beautiful hotel building in the city. Maybe not as sleek and modern as the Oberoi, but its history and location right in front of the Gateway of India really makes it a must if you come to Mumbai. It's owned by the Tata Group, like so much is in India, whose former chairman Ratan Tata was the head of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy board at RAND:
While the Taj may have the classical and historical advantage in Mumbai, I can also attest that the Four Seasons is another excellent place for business travelers to stay. Their new-ish rooftop bar and lounge, Aer, boasts a view of the city that simply cannot be topped--it's probably the most amazing bar I've been to so far:
We tried to squeeze in as much "touristy" things as we could. Here's the usual crowd on the street just outside the Gateway of India--lots of people selling trinkets or cold drinks (it was very, very hot, even for Mumbai standards):
The majestic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station (formerly Victoria Terminus and now simply referred to as "VT"), is the headquarters of Mumbai's central railways. It's easy to see why this gorgeous building, built in 1887 in honor of Queen and Empress Victoria, is a UNESCO heritage site:
Then back to the Taj for more meetings. Lots of history to be admired here--everyone from Nicolas Sarkozy to Mick Jagger to Oprah Winfrey spends time here while in Mumbai:
Speaking of presidents, a shop where we picked up some silk scarves boasted photos of their favorite foreign customer, Bill Clinton:
Contrary to perhaps how Mumbai was even just a decade ago, I was surprised at how few cows I saw on the streets--I saw many more dogs, cats and goats running around the city. This one was an exception, pulling a mobile mosque:
Of course, we couldn't leave Mumbai without visiting Mani Bhavan, the beautiful building which served as Mahatma Gandhi's headquarters in Mumbai from 1917-1934. He lived and worked here during those years and the mansion is now an official museum for people all over the world to see his library (below), photographs, sparse bedroom, etc.
In 2010, President Obama was the first high-profile international guest to visit this museum, and they proudly show a photo and gift from that visit in the front downstairs lobby.
Below is the view of Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai's famous open air laundromat in the Mahalaxmi area. Inside, workers called dhobis clean the city's clothing in rows and rows of concrete wash pens. The system is highly intricate, similar to the dabbawala food delivery system, and reminds me of a gigantic, human computer system from another era:
Amir Restaurant, a typical spot in the city's red light district:
Of course, I was cajoled into trying on a sari even though I knew I wouldn't buy one this time. This shop keeper expertly wrapped me up in one and insisted we take photos of the whole process, just for fun.
The thing that everybody seems to think about Mumbai is that it's a city of contrasts. I liken the city's vibe to a harsh fusion of billionaires and beggars--being India's financial and Bollywood capital, Mumbai provides 33% of the country's total tax revenue and has seen a population explosion from just under 6 million in 1971 to a total metropolitan population of 20.5 million today--and it definitely shows. The city now has more actual billionaires than Paris, Shanghai, or Los Angeles--a truly remarkable change from its humble fishing colony days.
However, my personal takeaway from the Mumbai today is how it's probably the most intense melting pot society I've seen thus far in the world…kind of similar to Kuala Lumpur with its complex mix of ethnicities, religions, and cultures, but with an edge reminiscent of Tokyo from decades ago.
No amount of photos could do justice to the beauty and intensity of Mumbai but that also goes for southern India as a whole, which was completely different down in Kerala where we surfed, which I'll get to next.