Tag Archives: Mumbai

Seeing Mumbai, Part One

Our guest today is Monica Bhide, a fine writer and an expert on Indian food. Her latest  imagework is Modern Spice. Monica wrote a moving essay on her blog which was posted at Facebook after the terrorism attack on Mumbai. I knew that she might have some different ideas than those I came away with from Slumdog Millionaire. 

I was not born in Mumbai nor did I grow up there. I have never lived there for longer than a few months at a time. And yet, as a writer, it is the destination that I have written about the most.

I have written love stories in yearning for the city’s seafood, I have written essays on my Mumbai-based idols, I have written pieces on how to shop in Chor-Bazaar, the Thieves Market, what to order at the Taj and the craziness of the fish markets. Mumbai has given me inspiration, it has given me dreams, life-long friends, a zest for learning the local language so I could understand all the bad words being hurled around by street kids, and it gave me the love of my life – my husband.

What is it about this city that makes everyone who lives there call it “Amchi Mumbai” (My Mumbai) and what is it about this city that makes people like me lose their hearts somewhere between the street food vendors and the glamorous shopping arcade at the Oberoi?  The short answer is the people. They have a spirit and a love of life unlike I have ever seen. They have a determination to make their city thrive, no matter what.  And I think this is what was central to Slumdog Millionaire.. the spirit of the people, it is why the movie succeeded, I believe.

To your question of not wanting to visit after you saw the movie, well, I can understand why. But if you feel that Mumbai is only about those slums, you couldn’t be more wrong.  Yes, there are slums in Mumbai, but that is just one part of the city. There are also glorious monuments, fantastic eateries, and places where the real estate is more expensive than in Tokyo. That is also Mumbai.  Mumbai is India’s nerve center, much like New York City is to the US.

There have often been comparisons made between the two major metros: they are the financial capitals – NYC has Wall Street, Mumbai has Dalal Street; they have major populations – Mumbai was 14 million at last count; they are melting pots of cultures and languages; they are home to major food establishments and businesses; they are cities where dreams come to build a life; they are places where even wanderers can find a home.

There are differences:  Mumbai is also the host for India’s movie industry, has strong religious undercurrents, and yet Mumbaikars are equal opportunity devotees and the Lord Ganesh offers his blessings to one and all, religion not withstanding; and monsoons still define the way of life.   I have seen movies about gangs in NYC, about the people who live under the city.. that does not stop me from wanting to visit what I consider to be an absolutely glorious city – I just stay away from the areas that I feel l don’t belong in or want to see particularly.

Next Monica tells us about her encounter with one of those areas of Mumbai that deeply affected her. 

Announcement: Response on Mumbai

I am happy to announce that Monica Bhide will respond to the post on Slumdog Millionaire and slum tours. Monica is a native of India and loves Mumbai, so we hope to learn from her a different point of veiw about visiting that Indian city. And accomplished writer of books and articles, Monica also writes a food and culture blog called A Life of Spice.

She says of herself: ” I love tradition but embody change.
I respect technique but am playful.
I eat locally but cook globally.
My writing reflects food and culture and its affect on our lives. ”

Come back Friday to see how Monica Bhide adds spice to our conversation.

Nice Movie To See, but Do I Want to Go There?

Mumbai Stop Light
Mumbai Stop Light

(If you are curious about that book mentioned in the first paragraph. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Juniot Diaz,  is about the Dominican Republic.)

I recently finished a wonderful book that killed any desire I might have had to go to the place featured, and then I saw the Academy Award winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire,  which definitely did not make me want to visit Mumbai.  I began to think about the anti-travel movie. And the don’t-go-there book.

Is there such a thing? Although I have not read the book that Slumdog was based on, I have read comments that say it portrays Mumbai as even grittier than the movie. Does this make me want to travel there?

Controversy still rages (on Twitter for instance) about the depiction of Mumbai in the Academy-award winning picture.  Most Indians whose comments I have read are not happy. One said on Twitter, “Would you like it if America were portrayed by a movie that showed only the slums of New York?” Uh, well, there have been quite a few movies that do not show America in the best light. But perhaps because movies set in India are rarer in the United States, the impact of Slumdog has been greater. American movies, set in America, are widely viewed around the world, the good, the bad and…all that.

But back to the question of whether Slumdog Millionaire might make people actually want to go to Mumbai. I began to hear another discussion which caught me by surprise.  Slum tours, it seems, are newly chic. Some call this kind of tourism ‘Poorism.’

Do the profit-making companies that lead these tours actually give back to the communities as they claim? What motivates people to go on such tours? Is it voyeurism? Isn’t all travel ultimately voyeurism? Do the slum tourists come away changed in any way? Will they be more sensitive and generous in the future? Will the inhabitants of the slums learn how to make a legitimate buck off the tourists, or will the bad guys among them simply hone their pickpocket skills?

Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss, discussed the tours in a 2008 New York Times article. You can learn more about one of the tour companies that he discusses, Reality Tours, at their web site.

For now, I only know that for me, I am not interested in visiting a place to look at the lives of the poorest, and I am wary of traveling where I fear that I will be isolated in expensive resorts or hotels from the regular street life because it is unsafe, unhealthy or simply unsavory.  Call me unadventurous, but that’s my thought.

I am sure of one thing…the people who run tours in the slums of Mumbai are going to do a lot more business because of Slumdog Millionaire. As to the two main questions here–whether I am totally missing the point of Mumbai, and whether slum tourism has a place– I have an open mind. So educate me. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.

Oh, I mentioned a book up there in the first paragraph. I’ll get around to that soon.

See the posts that followed this one when Monica Bhide replied with her take on Mumbai in two parts.

Photograph by Mike Powell, Flickr, Creative Commons license.