Descriptions of Bombay, or Mumbai as it is now called, seem to come in superlatives. Its airport is the busiest in the country and its port the largest. It is the wealthiest city in India at the same time as having one of the largest slums in Asia. It is the most westernized, most cosmopolitan of India's cities with the largest film industry in the world. The closest comparison for Mumbai might be with a Third World New York City, with similar problems and triumphs that the "Big Apple" has gone through over the decades. Plagued by crime and urban poverty, Mumbai is also a cultural center for modern India.
Mumbai generates over a third of the nation's GNP, while half of India's foreign trade flows through its ports. It is a financial centre and has enormous textile, pharmaceutical, automobile and petrochemical industries.
With nowhere to expand, built as it is on a spit of land jutting out into the Arabian Sea, Mumbai confines its residents to often cramped, relatively expensive housing, usually far from workplaces and therefore requiring long commutes on crowded public transit or clogged roadways. Up to one third of the population lives on the streets or in the under- or unserviced squalor of Mumbai's slums.
There is, however, much wealth in the city and Mumbai's real estate prices in some areas are among the most expensive in the world.
Malabar Hill, inland from Chowpatty Beach, is the exclusive, fashionable part of town. The beach itself is a popular spot to walk or relax and watch the sunset. Various cricket games are usually in progress in the area of an evening and the bars and restaurants along Marine Drive are busy.
Juhu Beach is another wealthy area - thirty kilometres from downtown - though the white sand beach is unsuitable for anything but strolling as raw sewage from the slums to the south pollutes the water and the sand.
In the far south of the city is the area known as Colaba. The famous Gateway of India is here. So is the Taj Mahal, the magnificent waterfront hotel built by Parsi J.N. Tata in retaliation for being forbidden entry to Watson's, a whites only hotel, now long gone. This area, full of hotels, restaurants, bars and run down apartment buildings, has gained a reputation as a trendy area for the city's wealthier youth to pass the time.
Mumbai's streets and neighbourhoods teem with traffic, beggars, tea stalls, markets, bazaars, food carts, boutiques, repairers of shoes and bicycles, lean-tos and shacks and rag pickers. The well to do rub shoulders with the homeless and the marginal classes, and the activity in this city is more intense, faster paced and more densely packed than any other Indian city. And there is still a graciousness and charm to the downtown.
What is now a city of fifteen million was once a tiny community of Koli fishermen. By the late 1200's a town called Mahim had grown up on one of the islands. A century later is was captured by Gujarati Muslims who, in 1534, handed the land over to the Portuguese. The latter felt the land was of very little value and so happily gave the largest of the islands to the English in 1661 as a wedding present for Charles II when he and the Portuguese Catherine Braganza married. In 1666 they handed over to Charles the rest of the islands, and he in turn leased the port and surrounding area to the East India Company who favoured Mumbai over Surat, where they had been based, because of Mumbai's excellent protected harbour. By the early 1700's the East India Company had made it their headquarters. Parsis, Muslims, Hindus and Christians all were drawn to the rapidly growing centre, mixing harmoniously and combining their skills as they and the city grew and prospered. However for many years the area developed relatively slowly, until in 1854 the first railway connected Mumbai to the rest of the country and people began to flow in. In the 1860's, the area between the islands was filled in and the islands fused. The railway linked the expanding port of Mumbai with cotton growing areas inland, and when the American civil war caused India to replace America as supplier of England's cotton the port was expanded and a new level of activity was achieved which has never subsided.
Proceeding without communal violence through most of its history, Mumbai began to polarize into more extreme positions in the early 80's, probably due to the frustrations of overcrowded living in a severely underserviced and undermaintained urban environment. The Hindu right wing, under the Shiv Sena party, gained strength, with increasingly strong links to organized crime. Finally, the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 touched off rioting that left almost a thousand dead and some five thousand injured, well more than half of them Muslims. Hundreds of thousands fled the city and many slum neigbourhoods burned - with some speculation after the fact that at least some of the fires had been set by slum landlords who wanted to clear the land for development. A few months later ten massive bomb blasts ripped though Mumbai which no one admitted to and may or may not have been a retaliatory action assisted by Pakistan.
Though organized crime still maintains a powerful hold over the city, Mumbai has been largely peaceful since those events, and continues to grow and to be a magnet for those in search of opportunity.
Recent elections turfed out the Siv Sena, disliked by many for its strong arm tactics, and police action may be curbing the strength of the Bombay Mafia elements, so it will be interesting to see if the city is settling down again to what it does best - make money.