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Mumbai: Introduction

Mumbai will bowl you over. Teetering on the edge of the Arabian Sea, its heaving population barely contained by palm-fringed beaches, India's commercial capital, formerly known as Bombay, is a vibrant, confident metropolis that's tangibly high in energy.

Originally home to Koli fisherfolk, the seven swampy islands that today comprise Mumbai originally commanded little significance. The largest of the islands was part of a dowry given by Portugal to England, which promptly took control of the six remaining islands and then leased the lot to the East India Company for a paltry ţ10. Massive land-reclamation projects followed, and by the 19th century all seven islands had been fused to form one narrow promontory and India's principal port.

Today the city continues to draw fortune-seekers from all over India. More than a hundred newcomers squeeze their way in every day, adding to the coffers of greedy slum lords and placing the city, which already has a population density four times greater than New York City's, on target for a population of 22 million by 2015. As India's economy booms, Mumbai's real estate prices are hitting an all-time high. In early 2007 1,400-square-foot apartments in what's considered a posh Mumbai neighborhood priced at over a million dollars! The effect of this of course is that prices in general have soared as businesses shell out more money for leased properties.

A city with a dual identity, Mumbai is as flamboyantly materialistic as it is downright choked by squalor and social drudgery. The citizens of Mumbai pay almost 40% of India's taxes, yet half of its 18 million people are homeless. While the moneyed groovers and label-conscious shakers retire in luxury behind the security gates of their million-dollar Malabar Hill apartments, emaciated survivors stumble home to cardboard shacks in congested shantytowns or onto tiny patches of open pavement. At every intersection you are accosted by these destitute hopefuls, framed against a backdrop of Bollywood vanity boards and massive advertisements promoting provocative underwear and sleek mobile-phone technology. Feeding into this social schizophrenia are the one-dollar whores, half-naked fakirs, underworld gunmen, bearded sadhus, globe-trotting DJs, and, of course, movie moguls and wannabe starlets.

It's not just the economic disparities that are bewildering: Looking down from the Hanging Gardens on Malabar Hill, you see the assertively modern metropolis of Nariman Point -- but just a little farther south, on Malabar Hill, is the Banganga Tank, one of the city's holiest sites, where apartment blocks overlook pilgrims who come to cleanse their souls by bathing in its mossy waters. Twenty-first-century Mumbai is brassy and vital, yet it can also transport you to another epoch. It is, in this sense, a quintessentially Indian city, encapsulating the raw paradoxes of the entire subcontinent.

Your plane will almost certainly touch down in Mumbai -- it's the most common point of arrival for visitors, and well connected to the rest of the country (including the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Ajanta and Ellora, also located in Maharashtra, and described at the end of the chapter). If you're looking for peace and quiet in meditative surroundings, move on as fast as jet lag and arrival times dictate. But if you want to experience modern India at its vibrant best, and dine at what are arguably some of the finest restaurants in the country, tarry for at least 2 days. You may arrive appalled by the pitiful faces of the poor, shocked by the paradox of such wealth and poverty, and overcome by the heavy, heady stench and toxic pollution. But give India's dream factory a little time, and you'll discover it has a sexy, smoldering soul, and a head-spinning groove worth getting hip to.

You Say Mumbai, I Say Bombay -- In 1995, Bombay, the name the British bestowed upon the city, was renamed in honor of the local incarnation of the Hindu goddess Parvati, "Mumba Devi." The city's name change (along with a host of others that harked back to its colonial past) was enforced by the ruling Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist party that eschews the presence of any other than the Marathi people, a glaring irony given that this is a city of immigrants -- a cocktail influenced as much by the grand Gothic monuments left by the British as by the many cultures who've set up shop here. Although it's difficult to understand how goodwill can prevail in a city led by politicians bred on xenophobia, Mumbai's well-intentioned optimism and its social cosmopolitanism prevail, and many of Mumbai's English-speaking inhabitants still refer to it as Bombay.

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