Mumbai is India’s largest city in terms of population, and it’s also the country’s economic and a major cultural hub. Most of the guidebooks highlight the must see sights like the Gateway of India, the temples carved out of the rock on Elephanta Island, and the luxury of the Taj Hotel, but I wanted to see more of Mumbai, go behind the scenes and see how this vivid city lived and breathed. Which is why I squealed with excitement when I got a text message saying the Local Transport Tour I booked with Reality Tour and Travels was going to go ahead just the night before. I had already done two tours with this company who work with the NGO Reality Gives, one my friend book us on to discover the city’s street food scene, and another to visit Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum. Beyond the fact 80% of the profits go back to their NGO to support the education of children in Dharavi, I also liked how they offered tourists a chance to see a different side of Mumbai, and gave me a peek into a side of the city I wouldn’t have found on my own.
Mumbai Public Transport 101
I met my guide, Bipin, under at the entrance of the art deco Regal Cinema close to Colaba.
“How many more are coming?” I asked him. When I booked the tour it said it would only go if more 2 or more people signed up.
“Oh it’s just us,” he said. I was incredibly grateful he decided to run it even though we were just two, so we headed off to explore Mumbai together.
Opposite the cinema, people stood in line waiting for the bus. I had seen the red buses rattle around the city, mostly single deckers and a few double deckers, which Bipin told me are sadly soon to be discontinued.
At the bus stop, I squinted to catch the lettering at the front of the bus. Taking public transport abroad is often a cause for anxiety for me, especially in India where I remembered running like a headless chicken trying to find the bus to Trivandrum from Alleppey after my train got canceled. Mumbai made it far too easy to get around with Uber and taxis, so trains, let alone buses, seemed a mystery.
“Which one do we need?” I said.
“All the buses here go to CST, Victoria Station.”
We got on a red bus and sat down. A man in a uniform came by to collect the ticket fare, around 10 rupees, and we rode a few stops to Mumbai’s main station, where the red buses lined up in a parking plot, with queues of people waiting to get on.
“The birds have got a free ride,” he said pointing to one bus pulling out of the stop with some 20 crows squatting on top.
But above the crows and the buses, I catch sight of the station, in all its Victorian glory.
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Station, looks more like a grand gothic university than a train station. It’s perhaps Mumbai’s most impressive relic from the colonial era, and it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even in the inside it resembled a cathedral more than a station, and I strolled up and down the entrance lost in the details as Bipin got in line to get our train tickets. However, CST, as the station is also known, is more than just an exquisite piece of architecture, but is the transport hub for the famous Mumbai regional railway. In rush hour it’s very easy to get stuck in a total gridlock in the traffic, so the train is the most efficient way to get around as it glides through the city uninterrupted (and on time). The main problem a mega city like Mumbai faces is the population density, which translates onto the trains in rush hour. Although trains can run as frequent as every three minutes, they still burst with commuters, some half falling out the permanently open doorways of the train. Fortunately, 9 am was already the end of this rush hour (especially going from South Mumbai northwards) we made it onto a relatively empty train to go to Dadar.
As the train chugged through the city, passing high rises, old flats, and even a Jewish cemetery, Bipin played a video on YouTube of the infamous rush hour captured in slow motion as people jumped on the train as it slowed into the platform (Mumbai’s trains all have open doors).
“Why do people risk their lives when there is another train in 3 minutes?” I asked.
“Because in Mumbai, time is money. There is always someone else ready to take your job.”
Rush hour hits early in the morning, sometime between 6 and 8. By 9 the trains empty out, as much as anything can be empty in Mumbai, and around 10 am some places even start to shut down. We get off the train in Dadar and still follow the streaming crowd – back in Europe this would be considered peak time – as we step off the bridge, we see the market sellers on the side of the road packing up their baskets of fresh green chilies and kilos of coriander. I had passed the market on my way into Mumbai in the taxi at 6 am. The baskets were full then and the aroma of herbs perfumed the streets.
Dadar Flower Market
Beyond the pop-up spice market, we came to large hall where a different kind of aroma spilled out: flowers.
“This is the Dadar flower market. They will close soon, but we should still see something.”
Inside the market hall was filled with buckets of marigolds, roses, and jasmine. The intoxicating perfume of flowers and the colors turned the market into drug for Western senses. As we wandered the aisles as glance up revealed beds and belongings. Bipin revealed many of the men come up early or even late night from the countryside for the market and many sleep here on the rafters. Between the aisles, old women picked up petals from fallen flowers.
“They’re too poor to buy them,” he said, “So they try to take the ones that are on the floor.”
The flowers in the market go on to become garlands for temples and weddings. As we walked out, we see a couple of men folding petals and threading them onto string to make elaborate garlands that would soon be sold. Flowers and weddings are big business in India.
The Dhobi Ghat: The World’s Largest Open-Air Laundry
From Dadar it was time to take another train to Mahalaxmi station to visit the largest open air laundry in the world. From the overpass coming from the train station, you can see the Dhobi Ghat from above. The surreal complex spreads out for some 7 acres and is lined wall to wall with laundry drying the sun under the distant skyscrapers of Mumbai’s more affluent neighborhoods.
“Can we go down?” I asked, as I watched the men slap the laundry in the tanks below.
“No, the Dhobi has its own guides who want money. But you can see everything from here.”
I tried to drink in the details as much as possible. The men known as “dhobis” was the clothes in the stone channels and tubs below, thrashing the garments onto the stone and scrubbing them. They are then left to dry in the hot sun, twisted without pegs onto washing lines or dried on rooftops. Brilliant white sheets, jeans, emerald green uniforms, and garments in all creeds and colors dried out here in the public.
“It’s mostly restaurants and hotels that send their laundry here,” Bipin said, “The Dhobi Ghat is dying as more and more people get their own washing machine, people are sending not sending their laundry here as much anymore.”
It’s not just the dwindling business that is endangering the Dhobi Ghat, but government plans for redevelopment is another hazard this living laundry faces. The dhobis working here often inherit their work, being born into the family trade means many workers here have little to no skill to move into another line of work. The Dhobi Ghat is a record breaker though, in 2011, it made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the “most people hand-washing clothes at a single location| and it got a certificate in India for its record breaking work.
Around the top of the ghat, and around, you can make out corrugated tin tenements where the dhobis and their families live. Around 200 families live in the Dhobi Ghat, which is technically a slum as far as living is concerned. The laundry facility gets its water from the government and pays tax back to the government. Like Dharavi, it’s a place where business runs at its heart.
“Lets get a taxi” Bipin says as he flags down a black cab. The inside of each Mumbai cab has its own upholstery, this one had a more demure brown chintz wall paper. It takes a while in the traffic to head down Mohammed Ali road, under the flyover to the Chor Bazaar, named the thieves market after a treasured item of Queen Victoria’s was stolen on her visit to India and sold here.
“Except, Queen Victoria never came to India,” Bipin added.
The market was a neighborhood spread out with shops of curiosities, antiques in one section – apparently popular with international collectors – and then a section for odd bits. Scrap metal, used car parts, electrical cables, tins, odds and ends, you could find everything in this diverse market in this labyrinth of residential streets.
Meeting Mumbai’s Dabbawalas
It was the end of our tour that temped me to book in the first place: Seeing the famous Mumbai Dabbawalas in action.
Mumbai may seem like chaos, but there are things that have an almost zero percentage error margin and the lunch box system is one of them. This eco-friendly meal delivery works like this: a dabbawala comes to your house to pick up the lunch box – a tiffin tin with compartments filled with rice, curries, poppadoms, etc – that has been freshly cooked. He (or another dabbawala) then takes it on foot or by bike to the train along with the other collected lunch boxes which are then taken to the right station and are sorted for delivery. These meals on wheels are delivered by bike (usually some 30 lunch boxes at a time) to the office. The meals are then picked up after lunch and taken home. This means the commuters don’t have to navigate the overstuffed trains during rush hour with the added stress of bringing their food, and yet can still eat a healthy home cooked meal in the office.
We got out of our taxi at Churchgate Station and we could see the famous Dabbawalas at work. Lined on the sidewalk, lunchboxes in bags of various colors were being organized and put onto bikes. I mentioned I had seen the Indian film, “The Lunchbox,” starring Irrfan Khan, where the entire premise of the film was about the mix up of two lunchboxes.
“That film caused a scandal,” Bipin said, “The dabbawalas are famous for their zero percent error rate, and having a film say they made a mistake, well, a lot of people were not very happy.”
Watching the dabawalas sort through the bags, a paperless system and what seems like a mystery sorting system, it’s fascinating to observe this industry in action. But as the clock strikes midday, it’s time for us to pick up our own lunch box and grab a picnic at the Cross Maidan Garden to conclude this slice of Mumbai life.