I read the Sunday Times this morning over tea, toast and eggs. When I looked out of my hotel window I saw scores of red double decker buses busily picking up and dropping off passengers. In the afternoon I went for a walk and happened upon a field filled with men playing a friendly cricket match.
While reading my guidebook later I learned of a few museums to possibly visit – the Victoria & Albert, and the Prince of Wales. A quick guess would more than likely put my location as being London.
But I was actually thousands of miles away, in the searing summer heat of India’s largest city, Bombay.
In the late 17th century the fourth governor of the East India Company, Gerald Aungier, commonly referred to as the ‘Father of Bombay,’ found it was difficult to find workers to come to the swamp and malaria ridden Bombay of the time.
So he enticed people to come by promising religious freedom. This was something that most didn’t have under the Portuguese or the Indian rulers of the time. This plan seemed to work; Bombay’s population and religious diversity grew quickly, and hasn’t stopped since.
Today Bombay is bursting at its seams. People arrive in droves daily, adding to the official number of thirteen million residents. They still come in search of religious freedom; and to get away from the strict village codes.
There is more freedom here to be yourself and marry who you wish. They come in search of work – of which most seem to find, and lodging – which is seemingly more difficult to find.
It is said that roughly 1/3 of the population lives on the street. But despite the poverty, Bombay is the most prosperous city in India. All by itself, it produces more than a third of India’s GNP.
Its port bustles with activity; its stock exchange, the oldest in Asia, is now a modern skyscraper; it’s movie industry is larger than Hollywood’s and foreign companies, banks and investor’s are continually pouring in.
Architecturally, the British had an astounding influence. Some of the greatest buildings and monuments that loom over the city were built during the colonial period.
The Gateway of India, in the heart of Colaba, is one such monument. It is a large, imposing arch built right on the water’s edge.
It’s original purpose was to commemorate the landing in India of their Imperial Majesties, King George V and Queen Mary on December 2, 1911.
But it also saw, ironically, the departure of the last British troops at independence in 1948. Now it is the departure point for tourist harbour cruises and various ferries.
A lot of would be entrepreneurs hang around the Gateway offering bus tours of the city, post cards – while some offered private car tours – “I’ll take you to see the red light district, the slums, the famous outdoor laundry, the real Bombay” they told me.
One man was very persistent.
I told him I preferred walking, but that didn’t stop him following me for 10 minutes trying to talk me into a three hour private tour. I laughed when he told me the price – $35.00 for a three hour car tour!
That’s some living he was trying to make considering the average Indian makes only a few hundred U.S. Dollars equivalent per year.