In the Maximum City

I am finding it hard to know what to write about Mumbai. This is a city, after all, that has been so well-served by writers far better than I am. And one of them, Suketu Mehta, encapsulated Mumbai in two words: ‘maximum city.’

I didn’t know what to expect here. Everyone I know who has travelled to India has spoken about the place in superlatives. It is like ‘another planet.’ It ‘blows the mind.’ Still, I’ve never been attracted to the place. The Islamic world and Africa are more my beat, and if it weren’t for this walls project, I might not have visited India at all.

But my first few days here in the maximum city have been exhilarating. The streets here are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They are so filled with colour and industry. Men and women sit on the pavement and thread marigolds into garlands. Streetside shops crush sugar cane into juice or press paan into betel leaves. Black and yellow taxis avoid accident by inches as they serve around pedestrians and cyclists whose bravery borders on madness. Everywhere is the smell of incense, fenugreek and car exhaust. At noon the smog filters the sun and turns the streets to sepia.

I’ve heard about the infinite hassles of India, but in the last two days in south Mumbai I’ve experienced little of it. A young man offered me hashish. Another a pretty girl for a massage. And the taxi drivers in front of my hotel plead for custom. But these offers are without aggression. I am permitted to walk amid the noise unfettered.

I don’t know if my mind has been blown, but there is certainly something about this place. (I do know, however, that these are banal and obvious observations. I blame the jet lag.)

Last night I had dinner with Dhanya Pilo, an artist responsible for the Walls Project I am writing about. She and a group of young artists painted the compound walls in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb, with murals and graffitti. It was a way to bring life and beauty to some drab city streets. Since then, a representative from Mumbai’s largest red-light district has been in touch with Dhanya asking her to bring her Walls Project to their neighborhood. Sometime in the next few days, Dhanya will join with some of the sex-workers in the district to bring some whimsy to one of the city’s most despairing areas. I am looking forward to hearing the women’s stories and learning about the walls that surround them.