“Mumbai is not a city, it’s life.” – Subhasis Das
My problems began where most problems do. Being friends with a Bulgarian Art Director. Art directors have a strange need to collect or find things. Combine this with being in Mumbai and the unique Bulgarian trait of finding danger where there is none and what you have is an interesting afternoon. Alexander Kalchev my friend and colleague had decided to find a Bollywood poster store in a street called Mutton street. Even though we bought posters I am still not 100% sure this street exists. The chaos of that afternoon made me feel like we found a secret portal and we visited Mumbai’s answer to Hogwarts.
There were warning signs early on. For example this is a picture of our taxi’s roof.
A taxi on LSD
It seemed like the either the taxi or I had taken acid. I had a choice to make. I decided on the taxi and pressed on. And when I say pressed on I mean moved slowly forward. The reason for this is the Mumbai traffic. Now, this is the paragraph where I will try and describe its utter insanity. I will fail, but I will try.
I want you to imagine doing endless Tai-Chi on a beautiful beach. You are moving incredibly slowly. You decide to blink. As you blink, out of nowhere, you are attacked by a murmuration of a million starlings. The starlings have chainsaws. Also, the starlings are actually cars. Or horses. Or dogs. Or men balancing long steel poles on their heads. Or entire families on a Vespa. The beautiful beach is a one way street and of course you are going the wrong way. And your fucking cab driver is on his phone. Or watching television. Driving in Mumbai gives you that weird feeling of excitement and dread you get when you are slowly moving towards the top of a rollercoaster before the big fall. It is scary but strangely you also like it. It makes you want to shout I am alive. And I am sure I said that multiple times in the back of our acid taking taxi.
A calm Mumbai Street
In this is chaos however, there is also a lesson. The lesson is it somehow all works. In a city of almost 13 million people there is a lot of hooting and shouting but I saw no accidents. Inside the chaos there is a mad, mesmerising ballet that is made up of a billion instances of cooperation. It is a system driven by people rather than rules. Now, not everybody would say that is a good system but it opened my mind to the fact that we often think there is only one way to do things. We always believe technology is the answer but perhaps people can be too.
This is what Mumbai has. Pure potential. People all trying to get somewhere or make it. Mumbai has this strange background sound. It is a low hum. It is the sound of everything. It is the sound of energy.
That was never more obvious than when we visited the a slum called Dharavi. It is where the film Slum Dog Millionaire was made. Our guide very quickly pointed out that when you think of a slum you think of people wanting hand outs. This was not the case in Dharavi. What he showed us was a hive of industry. Leather works, tool makers, tailors, hairdressers, plastic and cardboard recycling just to name a few. People working bloody hard in tough conditions. I am not saying it is perfect by any means. But I could feel the energy and iron will of people trying to move beyond the grasp of their circumstances.
Leather worker in Dharavi
That is what Mumbai taught me. This is Mumbai’s secret. People. Human beings that move mountains every day. They can be the answer to just about every question. People are capable of doing the impossible and the unimaginable. They can make sense out of chaos. But more importantly, they can make chaos beautiful. Only people can change the perceived barriers of messiness and madness into the ingredients for creativity. Alchemy, can only be done by humans. Out of nothing you can make something. Perhaps, we should fear chaos far less than we do. Maybe, we need it far more than we think we do.
Mumbai made me ask myself if in the West we believe in the power of process and technology far more than the potential of people. Logic, process, technology are all truly great things and Mumbai showed me that they are definitely required. However, Mumbai also showed me they are not the only answers to our questions.
Mumbai made me ask where does the human spirit belong in all of this?
I don’t know the answer to that. But, I do know where it lives.