Monday, December 3, 2018

A Couple of Days in Mumbai

It's a long grind from the west coast to India, whichever way you go, and when you get there the time is twelve-and-a-half hours out of sync. with Pacific Time. We went through Frankfurt, Germany, flying Frankfurt to Mumbai in a big Lufthansa 747-8 with 80 percent Indians on board.

The most startling difference between the US and India is the street scene. Every street in Mumbai seems to be teeming with life: pedestrians, of course, and tuk-tuk cabs and motorcycles and endless traffic. And also a huge cavalcade of tiny stores stuck in front of larger buildings and street vendors everywhere selling from open-air stalls or simply occupying sidewalk space.

What is going on? What is the property situation with all the sidewalk hawkers of endless cellphone protectors and food and juice vendors that seem to just occupy space on the sidewalk?

And it seems like everyone is hard at work on some micro-business. Are these people migrants from the countryside, or smaller towns, or what? There seems to be no equivalent of this seemingly low-value-added business environment in the US. And every real store has a security guy at the door. Is that to police criminals or just keep loiterers away from the customers?

The answer is, of course, that most of the lower-end workers are migrants from the countryside. Kid comes to the city, starts sending money home to the village, and comes home for a rest after he's saved some money. Next time, another couple kids from the village go to the city with him.

And the traffic! It teems, whether in the city or the suburbs, an endless flow of motorcycles, tuk-tuks, cars of every description, and buses, trucks large and small, all jostling and tooting their horns and darting in front of the oncoming traffic and either starting a new lane between two lines of traffic or cutting off some guy that seems to be getting too aggressive.

The kind of Indians we meet, from the hotel breakfast room to the tour guide, all seem to have children who are either in the US working, or in the US going to college, or going to university majoring in IT of some kind. These must be the crème de la crème because the street world teems with people doing all kinds of other things.

When you see a political sign it is always in the local language. But high-end billboards for dream  apartments in new or projected high-rises are always in English. Signs for government and military installations are in both local and English language and all the government sign writers seem to have gone to British bureaucracy school.

Everyone mixes freely in the street, but the bearded Muslim men with white skull-caps and their black-clad wives are a distinctive contrast from the Hindu men that all have mustaches and wear western shirts or t-shirts and western pants or jeans. The Hindu women wear everything from saris to western pants -- but no bare-ass leggings yet, and clearly, the more young and educated the more western the dress.

Off to Bollywood, east of Goregaon in the outer northern suburbs. It's in a wooded hilly area, and the sets and studios are curiously weathered and run-down looking, with the usual dust and confusion and piles of debris that are ubiquitousin India. There's a film-city temple at the end of a road which can be painted and dressed up for any sort of religious song-and-dance ceremony. All curiously ordinary and day-to-day, considering the glamorous frenzy that Bollywood presents to the movie-goer. But ain't that the truth: Glamor is all make-believe, pal.

We took an early morning tour in downtown Mumbai, starting with the Sassoon Dock fish market run by the Koli fisherfolk that have been fishing off Mumbai for over 500 years. It's a view back to the past and an efficient distribution system that auctions fish right off the boat to women who then distribute the fish to their clients throughout the city. Then on to the newspaper distribution game just yards from the main railroad terminus, where guys sort newspapers for home delivery. Then the fruit-and-veg market, the chicken market, and the flower market.

A morning visiting the markets provides a view into a world that has been wholly swallowed by the supermarket system in the US, and reminds us that the "local" movement and its weekly farmers markets in the US are yet another liberal conceit, imagining that the low-wage jobs of the old system are viable in today's Amazon-impacted distribution system. Of course, the main reason why such a system has disappeared in the US is that people won't and don't work for the kind of wages you can get from this system of micro-distribution, and the welfare system means that people won't work until it becomes worth their while vis-a-vis what they can  get for free.

But you'd have to say that learning how to hustle in the street distribution systems of a place like  Mumbai provides a very solid education in How To Make It in the City.

All the time, as we drove around Mumbai and its suburbs, I was wondering who lived where. The guide this morning provided an answer. Anyone living in a building is middle class. The poor all live in shanty towns or the equivalent. So there is that.

Today we fly north to cave temples near Aurangabad.

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