I have, for some time, been fascinated with cities. I can’t quite put my finger on why but there is something about the complexity of a city that makes you think “How can that all work?”
Cities to me to be huge complex organisms, massive consumers of food and power, massive producers of waste and pollution. But I’m not going off on some eco-rant, the process of supply and waste removal is equally fascinating. The logistics of making a city work are often truly staggering and, similarly, when the progress in logistics don’t match city growth, the outcome can be equally staggering, only in a different way. Almost literally.
I’ve been lucky enough in the last few weeks to visit two of the great cities of the world, London and Mumbai (Bombay). There is much that differentiated them but, strangely, they still have much in common.
In London, I visited the excellent exhibition on Global Cities at the Tate Modern. The growth and extent of many of the mega-cities is staggering. It simply served to fuel my fascination. Soon after, walking along the Embankment, I happened to pass the statue of Jospeh Bazalgette. Not a name many have heard of but one of the men who made London work.
So, when I then drove past open sewers and slums in Mumbai a few weeks later, it became obvious that when a city growth is quicker than the development of its infrastructure then its not going to smell all that good and getting about on the roads could be a little, well, slow.
And yet, for all its problems, Mumbai remains eternally fascinating. It was nearly 7 years since my last visit and I was very keen to see what had changed in that time. The simple answer is, not that much.
The trouble is, its not easy to describe. I just watched a half-hour documentary called ‘Mumbai Uncovered’ – it didn’t even get close. It has a particular madness of its own. As blog content goes something that is not easy to describe isn’t all that much use, but I’m going to try. This is the story of one 2 hour car journey, as best as I can…
Night falls quickly in the tropics. The bats wake up early. Leaving the air-conditioned modern office we crossed into a dark world of heat and monsoon rain hanging in the air. The cars were hiding somewhere, the drivers waiting all day for us to emerge.
These were the same drivers that had collected us at the airport earlier that day and had driven us through thundering monsoon rain to the office for meetings. People ran for cover, the thin plastic sides of auto-rickshaws were dropped to provide some protection for the passengers.
All we had to do was sit and watch, protected by our cocoon. A modern car, our portable planet, a breathable atmosphere from our world to help us cope with this one. All the rain did was limit the view, for a while. Then as quick as it started, it stopped. Someone put the plug back in.
The day passed without incident and with impeccable hospitality. Even the bats were good enough to go for a fly while we waiting to leave, their immense wingspan filling the darkening sky.
We get in the car and it is already cold. I shiver, the sweat chilling me. I’m not scared. I know they were fruit bats. I’m not entirely sure what time it is. I’ve not been to bed. Well, I have, but on a plane that got chucked about the sky for a few hours. So not really.
The cars pull away. Three of them. A Gumball Rally of sorts. Special rules, first one to make into 4th gear wins. Could take a while, if ever. Let’s settle for last one to the bar charges the beer to their room. We didn’t know then that the bar was two hours away.
Two hours is a lot of travel time. You can drive to Aberdeen from Edinburgh, you can almost fly the length of Iran. Maybe its just a busy night. It is August 14th, the night before Independence Day. 60 years since British rule.
Its cooler in the dark and people seem to be more active, more numerous. The sides of the road bustle with people sitting, walking, talking – living. They all seem to have a purpose, a reason. Its not immediately obvious. But no one looks lost or concerned. A thundering river of metal runs past their house but they could be sitting in a field in a Flake advert.
The middle of road is full of cars. Going in both directions. In the middle of the road. Not all roads are lit. Some cars have headlights. Some of them work. Sometimes you can only tell you are passing other cars with the ‘click-clack’ sound of wing mirrors clipping each other. No one blinks, nothing is exchanged, not even harsh glances.
And the horns, the constant horns. Like a blind man being guided with bells, the horns are all that keep you from being hit. Left bell, go right, right bell, go left. No one looks, they listen. Constant small corrections based on the cacophony around them. Corrections sometimes sudden, stopping is all too often a good idea.
There is one very dark stretch of road that snakes up a hill through what looks like a bustling village area. There is not a square inch of road not covered with car. Our car scrabbles for grip at the edge road, crunching through rubble and dirt. It doesn’t sound good but the driver doesn’t flinch. He’s too busy filling the space in front, obeying the only rule.
After 45 minutes of 10 metre increments, we feel like we have gone far. “How much further?” we ask hopefully. “We have gone 5%” says the eternally patient driver. This is as funny as it is surprising. Sit back and relax. This is going to take a while.
One benefit of such slow progress is the opportunity to observe almost minute detail that would otherwise flash by. A poster advertises lessons in English “Speak English Fluently – Grammatiacally(sic) Correct“. Its priceless. You couldn’t make it up. Tiredness makes it far funnier than it need be. We stop behind a bus and an advert proclaims “DuroTurf Doormats – the only doormats effective against dirt and muck.” This, again, is hysterical in its own way. It seems naive, but maybe its simplicity is effective. It is typically India. A different approach, direct, plain, obvious and yet, well, not sophisticated, but…it works
You see that kind of simple, language everywhere. Its English, but not as we would immediately recognise it. Certain aspects of how they use the language is entirely their own. Roads are barely complete or hardly repaired, signed declare “Inconvenience is regretted.” The ghost of Hughie Green proclaims “and we mean that most sincerely folks”. And they do. Just not enough to do something about it. It is part of the conundrum.
We pass through many areas. Small centres of commerce where similar traders group together. Ironmongers. Everyone in the street seems to have an iron swing. Barefooted welders send sparks fly out into the night.
A concrete ridge forms the middle of the road. The only way you can stop the flow of traffic in one direction spilling across the whole width. In some places, previous incidents leave broken concrete blocking the road and cars and rickshaws dart and swerve to avoid it. For some it is too hot too long. A car sits at the side of the road, bonnet up, expired in the heat. Two more bear witness to a crash. Only when we pass do we see that a third car probably caused the accident and has long since departed the scene. The front car is caved in, precious water leaking out onto the road. A civil conversation seems to be going on about the incident, inconvenience will be regretted.
The driver counts down the distance in percent. We cross half-way with a whoop of delighted and a text message from one of the other cars asking if we are still alive. Despite the tiredness, you still feel very alive. Cars lurch at you, pass within millimetres or less, the endless cacophony. It is all happening. Simultaneously. Right outside the window. And yet, its not dangerous, there is no peril. You are in it, but you are still separate from it. I’m not going wherever most of these people are going.
There are two cities. One overlayed on the other. We travel in our ‘space suits’ between oases while the other city gets on with its business oblivious of ours. And yet, they see us, in our cars. And they look. But it is fascination, not resentment. And that, more than anything, tells you all you need to know about them.
We arrive at the hotel after nearly two hours and into a final irony. We can see the hotel, but we can’t go in. In takes another 10 minutes and a crazy U-turn before we can get on the right side of the road to enter.
The madness of the street is left behind and we enter the splendour of the hotel. We might as well be on the moon for all the connection we have with what is going on outside.