Friday, August 21, 2009


Mumbai, from the vantage point of less than 72 hours here, definitely falls under the category of a crowded city. It is not crowded like Manhattan is crowded or like a stadium is crowded, though in all of these a lot of things are happening simultaneously and in a very small space. These places, however, have very obvious rules and its inhabitants and participants all work together, whether consciously or not, to create a functioning order so that they can all live (for the most part at least) happily together.

It would be unfair, I think, to say that Mumbai is a rule-less city, or that it doesn’t have an order to it. It’s just that it’s a very specific kind of order, or perhaps not specific enough, I haven’t been here long enough to know. In any case, it manifests itself primarily in the way people drive here, and because of that, driving and the streets in general are what, to me, make Mumbai so different from any other city I’ve ever been in. To be specific, however, we haven’t really seen much of Mumbai yet, we’ve mostly been in the residential neighborhoods where we’ll live. We’re going downtown today, so we’ll see how this all changes.

Really, it is hard to separate motor vehicles from everything else that occupies the roads, and hard to separate the act of driving from the other activities that go on at the same time, because they all occupy the same space. Like I mentioned in a previous post, cars here are very small. It seems that in order to make so many of them fit in roads that are way to small, they decided to make cars themselves smaller. This is probably the saving grace in driving here, as there don’t seem to be any traffic laws to speak of. Except for one. Honk to announce the fact that you’re on the road. Even now, at 7:30 in the morning, on a fourth-floor apartment that is not on a main road, the sound of honking is interrupted only by the crows outside the window (another inhabitant of the streets that makes them the pleasant place that they are). They honk because cars don’t have side mirrors (some of them do, but the masses of tiny black-and-yellow-taxis, the rickshaw-like tiny trucks, and other such vehicles do not). They also don’t have blinkers or seat belts (and if they do, no one wears them), though I’m not sure these would qualify as reasons to honk. There are very few traffic lights to speak of, and they seem to be mostly for decorative purposes, as they are totally ignored. There are also no lanes.

Another reason why it may appear that there is no order here is because of how people walk in the street. Though there are sidewalks, you can freely choose between walking in the sidewalk or the street. On big streets you would stay on the sidewalk, but j-walking is the only option for crossing. It’s hard enough that people drive on the opposite side of the road here (so it’s hard to get used to looking the other way to see if a car is coming), but more than that, it just seems like it’s just one big free-for-all situation.

And yet, it all seems to work fine. You expect cars to crash into each other constantly, since they all crowd together, going in different directions, about two inches apart from each other. But this doesn’t happen, and people don’t get hurt either. You just sort of move out of the way a bit, and just keep walking. They don’t drive fast at all (there’s no room for that, obviously), but even at the speed they are going, it could be pretty fatal. Somehow, though, it’s not. And therein lies the magic of this city: there is method in the madness, there is order in the chaos. It’s just that it’s a very particular brand of chaos, and a very specific kind of order. It relies more on last-minute prevention than anything else. That, and a lot of noise.

One thing is for certain. I never, ever, want to drive here. I can barely handle anything outside Middlebury and Rt 7 (including Burlington), so driving in Mumbai seems like the sort of thing best left to locals, professionals or crazy people. Walking here is so great and different anyway, and the mini-taxis cost like two dollars for a half-hour ride. So there’s definitely other ways to get around.

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