Sunday, August 23, 2009

Street Cuture (1) and Other Thoughts

Like I mentioned before, the most obvious difference between Mumbai and other cities is the streets, so I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Tonight marked the beginning of the Ganpati Festival (honoring the god Ganesh), and starting from midnight, people where walking in crowds, chanting and lighting incense, usually with a truck or a wheelbarrow bearing a statute of Ganesh ahead of them. Even though this Festival is a special occasion, it is indicative of the kind of street life that exists here. I always think of Spain as having a rich street culture because of the way people go out at night. The botellon and the tapas aspects of partying involve people walking around the streets, drinking in the street, sauntering slowly from place to place, or sitting in outdoor cafes. Of course, Madrid, and all of Spain really, for this purpose, has a lot of infrastructure that lends itself to this kind of activity. There are pedestrian areas, gardens, parks, benches, and tons and tons of outdoor restaurants and bars. Also, most of the street life occurs at night, on weekends (if weekends where from Wednesday to Saturday nights).

Mumbai, obviously, is not like that, and while this comparison leaves a lot of important factors out (like the fact that Spain is in Europe and India is India), I’m trying to think of street culture as a way to get to know this city and this culture a bit better, and it helps to compare. So - firstly, there are people who actually live in the street, or work in the street and live in slums. Then there are the slums themselves. We haven’t actually been to one, but we’ve seen edges of slums and on the ride from the airport to the city, you have to pass through them. In other words, because of the heat, the living conditions and the sheer number of people, there are people out in the street all the time. So it’s really less of a “street culture” and more of a “street life”. At the same time, though, there are so many people that everyone is doing something different. Sometimes people do seem to just stand outside and chat, or walk to and from transportation. There are also a lot of food vendors and outdoor markets, which do bring different kinds of people out to the street.

Another interesting aspect of the streets here is how there really are no street names. The big, main roads have street names, but other than that, people go by landmarks (the Shitladevi Temple is a big one for us), or just by memory. It’s a different way of naming the world and of learning it. Yesterday we got lost going to a synagogue for services downtown with a taxi driver who really had no idea where he was taking us. The problem with landmarks, as we soon found out, is that if you don’t really know where you’re going, you need a very, very specific landmark, and then not everyone might know it. At one point, when we pulled over to ask for directions, there was a group of four or five men trying to figure out where we were trying to go. That’s one good thing about the fact that there are always people in the street: there’s always someone to ask and there are even enough people to have a conference about it. In the end, though, the best method seems to be to call someone and ask them to talk to the driver in Hindi (a lot of the drivers don’t seem to speak English that well, even though I think they do understand it), which is what we ended up doing last night. It’s a very different mindset that leads to a different way of getting around. I’m still trying to figure out how much people take cabs, ride the train, walk and/or take busses in this city. I’m very excited to get to know the city a little better, even though it seems that there’s no way to avoid not finding a place sometimes (ie getting lost), because this doesn’t seem like the kind of city that you can just read like an open book, or walk around and learn it, like Manhattan or Paris. I feel like there is more to say about the hidden places in Mumbai, or even one’s ability to know things without naming them (based on sheer memorization, that is), but it’s still too soon to tell. This is the beginning of my relationship with this city, so I need to get to know it better first.

Some other interesting things from the past couple of days: a rickshaw full of like twelve children in white-and-grey school uniforms (they sit five people uncomfortably, including the driver), a McDonald’s spicy chicken patty while listening to the Backstreet Boys, getting a haircut at a really nice place by a young guy from Manpur (my hair’s really short now, I love it), going out to the chic-est club I’ve ever been to outside of Paris (though it was retro night, so the music was from the 70s-ish) and ordering in home-made food, which was amazing. A good weekend, overall.


  1. Dear Jean, I love the way you describe the place and your experiences, it made me remember the time I spent in India and the imression one gets.
    It also made me smile and even laugh a little.
    Have fun and be careful,
    I love you, V

  2. Amazing description...Thank you for the impressive written photography.
    Keep the good work and hope to read your community doings soon.
    Take care, enjoy and always be faithfull to your experiences.
    Lots of love.