Arriving in Bombay by train can give a discouraging first impression of this metropolis with its 15 million inhabitants. The trains go for more than half an hour through the outskirts of Bombay - during daytime, this means half an hour of slums, poverty, rubbish, stinking sewerages, busy streets, crowded suburban trains.
It is definitely better to arrive in Bombay after nightfall, like I did the first time. Nevertheless, one should never close the eyes to switch off single facettes belonging to a bigger whole. In Bombay, it is mainly its crowd and its dimensions which are fascinating and frightening at the same time.
I reached Victoria Terminus after a 24h ride with Udyan-Express coming from Bangalore. VT, as everybody calls Victoria Terminus, was built by the British rulers during end of 19th century. It reminds more at a cathedral than at a railway station: its architecture is of that typical British colony style, a mixture of Indian, Gothic and Victorian style.
Although it was already 8.30 in the evening, there was still lot of rush on the platforms: hurrying families with lot of kids, men carrying several suitcases on top of their head, travellers sleeping on the floor, incomprehensible loudspeaker announcements, arriving and departing trains. That also is typical for Bombay: Bombay is the fastest and most hectic city of India. It's only for a few hours (between 1a.m. and 4a.m.) that the metropolis is going to sleep.
Bombay is lying on a peninsula, allowing further growth only on the main-land to the north. New Bombay grows like anything. Lot of people, especially from Maharashtra and Gujarat, are attracted by the metropolis, by the hope of jobs. Bombay is a typical example for the problems caused by overpopulation. It is not unusual for commuters to spend more than three hours in over-crowded suburban trains to reach their place of work - just single direction, mind you. Especially during summer this must be unbearable - due to the sea nearby, Bombay is very humid.
Again, this is not the only face of Bombay. Mainly the districts Fort, Colaba and Malabar Hills are the heart of Old Bombay. They are full of huge buildings in this ubiquitous British colony style and red London double-decker buses on broad streets. Especially women on the street seem to be very self-confident. Anyway, colleagues told me that the girls in Bombay were the most beautiful ones all over India (and that is not easy) - and the smartest ones. What a dangerous combination.
Old Bombay emanates a level of cosmopolitan flair which is unique in India - at least what I have seen so far. Surely, its geographical situation and its history have developed such an atmosphere. Since the Portugese have established a first small trading base, ships from Europe, Arabia and China are belonging to the life in Bombay.
Gateway of India
One very ironical thing is the history of the "Gateway of India". This monumental gate at the harbour reminds a bit at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was constructed by the British to let their kings have a symbolic entrance to British India. It was inaugurated in 1924, while the population already boycotted the ceremony. 24 years later, after India got independence, the last British military unit has left India exactly through this gate.
There is a very interesting thing going on every morning: in suburban trains and in railway stations, men with white caps are carrying crates loaded with small round thermos containers. Inside these containers is lunch cooked by the wife and sent to the husband's office in the city centre. T
here are hundreds of thousands of such food containers, each of them one is simply marked by coloured strings. No idea how each container finds its destination - and its way back in the afternoon. If you are travelling by suburban trains between Mumbai Central and Churchgate in forenoon, watch out for the Dhaba Wallahs, the men with white caps. They are the true masters of modern logistics.
Mumbai vs. Bombay
By the way: to be politically correct, one should say "Mumbai" instead of "Bombay". That was the original name (godness "Mumbadevi") before the Portugese and the British decided to adapt names to their languages. In 1996, Bombay was officially renamed - the only thing is that most Indians are still using "Bombay" while Westerners use now "Mumbai". So what's in a name?