Life on the street

It’s an old adage that in a city, life happens on the street. Never have I witnessed that phrase in such a literal manner as in Mumbai. Commerce of all kinds, socializing, eating, playing, praying, and sleeping happen either in the road or in structures that are as much outside as inside.

There are of course Mumbaikars who live in the exact opposite manner, existing almost entirely inside their apartments, offices, restaurants, or vehicles. They experience the street mainly as congestion as they shuttle between these air conditioned environments.

These are extremes, and most people probably live somewhere in the middle. Still, it’s something I’ve been reflecting on because it’s impossible not to notice the difference between inside and outside space here. I’ve been trying to understand both by choosing to walk whenever I can. The street can be hot, wet, dirty, smelly, and crowded. Inside spaces are often cool, clean, modern, and (relatively) quiet. It’s a frequent commentary on Mumbai that rich and poor are intermingled and on top of each other, but to see firsthand how it plays out through inside and outside has been interesting for me.

As an aside—you can actually find small patches of quiet, clean, and peaceful outdoor spaces in the parks. I’m lucky enough to have one directly next to my apartment. They usually have playground equipment, grassy areas, and a walking path for people to get exercise without the constant stress of avoiding traffic. They accomplish this through a small admission charge, usually Rs.2, which is under 5 cents.

It feels odd, getting used to this urban fabric. To spend an afternoon reading and drinking cappuccino at a coffee shop before walking home amid honking, holes, trash, heat, and mess. To see a man getting a shave while crouched in the dirt next to an upscale bar. To have all of my senses overloaded to a breaking point before slipping into a quiet movie theatre and enjoying a bucket of popcorn in the stadium seats.

Even though some of the adjectives I’m using seem unappealing, I truly enjoy the street here. It’s where things are most different from what I’m used to and where I’m surprised every minute.

One of the disappointments though is the general approach to trash. I’m not in a position to assign blame, so these are simply observations. People of all classes and status litter constantly. From tossing food wrappers into the gutter to throwing the cob of a finished ear of corn into the sea. The problem is compounded, or maybe even encouraged by the lack of public waste bins or a system to empty them. I see garbage trucks scooping heaps of trash into their compactors by hand, but it’s a partial process at best. Chicago has it’s alleys to hide the trash bins, NYC picks it’s sidewalks clean of trash bags every morning, but Mumbai has not yet found a solution that works for its overwhelming scale and complex street life.