Young, brash, and oozing with cock-sure self-confidence of a maverick money-maker, Bombay revels in its reputation as India's most dynamic and westernized city. Behind the hype, however, intractable problems threaten the Maharashtrian capital; foremost among them, a chronic shortage of space. Crammed onto a narrow spit of land that curls from the swamp-ridden coast into the Arabian Sea, Bombay has, in less than five hundred years since its "discovery" by the Portugese, metamorphosed from an aboriginal fishing settlement into a sprawling megalopolis of thirteen million people. Whether you are being swept along broad boulevards by endless streams of commuters, or jostled by coolies and hand-cart pullers in the teeming bazaars, Bombay always feels like it is about to burst at the seams.
The roots of the population lie, paradoxically, in the city's enduring ability to create wealth. Bombay alone generates thirty-five percent of India's GNP, its port handles half the country's foreign trade, and its movie industry is the biggest in the world. Symbols of prosperity are everywhere: from the phalanx of office blocks clustered onto Nariman Point, Maharashtra's Manhattan, to the yuppie couples nipping around town in their shiny new Maruti hatchbacks. The flip-side to the success story, of course, is the city's much chronicled poverty. Each day, hundreds of economic refugees pour into Bombay from the Maharashtrian hinterland. Some find jobs and secure accommodation; many more (around a third of the total population) end up living on the already overcrowded streets, or amid the appalling squalor of Asia's largest slums, reduced to rag-picking and begging from cars at traffic lights.
However, while it would definitely be misleading to downplay its difficulties, Bombay is far from the ordeal some travellers make it out to be. Once you've overcome the major hurdle of finding somewhere to stay, you may even begin to enjoy its frenzied pace and crowded, cosmopolitan feel.
Conventional sights are thin on the ground. After a visit to the most famous colonial monument, the Gateway of India, and a look at the antiquities in the Prince of Wales Museum, the most rewarding way to spend time is simply to wander the city's atmospheric streets. Downtown, beneath the rows of exuberant Victorian-Gothic buildings, the pavements are full of noisy vendors and office-wallahas hurrying through clouds of wood-smoke from the gram-sellers's braziers. In the eye of the storm, encircled by the roaring traffice of beaten-up red double-decker buses, lie other vestiges of the Raj, the maidans. Depending on the time of day, these central parks are peppered with cricketers in white flannels, or the bare bums of squatting pavement-dwellers easing themselves on the parched brown grass. North of the city centre, the broad thoroughfares splinter into a maze of chaotic streets. The central bazaar districts afford glimpse of the sprawling Muslim neighbourhoods, as well as exotic shopping possibilities, while Bombay is at its most exuberant along the Chowpatty Beach, which laps against exclusive Malabar Hill. Finally, when you've had enough of the mayhem, the beautyful rock-cut Shiva temple on Elephanta Island offers a welcome half-day escape.
If you're heading for Goa or south India, you'll have to pass through Bombay at some stage. Its international airport, Sahar, is the busiest in the country; the airline offices downtown are handy for confirming onward flights, and all the region's principal air, road and rail networks originate here. Whether or not you choose to stay for more time than it takes to jump on a train or plane to somewhere else, however, depends on how well you handle the burning sun, humid atmosphere, and perma-fog of petrol fumes; and how seriously you want to get to grips with India of the 1990s.
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