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By Matthew Sharp
June 26th 2012




Mumbai, India – described by by writer Sukethu Mehta as the ‘Maximum City’- is hugely overcrowded, chaotic, hard-edged and vivacious. Like all other megacities of the global South, beset by traffic and industrial pollution, Mumbai is literally a smoky city. But smoke – suggesting confusion and mystery, something that can choke and overwhelm – is also a symbolic motif in Mumbai. I explore some of these connections with reference to a series of photos that I took during a recent three-week trip to the city.


For much of the year, a dense smog hangs over Mumbai – an inevitable consequence of having close on 14 million people settle on an insubstantial 600-square kilometre snatch of land bordering the Arabian Sea. Though the Indian government has invested in some major transport infrastructure projects in recent years – including the Bandra-Worli Sea Link – Mumbai’s streets are still clogged with auto-rickshaws, black-and-yellow taxis and an increasing number of luxury sedans. In addition to car fumes, copious pollution is also generated by suburban factories and by the frantic construction work that is being carried out all across the city. While this does nothing for the health of Mumbaikers, it does give the place an interesting (almost cinematographic) aesthetic. Walking around in the late afternoon is sort of like being in a Wes Anderson movie, as if the entire city been subjected to retro yellow colour grading.


The street markets of Mumbai are an incessant mélange of tumult and colour, of people and animals pushing past one another in narrow sidewalks and alleys. Everything can be bought here: farm-fresh fruit and veggies, cheap fried snacks, shoes, clothing (including some discarded high-street fashion items) and jewellery, and – best of all – an extraordinary assortment of second-hand and pirated books (from ‘self-help’ to Shakespeare). Sweet aromas from lime juice stalls mingle with the pungent smell of cow pats underfoot, and every so often one passes through a cloud of incense smoke. These markets are the lifeblood of the city and their traders display much resourcefulness, making do with the meagrest amounts of capital and space to conduct their informal businesses.




I came across this sight on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, a popular boulevard running next to the ocean, which is often the setting for romantic scenes in Bollywood movies. This is the one part of city where it is possible to escape all the hustle and bustle, and in the evenings crowds of Mumbaikars rush here like ants out of a burning thicket to get some fresh air and to ‘do some time-pass’ with a view of the sinking sun. From initial appearances, it looks as if this was not enough for some poor fellow, who left behind his work tie and sandals before throwing himself down a manhole. More likely, of course, is that this is just a poignant piece of street art.



It is not just Mumbai’s people who are affected by the claustrophobia, but its dogs too. And there are an awful lot of them around since neutering pets does not seem to be common practice in India. Previously, I had always thought of the domestic dog as a retiring creature, forever on the lookout for a quiet, comfy spot to sleep. But there is no such thing in Mumbai and dogs are forced out into the open. Yet they seem to have more or less adapted to this situation and are apparently completely oblivious to the world around them: content to sprawl out in rows in the middle of busy pavements or curl up on the bonnets of parked taxis. More worryingly, Mumbai’s dogs are also to be seen casually stepping in front of speeding cars and wandering along the dividing line of downtown streets.




Mumbai is a city of aspiration and possibility: as one of the world’s major centres of commerce, there is a lot of money circulating within its limits and the prospect of a better livelihood attracts scores of migrants every year. But signs of struggle and hardship, of people succumbing to circumstance, are plenty. As Katherine Boo writes about the residents of a Mumbai slum, ‘for every two people…inching up, there is one in catastrophic plunge’. This photo evokes the latter case: a dejected figure, dressed like almost all adult men in Mumbai in a work-ready collared shirt – but without any shoes – just sitting aimlessly on the sidewalk. I have no idea where the cards at the man’s feet came from, but they do complete the picture: an almost painful metaphor for all those who remain outside of the city’s grand narrative of growth and upward mobility.

About the Author: Matthew Sharp is an urban researcher from South Africa, currently based in France and Germany. He recently spent three weeks in Mumbai shooting a documentary feature titled “Books in the Big City” (dir. Sayalee Karkare) about the city’s reading culture, under the Urban Aspirations in Global Cities Project, supported by the Max Plank InstitutePUKAR and the TISS.


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