I left Delhi yesterday evening, having sat in open-mouthed horror at the choice of visual entertainment at Delhi’s Indira Ghandi International Airport. The alcohol-free lounge was proudly displaying its state-of-the-art, new, high definition screen, with the blue-ray grizzle of an exceedingly graphic plane crash. This was then followed by the hi-def grizzle of Nicolas Cage’s career pitter-pattering down towards the very real crash he has seemed to bring upon himself. It was not a scene that one wished to see whilst sat in a new airport, whilst next door it sounded like the roof was falling in. Which, I subsequently found out it was, delaying flights in the process.
As with Delhi, but with the air ten degrees warmer, I arrived under cover of darkness, to the much maligned and exploitable Undertoothed Carhorn Orchestra’s “Ode to Deafness – a cacophony in 1000 beeps” at the scramble of bodies that was Mumbai. It was 12am. The very hospitable Delhi-ites who had invited me for dinner the night of the tremors had informed me that Mumbai might be a shock after the relative serenity of Delhi.
Upon daylight rising through the mist from the ocean it sits upon, Mumbai’s economic and personal conundrum becomes apparent: poverty of the worst kind you can imagine, wrestles with the aspirational rich. Terrible, over-crowded slums sit opposite the Four Seasons Hotel, a 5-star example of how this city is trying to raise its profile following the terrorist attacks of two years ago, and match the ambition of its inhabitants. As with Delhi beforehand, Mumbai can claim a first in a pantheon of retail experiences: I doubt many of you have ever had to step over a freshly laid cowshit atrocity to get into a shopping mall, on Mumbai’s equivalent of Oxford Street or 5th Avenue. Having swerved the bovine-gastric crazy-paving, I turned to see the depositer, stood on the pavement a few yards up the street. It looked at me, as if to say “….and?”
Mumbai accounts for 35% of India’s income tax thanks, in large, to the banking and commercial communities that have chosen it as it’s national base, yet probably only receives 5% of the governments budgets to maintain an infrastructure that is already further broken, from a broken beginning. As such, the poorest flock here to earn some of the excess that apparently exists, yet find themselves trapped in the slums that encroach almost every street, underpass, open space of land and pavement. Being built on an island, and already populated by fifteen million residents, real estate prices are now in the top five on the planet as the density continues to rise so, as Yazz (and the Plastic Population, pedants) would say, the only way is up. The government is in the process of re-housing the six million that live in Mumbai’s ghettos into permanent high-rise buildings that will give some people their own running water and electricity, as they become grandparents. Nearly the entire population of London lives in shacks on roadsides, in a space sixty percent of the size of England’s capital.
Imagine this was happening in Los Angeles, for Mumbai is Bollywood: where famous film stars and society mix on a regular basis. Bizarrely enough, at the hotel I am staying at, a colleague joined us for dinner and promptly announced that we had to be finished for 8.45, as we have tickets for the Triumph 2011 fashion show. This, it became abundantly apparent, is India’s answer to Victoria’s Secret, and through the gardens of the hotel was an invitation-only party of lavish expense. There were Indian film stars I had never heard of, one of which was dressed in a black suit and tie, white shirt. Until our friend pointed out he was of such cinematic royalty, I had nearly asked him for a fresh beer (please). A Kingfisher, for reference – actually, I was astonished to find that Kingfisher had it’s own real airline! I would certainly fly Stella Air-tois in Europe if it existed. Alcohol advertising is banned in India, so the brands exercise their right cunningly through lifestyle exposure. Fuck off, Branson, you know nothing.
Anyway, the 20 minute show passed by relatively uneventfully, as you’d naturally expect, until a certain range of somewhat revealing attire was paraded accompanied, not by Bhangra chart-toppers, but furious and near-deafening, old fashioned, drum’n’bass! Several male members of the mixed audience didn’t know whether to start skanking or wa………..lking away from the din.
Having exited along the red carpet, much to the disgust of the paparazzi that had lined up to see luminaries more than tired, graying plebs in unironed shirts, it only went to demonstrate that this country is changing, and changing fast: it took sixty years for India to have a GDP of one trillion dollars. The second took seven. And they want the third fast.
Witnessing what I have this week, they’ll be there sooner than we think. As my guide in Delhi said, after I had turned my nose up at a particular store’s standards: “10 years ago the brand wasn’t here…5 years ago they couldn’t work the tills…Now it makes a decent profit – imagine where we will be in 5 years time……” The road could be as bumpy as a Delhi bicycle gas delivery (see Part I), but watching this country develop will be as spellbindingly fascinating, and will affect all of us in one way or another.