Gandhi’s Mumbai

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Lawyers helped shape the face and fate of India. I refer to Mahatma Gandhi, India’s spiritual leader, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. We could see the impact of these two leaders as we completed a month-long tour of various cities in India in November and part of December.

As you might suppose, the experience overwhelmed us. We landed first in Mumbai, India’s largest city with a population of more than 21 million, including the various regions. Mumbai lies on the Konkan coast adjacent to the Arabian Sea. With a deep natural harbour, people have inhabited this region for thousands of years.

Mumbai claims three UNESCO World heritage sites including the Elephanta Caves, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus and a vast number of Victorian and Art Deco Buildings. Boasting the most millionaires of any city in India, the name of the game almost always includes commerce.

Our tour organizer collected 15 brave souls to travel India for the next month. We arrive at the luxurious Taj Palace Hotel. This heritage five-star saracenic hotel opened in 1903 and could then claim India’s first elevator, bar and jazz scene. A few of our company took advantage of the spa and various treatments available. The wide range of restaurants and bars cater to a wide range of tastes. The hotel includes some notorious history when it became the scene of the 2008 terrorist attack. The hotel reopened after several years with extensive renovations and security precautions.

img_0253The Taj can be found near the sea and the Gateway of India. The Gateway intended to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary on their visit to India in 1911. They did manage to see the mock-up model as the actual Gateway was not completed until 1924. Constructed from basalt, the 26-metre-tall Gateway became the ceremonial entrance to India for the viceroys and governors of what was then Bombay. Interestingly, the last British troops left in February 1948 following India’s independence. The Gateway serves as a memento of British Rule. On Sunday, my wife and I toured the grounds in front of the Gateway. Amid the thousands of other locals, five families separately asked if they could take pictures of us with their families. A number of others simply took surreptitious selfie shots with us in the background.

Our first full day takes us on a 7 a.m. walkabout. By rush hour, some of these areas become impassable. We first pass by the India Stock Exchange. Once again, the threat of terrorism reduces vehicle traffic.

img_0259-1On the second day, we come to the Mani Bhavan where Gandhi lived for a number of years. Gandhi attended law school in London and practised in India for only a short period. He found a position essentially in-house in South Africa. Here he championed Indian rights and fought against excessive land tax and discrimination. When he returned to India, Gandhi occupied one room in this house from 1917 until 1934. From here, he launched the Satyagraha in 1919.

Satyagraha essentially means holding on to truth. This formed the essence of Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance. This did not mean inaction, but rather it encapsulated civil resistance. Gandhi developed this approach prior to reading Henry David Thoreau’s book Civil Disobedience. Gandhi contrasted his approach as defining it as a weapon of the strong, as non-violent and as an insistence upon the truth.  The British brutally put down any potential insurrections, and at the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy park on April 13, 1919, when the British fired upon unarmed protestors, the Indian National Congress determined that more than 1,000 people were killed. Gandhi took other opportunities to recommence his Satyagraha.

The Indian government converted the Mani Bhavan into a museum. Several of Gandhi’s letters are shown, along with numerous dioramas showing Gandhi’s efforts toward gaining Indian Independence. His room shows little furniture and a simple mat on the floor along with his accompanying spinning wheel. In 1921, at Gandhi’s suggestion, the spinning wheel found a place on the Swaraj flag.

We stopped and read a number of Gandhi’s sayings framed on several walls. A letter from Albert Einstein stated: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

We leave the museum with a greater understanding as to how the history of the country could be impacted by one individual. This drive for independence can be reflected in the rest of our tour and how the country slowly adapted.

img_0262We come across the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, one of the UNESCO sites, which serves as the headquarters of the Central Railways. British architect Frederick Stevens designed the building in the manner of Victorian Italianate Gothic Revival to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The structure merges the best of industrial technology at the time along with the Gothic Revival style. In Mumbai alone, 2,342 train systems carry more than 7.5 million passengers daily. We returned to the structure in the morning when it was still dark. The lighting display exaggerated the various styles and made it well worth the effort.

Early this same morning, we set out to see the paper sorters. Out on the street, dozens of vendors sort out the various newspapers to be delivered to certain businesses and individuals. Delivery takes place using a standard bike carrying stacks of papers more than a metre tall. Other vendors can be found selling chai nearby. We drink a small sample and find that the boiling hot tea, enhanced with a bit of ginger, is delicious.

The noise and the activity can be captivating. During the monsoon season, the sorting and deliveries would be far more challenging.

Later that day, we set out to see the Dabbawalas (“someone who carries a box”) food delivery. Also know as dabbas, they deliver the more than 200,000 tiffin lunch boxes daily. The dabbas traditionally wear the white kurta (smock) and a white Gandhi cap, and they ride bicycles. The typical tiffin lunchbox comes in three or four tiers. The bottom tier contains rice while the other tiers contain vegetables, dahl, flatbreads and a dessert. Families cook the majority of the meals. With 5,000 dabbas moving this many tiffin lunches, they still manage a more than 99.999% success rate. The entire system became the focus of an article in the November 2012 Harvard Business Review.

The dabbas collect the tiffins around 10 a.m. from the various cottage industries and deliver them. A system of symbols and colours ensures that the right meal gets to the right individual. After lunch, the whole system reverses itself.

img_0260Afterwards, our tour guide takes us to Dhobi Ghat. Mumbai lays claim to the world’s largest open laundry. The laundry comprises rows of open-air, concrete wash pens and a flogging stone. More than 7,000 people (dhobis) flog and scrub the clothes in the morning. One can see the amount of effort going into washing each piece. The clothes then dry in the afternoon. Tourists can observe the laundry in action from the bridge near the Mahalaxmi Railway Station.

On the bridge, my wife took the opportunity to feed one of the many charity cows. For 100 rupees, the person tending the cow provides you a handful of grass to feed the cow as part of one’s charitable work for the day.

Driving back to the hotel gives us the opportunity to watch the overwhelming amount of merchant activity that takes place on the street. You can travel to different bazaars to focus on vegetables, fish, flowers, spices and just about everything else. Walking through the spice bazaar became an aromatic experience.

Ghandi’s vision of a prosperous India included its people being as involved as possible. He objected to the craze for machinery and not to machines as such. He believed that the supreme consideration should be the individual.


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