Mumbai Ahead Of Shanghai In Dynamism

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

April 22nd, 2009

Weekend sailing in Mumbai. You don’t get this in Pudong.


I’ve been in Mumbai the past ten days having flown in from Shanghai,  and the contrast is almost immediately apparent. Mumbai’s new international arrivals terminal deposits you at the taxi queue after just 20 minutes, and although the drive to Colaba is still a pain, it’s no worse than doing the Pudong trek to Puxi. While Shanghai – a city I lived in for five years and always enjoy visiting – was good, it remains relatively quiet. Expats have been leaving, and locals are not shopping as much. It’s hardly a surprise, China’s exports account for 40% of its GDP, so people are bound to be suffering, and the Governments stimulus plan isn’t geared at residents of cities like Shanghai. The city is ticking over, but it’s lost the dynamic entrepreneurial can-do attitude it took over from Hong Kong back in 1996.


That can-do get up and go mentality has moved West, and it’s alive and well in Bombay. Sure the city has its issues, but staying here is relatively inexpensive, and the restaurants and bars are just packed. Standing room only, or you have to wait. Local Mumbaikers are out in droves, and businessmen and tourists join the throng. I attended a Britcham meeting last week – over 250 turned up. Two years ago the Mumbai membership was about 40. This is not to say Shanghai isn’t OK, because it patently will be fine. But that buzz, that feeling of excitement – that’s now in Bombay.

The weekend was spent at Alibag, which is a peninsula about 40 minutes by speedboat from the Gateway, next to the Taj. Bombay is busy, sweaty and crowded, yet Alibag is a haven. Luxury villas, swimming pools, and attentive waiter service. It was 40 degrees while the Shanghai Grand Prix was rainy. Splashing about in the pool, while I knew my friends were getting drenched in the Stands back in Shanghai seemed a little cruel, but that’s life, and the good life is in Bombay at the moment. It’s not for everyone, but the interaction with Indians is far greater than you’d see between expats and Chinese in Shanghai. I suspect the language difficulties in China are partially responsible, but then again so is the nature of expat life in China. You can get by as an English teacher, or even work in a bar. In Bombay, you need money, and it acts as a barrier to some of the expatriate excesses that Shanghai can fall into. That’s probably a good thing, but as many of the long term India expats complain, getting a girlfriend is not easy. In Shanghai, they’re practically rentable.

It gives expatriate life in Bombay rather more permanence, to survive here long term you’d probably need to get married – and expatriate/Indian weddings do occur quite frequently, and have a well paid job. There’s no room for working in bars in a country of over a billion people, and even in China it’s not exactly legit. The Indians too, are rather more excitable. While the Chinese are not generally confrontational, Indians can be. It’s their country, and although there are hang-ups over the days of the Raj, Westerners doing menial jobs is not on the agenda here, while it’s an entry level for some into Shanghai expat life.   

I attended a book launch last night by Sam Miller, whose “Delhi – Adventures In A Megacity” has just been published. Delhi is a great city to hang out in, all decaying temples and glitzy hotels, and Lutyens architectural masterpiece still looks fantastic today. Books one always need to relate too, and I was pleased to see Miller had included in his exploratory tome his experiences with the Connaught Place shit squirter, for I too have been assaulted in the manner he painfully describes. Connaught Place has a large roundabout, and an underground passageway. As the shoeshine guy above polishes away, someone – and it’s very hard to spot – squirts shit on your shoe as you hurry pass. A big dollop of it. You’re then advised “Sir, sir, look!”  – and directed to the shoe shine man. It gets blamed on a large fat (and quite possibly incontinent) Rhesus Macque that lives in the tree above, but the guy sorts out your shoes and asks for more for cleaning off the shit. It’s a great service, and he does suede brogues really well. But it’s annoying and tiresome on the third occasion. Miller describes this, and in his real job as BBC correspondent is trying to catch the scam on film. Books about India, rather like Slumdog Millionaire and our child hero dropping into a cesspit to get a Bollywood stars autograph, always need to broach the subject of shit to be accurate in any way, and Millers book does the job. I’m looking forward to reading it.  

So there’s shit in Delhi’s Connaught Place. But there isn’t in Bombay, and in Shanghai there’s spit instead. Maybe Asian cities can be classified into the type and amount of effluent or discharges the human population produces. In which case Bombay, surprisingly, is cleaner than its Chinese counterpart. But Beijing would beat Delhi.   

In the meantime, here’s something you might enjoy. For fans of the Simpsons, here’s an Indian version: The Singhsons.