Postcard from… Mumbai

“Have you seen Slumdog Millionaire yet?”  The question, posed incessantly since I first announced my departure, echoed in my ears as I boarded the British Airways flight to the subcontinent.  The answer: no.  Luckily one of the in-flight films on offer resolved the matter. 

That, together with the first 150 pages of Shantaram, left me in no doubt that I was about to enter a world very different from that within the confines of London’s Circle line.

Mumbai itself, or Bombay as it is still called by the vast majority of people here, has a number of poverty related problems, brought on not least by the over-population caused by a Dick Whittington-esque migration from the rural areas to the city.  The general hardship of the slums depicted by Danny Boyle is evident to anyone who glances out of a taxi or office window.  The scenes of gangs maiming children to increase their begging prowess in a horrifying twist on the role of the original Fagin, if true, revealed an underbelly that was as much of an eye opener to many of the middle class here as it was to the rest of the world. 

Despite this poverty, Bombay is a city of great energy.  The inhabitants are hard working.  They are entrepreneurial.  They are cheerful.  They are optimistic.  They have reason to be so, especially during the global downturn.  Few countries can point to a protectionist governmental policy (often criticised on the international stage) and say that without it the anticipated economic growth of around 6 per cent this year would not be possible, in fact they would probably be bankrupt like the West.  This mood of optimism has increased after the recent election results as businesses feel that the next five years will result in legal reforms leading to a more stable and liberalised business environment.

I was brought here by the opportunity of a six-month secondment with Amarchand & Mangaldas, India’s largest law firm and one with a reputation for being at the forefront of both transactional work and legal reform.  Weil Gotshal & Manges has been developing business in India for a number of years now, often working closely with Amarchand for Indian law advice on international transactions.  A result of this friendship with the firm and with managing partner Cyril Shroff in particular was the implementation of a reciprocal secondment.  I was to be the first leg, with Mr Shroff as my mentor.  Considering that legal India is always in the news, what better berth from which to experience all this first hand?

Amarchand’s offices are based in Peninsula Corporate Park, one of the new glass and concrete developments springing up in Lower Parel as the area is slowly regenerated.  The move was necessitated a number of years ago in response to the need for more office space when the firm rapidly expanded.  Although the architecture of these developments is modern, some of the techniques used are ancient, with bamboo scaffolding often clinging to the exteriors in an alarming fashion that belies its great strength.

Bombay is a city reclaimed from the sea.  Originally built on seven islands, over the centuries these have been merged into one, tapering landmass jutting out into the Indian Ocean.  What worked for just shy of a million people at the start of the twentieth century is less successful today for the 14 million or so inhabitants of the world’s most populous city, packed in five and a half times as densely as London.  As luck would have it, the financial centre and the courts are predominantly located in the South, at the tip.

Each morning an exodus occurs from north to south, only to be repeated in reverse a few hours later.  Trains are packed and not a square inch of tarmac is left uncovered.  Sleek executive cars and cool car taxis jostle for position with the black and yellow cabs whose only coolant is the breeze wafting in when a gap in the traffic allows a rare acceleration beyond ten miles an hour.  Scooters and three wheeled autorickshaws weave through the smallest gaps, driven with a confidence not mirrored by the inhabitants of any car whose paintwork they are passing.  Add to these delivery vehicles, from two wheeled barrows heavily laden but cunningly balanced to enable one person to push them unassisted, to large tankers and trucks.  The latter almost invariably bear the Tata badge (a constant reminder of its domination of the Indian automotive industry) and resemble fairground traction engines, embellished with wrought iron and painted every colour of the rainbow.  As they pass, I am presented with the somewhat mystifying phrase “Horn OK Please” adorning the tailgate or mud flaps.  Such an invitation is unnecessary to most drivers who use their horns with an enthusiasm paralleled only by a small child who has been given a trumpet as a present. 

Occasionally I am organised enough to book a cool car and am distanced from all this, sitting behind tinted windows in hermetically sealed comfort.  More often though I benefit from the full experience of the fumes, the smells from the sides of the road (vegetable market, good, fish market, bad) and above all the heat and humidity.

With this scenario confronting me on a daily basis, I have joined the ranks of expectant Bombayites awaiting the opening of the Bandra Worli Sea Link.  This is a 5.6km toll bridge between the suburb of Bandra and Worli on the North West edge of central Bombay. The wait is an eager one, all the more so after a five year delay in its construction.  The infamous Bermuda triangle of time lost in traffic jams at Mahim causeway between the western suburbs and the city centre, will, in theory, be no more.

Despite the daily battle of the commute, it is easy to see why people live in Bandra.  A predominantly Catholic area (the Portuguese gave the area to the Jesuit priests in the mid 16th century) it is populated by the young professional middle class and ex-pats.  The long sea front promenade by Carter Road looking to the setting sun, the (relatively) lower population density and the lively nightlife with the chance to spot a Bollywood star all make for a desirable area for the young and upwardly mobile. 

Food is cheap and plentiful.  At the weekends I visit the local markets, which boast a plethora of fresh vegetables and fruit.  Pride of place, and a permanent fixture on the shopping list, is given to the locally grown Alphonso mango.  I am less inclined to cook for myself during the week after battling home in the traffic and so often eat out, taking advantage of one of the wide selection of restaurants catering to every taste within an easy stroll of my home.  The fresh fish and seafood on most menus are well worth taking advantage of, from sushi to tandoori.  After six months of eating a range of delicious curries of every shape and form, not to mention strength, my taste buds will certainly have received an education that no British curry house could ever hope to rival.

Simon Lyell is an associate at Weil Gotshal & Manges in London currently on secondment to Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff & Co in Mumbai