Heaving with humanity, Mumbai is India’s beating heart

Long before you could order meals on apps, India had its dabbawalas

Today's expression: Clear out
Explore more: Lesson #174
July 22, 2019:

In the third in our series of destinations, we visit Mumbai, India's largest city and its cultural and financial capital. It's home to majestic buildings, a thriving film industry, delicious street food, lively nightlife, the world's largest outdoor laundry, and the world-famous dabbawalas, who deliver 200,000 lunches each day. Plus, learn the English phrasal verb "clear out."

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Long before you could order meals on apps, India had its dabbawalas

Hey everyone, it’s Jeff, welcome back to Plain English, episode number 174. You are listening to the best podcast for learning English through current events. The program is produced by JR. He also manages the web site, which has lots of great resources. You can visit this episode’s page by going to PlainEnglish.com/174.

Coming up today: the third in our occasional series on English-speaking destinations. Today we visit Mumbai, India’s biggest city. English is one of the dozens of languages spoken in Mumbai. Like in much of India, many people speak some English there. Hindi is the most popular language in India overall, but English is second-most-popular, and is one of the two official languages of India. So on that basis, Mumbai qualifies—in my sole and absolute judgment as host of Plain English—as an English-speaking destination. After all, I went there, and almost everyone I encountered spoke English.

I’ve been to India three times, each time for work, and spent most of my time in the suburbs of Delhi, but I did spend a weekend in Mumbai, where I stuffed myself with delicious food, took a city tour, watched a cricket match, and saw all the sights.


Mumbai is India’s center of business and culture

It’s big; it’s crowded; it’s crazy: Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is the beating heart of India’s culture. It’s India’s largest city and while it’s not the seat of government, it is the financial center of the country. India’s central bank, stock exchanges, and securities regulators are there. Five Fortune-500 companies have their headquarters in Mumbai, including the Indian conglomerate Tata Group. It is also home to India’s booming film industry, nicknamed Bollywood. India produces more films than any other country in the world; many Bollywood movies are a mixture of Hindi and English, sometimes called Hinglish, and they tend to involve a lot of music. So finance and entertainment industries…you know what comes next: nightlife. The city is full of pubs, cafés, dance clubs—you name it.

There’s a beach—but it’s not exactly a relaxing beach. It’s a very Indian beach, let’s just say that! It’s called Chowpatty beach and you’ll find families, couples, teenagers, groups of friends—lots of people there, and street food vendors up and down the main path. Mumbaikars love their street food, on the beach or inland. Vada pav is like a spicy potato-slash-veggie burger. Chaat is more of a category of snack food, but usually involves potatoes, onions, chips, some veggies, and—this is India, after all—lots of spices. You can also find lots of delicious kebabs.

Mumbai is hot. Oh boy is Mumbai hot. I remember walking around at 10:00 at night in the steaming fall heat. It’s also subject to the monsoon. The monsoon is a rainy season. I used to think a monsoon was a storm, but it’s actually about a four-month season where they get heavy, intense rain, between about June and September each year.

Mumbai is located on the Arabian Sea, on the western side of India. Its most famous corridor is called Marine Drive, and it’s one of the busiest roads in the world. It extends a few miles along the shoreline and is lined with Art Deco-style buildings; Mumbai has the second-most Art Deco-style buildings, behind only Miami.

Speaking of buildings—there are several landmarks to know. First up, the Gateway of India is a huge arch that symbolizes the entrance to India for people arriving by sea. The main train station is called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly Victoria Terminus, which is the city’s main train station and the headquarters for India’s famous railway system. This is where you see crush loads of people on the trains—literally, people riding on the roof of the train, people hanging out the sides of the train as it’s moving. Crazy. The other must-see building is the Taj Majal Palace Hotel, which opened in 1903 and has since welcomed political leaders, captains of industry, and movie stars.

Speaking of buildings, the world’s most valuable private residence is in Mumbai; it’s called Antilia. It’s worth about $2 billion and has 27 floors—27 floors!—with extra-high ceilings, so it reaches the height of a sixty-story building. It has room for a staff of 600 people and was built on land that was once an orphanage. They literally cleared out an orphanage so someone could build a 27-story home for a single family. This would be a good time to mention that Mumbai, like much of India, suffers from extreme wealth inequality. There are some startling photos showing slums where people live under tarps, just next door to luxury high-rise buildings.

Let me share two things unique to Mumbai, both of which I saw on my city tour.

Dhobi Ghat is something crazy. It’s the world’s biggest open-air outdoor laundry. You can’t go in, but you can look down on it from the street above. It’s a warren of concrete washing stations. Thousands of dhobis, as the washers are called, wash the clothes and linens from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals. You can see them wash and scrub the laundry in the pens, then hang the clothes and linens up to dry, and finally press them before sending them back out to their customers. It’s open 18 to 20 hours a day and 7,000 people work in this one laundry.

Even more impressive than that are the dabbawalas. This is the world’s biggest lunchbox delivery service, and it was made famous by the Bollywood movie, “The Lunchbox.” Here’s what happens, and remember this has a long, long tradition, so there may be a few gender stereotypes here, which we’ll have to forgive. But, traditionally, a man would get up and go to work at his office in the morning. His wife would wake up and start preparing meals for the day. Around mid-morning, a deliveryman called a dabbawala comes by the house and picks up the husband’s lunch in a tiffin box, a set of stacked metal containers wrapped in canvas. The deliveryman then takes the tiffin box to the husband’s desk at his office. And the whole process repeats itself in reverse in the afternoon. The man is not expected to take dirty dishes home with him. No, no: the dabbawalas come back, collect the tiffin boxes from the desk, and return them back home.

They move—listen to this—they move about 200,000 lunchboxes every day. They have a complicated delivery system comprised of numbers, colors, and letters. They’ve honed the system over the decades; they transport the boxes by train and bicycle. There’s an area outside Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus where they do a lot of the sorting and stacking of the tiffin boxes. All the deliverymen are paid about $200 per month. They traditionally come from the same village near the city of Pune.

Mumbai city has about 12 million people, making it about the world’s tenth-most-populous city.


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