Through the Lens: A Snapshot of Mumbai

Hannah Barth from Hannah in Motion

Culture Clash

On The Streets Of Mumbai

There’s a street just around the corner and down the footpath from the Churchgate train station. I couldn’t tell you the address of this place, but I could describe it as bordering one of Mumbai’s several maidens, or grass malls, and housing a line of cheap clothing stalls. It doesn’t much matter the address, as Mumbaikers generally describe locations based on what they’re across from or next to. A result of being a city in two languages, I imagine. And I’m certain the families who live on this street – who’ve lived on this street, up against the surrounding fences and in the nearby gullies for the past 40 years – don’t have any need for an actual address.

It doesn’t much matter the address, as Mumbaikers generally describe locations based on what they’re across from or next to. A result of being a city in two languages, I imagine.

The streets of Bombay smell of warm piss and cooling feces. This isn’t surprising given that over 14 million Indians call the city home. With more people per square kilometer than any other city in the world, Bombay (re-named Mumbai in 2006) is over 14 times more populous than New York City. And Americans wonder why Asians have a different sense of personal space.

Artist in the Making

It’s impossible to step foot out of a Mumbai house (and often even inside one) without tripping over some form of humanity. There are hapless businessmen dressed in slacks and long-sleeve Oxford shirts, unaware that other parts of the world practice a thing called short sleeves in this kind of heat. There are hordes of schoolchildren: girls with thick, shiny, black plaited hair and boys with varying levels of pre-pubescent acne. There are beggars who wheel themselves on small wooden boards, reminiscent of the yellow plastic scooters I played with as a child in elementary school physical education. There are hawkers – half of them children – who’ve ascertained my need for a coloring book or to have my shoes polished (He ends up polishing my sandal and half of my foot) and are relentless in convincing me of this fact. I search and search but the dogs asleep on the pavement and the rats dead in the gutters outnumber any other white person I see. And I see lots of people.

The Encounter

Hands that Speak Volumes

“How old are you?” I ask in slow English, crouched down on my haunches as if I were an Indian myself. She wobbles her head like Indians do, the whites of her eyes large in the glow of the stall lights. The Indian head wobble can mean any of a thousand things, but in this case it indicates shyness and her lack of understanding. “You”, I articulate again, touching my finger to her tiny chest. Four? Five? I hold up my fingers, clean and white.

My guide translates my question into Hindi and the little girl holds up six fingers. “She says she’s six”, my guide reiterates, “but I think she’s five”, and I wonder if anyone at all knows this little girl’s actual date of birth.


I pull my camera from my backpack and, in the international language of I Don’t Speak Yours, state my request to take the little girl’s photo. With the aid of technology, shyness melts into the heat of the evening, and little hands clamber up my sides, groping for the glow of a screen that has captured her image. Her fingers are dry and grimy and she smells of dust and petrol fumes. Her hair is slightly matted and her teeth gleam white against her dark skin. She continues to play my body like a jungle gym until, at last, she flops down onto a pile of plastic bags and begins unwrapping a tinfoil ball, which, I find, contains the Indian bread, roti. I don’t know the address of where I am in the dark heat of Mumbai, but I know now why I’ve come.

Editors notes:
Hannah Barth is currently in India volunteering for Hamara Footpath. This grassroots organization combines education with playtime activities and is designed around the city’s street children. Their goal: Give a child the tools to reclaim their childhood. (Hannah will be on the move again in the near future.)
All photos are courtesy of the author: Hannah Barth

About the author:

Hannah Barth is an extremely talented and multi-faceted young woman. She travels the globe on a journey of self-discovery and to immerse herself in the world that surrounds her. Hannah is literally always in motion.

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Discussion »

  • #1Christa

    Hannah, your writing is great. It took me many years back straight into Mumbai.
    I was in Mumbai many years ago. Together with a Mumbai friend we went from Juhu Beach to the city with her car and driver. I saw groups of children sitting on the pavement and listening to an older person. I was explained that this was a school. The traffic got very thick, when we were surrounded by beggars. Each of them missed one or two limbs. When one had no hands he held the banknote he eventually got out from a car below the remains of his upper arm. I was so shocked. My friend told me that they are made beggars when they are very young and missing a limb is to get money. Their boss does it or they do it by themselves. There were lots and lots of those limb-missing beggars. I can never forget to have seen this and feel so sorry for them. And then: We visited friends, which lived in pure luxury.

  • #2sapphire

    The juxtaposition of the poor and obscenely wealthy in Mumbai always boggles my mind. Though I love the city and visiting family there, there’s always a sadness that the country does not deal with its problems and help its citizens.

  • #3P. M.

    I enjoyed your descriptions. It made me feel like I was stepping on those streets. It made me feel so sad for those children. Having two of my own, I can’t understand how their lives can be so different. Thank you for the work you are doing.

  • #4Steven

    Though India is one of the poorest country in the world, there are people who have golden hearts who help them in their need.

  • #5Hannah In Motion

    Thank you, everyone, for reading. I’m fairly new to the world of travel writing, but being in a place like Mumbai made me feel very strongly the need to share what I was experiencing.

    At first I was dubious the work I was doing could actually make a difference, but at least one of the older boys who ‘attends’ Hamara Footpath is in a computer training program and a couple others have jobs because of this education. After 40 years of familial street-dwelling there really is a chance for these kids to better their lives. More than anything though, I was happy to give them a chance to just be kids.

  • #6Rose

    Hi Hannah,

    I am from Mumbai, your post is good, shows one of the facets of mumbai, but thats not mumbai. You never know about Mumbai to be honest, as Mumbai can make a pauper, a rich man and vice versa. It is truly city of dreams. And abt people begging and children in tattered clothes and all is part of almost all countries. Even in US or GB, they too have those downtown areas where you can find such things. But in mumbai it is more, but its progressing and one day like US and GB it will only have some downtown area only with it!!!

  • #7WorldFriends

    “The streets of Bombay smell of warm piss and cooling feces”, “Her fingers are dry and grimy and she smells of dust and petrol fumes”

    I really like your capture of the senses, especially the olfactory. It is indeed the smells that triggers our memory.

  • #8Indrani Ganguly

    Found this very steoreotyped. No new insights into either the culture or city or into Western travellers.

    Australian Aboriginal people are far worse off!

    How many middle class white people would submit to a dark skinned stranger intruding into their lives?

  • #9Hannah In Motion

    @Rose – I can totally see that there are many Mumbais hidden layer beneath layer. I think every city is like that. This is the one that stuck out to me the most though. (Although I did check out a couple of little cafes just around the corner from some of these things I’ve written about.)

    @WorldFriends – Thank you. Somehow it’s always smells that bring me back to places.

    @Indrani Ganguly – I think the ‘insight’ I was trying to convey was that I WAS just a Western traveler – very unprepared for what I was going to see there. I’m not sure what stereotype you were referring to, but I think the piece stereotyped me just as much as the children. Thank you for reading regardless, and for your feedback.

  • #10Alison Chambers

    What an excellent article – some great descriptions packed into a short space. Do you write elsewhere Hannah?

  • #11Indrani Ganguly

    Hi Hannah

    Your peice would have been more interesting to those of us who come from the country if you could put in some details about:

    How did the locals react to your lack of knowledge of the local language (given the expectations of many native English speakers that everyone will not only speak English but speak it in aan accent that most approximates their own). Mumbai has more than two languages, English, Hindi and Marathi will be the major ones, but there will also be the languages spoken by other groups who have migrated from all over India and neighbouring countries. (Note, the grass malls you refer to are known as ‘maidans’ not ‘maidens’ as you state in your article).

    The work that local organisations are doing to help the poor. There are many of them and they all admit to the inequities that exist, but not all Indians are sitting around waiting to be saved by Westerners.

    You might also consider how wealthy countries exploit the poorer ones, many of which have been their colonies. In this connection, I would also like to point out that most of the Westerners who travel to poorer countries pontificate endlessly on the poverty, but want goods and services to be as cheap as possible. I worked for several years with a non-government organisation in India so I can say I have a pretty good knowledge of what’s being done (and also quite extensive experience of dealing with Western tourists, missionaries and the members of the save the so-called Third World industry).

    There are also many good smells in Mumbai – the food and the flowers are just two. My husband who is of a Northern European background often comments on these.

    I should explain the reference to Australian Aboriginal people – they have one of the worst health standards in the world though they comprise a very small minority in a very wealthy country. However, few Australians exhibit any concern about them, though they are happy to rabbit on about poverty in other countries and what they have done to save them. The media rarely portrays Aboriginal people in a postive light – except when they win in some sporting event or when Aboriginal culture needs to be paraded to the world as an example of ‘Australian’ cultural achievements. After coming to Australia I spent several years working with Aboriginal colleagues and have had many discussions on these issues, so my views are based on quite in-depth experience.

    Yours sincerely

    Indrani Ganguly

  • #12Nuno Moreiras

    Great post! Your writing is very fluent and descriptive, I loved how you described your meeting with the young girl.
    Best of lucks!

  • #13Vatsal

    @Hannah: Liked your style of writing and the way you captured the senses/feelings etc.
    I quiet not agree with some of the facts that you have stated or the kind of picture you have portrayed in your article. I am not saying it is totally false, but yeah as you mentioned in one of your comments that Mumbai is more than this and you need to peel layers on layers to get those hidden facets. And I do understand, the kind of expectations you have when visiting another country (which is way different from your own) and then coming across things which boggles your mind which is perfectly acceptable.

    @Indrani: When did Hannah claim that she knows the all of Mumbai? You can’t expect a person from the other country to gain knowledge about a city or the people living there in few days….Though, you may have in-depth experience about Aboriginal people and you may have worked in an NGO etc..that by no means gives you the right to assume that the other person knows nothing and is just rambling for the sake of it…And stop correcting people for a small error in the spelling and that too when a Hindi word is being written in English….You also talk of so many things in your comment which are totally unrelated to the post..
    Criticism is good if it is constructive and not just negating someone for the sake of it…


  • #14Craig

    It is really sad to see all those children on the streets. We have that same problem here in South Africa, the main cause of all our orphans is HIV. India is an overpopulated country that needs international aid. I must say that Indians are most definitely the most friendliest people on the face of this earth.

  • #15Christian Rene Friborg

    I think India is a nice country with a rich culture. But it is still quite sad that the number of poor people are still high

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