MUMBAI, India — Television writer Sankalp Tak steers his late-model compact through the streets of Mumbai, India’s largest city, dodging waves of cars and motorized rickshaws to park behind a nondescript warehouse.
Inside — barely controlled chaos, like Mumbai itself.
It’s the set of a TV comedy about upscale students at a fictional Indian college. Production crew members rush to break down one scene and set up the next. The director huddles with the producer and cameramen while the actors practice their lines and check their makeup with hand mirrors.
Everyone greets Tak, age 27. He’s one of the creative forces behind the production, which airs four nights a week on India’s popular Star One network. He auditioned about 1,000 actors to cast the show and used to spend all day, every day, on the set as a creative director before he switched to scriptwriting.
Tak misses the daily craziness — but not too much.
“Politics is not a virtue in this business,” he says. “You have to be aggressive, even heartless sometimes, to handle the chaos on the set or push someone who’s already worked to 10 or 11 to go until 2 a.m.”
“Bollywood,” a combination of Hollywood and Bombay (Mumbai’s former name), is the film side of the city’s media business. It churns out hundreds of movies a year. The television side stays just as busy feeding the ravenous appetite of hundreds of millions of Indian viewers for soaps, dramas and comedies.
Nowadays Tak’s main creative companion is a laptop. He can write a script in five or six hours at the flat he shares with his parents. But even there the pace seldom lets up. Time is money at $10,000 per episode in production costs. Tak finished today’s shooting script yesterday. Tomorrow’s episode outline sits in his e-mail inbox, waiting for dialogue he’ll write tonight. It’s a grind he enjoys, but a grind nevertheless.
“There’s no glamour behind the camera,” he says with a weary grin. He’d like to get into producing, where the real money is. For now, though, he savors being young and successful in a nation where so many people struggle just to live.
But has Tak, a Hindu, found his true purpose in life?
“No, I’m still searching for the meaning,” he said. “I mean, if you have to leave everything and go sit in the Himalayas to be spiritually satisfied, that doesn’t work. It’s not practical.”
Mumbaikars, as the city’s inhabitants call themselves, are nothing if not practical. It’s a survival skill. The city’s frantic speed doesn’t allow a lot of time for thinking about meaning. Even some Hindu worshippers zip through their pujas (worship or prayers) at roadside temples without getting off their idling motorcycles.
Tak’s show resumed shooting only a day after the deadly terror attacks that struck the city last November. For many who weren’t at the places where hundreds of people bled and died, the attacks seemed “filmy,” a word used to describe the blurring of Bollywood fantasy and daily reality.
Tycoons and pavement dwellers
Show business, despite its quasi-religious status among the countless fans who idolize Bollywood stars, is first and foremost a multibillion-dollar business. And Mumbai has been all about business since its early days. Today it is home to several of the richest tycoons on earth, a large group of educated and relatively affluent professionals (such as Tak), an enormous “middle class” hustling to get by — and the poor.
Why do people from all over India keep coming to Mumbai, India’s money center and business capital? Opportunity — or perceived opportunity. Hundreds arrive each day, most carrying their belongings in tattered bags.
Greater Mumbai already strains under the weight of more than 19 million human beings. But people keep pushing their way in. Some dream of fame and fortune. Many simply hope for a better life than they had in the parched farms and jobless villages they came from.
A few will find it. The rest will do whatever it takes for their daily bread.
The city is impossibly crowded — more than 70,000 people per square mile, jammed together into a landfilled peninsula jutting into the Arabian Sea on India’s west coast. Living space, even a single room, costs far beyond what most migrants can afford. So thousands of new (and not so new) arrivals live on the streets. “Pavement dwellers,” they’re called.
Ten families occupy a sidewalk at a busy intersection in West Andheri, one of Mumbai’s huge suburbs. They live under dingy tarps tied to a fence. Their children sleep among the bags containing their possessions and some pots and pans for cooking.
On a nearby street, a migrant family from Karnataka has lived in the same spot for six years. They have three young children. Their 6-month-old baby naps in a swaying hammock strung between a tree and a fence.
Most of them beg. Some work at day labor or clean gutters. One family pushes a cart-mounted mobile shrine to Sai Baba, a deceased guru venerated by many Hindus and Muslims in India. They live off offerings from worshippers.
An elderly couple welcome visitors to their bit of pavement with toothless smiles and a blessing. He is 80; she is 60. They’ve lived on the streets for 10 years. Sometimes police harass the ragtag group or ask for bribes. Municipal authorities periodically clear the area, but the pavement dwellers eventually return.
“People mistreat us,” angrily declares Shanta Bai, one of the women. “They say, ‘You people are dirty. You are poor.’ But what can we do? We have no land. We have no water. That’s why we came to Mumbai. If you want to put us in jail, go ahead!”
Slum dwellers, who comprise at least half of the city’s population, have marginally better accommodations. Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum with up to 1 million people on 600 acres, lacks anything near adequate electricity, water and sanitation. Even so, it’s a strong, high-energy subculture of families, micro-businesses and entrepreneurs. Developers want to bulldoze it to build high-rises, but Dharavi’s residents won’t leave without a fight.
The nameless squatter communities that sprout in almost any open space are more vulnerable. Harish and his family, immigrants from Nepal, live on “disputed land” — no one is quite sure who owns it. Until that question is settled, the trash-strewn clearing next to a construction site belongs to the squatter families. The women clean the apartments of the affluent people who live in high-rises around them. Some of the men find work at the building site.
Harish’s family of eight lives in two small, tidy rooms with concrete floors and corrugated tin walls. A small shrine to the Hindu god Ganesh occupies one wall; a television topped by family photos dominates another. Family members sleep in one room, cook and eat in another. They share the area with a handful of other families, an unreliable water pump and a one-room schoolhouse.
“Our doors are always open to each other,” Harish says. “Slum people are also human beings.”
It seems almost livable — until monsoon rains come and flood the area with disease-laden sewer water. Then the families remember they are essentially refugees, even if they’ve been there for years.
“Slumdog Millionaire,” the movie that swept the top Oscars this year, captures the strange brew of beauty, ugliness, hope, cruelty and sensory assault that is Mumbai. It tells the story of two slum brothers orphaned by the anti-Muslim riots of 1992-93, which left more than 1,000 dead and many thousands homeless. They gamely battle hunger, child-exploiting gangsters, brutal police and other trials as the older brother protects the younger one — who ultimately finds his long-lost true love and wins a fortune on TV as millions cheer him on.
If only every Mumbai story had a happy ending.
“People come to Mumbai with big dreams,” says Arshad Kunnummal, a young executive in the city. “Unfortunately, not all of them succeed. But the striving is always there.”
The city mixes New York’s money and manic energy, Los Angeles’ glitz and guns, Shanghai’s entrepreneurs and restless masses, Mexico City’s size and organized crime with plenty of Calcutta’s poverty.
Mumbai’s nickname among Indians is “Maximum City” — maximum people, maximum wealth, maximum poverty, maximum traffic, maximum crime, maximum.
Followers of Christ in the city add another: maximum darkness.
Most of Mumbai’s millions “are so multi-generationally saturated in darkness and tradition that they don’t know how to look for light,” a Christian worker says. “It has such a grip on their lives that they can’t get out of it.”
Hindus are the vast majority. But the city also is home to 2 million Muslims as well as Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees and members of every caste and virtually every people group in India.
Professing Christians of all varieties, including the city’s centuries-old Roman Catholic community, comprise about 5 percent of the population. Evangelical believers, however, account for just 0.15 percent — not quite invisible, but hard to find among Mumbai’s multitudes.
“You see the church expanding only in the slums today, but not much among the well-educated people,” says Christian leader Ivan Raskino, who started his first Mumbai church in the 1980s among street people, drug addicts and prostitutes. Today he trains pastors all over surrounding Maharashtra state, where he finds more responsiveness to the gospel among rural, tribal peoples.
“The sad thing,” he adds, “is that Mumbai is expanding much more than the church.”
Why? Rapid population growth among Hindus and Muslims, for one thing. Mumbai’s go-go pace, for another. Christians also labor under the weight of the city’s history.
Bombay reached its zenith as a great world trading center under British rule, which also fostered religious freedom. But the colonial legacy has been an albatross around the neck of Protestant Christians since India gained national independence in 1947. Many urban Indians admire Christ, but not the Westernized, non-indigenous churches where He is worshipped. The rise of Hindutva — extreme Hindu nationalism — only increases Christian isolation.
But Mumbai’s Christians also bear some responsibility for their own marginalization.
The existing churches are a “big barrier” to growth, a Christian worker says. “They’ve been in survival mode as a minority for generations. They’re trying to keep their own congregations together. If somebody happens to bring somebody, that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t happen very often.”
The ancient spiritual strongholds of religious idolatry still exert influence in the city. But so does the stronghold of greed, which fully bloomed in the 19th-century colonial era as Bombay became the money-obsessed “City of Gold.” It essentially remains so to this day, even as it crumples under the weight of millions of people seeking fortune — or basic food.
“Forget about (the Hindu god) Shiva” as an opponent of truth, Raskino advises. “Mammon is still the big stronghold in Mumbai. In traditional, middle-class Indian families, daughters are prostituting themselves on the side. Why? Because they want money. Values are being sacrificed for gain. And it started in the very foundations of Bombay.”
How can the gospel penetrate such a bastion of darkness?
“If we (Christians) get our hearts right with God, if we draw close to each other, really humble ourselves and cry out to Him for the city, God will answer us,” Raskino says.
God already is answering among one major group once considered unreachable: Mumbai’s Muslims.
India’s national motto, which appears on every rupee coin and note, is “Truth alone triumphs.” It comes from Hindu verses written some 4,000 years ago.
May truth triumph in Mumbai, while there is still time.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board. Want to get involved in sharing Christ in Mumbai and other cities in South Asia? Visit http://www.go2southasia.org/slumdog.html. See a multimedia presentation about Mumbai here.)