If my hometown of 12,000 people were as tightly packed as Mumbai, it could all fit on a football field. That is how crowded India’s wealthiest city is, with 19 million people packed at a rate of 60,000 people per square mile, making it one of the most densely populated places on Earth. There are parts of the city with one-million people per square mile where people have about a sq. meter of personal space!
Even though we avoided the most absurdly crowded areas of the city by staying in Colaba, it was easy to see how the surrealistic density of the city affects everything people do, from the way they get to work to how they socialize.
Playing Sports in a Crowded City or, So Confused by Cricket
Cricket is an obsession in India, another religion. Whereas in most of the world the streets are filled with boys playing soccer, the Indian streets are filled with kids playing cricket, often with improvised bats, balls and wickets. These cities are so compact, the streets so narrow, there is precious little space for a land-greedy sport like cricket.
Cars, parked and moving, are obstacles. Pedestrians dodge the melee. In Mumbai I saw a kid whack a cricket ball high over a building and fielders had to run around the corner to retrieve it. The “outfielder” (a term I am giving him since I have no idea what his position was) tracked down the ball in a perpendicular street and launched it up over a two-story building back towards the wickets. It was a blind throw, sort of like hitting a golf ball over a tree or a hill. I don’t think the creators of cricket imagined the game would be played as such.
As I was watching a cricket match on the picturesque fields of the Oval Maiden, it occurred to me that I had no real idea of what was going on. There was a pitcher and a batter like in baseball. There was intricate strategy like in baseball. It was painfully slow and boring to watch like baseball. But it was certainly not baseball.
It was like watching a movie in Hindi with no subtitles – you sort of know what is going on, but are not clued in to key elements of the story, like dialogue.
The Oval Maiden is a massive field for sports in the shadow of the Mumbai University, clock tower and Supreme Court building – a grand setting. On the far ends were organized cricket matches, but the middle was a cricket and soccer free-for-all where games overlapped and vied for space. Boys would crush cricket balls into the street, over the tall fence and yell at pedestrians “BALL BALL BALL!” Shots on goal in the soccer game would sail wide and end up on the next cricket pitch (or another two or three down) and the boys would yell “BALL BALL BALL” so someone would send it back. Basically it seemed like all anyone was doing was yelling BALL BALL BALL at some other players in different games instead of playing their own.
The most dangerous thing you can do in Mumbai is…
to ride the commuter trains. Fast, clean and efficient, the Mumbai trains transport over six-million people per day. They also kill an average of 11 people per day in the process. The system, to put it mildly, is overcrowded. People cram and smash their way onto the trains, desperate to get a ride so they are not late for work. India has strict rules for how much livestock can be packed into a truck, but no rules for how many people can be crammed into a train.
One of the most common forms of death is people being hit by the trains as they cut across the tracks instead of proper crossings. Some deaths occur as passengers get pushed out of the cars as the train speeds along or approaches a station. Some people get decapitated or maimed by poles or structures too close to the tracks when they are hanging from the cars. Three out of four victims of the train are mangled to a point where they are unidentifiable. Getting out of the train car can be an adventure, as passengers sometimes have to get out two or three stops ahead to ensure they actually escape. People jump off the train before it is stopped to avoid being swept back inside by the mobs getting on.
We rode the trains during rush hour, but traveling out of the city center, towards the suburbs, thus our cars were nearly empty. We witnessed the packed trains rolling into town with the aforementioned leaping out and hanging on and crowding. Crossing the street in India is always an adventure, but crossing the hallway in a train station at rush hour is even more difficult as a tsunami of fast-walking Mumbaikers hustle through the station on their way to work, focused, ready to trample anyone in the way.
Evidently some reforms are underway to make the trains safer, like installing closing doors and extending platforms. The trains also stop if even one person has crawled on and is riding on top. But the city is also growing as more and more people arrive each day seeking a better life, and those already in Mumbai make more babies.