Whoever said living in India was cheap?
Certainly not someone who would have followed my friend’s recommendation to check out Aer, the newest addition to Mumbai’s hip social scene. Sitting on top of one of the fanciest 40-something-floor hotel in the city, this rooftop lounge is one of the most stunning bars I have ever been to.
With an incredible view of the sun setting behind the Arabian Sea, an “atmosphere that redefines the notion of freedom,” and a Moet & Chandon glass in hand, what more could you ask for? Silver weights to hold down champagne flutes on the stylish coffee tables? check. Slick mini-torches to read the Mediterranean tapas menu? You got it. Quite simply, things can’t get any better.
But everything has a price, especially in Mumbai. A few weeks ago, Aer’s manager was quoted as saying that “All you can see is the sea and the lights of Mumbai spread out like a blanket beneath you.” Well, that is certainly true. But what is also true is that if you look down instead of looking over to far-away cruise ships sailing across the Indian Ocean, you would see dark, disorganized areas of the city, appearing almost blurred from the fortieth floor. Below you are some of the world’s largest urban slums.
My biggest culture shock in India has not been the omnipresent abject poverty, or the constant deafening noise, or the thousands of people crammed together in the rickety commuter trains. Ironically, it has been the incredible wealth that sits right next to absurd poverty. More than half of Mumbai lives in slums, yet it is home to the richest collective of billionaires in the world – ahead of New York and London. With 0.00001% of India’s population now accounting for a quarter of its trillion-dollar gross domestic product, the wealth disparity is enormous.
And yet, it seems to make sense to everyone but me. My middle-class Indian friends have reinforced this many times when they say: “Of course it’s normal that the rich and the poor live next to each other… The rich live here and require services, so the poor come in to fulfill that demand.” It doesn’t shock anyone that you could pay 22,000 rupees to get into a new year’s eve party, much more than the national yearly income. And no one seems to mind that the office I work in, which has air-conditioning, wireless internet, and biometric fingerprint security, sits literally across the street from hundreds of temporary workers and their families – we’re talking dozens of children per street block – who cook, eat, bathe and sleep on the dirty sidewalks every night.
In that sense, India is quite different from Africa, where the rich are merely middle-class, the poor and the rich are typically segregated, and the ultra-rich promptly shift their assets (and themselves) out of the country. Yes, as an expat in Africa, you will certainly feel wealthy, privileged, or just plain lucky. But here, holding a glass of one of the most expensive champagnes in the world, surrounded by the cream of the crop of Indian society and looking down on more than six million human beings living in slums forty floors below, you can’t help but wonder if this is some kind of a sick joke that someone decided to play on people.