Is Mumbai really “the New York of India”?
Updated: Jan 22
I’ve been living in Mumbai for about six months now and I feel ready to make a bit of a pro-cons list. It’s only a subjective snapshot in time of course, but I imagine most of my readers have never been to India and wonder what’s good about it and what’s not.
I choose to compare Mumbai to New York because I’ve heard this comparison a time or two. Plus I like both of these buzzy metropoles, which have several obvious similarities—and differences.
Just like Manhattan, Mumbai is built on a peninsula. They’re both the biggest city by population within large and powerful countries. The real estate prices are crazy. The price of a nice (by western standards) apartment in Mumbai is probably the same as in New York, even though everything else here is extremely cheap compared to the rest of the world.
Like in New York it’s easy to move around Mumbai in taxis because they are everywhere. Uber and Ola taxis are never more than a couple of minutes away. There is lots to do, like eating out in great restaurants and shopping for clothes, jewelry, or anything else really. You can have everything delivered to your doorstep, through internet and via Whatsapp. The service industry, like almost any other industry, seems to be booming.
The population in Mumbai, like in New York, is diverse. Various languages and religions. There are traditional, clearly defined communities, but there are also plenty of fringe groups, like the health conscious community. Mumbaikers are largely vegetarians to begin with, but you can find vegan food cafes everywhere. There are running groups and race events constantly, sustainable initiatives all over the place. Plastics straws and bags are banned.
As a westerner in Mumbai it’s comforting to be able to shop at IKEA, Zara, and H&M. But it’s even more fun to discover the many hidden shops and buy from online entrepreneurs who are making or importing cool stuff. And I haven’t even explored the massive movie industry, Bollywood, which everyone says is even bigger than Hollywood. Many movies are filmed here and big movie stars like Shah Rukh Khan live in Mumbai because it’s the epicenter of modern Indian culture and business.
In New York there are endless rules people must follow regarding housing, doing business, and being on the road. Here in India however, people set up shop on sidewalks and road inlets without any form of license, and they sleep wherever. There’s no such thing as traffic rules or parking fines. I think. Cars nearly run over any pedestrian trying to use a crosswalk and even ignore the occasional (much needed) traffic controller. In Delhi, which isn’t Mumbai but still, I saw a car attempting to back over a motorbike just because he was in the way and nobody said or did anything.
Mumbai is generally super cheap. I’ve started to joke that everything costs 10 rupees (12 cents), which is a far cry from prices in the Big Apple. Train ticket? 10 rupees. Chips? 10 rupees. Cup of chai? 10 rupees. Balloon for my kid? 10 rupees. A beggar’s request? 10 rupees. A good meal will set you back a dollar. In a nice restaurant five or ten. India is a place where you’re supposed to negotiate the price for things down, but often I don’t feel the need to do so.
India has a distinct and very different culture from the west. People are far less individualistic and don't mind touching each other and sharing their space. People wear both western and ethnic (as the stores call it) clothes. Mumbaikers don’t seem to care about fancy brands—if you want a great outfit you find a good tailor. They don’t have a drinking culture. You can find very few types of beer and the cocktails are no good. You have to use a roundabout way to have alcohol delivered to your house because it’s illegal for stores to ship it.
The food culture is completely different from western food—better in many ways but still, it’s hard to get used to the level of spice and the fact that everything tastes like masala. Nobody drinks coffee but chai time is sacred. People don’t use toilet paper but rinse themselves, which is fine, but it makes for very wet and rusty bathrooms. Waste management is a major problem in Mumbai so trash is everywhere. On the other hand, the carbon footprint of Indians is far lower than in the west. They don’t waste nearly as much as we do and, as I mentioned, use far less plastic.
Contrary to what I thought, English is not the lingua franca here—it’s Hindi (or rather a mix of Hindi, Urdu and English my teacher calls “Hindustani”). Most folks in Mumbai speak Marathi or Gujarati at home and Hindi with friends. English is something for the classroom, so those with little education don’t speak English at all.