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Mumbai is a crush

Soutik Biswas | 11:45 UK time, Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Commuters on a suburban train in MumbaiBombay is a crowd, wrote VS Naipaul, when he came visiting the city in the late 1980s.

Two decades later, the rechristened Mumbai is a crush. Its streets are bursting with traffic, its sidewalks exploding with people. People walk briskly and with purpose undeterred by the muggy heat and the overwhelming human mass.

To get into India's financial and entertainment capital by train as we did this morning, you have to brace yourself for scenes of severe urban blight - rotting tin shanties, burning garbage, people defecating on the tracks. Brightly coloured, derelict suburban trains, which are the lifeline of the city, rumble by. The factory walls on the sides of the tracks are plastered with posters hawking English classes."Speakwell English Academy," said one. "Just Rs 750".

We drive into the city and walk into the heavily secured Taj hotel. My luggage is checked three times and scanned. It's the part of the hotel that escaped unscathed during the bloody attacks on its more famous 'antique' wing next door last November.

Memories from five months ago flood my mind. We had taken the first flight to Mumbai from Delhi after the attack and spent the next 10 days or so camped outside the hotel near the Gateway of India. Gunshots would ring out intermittently and small fires light up rooms in the old wing. In the end, the dead were taken out on gurneys.

I look down from my room on the street where we had hung around during the siege of the hotel. "All is fine now. Relax," a room service man tells me, reassuringly. Mumbai refuses to cow down.

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