Mumbai: Experiencing Orchestrated Chaos

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I have always been hyper-organized, borderline dogmatic, and would get frustrated anytime things did not go according to plan. Even growing up, some people were proud to say they make full, three-second stops at stop signs. Actually, just today I was hollered at by a lady across the street as I glided through a four-way stop on my bicycle. I guess my standards of structure have changed.

It wasn’t until I was 22, stepping off the plane in Taiwan’s International Airport, that I began to realize how “structured” a life I had been living. Sitting in the cab on the way to Hsin Chu — an hour west of Taipei — zooming in between and around vans, cars, motorcycles and scooters was a heart-stopping, yet mind-blowing moment: chaos can work.

This was the realization highlighted in David Armstrong’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle. He ventured to Mumbai and caught a glimpse of the beauty in, what he refers to as, “orchestrated chaos”.

As a first-time visitor, Armstrong refers to Mumbai as India’s maximum city:

It is the financial capital of a nation of 1.1 billion people, a major manufacturing hub, home of the busiest Indian airport and the busiest Indian seaport. It is also the nerve center of the country’s ebullient Hindi-language movie and television industry.

Being the hub of nearly everything, the sense of chaos arises from its business environment: Workers commuting from the outskirts to downtown offices, people pedaling in the streets, the constant construction of corporate towers. Yet, beneath the bustle, there still seems to be harmony.

For example, as Armstrong points out, due to commuter congestion inside the trains, most workers are unable to bring a lunchbox. As a response to this, the wives will make lunches and have cyclists — dabbawallas — ride homemade meals to their husbands downtown. These dabbawallas are so organized that they are invited by business schools in India to lecture on time management. The dabbawallas found a way to flow.

If you get a chance, watch Slum Cities: A Shifting World, a CBC exposé on the intricacies of informal markets in Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro. Beneath the blue tarpaulin that shade the slums lies some of the world’s most renowned, hyper-organized micro-economies. Referred to as the “informal sector”, whole communities have found ways to maintain, even thrive, with small-scale, local business transactions. To fresh eyes it may seem haphazard, but there is an organized flow that keeps these markets afloat.

I have always found Mumbai fascinating, not only because its exotic, or rich in history and context, but because orchestrated chaos is now music to my mind.

By Brit Weaver


About the Author

Toronto born and based, Brit is an avid leisure cyclist, coffee drinker and under-a-tree park-ist. She often finds herself meandering foreign cities looking for street eats to nibble, trees to climb, a patch of grass to sit on, or a small bookstore to sift through. You can find her musing life on her personal blog,

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