The streets are wet with the dew of the coming monsoon as Rajeev Samant unveils his latest enterprise in midtown Bombay. The Tasting Room is a softly lit tapas bar built into a high-end furniture store in the old textile district. The idea is to showcase Samant's range of Indian wines in a space that oozes class and cash--with bottles costing twice the average Indian weekly wage, it's meant to be exclusive. Tonight the guests include local investment bankers, venture capitalists and a group of students from the business school in Fontainebleau, France, on a two-week trip to India to see what all the buzz is about. Over Chenin Blanc and Reserve Shiraz, the patrons swap investment tips and gossip about recent sightings of Richard Gere and Will Smith. "You're so lucky to be here now," says Samant, 39. "This is an incredible time. It's all happening. Right here, right now."
He's right. If you want to catch a glimpse of the new India, with all its dizzying promise and turbocharged ambition, then head to its biggest, messiest, sexiest city--Bombay. Home to 18.4 million people and counting, the city, formally known as Mumbai, is projected by 2015 to be the planet's second most populous metropolis, after Tokyo. But it's already a world of its own. Walk down its teeming streets, and you'll encounter crime lords and Bollywood stars, sprawling slums and Manhattan-priced condos, and jam-packed bars where DJs play the music of the Punjab, bhangra--a pulsating sound track familiar to clubgoers in London and New York City. Bombay is where Wall Street gets equities analyzed, where Kellogg, Brown & Root sources kitchen staff for the U.S. Army in Iraq, and where your credit-card details may be stored--or stolen. It's where a phone operator who calls herself Mary (but is really Meenakshi) sells Texans on two-week vacations that include the Taj Mahal and cut-rate heart surgery. Chances are those medical tourists will touch down in Bombay, since 40% of international flights to India land here, delivering thousands of new visitors every day--an increasing number of whom are staying for good. The reason is simple: to know Bombay is to know modern India. It's the channel for a billion ambitions and an emblem of globalization you can reach out and touch, a giant city where change is pouring in and rippling out around the world.
But if India's biggest city is its great hope, Bombay also embodies many of the country's staggering problems. The obstacles hampering India's progress--poor infrastructure, weak government, searing inequality, corruption and crime--converge in Bombay. Although India boasts more billionaires than China, 81% of its population lives on $2 a day or less, compared with 47% of Chinese, according to the 2005 U.N. Population Reference Bureau Report. That class divide is starkest in cities like Bombay, where million-dollar apartments overlook million-population slums. For all its glitz, Bombay remains a temple to inefficiency. In 2003 it had one bus for every 1,300 people, two public parking spots for every 1,000 cars, 17 public toilets for every million people and one civic hospital for 7.2 million people in the northern slums, according to a report for the state government by McKinsey & Co. At least one-third of the population lacks clean drinking water, and 2 million do not have access to a toilet.