Geography is Human. Geography is Mumbai.

Shaj Mathew is a seventeen-year-old high school senior from Maryland. When he’s not in school, he reads The New Yorker and talks soccer on his website. He was most recently published in the online literary magazine, The Millions. You can reach him at

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The quintessential Indian car, the Hindustan Ambassador has remained popular despite an influx of new foreign imports.

Um…is that cow going to move?

The engine of the Toyota Innova (think Sienna lite) stutters to a low growl, providing an ambient backdrop in the few seconds of peace. Then a succession of high-pitched, squeaky horns arrest me, and I’m subject to the whimsy of my driver, whose vertiginous lane-changes (every few seconds at least), predilection for honking (often for no apparent reason), and blatant disregard for the few traffic regulations (which may or may not actually exist) make your average Grand Theft Auto player seem like an overly cautious motorist.The cow moves; we veer back on the road; I close my eyes.

Dear God, I don’t want to die young – really.

I landed in Mumbai, India on Christmas Day 2009 for my brother’s wedding, before later traipsing about the states of Gujarat and Kerala. These travels helped me realize that geography is more than the capitals marked by stars inscribed in circles on the globe; more than the yellow dotted flight plan that marks my progress on the flight; more than the varying hues of blue that indicate deepness of the water, the yellows and greens on the map that show elevation.

Rather, I discovered, geography is human. It is the diffusion of culture, thought, ideas–globalization. Landscape isn’t strictly topographic, mind you.  It is the flow of ex-pats in the city, the (mostly peaceful) intermingling of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, the intersection of spectacular wealth and even greater poverty, history and present, and of course the requisite terrifying driving experience.  It is Mumbai, India.

Look up and see Mukesh Ambani’s $2 billion high-rise apartment towering over the penniless, crumbling slums of Mumbai that Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire made famous.  Glance at the wizened beggar lying listless on dirt in front of a garish Rolls Royce dealership.  Ponder the silver satellite dish that springs up from a destitute Mumbai slum dotted with trash.

Or consider the juxtaposition on the road: the occasional white Audi regally processes along seemingly nameless streets, indifferent to the adjacent dusty, decades-old auto-rickshaws literally overflowing with wiry passengers. They huddle together as the door-less ten horsepower contraption–one that makes the Mini Cooper seem colossal–huffs and puffs alongside the scooters, over the ruts, and through the denizens of the city.


Left: A typical street in Rajkot, India. Right: This goat–like the cow mentioned in this piece–takes a casual stroll around the streets of Rajkot, India.

Geography has facilitated the rise of this burgeoning city; while it has recently attained status as the financial capital of India, Mumbai has its economic roots in the port and shipping industry–possible only because of its peninsular location on the Arabian Sea and Thane Creek. Unfortunately, geography’s role is not always salutary–the surrounding water also facilitated the arrival of the cabal of terrorists responsible for last year’s heinous Mumbai attacks.

I am happy to report, however, that the two targets of the attacks, the palatial Taj Hotel and the more austere Trident-Oberoi, stand upright, teeming with trademark elegance, and–more importantly–guests.

Geography, as I’ve come to realize, comprises a panoply of different things; cities and culture, as well as cows and crazy drivers, collectively create a landscape that’s both physical and intangible, concrete and ineffable.

Shaj Mathew

2 thoughts on “Geography is Human. Geography is Mumbai.

  1. Wow,that was really impressive. =)
    Haha,we haven’t talked in a really long time and you probably don’t remember me but,I really appreciate your work.

  2. You know the cow did move and you still made it and got back home in one piece. Praise the Lord!! “incredible India”

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