A city that nurses dreams and gives wings to everyone’s ambitions does not have the space to house them all. What is it that the city offers that makes people forget their housing woes and rush towards it in the millions every year?

Mumbai: The city of big dreams and small houses - Sheet1
Gateway of India, Mumbai_Author

The city of Mumbai has been a symbol of prosperity for every Indian since the last century. This is the city where dreams that you see can be fulfilled, the growth that you have strived for can be achieved, and the excellence you aim for can be reached. It is the fantasy that takes birth in the mind of every Indian – fuelled by Bollywood reassurances and glittering limelights.

The Birth of Bombay

In the year 1687, The English East India Company decided to shift its headquarters from Surat to Bombay due to its port proximity. This realignment of the Company’s power zones grew Bombay from a small archipelago to the ‘Bombay Presidency’, the massive trading province. The later decades of the 18th century saw the creation of one single land mass of the seven islands of Bombay, and an end to native attacks from Indian rulers to the British Company.

Post-Independence in 1947, the amalgamation of southern islands originally inhabited by the British and the suburban region was together constituted into the ‘Bombay State,’ which went on to become ‘The State of Maharashtra’ in the next decade. Bombay became Mumbai. The three decades – the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s – were the marker of Mumbai’s rapid development, with constantly changing governments and improved connectivity through the port – all leading to rapid urbanization.

The docks and the mills were the primary magnets for people in search of jobs. Migrants from near and far towns – people who could not excel financially at home – began to move towards the big city in search of employment. A majority of this migrant population was the labour class – people who were farmers, labourers, or in some other forms of physical jobs. The docks and the mills paid decently, but since these labourers sent most of their money back home to their families, and continued to live in Mumbai in tiny, cramped spaces, spending very little on their food and rent. It was due to these immigrants that the idea of low-cost housing emerged, and this gave birth to the layout of chawls for individual as well as familial living – separated rooms and shared amenities.

Less land, more people

Slums were already an identifier of Mumbai’s wetlands settlements since the pre-independence era, converting vast stretches of unfit land into developable areas. These temporary settlements changed face according to the decade we look at them in history – sometimes being called helpful, low-cost housing solutions, to sometimes being targeted as encroachments. The latter lens was much more evident, especially when the closed island of Mumbai began to face a land shortage.

Along with the port and the mills creating economic stability in the city, arts such as theatre and Bollywood began to gain prominence through the channels established by the British Raj – auditoriums, exhibition halls, and a population that invests in these heavily. Painters, singers, actors, and other stage-based workers began to see the city as their path to success, and Mumbai was established as not only an economically viable settlement, but also one that produced, promoted, and distributed art to its citizens. Some people and families had lived here for decades and would pay for all forms of art, and naturally, the artists presented themselves at these families’ doorsteps.

With the accelerated migration of people from all walks of life to serve and work for the established businesspeople and the aristocrats of the city, a natural population surge began to force people into finding homes that would ‘just do,’ rather than something they would appreciate living in. The southern portion of the town, popularly called ‘South Bombay,’ had been long established as a neighbourhood of the wealthy, and thus, the new people gradually began pushing northwards for homes to settle in. Vast stretches of forested land, marshy areas, and other ecologically rich places were demolished to create just enough room for the new migrants to live in. This formed the suburban region of Mumbai, a place where the area was low and the number of people high. Today, more than 50% of Mumbai’s overall population lives in slums.

Mumbai: The city of big dreams and small houses - Sheet2
Empress Court, one of the most prominent residences in South Bombay_Author


The massive crack that separates the liveability of the city of Mumbai from the opportunity it provides to all walks of life remains, to date, a jump that people are willing to attempt. Smaller houses in a city that can help them earn enough money to support their families, and if chance is given, grow in their careers, are always better than a sprawling place in a city or a village with no opportunity of going ahead in life and lifestyle.

The city of Mumbai has seen its fair share of overused resources and stressed lands, and yet, it happily welcomes new people into its arms every year, promising them a glittering future and dedicated involvement.

Mumbai: The city of big dreams and small houses - Sheet3
Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, is in Mumbai_YGLvoices

Oh, Mumbai!

Your majestic beauty has me in awe every time we meet,

Your dominance is inspiring,

The audience watches in silence,

As you unfold for me a series of experiences a lifetime is short to hold.


  1. Mumbai, Wikipedia. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mumbai)

A young architect turned to the world of writing through poetry, Nupur looks to bring together science and creativity at its core – through architecture. She believes that the built environment is the primary influencer of every person’s life, and the un-built, in-between spaces are where humankind grows as a species.