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Rich man, poor man: What constitutes a home in Mumbai for each is starkly, shockingly different.

If you are as wealthy as you are shameless – like Mukesh Ambani, India's ultra-billionaire – home is a 27-storey tower resembling a corporate American skyscraper. When I visited Altamount Road in one of Mumbai's upscale, leafy neighbourhoods, people were lying under rotten blankets at the road's edge next to a ramshackle convenience hut and a shack storing old newspapers. Next door was the Ambani house, an architectural bully like I've never seen before – a gated fortress climbing like a beanstalk of stacked steel modules into the air.

Grassy vertical gardens grew from panels on the exterior cladding – a superb example of greenwashing engineered to mask the obscene amount of space (400,000 square feet) dedicated to one family with two of the kids abroad at U.S. Ivy League schools. Way up high, from one of the tower's open-air terraces, techno-music was pumping out into the collective airwaves, as if control of the neighbourhood playlist were required as part of the family's grip on their freakish notion of a luxury home.

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Local civic authority has vacated Mumbai, that much was clear when I surveyed the guarded, impervious entrance to Ambani's folly. It turns out this epic, endless city of more than 12 million has no true mayor – the title is largely ceremonial. That means nobody to lead the charge for desperately needed running water and flush toilets for about half the population. Nobody to advocate for more public transit (there's no subway). Nobody to champion pedestrians' rights, which currently rank at zero compared with cars'. Instead, a chief administrator charged with overseeing the entire state of Maharashtra governs Mumbai. That's a dangerous power vacuum.

Mumbai is estimated to contain more poor people than any other city in the world. About 2.5 million of its people live on less than $13 (U.S.) a month, according to its 2010 statistics.

But the city's slums are not centres of crime and violence like many of the cocaine-poisoned favelas of Latin America. On the ground, the impoverished population in Mumbai scrambles to make do, often with elegance, grace and innovation. Their homes are typically the size of a modest condominium bedroom in Canada – measuring about 10 by 10 feet – and they are impressively designed as laboratories of efficiency. Against all odds, despite the buzzing flies and uncollected trash as well as the barely functioning public schools, families inhabit their tiny cells with stunning resistance. When I toured the Dharavi slum, immortalized in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, the path leading into the dark density was narrow, often with grey water running directly outside of the curtained front doors. Inside, however, the floors were scrubbed, even when there was a goat cohabiting with the family. In a modest public square, ceramic tiles had been pressed into the concrete and pappadums expertly made by the Dharavi women were drying in the sun on rounded bamboo racks.

Dignity defined the informal settlement fringing the ancient Banganga water tank in the Malabar Hill neighbourhood. One- and two-storey brick-and-concrete shanty homes called chawls spread gracefully like an Italian village around the vast, rectangular watering hole. Kids practised their swimming while women walloped laundry against the stone steps. Garbage and human waste were thrown into heaps along the narrow laneways but the interiors of the single-room homes were pristine, even though several family members occupied them.

Priyanka Shah, an architect born and raised in Mumbai who earned two masters degree in architecture and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass, photographed some of the highly efficient kitchen spaces as part of her mapping of the informal settlement. During a recent hot afternoon, we visited one home to meet a young woman and her daughter. Dry goods and spices were organized into metal canisters and lined up on shelves. Plates were kept in drying racks suspended from the wall. A small Hindu shrine was displayed next to an electric fuse box. In another home, Shah met elderly Rajeshree Bai, who lived with her family of six in a home measuring 3 by 7 feet. She slept indoors while the others slept outside, typically on mats or rattan beds. "It's extremely hard during the monsoons," she said to Shah.

It seems impossible that government would abrogate its responsibilities of providing basic sanitation for its citizens. But such is the harsh reality of Mumbai. And what of civic leadership from some of the several dozen billionaires living in India, the ones profiled in the latest Forbes India magazine? Philanthropist and co-founder of tech giant Infosys Narayana Murthy calls for "model citizenry" in his book, A Better India, A Better World. He argues that the elites of India must resist stepping into the shoes of their erstwhile colonizers and instead lend a hand to those in need.

During my last moments in Mumbai, waiting on the tarmac for the plane to take off at sunrise, I watched as people came to life nearby in the Annawadi slum, located just beyond the international airport on the other side of a concrete wall topped by a menacing coil of barbed wire. (Katherine Boo's book Behind the BeautifulForevers, winner of the 2012 U.S. National Book Award for non-fiction, provides a compelling account of life inside this slum.) A boy dragged a plastic bag onto the open commons or "maiden" to see if there might be anything worth scavenging. Several men squatted in the open, separated by a few metres, marginally apart from each other but fully visible from my plane. Day had broken in Mumbai, a city of tormented, wondrous – neglected – humanity.

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For more on India, follow Lisa Rochon's blog: chasinghome.org

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