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September 28, 2012 8:41 pm
Matthew Spacie, the founder of Magic Bus, one of India’s largest charities, has a luxury that few in Mumbai share: a balcony with a view.
He lives in a 14th-floor apartment on Parel Tank Road, alongside Mumbai’s east-central harbour in Sewri. Once home to textile mills, the industrial neighbourhood of Sewri is gradually transforming. High-rise residential blocks have proliferated, competing for space with lower-income informal settlements and government-sponsored housing projects. Chunks of the partly constructed Mumbai Metro project, an elevated rail transportation system, are visible. Towards the east, the view extends to the Arabian Sea, and Sewri’s famous mudflats, where migrating flamingos come to breed every year.
Sewri is an unlikely expat destination. Spacie moved to Mumbai in 1996 as a chief operating officer for Cox and Kings. He had worked for the travel company for seven years after graduating in the UK. Raised in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, north-east of London, he travelled extensively with the company, often going to the Middle East, before finally settling in India.
Although Spacie was relatively unfazed by the move, he admits that the “pre-monsoon heat and monsoon humidity was overwhelming”. He initially rented apartments in regular expat haunts in south Mumbai, including the more affluent neighbourhoods of Colaba, Breach Candy and Worli.
Sewri caught his attention when his wife, Ashima Narain, a photographer and film-maker whom he met in Mumbai, began filming a documentary on migratory birds. “We were taken by the fact that there were 20,000 pink flamingos in the bay,” he says. “I knew it would take years to rejuvenate [the area], but it cuts down on my commute – my office is just down the road in Parel.” The slightly offbeat location allowed the couple’s limited budget to go far: their four-bedroom duplex apartment spans 3,000 sq ft. A similar space would cost three times as much in the city’s more upmarket areas.
In 1999 Spacie founded Magic Bus, a charity that works with children and adolescents aged eight to 18, and connects them with local community mentors through a weekly curriculum of sports activities. “Mumbai’s visual dichotomy of incredible wealth and poverty had an impact on me,” he says. “I felt irritated with myself for not doing anything after three years of expat life.”
Many charities in India look to fill the gaps in state-sponsored social welfare services by delivering educational or health services themselves. Spacie, however, was unconvinced of their positive impact. “I couldn’t understand the mismatch of resources and outcomes – why weren’t the kids I saw on the street at school, when there were enough government schools?” he says.
The drive to start Magic Bus came when Spacie invited 30 young men off the street to play rugby several times a week. Spacie, who played rugby regularly at the Bombay Gymkhana, an elite country club, believed that sport could dramatically improve their lives. Instead of asking them to pay for lessons, he requested that they serve as mentors to other local children.
“I saw these 30 boys’ lives being transformed, and it was them transforming their own lives, not me. They stopped smoking, started looking at their careers, leading more successful, happier lives,” he says. As the outreach programme expanded to several hundred children, Spacie resigned from his job at Cox and Kings in 2002, to develop Magic Bus into a fully-fledged charity. It now delivers programmes to more than 150,000 children in several states across India, with a target of reaching 1m children within three years.
He speaks about the city in an optimistic yet unsentimental way. “Mumbai has given me a wife and this wonderful purpose in my life, but it’s not always an easy place to do business. Being an international person has a balancing effect of being good and bad,” he says. Spacie’s western background initially led locals to think of Magic Bus as either generously funded or as an expensive operation, neither of which are true, he says.
For Spacie, the advantage of living in India “is that it gives you access by virtue of who you are and what you do, which you’d never get in a country like the UK, which is far less open. I’m three stops away, or two contacts from anyone I want to speak to in India. If you are running an organisation, it affords you tremendous privilege.”
Daily life, however, can be more challenging, and like many Mumbai residents, Spacie confesses to having a “love-hate relationship” with the city. He has built many close friendships, yet “what’s been very sad is that the quality of life has deteriorated, because of traffic and infrastructure. We don’t have a major park. It’s ridiculous,” he says.
But Spacie also acknowledges that the city’s rapid transformation has its perks: the growing presence of modern retailers, for example, has meant that essentials such as English mustard are now available. There is also an expanding selection of bars and restaurants. Blue Frog, Mumbai’s leading live music nightclub, with an eclectic line-up of local and international artists, is a personal favourite, says Spacie.
Although he misses certain London rituals, such as after-work drinks at the pub with friends, Magic Bus’s future expansion into Asia is a more pressing concern. “We’re becoming quite a large development organisation, but it’s quite dangerous because a lot of developmental agencies won’t look at us if we cover only one country,” says Spacie, who hopes that Magic Bus will one day have an impact similar to other global non-profit organisations such as Save The Children and Unicef.
To make life in Mumbai more manageable, Spacie gets away when he can. Weekends are taken up with mountain biking in the hills of Lonavala and Karjat, a few hours’ drive from Mumbai. And last summer Spacie returned to the UK to become involved in the sporting event of the year: he ran through the streets of Sutton, south London, in the Olympic torch relay.
• Excellent professional opportunities, a very optimistic culture
• Accessible and open to new ideas
• Warm, friendly people
• Inadequate infrastructure, terrible traffic
• Limited green spaces
• Visible poverty and income inequality
What you can buy for ...
£100,000 A two or three-bedroom apartment in a new high-rise with modern amenities on the outskirts of Mumbai
£1m A three-bedroom apartment in an older building in a prime neighbourhood, or a three-bedroom apartment in a new high-rise, with modern amenities, in a slightly less upmarket area
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