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Published: October 3rd 2019
I glanced down at the newspaper in front of me, my spoon hovering over a fresh bowl of cornflakes. The headline read: Army to decide time and place of response. Huh? I read a little further: The possibility of a military strike against Pakistan appeared to loom large after the Modi government directed armed forces to start preparing to avenge the killing of forty Indian soldiers by a jihadi group backed by Pakistani intelligence agencies. There is a growing clamor for retaliation against Pakistan. Wait! What?! That sounds bad. Might a hot conflict ignite between India and Pakistan during my trip? I’m not sure WHAT to think, but I’d say this bares monitoring.
* * *
I went back to my room to digest this news and catch up on all the developments in what was being called the Pulwama Terrorist Attacks. They had occurred up in Kashmir and involved a suicide attack on a convoy of military vehicles. I got so absorbed in the news of the day that I did not even leave the hotel until 2pm. I was going to Chowpatty Beach. And of course, I would be going by local train.
There is something
about mastering a public transportation system. Once you have done it, the city opens up for you. Combine that with the fact that my hotel is right around the corner from Khar Station and I feel like I have Mumbai right at my fingertips. Even if I miss my station coming home, I just get off at the next one, hop in an autorickshaw, and in a flash I am right back where I want to be. And up here in the western suburbs I still haven’t seen a single westerner. It is as local as it gets.
There was no trouble finding my train and I even seemed to have more space for myself than the morning before. However, for some reason there were so many delays and stoppages as we journeyed toward central Mumbai. At one station we stopped for a very long time. So long in fact that I had begun to brace for the inevitable “this train is no longer in service” announcement. One Indian passenger became so frustrated that he got up from his seat and hung out the door to see what was going on.
That is when I noticed that out
in the railway yard all the railway workers and passersby had all stopped and were staring in the same direction. Some were even taking pictures. My mind flashed back to the newspaper article I read this morning. Could this have something to do with it? Eventually, a man with a large Indian flag draped around his shoulders came into view being led away by two grim-faced soldiers. The man was still smiling though, and some of the onlookers let loose with a few cheers. So who knows what was happening? Not me.
After arriving at my station, me and some locals played chicken with the oncoming traffic as we crossed the busy highway to get to the Marine Drive promenade and Chowpatty Beach. I walked along the pedestrian promenade and searched for a good spot to clamor down to the beach. Once on the beach I saw a large group of westerners, 15-20 people, being led around by a local guide. I felt glad that I was on my own and free to experience the beach on my own terms. And yet, I was oddly comforted by their presence because besides for this group every other member of the
teeming mass of beach people were Indian.
I found myself an undisturbed patch of sand and sat down to take it all in. There were large family groups consisting of all generations. There were gaggles of young friends walking the beach to see and be seen. There were couples sitting apart and getting close. And providing a backdrop for all this was a dazzling blue sky, sun dappled waters, and an ever swirling army of seagulls riding the currents of air.
It all felt like a movie set with the iconic curve of the beach and the tall buildings of Mumbai hovering hazily in the distance. I put some atmospheric Bollywood tunes into my earbuds and tipped my head back as I took in the scene. I began to compose a movie script in mind about a 40-year-old Westerner lost in the swirl of modern Mumbai.
After sitting for a while, I noticed four little kids, about 7 years old, had begun to cautiously walk up to me. They were absolutely delighted when I said hello to them and lit up with glee. I eventually moved back up to the Marine Drive promenade. I climbed up on
top of the stone wall that overlooks the beach. There I sat cross-legged and further grooved to the sounds of Bollywood. I must have looked a sight up there as the only westerner in sight and such a huge one at that with a freshly shaved head shining in the sun. However, no one approached and I was allowed to continue to inhabit the blockbuster in my mind.
I did not want to be out there alone when it got dark, so I left Marine Drive behind before the absolute sunset hour. There was a huge crush of people waiting for the train back at the Charni Road Station. As I waited, I became aware of an incessant tapping at my wrist. Eventually, I looked down to see a small chubby cheeked boy. Upon getting my attention, like the kids on the beach, he burst out in a huge smile and an enthusiastic hello!
When the train pulled into the station everyone pushed their way on to it in a furious mess. The first-class compartment at least had elbow room, but through the metal bars I could see the adjoining second class compartment resembled a packed sardine can.
The young guy across me just struck me as kind of edgy, like he had just done something or was just about to. No particular reason why I should think that though.
However, it all became apparent when the first class compartment was subjected to a random ticket inspection. The youth and the ticket inspector got into a heated conversation. The youth kept pointing to his friends who were looking on from the crowded second-class compartment. I had my ticket out in my hand. The inspector snatched it away from me, examined it, and then began waving it in the Indian guy’s face. It was as if to say, even this goofy foreigner knows how things are done around here. I felt kind of pleased with myself. The last thing I saw was the youth being led off the train by the inspector to what I assumed was an office and a large fine.
It was my last night in Mumbai and I was eager to try this local restaurant that I had passed on my first day explorations. I tried to order a beer there, but the waiter said that they didn’t have any. So I settled
for a lassi and a cola. Good thing too maybe, because in my old age the booze keeps me awake instead of putting me to sleep and tomorrow promised to be a busy travel day to Varanasi. As I sipped my lassi, which was smooth and right on the money, I began to observe my surroundings. The majority of the other customers were Muslim, and the big guy at the door with the big white beard was definitely Muslim. Yipes! I think I just tried to order beer at a Muslim restaurant.
However, the staff seemed to take no offense and were very kind to me. I ordered mutton korma, paneer tikka, and portions of rice and naan. There wasn’t too much mutton, but the sauce was delicious and at least I wouldn’t overeat. The paneer tikka was out of this world. I must remember to thank Vic from back in Bradford for introducing me to this particular dish. Chargrilled cheese marinated in spices. Swaadisht!
While eating I began to write in my travel journal about something that had been on my mind throughout my stay in Mumbai. India doesn’t seem that daunting this time. Why?
I’d changed as a person and traveler since my 2008 trip? This was undoubtedly true, but there was more. Maybe it had something to do with my goal of coming here, which was to give a better account of myself. I have noticed that his time around I have been more determined, fierce, and just not backing down from the experience no matter what. Maybe it was because India is modernizing rapidly. It really is hard to be intimidated by a place where everyone is carrying smartphones and taking selfies.
Or it could be as simple as Mumbai is not Delhi. Mumbai is a relatively a young city. A few short centuries ago it was just a fishing village. On the other hand, Delhi is ancient with a history spanning millennia. It is bigger and just felt crushing to me, like you could feel the weight of all those people. Delhi seemed sprawling, but Mumbai has opened up for me along the train line making it feel more manageable. In Delhi it just felt that that there were people everywhere, but here I had been able to carve out some space for myself and live my Bollywood dream.
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