Mumbai - a city of opposites

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November 15th 2007
Published: December 4th 2007
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…of Bollywood glitz and burka-clad women…. of Louis Vuitton and the barefoot woman selling her few things from a cloth spread out on the pavement…. of businessmen and lepers…. of high rises and beaches…. of 500 AD cave temples and twenty-first century skyscrapers…. of McDonalds and street-vendors…. of posh cars and cows in the road…. of humidity-enhanced street smells and a welcome sea breeze.

“In India, rich means too rich; poor means too poor”. This, the wisdom of “Mr Mac”, my first day’s guide, can be applied to Mumbai, a microcosm of India.

I’d assumed it would be hard to leave the open spaces and wildlife of Namibia for the densely populated subcontinent, and, psychologically, it was indeed a wrench not least because the previous weeks had been so exhilarating. But it’s surprising quite how quickly you adjust. Yes, I was slightly taken aback to find the entire population of India waiting to greet me in Mumbai, notwithstanding my 1 am arrival, and the pollution-muted colours came as a shock after the crystal-clear colour of the Namibian skies, but, by the time I’d reached my town-centre hotel at lunchtime the next day, Africa seemed a very long way away. (Dauntingly, I am due to set foot in five continents before I return to her shores, I worked out as I left Johannesburg.)

In a nutshell, I found Mumbai to be an easy city for the solo female tourist. It is an eminently walkable city, even at night. That said, I tended to restrict my movements after dark but this was more because I found an excellent Indian restaurant with a lengthy vegetarian menu, good cocktails and friendly staff than because I felt at all uncomfortable on the streets. People are very friendly, and the hassle quotient is at a minimum. Your space is not invaded as, I’m afraid, it tends to be in Delhi, and people do take no for an answer, particularly if it is delivered with a smile. (Me, I tend to find stallholders’ approaches so cliché-ed that I often find myself replying with a giggle: I know their game, and they know that I know their game, and we both end up beaming happily at each other.) Many times I would find myself accosted… but only for friendly conversation: “Hello! Which country you from?” Here, I have to confess that I’d usually reply “England” (with a mental apology to my home country), explaining that I live (albeit very occasionally these days) in London; “Scotland” does not have ready associations here, and “the UK” is too esoteric. A couple of times, my response was greeted predictably with “Cricket!” and, once, with a response more associated with soccer-crazy Africa, “David Beckham!”. Of course, my marital status came in for question, as it had done in Malawi. I’m thinking of running a competition for the best, most easily understood answer to “Why are you not married?”. I read a biography of the great Victorian traveller, Mary Kingston, recently, and she encountered exactly the same problem. Her response, as she advised an audience of 18 year old girls at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, was to say that she was “searching for” her husband, coincidentally in the direction in which she was then travelling. This, she said, triggered a welcome degree of help and sympathy, as well as answering the question in hand. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love”, advises single female travellers to Bali to say “Not yet” in response to “Are you married?”; a simple “no” mortally offending the Balinese requirement for balance.

Poverty and Bollywood: the two facets of this hugely complex city that most people in the West would mention first if asked to think of a word association with Mumbai. Oddly, in their very different ways, it was these two things that dominated my week here.

“Hello, madam,” accompanied by a pleading, grimy face and an urgent hand-to-mouth gesture. I found my usually fairly robust exterior starting to crack, and, in slow motion, to shatter. In Colaba, the main tourist area near the Gateway of India, I was accosted by a small girl, Usha, whom I initially took to be a child. She had two much smaller children with her. One was her brother, but she was a little vague as to the other. I offered her money in response to her begging, but she rejected this, asking for rice instead. I wondered if this was some kind of local equivalent to the milk powder scam in Kathmandu - the sympathetic tourist is taken to a shop to purchase milk powder for the baby, but the shop is owned by a relation of the “beggar” who later takes back the powder to sell it for a second time. This was not the case here. Usha explained that, as a beggar, she is not allowed into the supermarket to buy food, so money is actually of limited value to her when it comes to buying basic food ingredients in this part of town. So we went into the shop and, rejecting her first request for the largest and most expensive bag of rice, I bought her a 2 kg bag. To my later chagrin when I had had time to think through the incident, I also rejected her request for oil and a couple of other essentials, saying that she could find someone else to purchase those for her. This girl preyed on my mind. Her face was not that of a 15 year old, yet this was the age she had given. As with “Braai”, a young boy I met in Keetmanshoop in Namibia last July, this was a face that had seen things, had been places, that someone of her age really should not have done, and I found myself wondering if she had, in fact, had to sell her body to make ends meet for her brother and the second child - her own, perhaps? I went back a few days later to look for her and to try to remedy my earlier lack of consideration. Of course, I couldn’t find her and the first needy-looking person to approach me, a woman with a toddler on one hip, benefited from my transferred guilt. I bought her rice, oil and baby’s milk, though still turned down the next three or four things that she tried to persuade me to buy. Where do you draw the line?

On the tidal causeway to Haji Ali’s Mosque, I found beggars of all descriptions, but here I found myself being sickened by the lengths to which some of them had gone in order to enhance their “case” for donations: shoes removed to reveal club feet, prosthetic limbs put to one side to display the point of amputation, and, the one which I found actually intimidating, a trio of lepers slumped in a circle harshly chanting together. Whether they were begging, praying or cursing, I could not fathom, but the effect was eerie and inhuman. I did not give them money - again to my later embarrassment when I had had the chance to examine my initial reactions in more detail. Yet who else is looking
Banganga TankBanganga TankBanganga Tank

the wooden pole marks the centre of the Earth
out for these people? Yes, received wisdom is that it is better to donate to some kind of charity that understands the “big picture” and can put money towards projects accordingly, but what price simply donating enough for a meal? After all, what does it actually cost me? Ten rupees, enough for a meal from a street vendor, is approximately US$0.25 or 12p. With displaced guilt for not giving money to the lepers on that occasion, I gave to a limbless man near the central railway station a few days later. Who puts him there every day, parked on his square of cardboard in the middle of the pavement? Who looks after him? How does he get fed or even deal with the basics in life? A small boy approached me outside a music shop in the Fort area of the city, and pointed to the chocolate brownies for sale at a nearby bakery stall: how often does he get that kind of treat (apart from, as the cynic would say, each time he accosts a Western tourist)? I disobeyed my own edict about not handing out sweet things and bought him a packet to share with his family.

There’s so much Need here. I’m not looking for credit for what little I did, nor for condemnation as to what I did not do, though I will accept the latter. I’m only struggling to explain a little of the conundrum with which I wrestled more and more during my week in Mumbai. I wasn’t out looking for Poverty in the infamous, vast slum areas of the city; I was simply encountering people as I walked around the central districts of the city, and people for whom a very little money now could satisfy an immediate requirement.

From the tragic to the comic. Two days after I arrived in Mumbai was the beginning of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and the day chosen by their respective marketing agents for two Bollywood would-be blockbusters to be released (think “Titanic” versus “Mission Impossible”). In one corner was the old-fashioned romance of “Saawariya” with its two new-to-the-big-screen stars; in the other, the well-established Bollywood pin-up Shah Rukh Khan’s latest offering, “Om Shanti Om”, with the star’s much-vaunted, newly-acquired six-pack, and the movie’s record-breaking song featuring 20+ Bollywood actors on screen at once. My hotel’s nearest landmark was a cinema. They say you can’t come to Mumbai and not go to the cinema. Everything was screaming out at me to shed any latent prejudices, and see a Bollywood movie. So I went to both movies. Now, there’s a minor technical hitch with seeing Bollywood movies in India: they ain’t subtitled. (Took me a few minutes after the first movie had started to work that one out!) Hindi is the main language used in both, but Hindi-speakers do slip into English from time to time, whether because there is no easy translation for a modern concept, or for emphasis. I could therefore understand essentially what was going on in both, but the nuances of the romantic “Saawariya” passed me by. At some point, I’ll find out why the girl went off with the scary-looking older bloke rather than the cute guy with whom she’d spent most of the movie: that bit was lost on me. But “Om Shanti Om”, catchy music and all, I thought was, by any standards, an excellent movie. It had an unusual plot which went from humour to tragedy to thriller and mystery, with a neat twist at the end. SRK, whether or not he has a Tom Cruise-size
Jain TempleJain TempleJain Temple

the 28 gods and goddesses unveiled for Diwali
ego (and he seems to be equally vertically challenged), really can act, and the new starlet playing opposite him did a nice job in her two roles. I even enjoyed the music so much - not that music was that big a part of the movie - I bought the CD. And seeing it a second time isn’t ruled out!

Diwali in Mumbai was fun. I hadn’t really known what to expect: it was suggested that it might be like being a solo tourist in London at Christmas, which isn’t necessarily the most positive description. However, the atmosphere was more like Christmas, New Year and Bonfire Night all rolled into one. Walking around town on Diwali itself and the following weekend, I was regularly greeted with “Happy Diwali!”. Firecrackers went off every night (and sometimes during the day), although - to be a killjoy about it - thank goodness for the white noise of air conditioning providing an appropriate muffling effect. Mind you, I was intrigued to see a group of kids letting off firecrackers in the middle of a narrow street, traffic notwithstanding! Sweets - mithri - are also a Big Thing, and I’m a sucker for Indian
Mumbai Municipal Government Building and Victoria TerminusMumbai Municipal Government Building and Victoria TerminusMumbai Municipal Government Building and Victoria Terminus

(or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, if you're up on the new terminology)
sweets. However, I had been a touch perturbed to hear on the news of the widespread “adulteration” of milk used in mithri-manufacture… but not so much so that I didn’t buy myself a box (and a second one), albeit with my fingers crossed… and I’m still alive to tell the tale.

The sights of Mumbai broadly, for me, fell into three categories: the religious, the Victorian and the life-ful.

Religious sites I felt I covered well.

Most stunningly located is Haji Ali’s Mosque, the romantic island mosque marking the spot where the saint’s remains are alleged to have been washed up after his death en route to Mecca.

Hardest to find, but in many ways the most rewarding, was Banganga Tank, created by the Lord Ram piercing the Earth with his arrow, a wooden pole still marking the spot that is considered to be the centre of the Earth. Surrounded nowadays by high rise residential blocks, it is a literal oasis with a quiet spirituality reflected in its simple shrines and temples. A woman sweeps the steps near the ancient resthouses for pilgrims; a man bathes in its waters on one side of the tank, and ducks and terrapins on the other side evidence the cleanliness of its waters. It was serenity in physical form, yet so close to the bustle of the city.

At Mahalaxmi Temple, the Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess of wealth (appropriate located in one of the richer areas of the city), I joined a queue of devotees because it looked interesting… and found myself being swept haphazardly along in an increasing and colourful throng of people bearing gifts to the goddess, up to and almost into the hands of the priests, one of whom then gave me food that had been blessed. Uncertain of what to do with it, and aware that I was the only one bearing food away from the shrine, I ended up giving it to beggars outside the Temple’s fence. While they seemed appreciative of the sweets, they looked a touch bemused at being handed the pink lotus flower which I had also been given and felt too self-conscious to continue carrying.

Courtesy of the aforementioned Mr Mac, I found myself visiting the Jain Temple the day before Diwali and was therefore able to enjoy the once-a-year unveiled interior of the dome on which, I’m told (I didn’t count, I must confess) 28 gods and goddesses are colourfully illustrated.

In St Thomas’ Cathedral, the oldest English building still standing in Mumbai, I found a poignant link to a future destination in my travels, the memorial to Lieutenant Henry Bowers of Scott’s doomed 1911 Antarctica expedition, erected in his memory by his Royal Indian Marines colleagues and quoting Scott himself, “as troubles have thickened about us, his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter, and he has remained cheerful, hopeful and indomitable to the end” (who could wish for a better accolade in any situation?). Elsewhere there was sad evidence of the troubles that earlier enterprising Brits had faced on the subcontinent: “barbarously put to death”, “died of cholera”, “death… occasioned by exposure to the sun”, presumed drowned in a frigate “which is supposed to have foundered in a hurricane”, “expired… performed his duty in the late Mahratta War”, and, most poignantly, I thought, a memorial to Sarah Anne King who had died, aged 34, on board a ship bound for Bombay "whither she was proceeding in the hope of recovering her health". Wife of a British Rear Admiral, she is the subject of the most devoted and affectionate eulogy in the Cathedral, an extraordinary outpouring of emotion for Victorian times.

On Elephanta Island, I was dumbfounded by the scale and preserved-ness of the 450-750 AD Hindu temples, statues and murals, carved deep into the island’s rock. While I couldn’t necessarily see all the detail of some of the murals described by the author of the 1957 (and, still, the most highly recommended) guidebook, I was amused by his directions to the Island, including that entry should cost about 2 annas (approximately 0.16p or 0.33¢)!

Finally, to further even out my religious favours, I tried to visit the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, but couldn’t work out how to get inside (pathetic, really, I confess).

Victorian and twentieth century colonial architecture still dominates central Mumbai. The traditional approach to the city from the sea is marked by the landmark Gateway to India, a monument erected to commemorate the visit of George V and Queen Elizabeth in 1911 but not finished until 1924. From there, I dropped briefly into the lavish Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel (why is it that guests at such places always look so dissatisfied?), indulged in a manageable spot of culture in the fabulous open-plan dome of the National Gallery of Modern Art (there were at least three paintings that passed my “I could live with that” test), considered briefly my former profession at the stunning High Court and my erstwhile forays into education at the extraordinary University of Mumbai, took a breather in the dusty time-warp that is the David Sassoon Library (with the exception of introducing electricity, I don’t think this place had changed in 150 years... nor have the people passing their days there), and then I did not take a train from the extraordinary Victoria Terminus, technically re-named the Chhatrapati Shivanji Terminus, which, in common with many recent revisions to Indian place-names, is better known still by its former name. All this without stepping across a threshold less than 90 years old.

For “life-ful” sites - literally, places where you can watch life in all its glorious, colourful mayhem - Mumbai has a fabulous variety. There’s Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, aka the world’s largest human washing machine processing a large percentage of the city’s daily laundry in a sea of concrete tubs, its workers earning less than £2 per ten-hour day but somehow still cheerfully thrashing the life out of each garment passing through their hands (beware delicate fabrics and the sanctity of your buttons). In Mangaldas Market, you can buy any material you require - or, in my case, that you didn’t realise you required - from a peacock-like array of silks and saris and scarves, to the more mundane denim and corduroy and cotton, all prolifically laid out for your inspection at less than a moment’s notice in stalls the size of a double-bed (and usually comprising just about exactly that, a double bed mattress with cushions around it, set out on a raised platform, the better to make customer and vendor more comfortable and to facilitate the display of the merchandise). On the Maidans, open grassed areas giving breathing space in the centre of the city, you can find, at any time of day (and night, I wouldn’t be surprised, though I didn’t actually check), more games of cricket per hectare than you might have thought possible. In the parks of the upmarket Malabar Hill, children are taken to play to work off excess energy and lovers to whisper sweet nothings to each other, and, in my case, to have fun taking arty photographs of the lively jackdaw and raven population… although I did get a bit disgruntled when I was made the subject of a local’s photograph - and “without a by-your-leave”! (Being photographed by locals is not an uncommon occurrence, either in India or other parts of Asia that I have visited this year - and I don’t take it as a personal compliment: many Westerners are targeted - but usually permission IS sought in advance... Still, I didn't make an issue of it.) On Marine Drive and Chowpatty Beach, there’s more life towards the end of the day when people emerge to take advantage of the cooler temperatures to exercise children or themselves. Or there’s simply the streets: wandering through the back streets of the Fort area, whether during the day or in the evening, was a privilege. Not many tourists come this way, yet I felt as if I were simply a fly on the wall, unseen by the locals who are too busy going about their daily lives to bother with this passing curiosity. It was here that I found my best culinary experience: a fabulous masala dosa, a large thin rice-flour crepe stuffed with spiced potatoes and served with coconut chutney, in a café that so much does not cater to tourists its name is not even written in Roman script (I only found it out from the receipt). I am a bit of an expert in this simple line of South Indian cuisine, and I can vouch for the fact that this was an excellent one (and the cheapest meal of my trip to date at Rs25 - 31p or 65¢) - Scottish to the last!

For the first time in the five or so trips I have made to this part of the subcontinent, I found myself falling in love with India. If you are prepared to take India on its own terms, rather than attempting to subject it to a rushed Western timetable, it is an extraordinarily rewarding place. I will be back, and, ideally, with even more time to savour it...

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10th December 2007

hey girl; like your style. mumbai awaits my arrival @ beg jan. your tales are really interesting. thanks for taking the time to make them available! hope you are happy and well :) bettyxx

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