shantaram, mumbai!

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December 12th 2009
Saved: February 12th 2014
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sunrise at gateway of indiasunrise at gateway of indiasunrise at gateway of india

eureka! now, i know what wonders the highlights and shadows functions can do to your photos. rather hdr-esque, yeah?
what must be the most comfortable overnight train from aurangabad unloaded us onto platform 13 of the chhatrapati shivaji terminus or more affectionately known by its old moniker, the victoria terminus. A proud member of the unesco world heritage club since 2004, the victoria terminus also happens to be the world's busiest train station.

at 5.30 in the morning, i could not tell.

after depositing my backpack at the cloakroom, i treaded cautiously around the comatose bodies sprawled all over the waiting hall and made my way towards the exit, still undecided whether to grab a cab or walk what appeared to be on the map a two-kilometre route to colaba.

the dimly lit streets outside the victoria terminus slowly stirred to life as time drew closer to sunrise. the bus stand slowly packed in the crowd; street vendors dished out steaming hot breakfast to commuters on their way to catch the intra-city trains; sleepy travellers emerged from taxis with their wheelies and rucksacks and an expression too deadpan to tell if they were happy or sad to leave mumbai.

i decided to take advantage of the light, cool breeze and walk. sauntering down the near empty (and clean!) streets of south mumbai flanked by decrepit victorian buildings invoked a bout of homesickness. with nary a soul in sight, you could say i was at the heritage district of singapore or penang, and i would not know the difference. this is old school globalization before the advent of television or the internet. something was amiss, though. south mumbai is said to be the commercial and cultural centre of the city, yet the familiar sights of skyscrapers were conspicuously absent. if i had not known better, i would not have guessed mumbai is the financial capital of the world's second fastest growing economy.

before i knew it, i was standing outside of the palatial taj mahal palace & tower checking out the window displays of luxury boutiques and wishing i was on the other side.

i was just in time for sunrise.

barely 7 a.m., the piazza in front of the gateway of india was already abuzz with joggers, laughter yoga practitioners, locals with nothing better to do, camera-toting tourists, boatmen getting ready for yet another groundhog day, pigeons, photographers offering to take a photo of you with the pigeons, more pigeons, excited tourists feeding pigeons with one hand and the other beckoning their significant other/spouse/parent/child/friend/colleague to take a snapshot of them in the act...

sunrise was spectacular that morning.

after sunrise, i walked two blocks to leopold's. lin, karla, didier, vikram and lisa were not at their usual table. then again, i don't think they are not morning people. i picked a table next to the bullet holes on the wall courtesy of the terrorists who were in town last november, and ordered a cheese omelette, butter-and-jam toast and chai. service was prompt and polite, nothing like the curt, nonchalant variety i had heard through the grapevine. the waiter deserved a tip.

breakfast was hearty. full and satisfied, i retraced my steps back to the gateway of india where i bought a boat ticket from a grouchy seller and proceeded to pier 4 to board the 'deluxe' tourist boat. trust me when i say there ain't nothing 'deluxe' about that boat.

as the boat chugged slowly away from the harbour, everyone gravitated to the stern squealing like pubescent schoolgirls at the glorious sight before us. we all wanted a postcard shot of the gateway of india and the taj mahal hotel side by side, which everyone at home would get on their christmas cards. remember to keep a lookout for it.

as soon as everyone returned to their seats, someone decided it was entertainment hour. with his eyes closed, a portly, balding, white-haired gentlemen went into trance mode and belted out what sounded like one religious hymn after another. we were all struck speechless. some were slightly annoyed. others pretended to be cool about it. he probably knew but he did not care. he was happy. that was all that mattered. his wife joined in from time to time for a two-part harmony, while his son busied himself with photo taking duties for his next blog "the one where my father sings his way to the elephanta island". to his credit, the father had a beautiful baritone voice.

lonely planet advises in the elephanta island section to "wear good shoes". i should have read between the lines. to reach the caves, one has to trudge up the never-ending flight of steps, flanked by who else but every tourist's next best friend, the hawkers! fancy having exclusive elephanta knick-knacks shoved in your face at every step of the way?

hot and bothered, it was only a matter of time when my impatient inner voice did a pesky bart-and-lisa-simpsons.

"are we there yet?" no.
"are we there yet?" no.
"are we there yet?" stfu!

we made it, eventually. half alive.

at the entrance of the caves, a chinese tourist in business suit was walking towards me. i thought, he could not have been in there for more than five minutes and he was already leaving. just then, his colleague called out to him.

"hey, where are you going? i think there are more caves over there."
"are you sure? i think that's all."
"how is that possible?"
"whatever. i am going shopping."

the faux culture snob in me rolled my eyes. if the chinese tourist had seen that, he would have had the last laugh, because he was (guessed) right. the rest of the caves were all empty. the archaeological survey of india must have known they were ripping visitors off big time, especially us foreigners who paid a princely sum of 250 rupees to just see one cave! so, to avoid a class action civil suit, they shipped a boatload of monkeys from the mainland to entertain us.

i think it worked.

back on the mainland, like any self-respecting tourist in mumbai, i did my tour-of-duty at the shopping district of colaba. but bored almost immediately by the dismal offerings at the stores, i retraced my steps back to the gateway of india for one last time. by then, the piazza was teeming with throngs of tourists, foreign and domestic alike, trying to outdo one another's 'creative' i-was-here poses. seeing that i was alone, i was naturally the target of the photographers. "no, i do not want a photo of myself pinching the gateway of india from the top." "yes, your photos look lovely." "i know, 20 rupees is cheap." "no, thank you. really."

i quickly found myself a cool, shady spot next to the police post (a sure-fire money-back guarantee for peace and quiet) and read my newly bought book. once again, i was humbled by the wit and intellect of levitt and dubner (the freakonomics duo).

a couple of chapters and a survey questionnaire later, the sun was showing signs of weakness and i hit the road again, this time back to where i had started.

fast forward forty minutes. i stood across the road patiently waiting for the train station to be lit in the blue hour. the blue hour came and went, but the station remained shrouded in darkness. someone at the train station needs to be fired. and it is high time the station gets a good scrubbing. the filth (who knows how many decades' worth) makes it more an eyesore than a sight to behold.

i dragged the tired, disappointed me and plonked myself down on a couch at the nearby cafe coffee day, india's answer to starbucks. a number of patrons were on the same train as i was last night. india may be a huge country, but it is a small world on the tourist circuit. after a while, everyone's itinerary is predictable.

before i left to catch the train to my next destination, i managed to finish the book. it was brilliant. the beverages and ice-cream concoctions, not so.

sitting on my backpack at platform 18, i reflected on my brief 17-hour stopover in mumbai. mumbai is a city i never thought i would have a good feeling about. till today, i cannot put my finger on the reason. (the shantaram effect, perhaps?) there are, after all, no skytrain/metro/subway, no streets upon streets of high street fashion and designer brand names, no chatuchak (pardon me, i am suffering from bangkok withdrawal), no head-turning, jaw-dropping skyscrapers vying for the coveted spot in the world's tallest building hall of fame, not much of a skyline to speak of, ... fine, i like my cities cliched. or maybe, the city is much more pleasant and far less challenging than delhi. well, anywhere is, isn't it? but more bitching about delhi later.

hopefully, the next time when i return to get to know mumbai a little better, i would be watching sunrise from my window at the taj mahal palace & tower. next stop, goa.

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