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Asia » India » Maharashtra » Mumbai
October 26th 2010
Published: October 26th 2010
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Ten days earlier, on my way through Mumbai en route to southern Karnataka, I had met Anna, the cousin of a friend back home. She was working in Mumbai for an international fashion magazine that had newly launched in India (we’ll call it Fashionzine). We chatted over a delicious but sanitised Western salad lunch, and decided to meet up again on my way north. Nearer the time, I emailed to confirm dates, and Anna wrote back, “Let me see if I can organise for a press pass for you for Lakme fashion week. The 9 pm show is Manish Malhotra so the auditorium will be filled with Bollywood stars. Always entertaining. Let me know if you are not interested.”

As if!

Late that Monday afternoon, much improved for a decent wash, scrub and brush-up after a whistlestop ten days on the road, Anna sms’d to say she’d managed to get me a press pass. Could I get to the Grand Hyatt near the domestic terminal of the airport for 8.15 pm where she would meet me in the lobby to give me my pass? No worries, I thought. I called down to reception to order an A/C taxi but was told that those cars wouldn’t take me such a short distance. Instead, I should just come downstairs about ten minutes before I was going to leave, and they would get me a regular taxi from the street.

Lesson no.1: it is physically impossible, when relying on wheeled transport to get to a daytime or evening event in Mumbai (and, no doubt, all other cities and towns in this country) to be early. I could not have gone downstairs too soon.

Lesson no.2: go with the guy getting you a taxi so as to speed up any fare negotiations required should the driver refuse to use his meter.

At 7.15 pm, I made my way downstairs. Sure enough, the receptionist dispatched a young lad to find a taxi for me. A few minutes later, he was back, reporting that, with the unlikelihood of getting a return fare, taxis were refusing to put the meter on. Rs.200 was the fixed fare for which they would take me, “Two hundred rupees,” he said in tones of incredulity at such a vast sum.

“No problem,” I said, “I don’t have a choice.”

Back he went. He was gone a while. I eavesdropped on a self-important businessman checking out, pulling an elastic-banded wodge of Rs.1,000 notes out of his pocket and peeing off the requisite number, leaving them to flutter in the fanned air on the desk. The receptionist batted around, trying to gather them all up before they scattered further. Such is the carelessness of money in this city of contradictions.

Junior came back. No taxis were prepared to take me. Would a rickshaw do? Again, I had no choice - so much for wanting an A/C taxi. This last resort would at least give me full-body air-conditioning, albeit with added flavour of Mumbai traffic and an occasional blast of extra-hot air from bus cooling systems… For a third time, he toddled off, and reappeared in a rickshaw.

Lesson no.3: make no assumptions about what the driver of a taxi/auto which has been obtained on your behalf in this manner has actually been told. Double-check that your exact request has been relayed, that the driver knows where he is going, and what the fare arrangements might be.

Thinking naively that the auto-driver knew where he was going, I settled back and let him do the hard work of negotiating Mumbai’s busy streets. I kept a weather eye on where we were going out of force of habit and lacking much else to do. We were, at least, heading in the right direction.

After ten minutes or so, the driver started to pull up beside a mess of taxis. Now, I don’t know whether he’d actually been told just to drive me to an appropriate taxi rank, or whether, in fact, he was simply checking where I wanted to go. I assumed the latter and reiterated, “Grand Hyatt Hotel” several times, but to a look of perturbingly blank incomprehension. Warning bells tinkled distantly.

“Domestic airport?” I tried.

“Domestic airport,” he repeated back to me.

This sounded positive. After all, I started thinking, at least a taxi there would know where to go, and I could simply switch modes of transport.

Lesson no.4: go with your gut reaction. If a driver’s English is so limited he doesn’t understand your destination when you say it, either find someone asap who does and who can explain it to him, or switch to another vehicle with a more knowledgeable driver.

I was now more and more convinced that the driver had no idea where I wanted to go, and I began to have doubts that he knew where the domestic airport was. After our clarification, “Domestic airport” repeated several times, he swung right over a poorly surfaced road and through a slum neighbourhood, debauching onto main road where he turned left - still, essentially, going north - and then did a precarious U-turn at a break in the central reservation, regardless of the three lines of traffic looming down on us. Such are rickshaw drivers.

So, we’re heading south, I think. Just then, a deafening roar fills my ears: an aeroplane taking off. I am temporarily mollified. At least one of the airports is close by and they are relatively close to each other, aren’t they? We carry on, turn left and then the driver makes such a dramatic right turn, so unannounced and unprepared for, directly into another three lanes of traffic, that I actually laugh. Another driver, coming from the opposite direction and forced to brake because of this manoeuvre, catches my eye and joins in, humour alleviating a potentially dangerous situation.

After a little while, my cool and my sense of humour begin to slip a little. It’s been a while since that aircraft went over and I haven’t seen any further hint of an airport’s proximity.

“Do you know where you’re going?” I ask the driver tersely.

“Yes, madam. Look! Highway!”

Sure enough, we’re emerging onto a main road underneath a flyover which could be the one my taxi took on the way into town eight hours’ earlier… (How many flyovers are there in this part of Mumbai?) The auto-driver joins another flood of barely-moving traffic and continues to dodge and weave to get through. At one point, we get free of the jam and I briefly enjoy the sensation of moving air to cool me down. I’ve been carefully moving my skirt to try and reduce the severity of the sweaty, crumpled look, and leaning forwards to avoid a damp back. I’m still conscious, however, that my Body Shop White Musk perfume will be fighting a losing battle against eau de Mumbai.

The rickshaw lurches right and I see the familiar “1A” and “1B” signs for the different parts of the terminal. More importantly, I see uniforms at the police road blocks - road blocks which don’t so much stop traffic going into the airport as require it to do a little slalom around the barriers to get past. Technically, drivers should “Please low down the glass windows”, but this shift doesn’t look too bothered. I tap my driver’s shoulder and point to the uniforms. He understands and pulls over.

“Good evening, madam. Which airline?” the first cop greets me.

I try and explain the problem.

“Yes, madam. Which airline?” he repeats, still smiling politely.

“Not airline. Hotel.” I decide to condense the saga to the essentials.

The driver adds his bit. I catch some reference to “English”. Cop #1 decides this requires senior input, and waves us over to his seated boss. I explain again. Cop #2 seems to understand and nods helpfully. He and the driver discuss directions, the driver surprisingly grumpy considering this is on a meter so additional distance will be compensated.

This process goes on awhile. I decide to check how it’s going. “Grand Hyatt - close to domestic airport?”

Blank look.

“I was told it was near domestic airport.”

“Yes, yes, madam. Not far.”

I am prepared to go with the flow. We seem to be back on track. The driver pulls the starter handle on the rickshaw and we head off, unavoidably delayed by the airport’s one-way system. Even a rickshaw driver won’t drive against a one-way system right in front of the cops… though he seems to consider the option briefly.

So, we’re back on the road. I’m happy - or happier. Driver knows where to go. Driver knows how to get there. Traffic’s heavy. It’s 8 pm, but Anna has just sms-ed to say the shows are running late - will I wait for her in the lobby. Sure. I don’t mention I’m probably running late anyway.

Hmm… we seem
old entrance to the Taj Mahal Hotelold entrance to the Taj Mahal Hotelold entrance to the Taj Mahal Hotel

(sadly this one has not been open to the public since the 26/11 bombings two years' ago)
to be heading towards… passing the signs for… the international airport, yet Anna had been emphatic the Grand Hyatt was close to the domestic airport. Sure in my mind that the uniforms knew what they were talking about, I mentally park this minor inconsistency… and heave a huge sign of relief when we draw up to the security-guarded gates of an opulent hotel. The word “Grand” catches my eye. At last. I’ve just missed a call from Anna. I try to call her back. No answer, so I concentrate on paying off the rickshaw driver (with an excessive Rs.50 tip on a Rs.150 fare - the tip reflective of my relief rather than his expertise). The guard looks at me inquiringly. “I’m here for Fashion Week.”

“Of course, madam,” and waves me in.

“You’re looking very beautiful, madam,” a female uniformed security guard compliments me as I walk through the airport-style security screening.

“Thank you,” I smile, back in my smart-clothes/smart-location voice, not feeling at all beautiful, but badly in need of a good splash of water and a comb through my hair. I walk into the delicious cool of the foyer and ring Anna. She comes to meet me.

A few minutes later, she’s back on the phone.

“Umm… where are you? What do you see around you? Did you go upstairs?”

No, no stairs, and I describe the enormous equine statues either side of the outside doors.

“I’ll tell you what,” she says in confusion, “I’ll meet you at the Grand Café. I’m standing in front of the Lakme poster on the right. Tell them you want Lakme Fashion Week.”

I approach the reception desk to ask where to find the Grand Café. Look of bemused incomprehension greets me.

“Oh God,” I say into the cell phone, Anna still on the end of the line, “I think I’m in the wrong hotel,” uncertain of the reaction I’m going to get, feeling responsible for this crass failure on my part - not even checking the name of the hotel when I was dropped off.

Peels of laughter come down the phone. “Oh that would be too funny!”

Thank goodness for Anna’s sense of humour - and for her keen awareness of how India works. We hang up while I find out where to go: the receptionist has told me the Grand Hyatt is just across the road…

Outside, I meet my friendly female security guard and am immediately taken under the collective wing of her and her colleagues. No, the Grand Hyatt is not across the road but, maybe, in this traffic, 15-20 mins away. I call Anna back to report the added delay. We agree that, if I get there in time, great. If not, we’ll meet afterwards. Such is life.

“This is India,” I shrug, echoing the well-rehearsed excuse of another continent, “TIA, baby.” (This Is Africa.)

One of the guards gets me a rickshaw. This driver doesn’t have a rate card, so using the meter will be academic, but my new-found best friend advises me the fare should be about Rs.80 and I agree this with the driver - at least, I think I do. My final request of aforementioned best friend is to emphasise the urgency to the rickshaw driver, and this is translated.

Take #3. We drive off, though not as fast as I would like, and then those warning bells get exercised once more. Well, twice more.

The driver seems to spend a lot of time turning round. Not wanting to catch his eye, I can only assume that he is turning round to stare at me. I don’t say anything.

“You want shop, madam?”

Ohmigod! Where did THAT come from? Didn’t he get the bit about urgency?

“No! I need to get there, quick-quick. More money for you if I get there…”

“No, madam. I give you good discount,” he smiles ingratiatingly, smarmily, at me. “Look at shop…”

“NO!” I shout, “I’m serious. Get me there quickly. Now. I’m late!” I fume in the back seat.

At last he seems to get the message and, on one part of the open road, really does seem to floor it, turning round to me proudly, “I go fast, madam!”

“Good,” I say abruptly.

He’s turning round less to gawp at me, but adjusts his rear-view mirrors as a substitute. At one point, he asks me to move over to the right hand side of the vehicle. I don’t know why. I’m not going to debate the point. If it keeps him happy AND GETS ME THERE, I’ll do it.

I text Anna, “Hey, if I were Naomi Campbell, there would be a trail of dead bodies in my wake tonight!” She texts me back a smiley.

Finally, I see a familiar logo high up on a smart building. At last! Huge signs and a bannered marquee advertise “Lakme Fashion Week”. I’m definitely in the right place this time. Huge mental and actual signs of relief.

But there’s a final hiccup. The rickshaw driver asks me how much I want to pay when I ask him what the fare is. I hand over Rs.70. “No, madam. One hundred rupees,” he whines ingratiatingly.

“No. That’s too much. Seventy,” I insist.

He refuses to take the money. I put two notes down on the back seat, and get out. The driver reaches back hurriedly: a breeze is threatening to disperse my fare. I don’t see if he’s been quick enough; I’m already across the road and being directed inside by a security guard. This is definitely the right place: dozens of beautiful people are milling around inside; a tall woman fabulously attired in a bright red and gold sari smiles confidently at the cameras greeting her arrival and poses with her companion. I smile to myself at the glamour and mayhem, and try to fade into the background while I call Anna.

A few minutes’ later, I see her: wavy blond hair around her shoulders, she’s dressed in a loose sleeveless black knee-length all-purpose cocktail dress - the must-have of any girl’s wardrobe. She gives me my pass and escorts me past the burly security guards and downstairs. In the corridor outside the auditorium is a further, but more crowded, milling of people. I’m conscious of a change in the women around me. For the first time since I left the UK, I’m surrounded by women whose average height seems much closer to, if not greater than, my own. The women are also, for the most part, much slimmer than average, and the vast majority are wearing either Western dress or Indian-inspired clothing, rather than more traditional saris or salwar kameez.

Anna greets a very tall Indian girl as we pass through. “You on in the next one?”

“No,” she replies, “I’m done.”

A model, I assume. Her height is almost unnatural.

We head outside and I am introduced to the “Fashionzine crew”, including a tall French girl, Marie, a diminutive, greying, gay English guy in a striped blazer, James, the art director, here for two years and enjoying his first experience of living and working abroad (what a place to start!), and a cheerful rounded Indian guy in a blue T-shirt and jeans, a Mumbaikar called Mahesh. I think he has some technical role at the magazine. Within minutes, he and I are talking travel-in-India. I sip the white wine we picked up on the way outside, and relax. These are good people, easy to get on with. I’m having fun in my Alice-in-Wonderland way.

Although James tells me they usually announce the next show by way of a tinkle on a xylophone-type instrument, Manish Malhotra’s is heralded by word-of-mouth. “Follow me,” says Anna, whisking her way effectively though the crowds. “Press, we’re press,” she says to anyone who even thinks to question our credentials. I wave my day-pass - name-less and face-less, it simply has “Media” handwritten on it - and feel like a kid trailing in her mother’s wake. I glue myself to Anna, like an additional shadow.

The Fashionzine-allocated seats are taken - presumably by those who actually have to write something about the show - and we make our way to the back of the press seating section. Anna gets hold of Mahesh by phone and we try and get him and Marie to join us, squeezing four people into three seats, but the Lakme officials boot out the other two. They didn’t have passes and were arguing they were “press” on the basis only of their business cards. Their seats are barely vacated before they are taken by two young women. Anna and I shrug. We’d proved four could sit on three seats; now we were saddled with it, even if these weren’t our friends.

A stressed young woman appears, shuffling along our row, demanding to see our credentials yet again. She’s not Lakme staff, as one of our new neighbours points out: she has no right to do this. She starts to argue with each of us as to our right to be there, but we hold our ground. (I’m verbally sheltering behind Anna’s calm, confident tones.) Things get nasty between her and one of our neighbours. The argument ends abruptly, the invader moves sulkily off. Later we see from her microphone that she’s from TV9.

Anna points out where the Bollywooders are sitting. I stare unashamedly. No, no-one particularly familiar, although I think I’ve seen the dramatic-looking Kareena Kapoor before, long straight hair draped deliberately over her left shoulder. (I read later that Sylvester Stallone’s Bollywood debut involves her as the maid-in-distress: hopefully, they don’t have Sly doing a song’n’dance routine, do they?)

Suddenly, the lights dim, and a fast, urgent drum-beat starts. A dozen bare torso-ed male models appear, a Spartan army theme apparent. The show has begun.

And it was all over surprisingly quickly. For the most part, the men and women appear singly, sashaying quickly down the catwalk, pausing at the end for the turn before returning the way they had come. Large screens on three walls project the detail that we, at the back, cannot see. I am particularly taken by one semi-transparent, flimsy material-ed sari, the pallu of which the model carries in her right hand, the length perfectly adjusted so that, when she does the pose-and-turn at the end of the catwalk, she appears to be leaning on the excess fabric, like some delicate walking stick. That, and the gold tennis shoes which Manish seems to have each model wearing, regardless of the rest of the outfit. All the girls are sporting high ponytails fastened by a wide band, allowing the hair to swing gracefully as the girls walk.

As a finale, all two dozen or so models reappear in their final outfits and parade the catwalk to widespread applause. They remain at the entrance/exit point and Anna whispers that this is usually when a Bollywood star appears to walk down the catwalk as an encore to the main show. We wait, the music pulsing. The chosen star really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Manish is designing the kit for his Indian Premier League cricket team, the Kolkata Knight Riders, and their cheerleaders. KKR’s colours are black and gold, the dominant colours in this evening’s collection. Sure enough, this is the one face I know well from his ubiquitous presence on billboards here and the panache of last year’s “Om Shanti Om”: Shah Rukh Khan. The audience erupts; young women in the press-pack scream. SRK knows his appeal and relishes every moment. He has the female population of the room wrapped around his little finger with every tongue-in-cheek pout and raised eyebrow. Arm in a sling - Malhotra is the first fashion designer to design a sling, SRK tells us later, and only on seeing news coverage about the KKR the next day do I realise that SRK must actually have broken his arm, as opposed to adopting a sling as an unusual kind of fashion accessory - SRK parades down the catwalk, pausing to pose several times on his return. At the entrance/exit, now alone, the models having evaporated in the pizzazz of SRK’s catwalk, SRK is presented with a microphone. Anna groans audibly. And so begins a bizarre rambling, the actor thanking his friends, blowing kisses to actresses, thanking his friends, telling us about the coaching he apparently received on how to “do” the catwalk (involving him pouting “like a sex-starved fish”!), thanking his friends, thanking his friends… He must have been drunk: that would be the only excuse for this quarter-hour or more of nothing and, as Anna points out, the one person he hadn’t yet thanked, is the designer whose clothes he’s modelling. I guess why: the minute he speaks Manish’s name, the designer will appear and SRK’s “moment” will be over. Sure enough, he finally mentions Manish, managing, somehow, to make it sound as if this was all his, SRK’s, event, Manish but a footnote. Still, the gorgeous designer does appear for a final parade down the catwalk with the models, Manish arm-in-arm with his buddy, SRK. (The photos of Manish really hadn’t done him justice - he’s better looking than most of the male models he was using.)

And now it really was all over. We made our way out, met up with the others in the corridor, and headed to the restaurant for dinner. I was deep in conversation with James by this stage, the art director apoplectic about Indian fashion’s reliance on Bollywood to promote its products. In the West, Hollywood and the like may turn up to fashion shows, but only in the front row, not even doing a lap of the catwalk. Maybe it’s because our “celebrity cult” extends to the supermodel, and it is their “endorsement” or, more like, the ability of the designer to enlist their appearance, which highlights that designer’s work. Here, by contrast, the actors parade the catwalk and now, if SRK’s “performance” is indicative of a new trend, use the show as an excuse to publicise themselves, the designer and his work now relegated to a very distant second place.

But the night’s adventures were not over. We split the dinner bill four ways, handed the waiter the exact amount, picked up our belongings and made our way out. James and I lagged behind, discussing the excitement of meeting a partner at the airport (his French partner, Claude, was arriving in the morning), when we were accosted by a manager of the restaurant who was brandishing five Rs.500 notes and, apologetically but emphatically, claiming they were forgeries; could we please provide alternatives or pay by credit card. We were incredulous. I pointed out that the chance of all five being forgeries was next to impossible: my notes had come from a Bangalore ATM, and the others had come from two people, Anna and James (who was also paying for Mahesh’s meal). The others saw we’d been held up, and came back to see what the problem was. Mahesh looked at the notes and said that, as Gandhiji’s picture was visible in watermark form on all the notes, they couldn’t be forgeries. The manager seemed to be basing his argument on the metal strip through the notes, though I couldn’t understand his point. He suggested we follow him to his office and he’d show us what he meant. On the way there, Mahesh pointed out another obvious problem: we had no way of knowing that these were our notes, the notes that we’d handed over. James’s cash had been folded in four, Anna’s and mine nearly flat. This collection had been nervously folded and re-folded by the manager. He disappeared into his office and emerged a few minutes later, saying it would take a while to confirm they were forgeries. I put Mahesh’s point; the manager said we’d have to take his word for it.

“So we have your word?” I asked, with several pounds of sarcasm in my voice.

He demurred, and then abruptly changed tactic, waving us away as if accepting the restaurant would bear the loss. We were flummoxed at our apparent and relatively easy win, but didn’t stop to argue the point.

We’d debated the logistics of getting back into town, and it seemed easiest if Anna and James’s cab dropped Mahesh and myself at separate, but defined, rickshaw ranks, so we piled into one taxi, Mahesh explaining our requirements to the driver. Then someone spotted a rickshaw that seemed prepared to take me to Bandra. We unpacked ourselves and I said my goodbyes. Mahesh accompanied me to the rickshaw and confirmed the driver would take me to the Metro Palace Hotel. So far, so good, but I was left negotiating the fare.

“How much?”

“Five hundred rupees, madam.”

“Five hundred? No way. One hundred.”

“No, madam.” Pause. “Midnight rates.” Pause. “Two hundred.”

“OK,” I started to say, when Mahesh reappeared to find out what the problem was. I explained, and he told the driver to switch on the meter, and turned to explain to me the meter (which measures distance) and the rate card (which listed separate rates for after midnight). No worries.

We set off. “Hey! Meter!” I said, spotting the FOR HIRE sign was still upright. (It has to be swung downwards for the meter to start.)

“Madam, midnight rates…,” he started to whine.

“Meter!” I ordered, and made to move the sign round myself. Grumpily, he switched the meter on.

And so we made our way back, streets nearly deserted of traffic. This is a city that, its size notwithstanding, does get dark, the streetlights erratic in their functioning. It is eerie to drive through roads that only a few hours’ earlier were solid with traffic, motorbikes and rickshaws squeezing into every available - or potentially available - space between the larger vehicles, horns tooting as if in conversation or, rather, angry debate. Now, after midnight, there are only a few rickshaws, cars and taxis on the road. At the side of the road, in bursts, according to some unknown plan, taxis are lined up, going to sleep for the night. Some have their bonnets raised, whether to cool down or for inevitable tinkering. Drivers mill around, draw breath, or lie down in the backseat to sleep. Rickshaws equally congregate for the night hours, a few drivers still hovering in the hope of a final fare. We continue, stopping briefly to consult one such driver for directions to my hotel, the cab driver still grumpy at my Mahesh-fuelled insistence on the meter.

We finally reach the familiar side road from which Metro Palace Hotel is accessed, and I ask the driver to pull over.

“Now, how much?” I gesture at the meter.

“Midnight rates, madam…” This is becoming a refrain.

“Show me the card,” I order.

He shrugs. He doesn’t have a rate card after all. A common problem, if 2/3 drivers in one night is a fair sample.

“Two hundred rupees, madam.”

“No,” I say definitively. “Here’s one hundred. I was told it would cost eighty.”

I thrust the note at him and get rapidly out of the rickshaw, scuttling across the road, uncaring of the two approaching rickshaws who toot angrily at me, and uncaring of another two rickshaw drivers pulled up on the other side of the road who berate me for something. I’d had Enough, with a very capital “E”. I walked rapidly into the calm, quiet reception area of the hotel and asked for my key. It had been one heck of a night…

And I didn’t even mention the extraordinary noise that emanated from the first rickshaw periodically. It sounded as if the driver was crunching the gears. Only very belatedly did I realise that this sickly noise was his vehicle’s best effort at a horn.

Or the young man on a moped with his six year old son riding in front of him, swerving through the traffic, neither of them wearing helmets.

Or the sinking feeling of being driven along streets with shantytown-esque makeshift housing on both sides.

Or the effort of trying to sms in the back of a rickshaw, needing the sanity that a brief connection with the real world brings, but painfully aware that an unseen bump or slip could lose me the very same connection, the mobile crunched under-wheel by the next passing traffic.

Or the odd proliferation of tattoos amongst glamorous Indian women. Anna described a request from a colleague for an Indian model, specifying age range, general impression, and, specifically, “no tattoos”.

Or the non-stop conversation at dinner as we discussed food, travel, Bollywood and the fashion industry, travel companions, office meetings, the plus points of Washington, DC, my writing aspirations, Anna’s family (in response to a question from James as to how I knew Anna)… The instant, heart-warming camaraderie. The transience of the night. The secrets shared with strangers.

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