Mumbai: The gateway to India
I arrived in Mumbai scared. It was a little after midnight, not an hour when I like to make the acquaintance of a foreign city. I had asked my hotel to send a driver to meet me at the airport and had no good reason to think they would. It was my first trip to India, a country that, by all accounts, stands alone in its ability to bug-eye visitors. And I had read “Maximum City.”
No book read before visiting a place had so successfully made me want to stay home.
“There will soon be more people living in Bombay than on the continent of Australia,” Suketu Mehta portentously begins, before presenting a tableau of the more colorful residents: religious gang leaders, mobsters, hit men, bar girls, the ever-multiplying poor. He describes a city so fraught with divisions -- Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor, natives and newcomers -- that it resembled a volcano about to blow. He so vividly captures the slums, the millions of people deprived of plumbing and running water, that I seriously expected to have trouble finding toilets.
Out of his 542 pages I gleaned two encouraging lines. One claimed that, despite the city’s fabulous wealth and searing poverty, there was very little street crime. You may get mugged in Delhi, he said, but not in Bombay.
The other came at the end of a beautiful passage describing a departing commuter train. It is packed solid but, as a man comes running down the platform, arms reach out to pull him up. They belong to people who are already impossibly squeezed and damp with sweat. At that moment, he writes, no one thinks of the man’s religion or place of origin, only his need, like everyone else’s, to get to work. No one wonders how he will fit.
“Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.”
Actually, the middle of the night is not such a bad time to arrive in a city like Mumbai, as darkness hides a multitude of sins. The same cannot be said of smells. A gust of sewage hit me as we trundled across an overpass. (My hotel had come through on its promise of a driver.) Back down on the street I saw my first homeless, three men curled atop a low brick wall, evenly spaced and fast asleep.
My hotel was in Colaba, the touristy tip of the city. In the morning, in a little dining room off of the lobby, stretched a buffet of curried vegetables, dhal, rice, roti. Indian breakfast: one of the beauties of being in India.
I headed for the Gateway of India and made a wrong turn, walking for blocks in the opposite direction. It was seeing my first cow, and a garlanded temple, that threw me off. By the time I found the famous arch, I was a little weak. Painted wooden boats bobbed atop the brown Arabian Sea, here where King George V arrived in 1911, and women in saris licked conical-shaped ice cream on sticks. Behind me rose the great mass -- domed pinnacles and echoing arches -- of the Taj Mahal Hotel. I went in for lunch and used the restroom.
Mumbai’s carnivalesque character, I soon discovered, was centered here, in the hotel-and-trinket district. The tourists attracted hustlers, vendors -- stalls cluttered the sidewalks of Colaba Causeway -- and street kids scandalized by the condition of your shoes. They swung battered boxes of brushes and polishes and looked at you with insistent stares. Most people performed a service (contributing to the city’s vitality); begging seemed to be the domain of young women with babies and the deformed. One morning, a young man rolled toward me on a wheeled board, his stiff legs crossed and pointed straight up behind him.
Once you passed Chhatrapati Shivaji (a.k.a. the Prince of Wales Museum), life returned to a certain (Indian) normalcy. Walking up Mahatma Gandhi Road, I was surprised by how quiet the largest city, and financial capital, of the second-most populated country was at 9 in the morning. Cars passed on the street, a tireless horn section, but the sidewalks were fairly deserted.
Finally, I spotted a pedestrian. Feeling a kinship, I asked for directions.
“Cross the road,” the young man said. “If you survive that you’ll go straight up till you reach Victoria Terminal.”
He wore dark trousers and a light-colored shirt open at the collar. He was, he told me, originally from Madras. (Are Westerners the only ones who call Indian cities by their new names?) I asked how he liked Mumbai.
“From a working point of view I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he said. “There’s a certain level of efficiency here that you don’t get elsewhere. People are fairly punctual. They help each other. But it’s going downhill.”
“In what way?” I asked.
“People are not so law-abiding. Mugging is not going to happen to you. At night, women can go out without a problem. But people will drive through red lights. I stop at the lights. I throw trash in the bin. And I expect others to do the same.
“We just had Diwali. People are not supposed to use fireworks after 10 o’clock. But after 10 o’clock you heard them. My children could not sleep.”
Then he wished me a good day and headed off to his job in a nearby bank.
Despite the heat, I kept on walking. The train station sat like an ornate Mayan temple, constructed by a people who had disappeared. Crawford Market, a short stroll north, buzzed with robed merchants wreathed in clouds of dust. Cobwebs hung from ancient archways. In the hall across the street I stepped over fish laid out on wet concrete, swerved around piles of melting ice. Normally I love markets; even in the poor Caribbean, they’re picturesque. This place had a harsh, utilitarian cacophony.
Outside, I wandered through warrens of streets full of men. It seemed a city devoid of charm. But eventually a great space opened up, dusty grounds stirred by white-pantsed cricketers.
“In USA only Christians?” one reserve asked, after finding me a seat in the shade.
“No,” I said. “We have everybody: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists.”
His friends now crowded around. They were all college students, enjoying a break. They asked my profession; as soon as I told them, one of them cried: “Bombay is the best city!”
Everyone loudly shouted his agreement.
Their university bordered the east side of the Maidan. The campus seemed a kind of Oxford of the Tropics, august stone buildings set down on palm-fringed lawns. I paid 20 rupees to visit the library: high vaulted roof and stained glass windows. Students sat studying at long wooden tables breezed by fans. I felt guilty -- just as I had on the Bund in Shanghai -- for finding comfort in a world built by Westerners.
Back at my hotel, the elevator operator greeted me warmly. He was a wiry young man in a buzz cut and a fusty gray uniform. A book sat facedown on his little wooden stool. I asked him what it was. He picked it up and showed me the cover: Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”
There was no way I could walk to Bandra. I choose an unair-conditioned taxi outside the hotel, driven by Mohammed. We headed up Marine Drive, between a gracious crumble of art deco and the polluted Arabian Sea. (If attended to like Ocean Drive, this would be one of the world’s glamour thoroughfares.)
One hour and several slums later, we arrived at the Taj Land’s End hotel. I said I could be hours; Mohammed said he would wait.
Maya glided through the lobby in a white spaghetti strap blouse and a gauzy green skirt down to her ankles. She looked impossibly cool. And remarkably young for the mother of two grown children.
Back in her SUV, she said some of the houses around were owned by Bollywood stars. We passed a church, with swirling crowds, and I suddenly realized it was All Saints Day. Bandra, Maya said, was a Catholic area, traditionally the place for people from Goa and Portugal. She was from Delhi, her family from Kerala. But she loved vacationing in Goa.
We cruised down the main street -- Levi’s, Nike, Nine West, Baskin Robbins -- and then into a dimmer, dustier realm. People were everywhere, on the sidewalks, in the street, moving in streams, brushing our car. They were like figures in a video game, except that they were real. Maya drove unfazed, while I squirmed in the passenger seat. “I can see you moving,” she said, smiling.
“They’ll adjust,” I told myself.
One man tossed an empty bottle onto the ground. “He had good intentions,” Maya said. “He moved toward the trash can.”
A short while later, we saw a man spit. “I don’t know why,” Maya said, “people can’t swallow their saliva.”
She designed clothes and needed to stop to see her tailor about an order. He inhabited a small, low-ceilinged room with two young men working foot-operated sewing machines.
“The problem here,” she said, after we’d returned to her car empty-handed, “is that people don’t do things on time. You tell them you need something in two days and they say OK.”
But, she had told me earlier, she wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Her apartment was on the top floor of a building graced by a small statue of Ganesh, the lovable, elephant-headed god. We sat on her terrace, high above the fray. Her husband arrived and swiftly refused the Indian wine that Maya had offered me.
“So you’re going to tell Floridians about India?” Prasan asked, taking a seat.
“Yes,” I said. “God help them.”
Prasan was a radiologist, working at hospitals around the city. Many people in his financial position had drivers, but he couldn’t stand the idea of somebody driving his car. The traffic was horrendous. “As you get older,” he said, “it gets to you.”
They both practiced yoga, which was becoming popular after its American success.
Our conversation moved to food, and the use of ghee, or clarified butter. It was a delicious if unfortunate ingredient for a people who, Prasan claimed, have narrower arteries than Westerners. Heart disease, he said, is the No. 1 killer in India.
Around 10 we headed out to a restaurant. Waiters swiftly filled the little tins on our plates with soup, dhal, hot yogurt with crushed nuts, potato, and less identifiable things, which we all scooped up with warm roti. As soon as a tin emptied, the waiters returned. “All you can eat,” said Prasan, “for 99 cents.” He kept them busy. Finally pushing his plate away, he announced: “I’m not going to yoga tomorrow.”
They drove me back to the Taj Land’s End. A small crowd emerged from the darkness and pounced on the car in front of us.
“Must be a Bollywood actor,” Maya said.
A few yards away, Mohammed sat unmoved on the hood of his taxi.
Saturday night I took a taxi to the racetrack. The season was over, but I had been invited to dinner in the Mini Turf Club.
The driver dropped me off on a bridge and pointed vaguely through the night at what he assured me was a track. I walked past a two-story shantytown, fringed with shadowy figures that paid me no attention, and down a dark driveway into the wedding of the minister of civil aviation’s daughter. Once again, I had made a wrong turn. I borrowed a cell phone from one of the guests and called my hosts.
A few minutes later, I was drinking a Kingfisher a few doors down with the uncle and aunt of a friend of a friend. Menu wore a yellow polo shirt and a matching Livestrong wristband; Ruma wore a sari. Waiters moved unobtrusively around white-clothed tables, literally yards from the slum I had passed coming in. I still not had accustomed myself to the proximity of elegance and squalor.
Menu used to own horses, but he had sold them a number of years ago. He and Ruma still lived nearby; we could see their apartment building through a large window. They employed three people, which meant, Menu said, that they supported three families. This was their way of helping the poor.
On the drive back to my hotel, we passed through the red-light district. Alone, I might have thought it just another poor neighborhood, with perhaps an inordinate number of hangers-on. The women glimpsed in doorways were modestly dressed; they looked cheerless and unalluring. Bare light bulbs illuminated shabby hallways painted garish colors.
Eventually we headed down Marine Drive -- the Queen’s Necklace -- and then onto Colaba Causeway. Just before reaching my street, Menu turned through an entranceway and into a large courtyard. This, he said, was a Parsi residence.
Menu was a Parsi, a member of the Zoroastrian group that came from Persia and, for more than 1,000 years, has retained its beliefs and customs in India, as evidenced by this compound, whose well-kempt courtyard seemed of another place from the world outside. I had read that there was a tradition in Mumbai of restaurants at intersections run by Parsis (as Hindus considered a corner location unlucky), but I had not heard about the housing complexes.
“You see how spic-and-span it is?” Menu asked, as he drove slowly through. “Only Parsis can live here. Even if a Parsi marries a non-Parsi, it can be difficult getting in.”
A temple stood in the middle of the courtyard. “You see the emblem of fire?” Menu asked. “Parsis worship fire.”
On our way out, we passed a group of teens sitting on a stoop. “They don’t look like Indians,” Ruma said. “They have beautiful complexions.” By which she meant, it took me a while to realize, “light.”
At St. Thomas’ (Anglican) Cathedral the priest followed the choir in stocking feet. Suneta, changed out of her red-and-white robe, told me at the coffee hour that she also sang at Holy Name, the Catholic cathedral. “I’m very liberal,” she said. She had sat on Mother Theresa’s lap as a child and felt that that moment had established the course of her life.
Back at my hotel, I packed and read the Times of India. There were pictures of Minister Patel’s daughter’s wedding, but unfortunately I wasn’t featured in any of them. I went downstairs to find Mohammed, or one of his colleagues.
Near the airport, we stopped at a light. Soiled children surrounded the taxi, hawking their wares. One boy carried a pile of books nearly as tall as himself; they were encased in plastic so they wouldn’t topple over. I read the titles: “Clear Light of Day,” by Anita Desai; “Shalimar the Clown,” by Salman Rushdie; “Blink,” by Malcolm Gladwell; “The World Is Flat,” by Thomas L. Friedman.
The light changed to green before I could read more. The cars moved forward. The children adjusted.
I walked a lot. It was hot and I was sweaty, but going about on foot seemed preferable to fighting traffic and dodging other moving objects in a taxi. And, unlike a lot of other Indian cities, Bombay is walkable, without the sprawl of Delhi and the dust of Jaipur. And the sidewalks are generally in good shape. But there are times when you need a taxi, and they’re fairly cheap. I learned to find a driver with a high headrest and then sit behind him so I couldn’t see what was happening in front of us.
Where to stay:
The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower in Colaba (tajhotels.com; 011-91-22-6665-3366) is the grand hotel of Mumbai, with a spectacular setting on the waterfront near the Gateway of India. Doubles start at around $420.
I stayed at the perfectly fine three-star Hotel Godwin (011-91-22-2287-2050) a few blocks from the Taj. A good breakfast buffet -- with a mixture of Indian and Western foods -- is included in the price, which was about $50 a night. Staff (with the exception of the elevator operator) was aloof, but I found that to be the case in similar hotels throughout India.
Where to eat:
Mumbai has lots of restaurants -- Indian and international. The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower alone offers Japanese, Chinese, Mediterranean as well as Indian cuisine. I had a wonderful Chinese meal at 5 Spice (296/A Perin Nariman St., Sangli Bank Building, in the Fort area). The place has an extensive menu and a dessert recommended by my Indian friend called Mission Impossible. (I could tell you what it consists of, but it’s better as a surprise. It took three of us to finish it.)
What to see:
The Gateway of India; the Prince of Wales Museum (with a very informative and impassioned audio tour); Victoria Terminus; Mani Bhavan (the house Mahatma Gandhi lived in while in Bombay, now a museum); Chowpatty Beach (for the people watching, not the swimming); the Maidan (where cricket matches seem to be forever in progress); Churchgate Station (get there around noon to see the dhaba-wallahs as they head out to deliver home-cooked lunches to office workers); Haji Ali Mosque (at the end of a causeway into the Arabian Sea); Mumbadevi Temple.
I updated my tetanus and hepatitis A vaccinations. Talk to your doctor, and/or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site at cdc.gov.
More information: incredibleindia.org.
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