A DAY IN MUMBAI
October 26th 8 am. The airconditioning is rattling away. I leap out of bed allowing adrenaline to conquer jet-lag after a 26 hour flight from Canada. I fling open the windows and luxuriate in blue sky and a hot blast of morning air. I always begin my trips to India in a comfortable pad knowing that assimilation will take time.
At breakfast my fellow guests are glued to the TV. A local Bollywood heartthrob is hotly denying his role in a late night hit-and-run. Must have been his chauffeur he sniffily asserts. India's film industry, centred in Mumbai, is the world's largest. Stardom is stunningly profitable and predictably precarious. Eggs marsala or the omelette? - Mmm - better start with the omelette!
My first foray into the city centre and I have been transplanted into a pleasant English provincial town. Grand Victorian buildings plus an 80 metre clock tower that once blasted "God save the queen" and "Rule Brittania" on the hour, overshadow The Oval - A green space appropriated by cricketers.
The circular pavilion designated "for students only" is packed with focussed, intense young faces. Every desk and chair is occupied. The clip-clop of a horse-drawn calash. A double-decker bus. A charming scene.
The vast Gothic pile which occupies an entire city block could be a replica of ‘The Grand Hotel' from a faded English seaside resort. It is The Victoria terminus railway station. A whimsical thought: Could the next Harry Potter movie be a Bollywood Blockbuster!
A tug at my ankle brings me back to reality. His legless trunk is perched on a skateboard the size of a generous tea-tray. A pair of tatty thongs held in two claw-like hands propells him on rusting castors towards any foreigner with surprising agility. He, is the other face of this sophisticated city.
I am determined to get behind the mask of gentility. At the open-air Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat - The municipal laundry - Five thousand dhobi-wallahs are busy pounding the city's dirty linen into an early grave. No wonder the blazing red of my mock Polo golf- shirt was instantly reduced to insipid pink! In contrast, the room number indelibly inscribed on the waistband of my Y-fronts will surely outlive the garment. Generation has followed generation to work in what must rate as the world's largest laundry.
I dismiss the taxidriver at the entrance to Haji Ali's Mosque and pay 13 times the figure displayed on the antique meter. Inflation has been a problem. Both sides of the tidal road are lined with hundreds of beggars. Money changers will break a rupee into a mass of coins so you can spread a little joy into every battered tin plate, cup or outstretched hand. It is a long humbling walk.
Within the pretty whitewashed mosque lies the tomb of the Muslim saint, Haji Ali, a businessman who renounced wealth to help the needy. Volunteers are sweating over two steaming cauldrons. "Buy a meal for the poor - 10 rupees" urges the sign. I feed ten people for just over three bucks and am called a wonderful man; A generous man sure to be blessed by god. Later, I do the maths and feel queasy. For the price of a modest ‘dinner for two' back home, I could have fed the whole lot.
Mumbai is an island of around 16 million souls, connected to the mainland by a series of bridges. Overt wealth and prosperity have acted as a magnet to rural poor seeking the dream. It is cursed by it's own success and will probably never shed the yoke of some of the worst slums in Asia.
I head to the ritzy neighbourhood around Chowpatty beach. A Muslim family is having a picnic. The eyes of the women are barely visible through slits just wide enough to mail a letter. Courting couples whisper intensely. Balloons for sale. "Hey Meester - wanna see my monkey do the moonwalk - only 2 rupees?" The sky is an intense gold. Funny how pollution produces molten sunsets.
The streets are filled with beautiful people and well-heeled tourists. A prime spot for women beggars armed with babies. A clean-cut little boy clutches his tiny sister to his hip. He teaches her the technique. "No mama, no papa, no home, no food" her voice repeats his words in a muted echo. A small crowd applauds. They will soon be a profitable team. I spot them later with their loving middle-class parents.
You can risk a salad at Leopolds, it's been an institution since 1871. The crowd is a mixture of tourists in the know and yuppies from the financial and film worlds grabbing a bite before hitting the club scene. Waiters, customers and even the beggars at the entrance are rivetted to a gutsy woman decked out in sheer pants over a visible thong. A tad over the top - even for Bollywood!
I seize the moment of distraction to nip round the corner to the sanctuary of my hotel. The doorman stops tweaking his perfectly waxed moustache just long enough to deliver a friendly salute and swing open the plate glass door. In just one day, Mumbai has managed to confront every emotion I possess. India always delivers.
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Copyright © 2005 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.