Marvelous Mumbai

Welcome to the first ‘proper’ posting of 2007 on Sundeep.co.uk (the blog that cares)! Right now every day is probably a miserable monotony of broken resolutions, out sized bellies, and over extended credit cards. So to cheer you up, I’ve decided to get off my arse and continue with my verbose series of travel updates. This baby is all about marvelous, expectation defying Mumbai.

I arrived at 07:30 at the Victoria terminus train station in central Mumbai. The station was magnificent, it’s architecture screamed Victorian Britain and in the morning glow it was breathtaking. I had expected the station to be a crazy crush of touts, travellers and tricksters, but it was quieter than a muffled mouse fart! It wouldn’t be the first time that Mumbai would defy my expectations on this trip. After bargaining like a travel veteran, I jumped into a Mumbai icon, one of its black and yellow Fiat taxis. The cab itself is a cross between an Ambassador and a small 1950’s car. Safely seated (on the faux bear skin and with my head scraping the roof), we zoomed towards Colaba causeway, and my guesthouse.

I arrived at my guesthouse, it was in a dilapidated building nestled amongst other five storey lanky converted properties in a wide tree lined boulevard. The streets were eerily deserted, and the morning sunlight soft and warm, so I dumped my stuff in the room, grabbed my camera, and took a stroll. After only a few minutes I was walking along the harbour, looking at grey faded warships patiently waiting for a berth.

Sunlight reflected off the sea, shimmering against the harbour wall. The sky was early morning deep blue, the salwar kameez of passing ladies reminiscent of slender swathes of brightly coloured thick paint on 1950’s art. Ahead the Gateway of India monument stalked the horizon, its gravity pulling the tourists, travellers and associated street merchants inexorably closer.

At the triumphal arch I was mercilessly hassled by a tout selling giant surreal balloons (for 10 rupees). The description ‘giant balloons’ doesn’t quite cover it, these things were absolutely huge! Picture a floating bag of air, the size and shape of Danny Devito. Trained in the UK by a crack squad of double glazing salesman, estate agents and cowboy builders, this guy wouldn’t take no for an answer, and attempted to convince me that my life would not be complete without his giant inflatable Mr Blobby stuffed into my bulging backpack. It’s possibly the only occasion I’ve come close to buying something so someone would just ‘f**k off, and leave me alone! But lest I set a precedent for other unfortunate travellers, I (by now exasperated) pretended he wasn’t there until he went away. The only sure fire method of getting rid of touts, is to ignore them completely.

Directly in front of the gateway sits the ‘Taj’ palace hotel. The Ritz of Bombay, it oozes Prada and Gucci from everyone one of its highly polished orifices. This place surfs at the vanguard of a tidal wave of wealth which washes over Mumbai. A fleet of polished black Mercedes benz’s (carrying the Prime Minister of Botswana and his entourage) lined the road, flags flapping in the breeze. A smart tall Sikh wearing an elegant full length silk kurta pyjama, maroon scarf, with a fan like ruffle protruding from his turban, greeted the Armani suited Westerners and Indians that entered the building. This place was the essence of swank, and I felt suddenly aware of my scruffy unkempt appearance, three day old stubble, unshowered body, dusty clothes and unkempt hair. Shame on me!

Past the Taj, (in the centre of an enormous roundabout), lay a cluster of galleries and the vast faded colonial splendour of the Prince of Wales museum (now re-named something unpronounceable). The museum was a tasteful mix of Victorian and Mughal styles, elegantly proportioned and symmetrical, a grand curved half moon sweep of thick green grass edged with topiary and bougainvillea lined the entrance. Directly opposite sat the high court, and Mumbai’s university. Architechted (is that a word?) by Gilbert Scott (who designed St Pancras station in London according to my guidebook), its aged grandeur would not seem out of place in St Andrews or any other olde world British university town.

By now it was approaching noon, starving I headed back to a now transformed Colaba. It was now every bit the travellers hub. Picture Ko San or Sukhumvit road in Bangkok, and this was not far off. Whilst walking I stumbled upon the legendary ‘Leopolds cafe’. A place of pilgrimage for anyone who has read ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts. It’s nothing like I’d expected. Even the movie in ones mind is never as good as the book! I sat in the back people watching, and had a refreshing freshly squeezed orange juice, and a cheese omelet, all served by a cheery faced waiter who needed to use less oil in his hair. I contemplated swiping one of the branded shot glasses as a souvenir, but didn’t – I figured it would be bad karma!

From Mumbai I was heading north where it gets extremely cold at night. Needing some warm clothes, I taxied to Breach Candy, to find (as my guidebook described) a ‘glitzy expensive’ mall. On arrival I was greeted with four stores, all mid-range British brands, at British prices. Disappointed and not wanting a crappy M&S jacket (was this the best that Mumbai could do?) I wandered off to explore the area.

Close by was a busy Hindu temple, and (avoiding the now ubiquitous giant balloon sellers) I followed the crowd to the entrance. I found myself in Mahalaxmi temple. Devotees clanged a deafening bell as they ascended the steps. At the summit were three alcoves filled with small gaudily dressed deities surrounded by saffron coloured garlands of flowers, and incense, as well as a heaving mass of clasped hands, whispered prayers and bowed heads.

There is something ever so materialistic and transactional in the air around many of the Hindu temples I’d visited. After reading up just a little on the subject (after being entirely ignorant on Hinduism) it seems that Gods are fallible and can be capricious, and that one can gain favour by donating money and prayers to a favoured deity. With each deity having their own special skills and blessings, Ganesh for wealth and prosperity, Krishna for lovers etc. To me some of the priests and temples had the whiff of Catholicism before the reformation about them. But then again what the hell do I know!

Over the last few weeks I’d learned some of Hinduisms lore, myth, and stories. Like many religions it provides a blue print for culture, moral conscience, norms of behaviour, and a means of redemption. It’s incredibly wide ranging, tolerant, at times contradictory, and exceptionally accommodating. One certainly understands the enigma that is India better if seen through the lens of Hindu texts. India’s incredible diversity, and the inexorable pull of status, honour, and wealth are undoubtedly part spawned by its religious heritage.

By now I was tired, and so I caught a bus home. Once there I splayed myself across the bed, turned the a/c to max, and watched half of a made-for-tv movie on HBO. When it finished I was dazed, confused and feeling violated. I wanted the last few hours back after being subjected to wooden acting, artificially inflated lips, and a ripe cheese of a script! I swore myself off tv for a while.

In the evening I hooked up with Scott and Jen the Vancouverites I’d met in Goa and Aurangabad, who clearly couldn’t get enough of my British charm and sharp wit, mainly because I was stalking them! Swapping our experiences of Mumbai, we were surprised by the warnings we’d received from other travellers about the place. The three of us were non-plussed about others aversion to it, and enjoyed a meal together in a upmarket restaurant.

I’d expected a manic, dirt poor, dirty, hassle filled city, bursting to its voluptuous seams with people living in a Charles Dickens-esque nightmare of work houses filled with scruffy street urchins and people saying, “please sir, can I have some more?” Of course its nothing like that, the architecture is awesome, the roads clean (for India), the poverty where it lies is out of sight or limited, those living on the streets were warm and friendly, always greeting me with a smile and never asking for money. The only beggars I saw seemed to be professionals, and even they were relatively chilled.

Pete (the Australian I’d met in Hampi) raved about taking a tour of the Mumbai ‘slums’. At first it whiffed of exploitation and voyeurism, but when I checked out the tour companies website: http://realitytoursandtravel.com/slum-tours.html I was converted. They presented an excellent balanced view of both the pros and the cons of the tour, and 80% of profits are given to NGO’s in the ‘slum’. Ethically content I booked myself in for 8am the next morning, and spent the rest of the evening breaking my earlier vow by watching Seinfeld re-runs (Loveleen was right after all, Seinfeld is funny).

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*The second half of this post is coming soon. If you enjoyed reading this post or would like to interact, please fill in the comment form (below). Many thanks.*

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