A trip and a lifetime in Mumbai, India
Dinner at 35,000 feet
To most people, airline food is the equivalent of college hostel meals without any distinctive taste or pedigree, served with a deadening uniformity, and often the subject of jokes.
I, on the other hand, love airline food. The compact tray has a bit of everything that I don’t consume on a daily basis – bread roll, butter, cheese and crackers, salad and dressing, choice of meat or vegetable, a dessert or cookie, a drink, later followed by tea or coffee. Most of all I love the idea of being served a piping hot meal at 35,000 feet cruising at over 500 mph, yet perfectly still floating on a bed of clouds. And having spent hours since leaving the house, herded through security, waiting to board, waiting to take off, I am famished and ready to lean back for the trolley to pull up to my row. I am more than ready to rip off the cellophane wraps and the plastic. On long intercontinental flights, food is a consolation.
Sun ‘N’ Sand
The ocean has a prominent place in the hearts and minds of Mumbai’s residents. It is a fixture even in their sleep. To me it has a special significance, no doubt as it well might for millions of others as a place of romance. During our courtship years, Marine Drive and Juhu Beach were our favourite haunts. So a couple of days after our arrival, as our jet lag began to wear off, we took an auto rickshaw to Juhu. We started at one end and ambled along in the blazing evening sun and cool sea breeze. It happened to be a school holiday, so teenagers were out in force in addition to families and visitors from other states easily recognisable by what they were wearing. We were looking for a fresh coconut vendor and found one almost at the end of our mile walk. While we sat on a rickety bench and sipped cool coconut water, my wife decided to have henna painted on her palm and the back of one hand. This was a technique of “stamping” the henna designs that I had not seen before, and it was an enterprising young woman from Gujarat who was earning a living doing the rounds on the beach. She was also offering tattoos, but I declined.
A strange sight: a police jeep patrolling the beach from one end to the other. A sign of the times.
We spot Sun ‘N’ Sand hotel in the distance, the venue of our wedding reception 38 years ago. In the haze of sweet memories, we turn into the lane to find an auto to take us home.
To me, it has a special significance, no doubt as it well might for millions of others as a place of romance.
P O A
All non-resident Indians maintain bank accounts in their country of origin. A family member operates most of these accounts, and every visit to the motherland entails sorting things out with the bank. I needed to renew my sister’s Power of Attorney.
My father’s bank of choice since the forties was the Bank of India (BOI). And my brother, sister, and I followed suit. The bank is old world and until recently, when accounts and records were computerised, they operated in the old world of ledgers and tokens. Bank clerks and tellers must have all descended from Kafka’s dusty dungeons, as they manage to retain an expressionless face in the midst of complaining clients and badgering customers. They are the original multitaskers, seated in an open floor office, tables piled with paper, answering an inquiry, warding off another, carrying on a phone conversation with the assistant manager and exchanging words with other colleagues across the room. While restless customers are hanging around, account balances are spoken out loud for everyone to hear, forms are distributed, signatures are matched and argued over, and you are asked to report another day with the required documents, photos, and the rest.
This old world style puts rule, clause, and sub-section ahead of efficiency. An excess of caution and suspicion prevails. An example is the fuss made over scrutinising and matching signatures to the tiniest curl and dot. You can spend a good part of the morning in a pursuit that has no visible finish line. It took me three visits to get the job done.
Gongaat (din; clamor)
This Marathi word pretty much sums up what Mumbai has become – a haven for noise makers. First there is the perfect storm of traffic chaos and congestion and the ceaseless honking of car horns. The Mumbai street is the great leveler – whether you are in an auto, a cool cab, a luxury sedan, or a bus, you can be stuck in traffic for hours, inching forward and lurching along your route. Unless you are in the upper stories of a high rise, or in the shady lanes of an old backstreet, no one is immune from the blows and lashes of loud speakers, school marching bands, bandbajas of wedding or religious processions, five times a day azaan on loudspeakers from mosques, the compulsory observance of nine days of Navratri rituals, bhajan mandalis, political rallies, bell-ringing by numerous “shrines” dotting the city (protected by local dadas), fire crackers at any time of the day and night celebrating private events on public streets.
Everything is set at the highest volume. There’s recorded music and there’s live singing. The beat of the drum is insistent, pounding in your brain. This goes on into the late hours of the night. On Republic Day (January 26), the loudspeaker is spewing out patriotic songs at seven in the morning and continues all day long with periods of speeches in between.
Does anyone complain? Do the police take action if someone does complain? Probably not. For some it’s free entertainment; others don’t mind the din they’ve been conditioned to for long years. Still others simply put up with it. Is it worth getting into a fight at that hour of night only to be labeled a spoilsport?
An acquaintance maintains that people have so little joy due to the pressures of work, living conditions and family squabbles, that they find an outlet in ostentatious and noisy public display. Another reason could be the assertion of power to draw the whole neighbourhood’s attention to their private celebration and to test the public’s endurance by annoying the heck out of everyone! Having made your statement, you can walk among your peers with your head held high.
Taking the Air
A city by the sea offers beaches and extensive walkways. Marine Drive from Nariman Point to Chowpatty, which turns at night into the “Queen’s necklace,” is celebrated by locals and visitors. Other promenades are Worli Seaface, Haji Ali, Bandstand, and Carter Road. We are within walking distance from the last one. The shoreline there is rocky, although that does not prevent couples from braving its jagged and slippery surface. In addition, the Carter road shoreline has always had mangroves that have now grown to resemble a mini forest. At each end of the promenade are small fishing villages dotted by boats. Steadily, the city has encroached upon the habitat and source of livelihood of these fishermen, driving them into slum-like conditions. On a corner of Juhu road is a bronze statue of a bare-chested, muscled fisherman: a sad comment on a once-thriving community.
With its rapid occupation by migrant populations, Mumbai has always been afflicted by “illegal encroachments.” Not only makeshift dwellings along roadsides and railway tracks where an estimated 25% of the city’s 22 million inhabitants live, but every pavement is occupied by hawkers and vendors forcing pedestrians out on the heavily congested streets. From time to time the municipal authorities make a pretense of chasing away vendors and demolishing their shops, but clearly they work hand-in-hand with the police and receive a regular “hafta” after which the hawkers are back to their original spots. Of course, the vendors need to eke out a living and their crammed corner is all they can claim as their own to which they belong. The public can identify the spot with what they dispense, like the sev puri wallah under the banyan tree. When you ask for directions, you will be told that it is across from the sev puri-wallah.
The fact that the promenades have not been invaded by hawkers and have been kept clean is proof that if they are serious, the authorities have the will to keep the space a hawker-free zone. There are also the joggers’ parks, which provide new, green spaces in the concrete jungle. So citizens in the hundreds can take the air along these walkways of sanity in a city that thrives on chaos.
An aside: A growing phenomenon all over the city is the presence of young men and women in “dating” situations on the parapets, the benches, and the rocks. One cannot miss seeing young women in hijabs meeting their boyfriends who, like a lot of young men, have motorbikes. It is obvious that these meetings are clandestine since Muslim families tend to be especially conservative in this regard. But the young are never short of ingenious schemes to evade parental oversight. To them, I raise my glass of lassi!
Nothing comes close to describing the experience of navigating Mumbai streets, whether as a pedestrian, a passenger in a cab or auto, or behind the wheel. In a city with over two million vehicles on single/double/or three lane streets, there is just not enough space for traffic to move smoothly at an even pace. With all the fumes from the exhaust, Mumbai citizens are increasingly prone to respiratory illnesses. Like in other major cities, there seems to be no solution to the air pollution problem.
It used to be that the movement of traffic would be towards South Mumbai during peak hours of office-going and the reverse would occur in the evening so traffic snarls could be timed and pinpointed. Not anymore. Businesses have sprouted all over (east, west, north) so there is no clear demarcation anymore of peak and off-peak hours. The rush is both ways and congestion begins at 8 am and lasts until 10 pm on the main arteries, whether in the city or suburbs.
Everyone is in a hurry to get to where they are going and this dictates driving styles and road manners or lack thereof. The concept of etiquette is non-existent. Lanes might as well not be drawn because the vehicles are packed end to end in six columns. When the signals change to green, the race is on. Motor bikes weave in and out of car streams. Cars are bumper to bumper and a handshake apart. A terribly wrenching sight is to see an ambulance with a siren wailing unable to make it out of the traffic glut. There is no room to suddenly get a lane free for the ambulance’s swift passage. But more disheartening is to see no one moving aside to give right of way when the traffic begins to move.
Auto rickshaws are the daredevils of the street, swerving through twists and turns at breakneck speeds while you clutch the seat or bite your nails. Incidentally, the autos are open on both sides so taxis provide relatively more protection. The most notable feature of the free-for-all of Mumbai streets is the absence of 2-way stop and go signs on busy cross streets. So drivers just shoot across or muscle their way in, taking right or left turns coming face to face with other unruly drivers and simply waiting for someone to budge.
Scores of flyovers have been built and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, which is a fast toll bridge, is a marvel. But it provides temporary respite and saves 20-30 minutes, because once you get off the speedway, you are sucked back into the snare of traffic. Surprisingly, except for non-stop honking, there is very little yelling or cursing on the streets. There seems to be an unwritten code of tolerance and patience since no real solution seems to be at hand. It is more like resignation. Occupants of the cars, ricks, and motorbikes wait with blank faces switching off their emotions to preserve their sanity.
It has been noted that Indians don’t smile as much as Americans do. Whether in the streets or trains, or buses or posing for yearbook photos, or family portraits, Indians wear serious, almost glum expressions. With the daily frustrations like water shut-offs, rising prices, unaffordable health care, grinding postal and banking services, bribery, stench, unsafe walking conditions – what, one may ask, is there to smile about?
Crossing the street in heavy traffic is a challenge met by the locals with nonchalance. Running across the street is a necessary skill since there is no other option. There are foot bridges in some spots which allow pedestrians safe passage, but there are not enough of them. They involve trudging up and down stairs, so pedestrians prefer to dodge their way through the traffic. Old habits die hard.
Even walking, except on promenades which are tiled and rubble-free, is a hazard on ordinary pavements. The ground is so uneven because patchwork repairs leave piles of mud or bricks which are not cleared for years (I am not kidding. We have gone back after two years to be greeted by the same pile of rubble) and every step has to be taken with caution. And invariably, the pavements are crammed with vendors and their customers.
Despite the urban nightmare that all cities in South Asia have become, Mumbai still remains the commercial and cultural capital of India. It can match New York, Chicago, and London in what it has to offer in music, art, literature, cinema, theatre, fashion, and cuisine on a weekly basis. Its film industry is one of the largest, most successful, and glamorous operations.
Population growth, the rise of the middle class, skyrocketing real estate spurred on by unplanned development, has kept Mumbai as a hub of commercial activity. Urban squalor has claimed Bangaluru [Bangalore] as well and Pune is fast getting there. The state of the roads and the traffic backups in the IT capital of India is shocking. Pune, the once lovely hill station that served as a retreat for Mumbai residents, is out of control following the same development path. Kolkata [formerly Calcutta], although it is not as densely populated as Mumbai or Delhi, long ago became the paradigm for the fate that was to overtake other cities.
But Mumbai’s split personality is hardly a recent phenomenon. The popular song from the 1956 movie C.I.D., spells out the contradiction:
Aai dil hai mushkil jeena yahaan, zara hutke, zara bachke, ye hai Bombay meri jaan
(It’s hard living here; step carefully, watch out, this is Bombay my love.)
The second line says:
Oh it is easy living here, because this is Bombay my love.
One can go back even further to the 1870s. A recently published first novel, ‘Days of Gold and Sepia’ (HarperCollins, 2012) by Yasmeen Premji, set in the late 1800s, follows the rise from rags to riches of a migrant from Gujarat. Even though it is a work of fiction, the protagonist’s perception is right on target:
“Lalljee loved everything about Bombay: its vitality, its exuberance, its illusions, its opportunities, its oppression, its excesses, and its infidelities. It was at once voluptuous and vapid, tantalizing and tormenting. He loved its exquisite contradictions: the aroma of money, the stench of garbage, its promises and betrayals, its splendor and its sordid underbelly. It boasted unimaginable wealth, interwoven with searing poverty.” (p. 78)
The Mumbai Spirit
We are here for six weeks in January and February. We live in a seven storey flat in suburban Khar West on the Danda-Chuim village side. Chuim is one of those anomalies tucked away in some pocket of the city and forgotten or hidden in plain sight and carrying on its unique life. It has winding lanes and bungalows dating back to the early 1900s. These largely belong to the Goan Christians or to the East Indian Catholics. The elders in the former group still speak Portuguese, while Konkani is the latter community’s mother tongue.
The street we live on has all the conveniences within a quarter mile radius as do most Mumbai suburbs – general stores, pharmacies, saloons, gym, garages, restaurants, tailors, small outfits serving industrial needs, bakeries, dairies, mithai and farsan shops, and a photo studio. It goes without saying that the street is lined with vegetable and fruit vendors. The shops are even on call for home delivery. On the rim is a fish market where the daily catch is sold. There is also the ubiquitous Hanuman shrine at street end smack in the middle of the road!
Despite the pressures and stresses of big city life, what Mumbai is not, is impersonal. One comes across gracious, courteous, and helpful behaviour in what would seem unlikely places: the rickshawallahs and cab drivers, the hotel serving boys and cleanup crew, lift attendants and building gatekeepers, shop assistants, school children, errand runners and delivery personnel.
The wheelchair attendant at Mumbai’s spanking new air terminal was exemplary in this regard. His name was More (Mo-ray). He filled out the immigration slips, took us to the counter where we had to fill out another form for the non-arrival of our baggage, then to claim our cash compensation for the delay. No one at the airline’s counter gave us this information. Outside the terminal, our pick-up from the airport was a no-show. We had no mobiles. More used his to call our hosts who advised us to hire a taxi. That required going to the top level to the pre-paid taxi stand to make a booking. While I waited in line and obtained a slip, More helped locate the vehicle and put us in it. He did it all with a smile without any expectations or naming a price for the extra service. We were glad to give him a handsome tip as we waved goodbye and sped out into the Mumbai traffic.
Saleem Peeradina’s account of growing up in Bombay can be found in his memoir, ‘The Ocean in My Yard’ (Penguin, 2005). He is also the author of six books of poetry including ‘New and Selected Poems’ and ‘Final Cut’, due out in 2016. He is Emeritus Professor of English at Siena Heights University.