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!