Asia 2005 : Mumbai

Back in India

Strange to be back in India. Flying into Chennai late at night, the lights of the city were not the usual orange and white but a kaleidoscope of reds, blues, pinks and greens. This was my third flight inside 24 hours and I hadn't slept in 40 hours. Still I roused my body one more time to walk over to the domestic terminal and sit out to wait for Richard and Andy to get into from Delhi.

Five bloody hours later they arrive. Blow budget on a NICE hotel.


The young man on the coach from Delhi had recalled a Hindi saying. "In Kolkata there are only poor people, in Mumbai there are only rich people. In Chennai there are only devils".

Having lived in Chennai for a year, I wasn't too sure about the devils and I was beginning to doubt his prognosis of Mumbai as well, as I hurried down the muddy path deeper into the heart of Colaba, thunderclaps echoing above my head. The shops and bars had given way to cramped slums crowded beneath blue plastic sheeting. The monsoon rains were funnelled into overflowing pots and pans which harassed looking women in sarees hurried to empty and replace as naked children splashed around in the murky puddles.

This was the reality of life in Mumbai where 60% of the population live in poverty and hundreds more arrive from the surrounding countryside every day.

Yet just ten minutes away from the slum, inside a cybercafé a group of besuited day-traders were anxiously watching their investments on computer screens. Blue and red stocks flashed up on the screen - today they were mainly red and the traders were looking glum. This was a city where fortune was only a click away. From Marine Drive the skyscrapers of banks and insurance companies stretched around the bay.

The ferry to Elephanta Island took around an hour across a choppy Mumbai harbour that was studded with dull grey warships, a reminder that the Indian navy still has a strong presence here.

From the sea you could glimpse the Gateway of India, Mumbai's most famous symbol, as it was supposed to be seen. The triumphal arch was constructed to impress British royalty and other visiting dignitaries who had arrived by steamship. In fact what was supposed to be a celebration of British rule in India became remembered more for being the place where in 1947 the last British troops slow marched out through the arch and left India. Nowadays the gate is surrounded by pigeons and men trying to sell enormous yellow balloons.

It being the monsoon season, only the 'de-luxe' boats were running, though looking at the splintered woodwork and battered seats, I wondered what the standard boats were like.

Elephanta is Mumbai's top tourist attraction and has to cater for tourists of all mobilities. Hence on arrival you could take the mini-train the good 100m to the end of the jetty. I hoped the Rs4 ticket would entitle you to a "how lazy am I" sticker.

You could then transfer to a sedan chair carried by two hefty looking coolies to take you uphill to the cave complex. Though clearly modelled on the chairs used by wealthy Romans, these didn't look enormously comfortable or sturdy. Perhaps they were the de-luxe chairs.

The main draw at the caves are the ancient stone carvings, the most famous of which is a very rare triple headed sculpture of Shiva as the destroyer, protector and creator. Once your eyes had adjusted to the gloom inside the cave temple, you could distinguish the huge ferocious face of Shiva the destroyer from the more serene visage of the protector and the almost feminine features of the creator.

The rain, which had continued almost non-stop since my arrival, had turned the downwards steps into a waterfall. An enormously fat monkey came skidding down the path behind me, then jumped up onto the stall of a man selling trinkets and jewellery. His howls and waves joined the monkey's in a loud chaotic hullabaloo. I smiled: I was definitely in India.

It can be hard to know when you're getting a fair deal and when you're getting scammed in Bombay. Take the taxis: the meters haven't been changed in years, so they still show hilariously low rates like 4 rupees for a journey right across town. So out comes the 'conversion chart' which multiplies up the fare several orders of magnitude. Thing is, there seems to be a different chart for each driver and I suspect I'm often given the "dumb foreigner" chart.

Then there's my buddy Uday. I met him on Marine Drive in the evening when I offered him the use of half my umbrella to shelter from the still-pouring rain. Turns out he works at the Prince of Wales Museum, where I'd been earlier in the day. The museum had an audio tour hosted by the excitable Sunny Singh ("Look at this Indian miniature painting... beautiful, isn't it!")

Uday offered to show me round the city the next day: then I could visit his home for some traditional Marathi food and hospitality. "My wife Sandhya and my daughter will be very happy to see you!"

Next day he turns up as promised and we go on a bit of a city tour, navigating through the chaos that is Bombay's public transport system. He also buys me lunch and pays for my haircut while he goes off to buy some medicine for his daughter (which I had to lend him 500rs for).

We then head for the chaos of Mumbai Central station to catch the train back to the suburbs where he lives... one thing, he wants me to meet his cousin who works in the ticket office. Wait right there, he'll be back in 5 minutes. And I wait. And I wait.

And I read my book. And I wait.

And I wait.

And I make a list of the signs I can see around the station

Stop, Refresh, Go
WR. Dept. Catering Services
Tourist Information Center, Govt. of Goa
Please show your ticket
Welcome to Western Railway
Western Railway
Johnson: Not just tiles, Lifestyles
Higher returns. Better security. Enjoy the advantages.
McDonald's Family Restaurant
Desi Deli: very Fast, very Veg
No Spitting
Toilets (Gents)

And I wait. And he's completely disappeared. So was all that to con me out of 400 odd rupees? Or was he mugged in some dark corner of Mumbai Central Station?

I don't know what to do, but the decision is made for me. I've got a plane to catch.

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