As an Australian who now lives in the ordered life of Singapore, my working life takes me to many places in Asia, some of which I have the opportunity to stay for a while. Among my favorites is Mumbai, India. The magic of Mumbai always gets my heart racing – it’s almost mindboggling how this city of nearly 20 million people (a shade under the population of my entire home country) manages to function. Despite the chaos that prevails at almost every single turn, the city not only functions but throbs with a vibrancy and potency that is unique to Asia.
Whistles and Horns
The sounds of Mumbai are overwhelming. It seems no driver can resist honking his horn. I'm not sure if the honking is to warn of an advance or just to announce the driver’s presence. Each morning, I cross the main road adjacent to my office in the Worli district to buy a cold drink and a large, imposing, heavily-mustached policeman seems to delight in assisting me. He boldly marches through the teeming traffic, both hands raised with great authority, while blowing on a large brass whistle. Upon reaching the center, he holds up his enormous mitts and commands the traffic to halt. He then gestures to me to cross the road. Each step I take is accompanied by a loud toot of his whistle as he keeps rhythm with each pace. I've tried the brisk walk, the quick step and the slow crawl, and miraculously, even musically, his whistles match each of my treads. This morning I paused mid-stride, hoping to catch him out and just to see how he would handle it. A brief look of puzzlement crossed his face before he broke into a broad grin; he’d quickly become attuned to the game I was playing.
The Driving Experience - Seven Lanes into Two
My drive to and from the office each day is an experience for all the senses and certainly wakes me up. I've learned that red lights mean much the same as green ones - one just blows their horn with a little more urgency when dashing through the reds. Amber does not exist. The line markings on the roads are simply wasted paint as every driver tries to create six or seven lines of traffic even when only two technically exist. Signaling for turns can be achieved through flapping one’s arms wildly out the window—sometimes legs as well. Rickshaw drivers in particular sometimes appear to be doing a split as first one sandled leg shoots out the right side of the vehicle and then, almost simultaneously (when u-turns are undertaken), the left leg shoots out the left side, making the driver’s body look disconnected. It's not uncommon to see a family of three or four perched on a rickety old motorcycle and weaving in and out of traffic. Yesterday I saw a little boy sitting on the rear of his father's motorcycle with a plastic whistle in his mouth, his father nudging him gently with his elbow to blow when they turned corners. I assumed that their horn was not functioning. The surviving chrome on banged up old ambassador taxis is polished to a high sheen by the drivers when they are not carrying passengers; they are obviously a source of great pride for the men who drive them for up to 16 hours a day.
Bolah the Nut Boy
At 4 pm sharp each day, Bolah the Nut Boy sets up shop on the curb at the front of my office. One of tens of thousands of such child merchants and no more than 12 years of age, Bolah squats on the dusty ground and perches a rusty old oil can atop some burning embers to gently roast a pan of mixed dried nuts he can sell to passersby. He folds roughly cut pieces of newspaper into long cylindrical cones, which he fills to the brim with his product and sells for five rupees each. I find it impossible to resist his business endeavor and buy two cones each afternoon, giving him 50 rupees (US $1.20). This extravagance has apparently endeared me to him and last night, before I even realized it and before his business got busy, he took out a dirty rag and began wiping my dusty shoes. I tried to stop him but such a look of hurt and disappointment appeared on his face that I felt almost obliged to let him continue. An old beggar then appeared with a somewhat crazed look on his face and muttered something incomprehensible. Bolah promptly leapt to his feet, yelling and chasing him away. The guys in my office have told me that the name Bolah means "innocent one.” While he has the body of a frail and undernourished child, Bolah has eyes that shine with the wisdom and guile of an old man.
Indian men love their uniforms. They are kept immaculately clean and are worn with great pride. The streets of Mumbai are filled with policemen, postmen and other government workers who wear elaborate khaki or green jackets and trousers emblazoned with bright badges and huge brass buttons that are polished to a high sheen. My office has dozens of security guards and is serviced by four lifts. In each lift is seated a uniformed operator whose sole responsibility is to press the floor buttons to where you need to go. On my first day I made the dreadful mistake of actually pushing the button myself. Again I received such a look of hurt and devastation that I haven’t dared to press one since.
Women wear bright saris and many have traditional Hindi nose piercings ornamented with tiny silver bells. If the road traffic wasn’t so loud, I'm sure passersby could hear tiny tinkles as these women go about their business.