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Friday, 01 September 2017

Alias Mumbai

Written by Richard Taylor
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I don’t know who Charlie Gibbs happens to be but somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, he has a ‘fracture zone’ named for him. That zone didn’t sound promising – the epicenter for some future tsunami no doubt, but what struck me was the informality of it. Why not Charles Gibbs, or better yet, Sir Charles? (My travel snobbery is boundless). I was considering names hours later as we approached India and honed in on the airport of BOM, a rather unnerving abbreviation on the flight map and quaintly out of date too – the city hadn’t been tagged as Bombay for twenty years and one would have thought MUM’s the word.

Mumbai at that point was a transit stop – I had business in Gujarat State but I returned a week later to tour the city proper. With lingering, unpleasant memories of Delhi from two decades ago I felt uneasy, although that was soon displaced by a giddy worldliness, lounging in my airport taxi, taking in the sunset of a great Indian metropolis like a well coiffed exec in a Templeton Investments ad. That commercial dissolved in three minutes once the inner city traffic stopped us cold. These weren’t orderly Western jams – the in-between spaces were filled with three-wheel cabbies, scooters and any driver thinking his car tiny enough to dare. To tease me further, we ground to a halt by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (still called Victoria by a certain cohort), now ablaze with lights, but the jam chose that moment to unjam and we jumped fifty meters before I could take a picture.

Then there was the honking. It never stopped. In Gujarat it had been the same. India’s urban soundtrack.

The next morning found me in the Colaba district, which had a fair bit of lodging and the narrower streets were braided in tinsel; a very pretty effect – certainly beat laundry on the tenement lines, even if saris were more colorful than the usual wash. One could sniff Colaba’s fish market from several blocks away and the place teemed with vendors and workers inside and outside the metal shacks, cutting and cleaning the catch of the day. I peeked through a window but a guard shook his head and waved off my camera. Outside the shacks, teams of women were chopping, sorting, squatting amid great mounds of shrimp. I lifted the camera once again. One woman looked at me, then back at her shrimp. Then she cried a shrill “No.” I threw her a sheepish glance and moved on.

Colaba was walking distance to the city core and its highlights – indeed there was an unexpected grandeur to Mumbai, with its tree-lined avenues, parks and stately buildings. The usual lowlights – garbage and slums and tent cities were absent here, although a tour guide admonished me for not seeking them out.

You’re not seeing the real Mumbai,” he said. “You’re seeing only the side they want you to see.”

He had a point, but I’d seen that side of India before.


For a change, the bovines didn’t have the run of the place. There was still the odd cow but they were usually tethered at street corners and major intersections.

Within the hour I’d reached the port, where boats and ferries were moored in a light mist and the seagulls were in absentia, supplanted by pigeons flocking in force around two of Mumbai’s most famous sights – the Gateway to India and the Taj Mahal Hotel. The former, with its Arc de Triomphe styling, had been completed back in ’24, commemorating the royal visit of 1911. The adjacent hotel looked so imposing, surrounded by a battery of limousines and caleches, I assumed it was a six star grade, if there were such a thing, although its recent history had been blotted by a terrorist bomb attack some years ago.

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This is unavoidable and must be said. Mumbai is not an armed camp but there are a great many guns and guards about. Outside the fenced-in green of the university, two soldiers were sitting in a cement turret, rifles trained on the street. Banks, stations, parks, had similar security. Mumbai, indeed India is a land of many creeds and good on them for that. But it has come with a steep price.

Beyond the port, the crowds and traffic grew thicker near the Victoria Terminus, not so glorious sans its light show but an impressive edifice for all that and I stopped to chat with a young English woman who was “just admiring the architecture.” Given the niceties of Indian travel, it seemed prudent to arrange my departure a few days in hand, however the inner station was a writhing mass and the girl suggested the ‘tourist tickets’ sold at Church Gate. This led me through Mumbai’s major bazaar, which was its own bewildering maze but in the end it had been sound advice. The lines at the Church Gate ticket booths were small dribbles of ones and twos.

The next morning was devoted to cave art, something I tend to visit under duress, or to pompously bray forevermore, “I visited this unpronounceable place to see cave art and I’m a better person for it.” Thus it was a bit of a comedown visiting the antiquities of Elephanta Island. Oh, the caverns themselves were splendid, the ferry ride offered a wonderful prospect of the Gateway and the Taj Hotel and the sea breezes were lovely (Mumbai, despite lacking the jackhammer and sweat milieu of other Indian super-cities, is still a stifling town). But that pronounceable name Elephanta was suspect, an unserious tag, like Charlie Gibbs. It suggested some kind of amusement park. I could blame the seafaring Portuguese for this, renaming the perfectly good Gharapuri (‘city of Ghara priests’) for an elephant carving they’d found at the port of the island some two centuries back.

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The amusement park ambience continued with the toy train that carried us from the dock to the cave site. There, the steps and ramps were lined with kiosks and shouting vendors and BEWARE OF MONKEY signs, for the cheeky creatures had the run of the place. The caves themselves were wonderfully atmospheric, with sculptures spanning three centuries, from 450 to 750 AD. Devoted primarily to Shiva, the cave wall panels commemorated among other things, his marriage to Parvati and victory over the demon Andhaka. The caves’ grand centerpiece, where visitors were snapping ‘I was there’ photos, was the six meter sculpture of a three headed Shiva, called the Trimurti.

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Outside the caves, the monkeys were leaping and hissing and picking at fleas; one of them quaffing at a water bottle he’d stolen from two German tourists. I thought, not for the last time, what nasty, aggressive little buggers they were (the monkeys that is) and could understand why Kipling had dissed these Bandar Log in his jungle tales.

On the return ferry, three young girlfriends sat on the bench opposite, dressed in gorgeous saris. This was another surprise. In cultures that stretch back millennia, I’d found there was usually a sartorial divide with the generations – traditional wear for the elders, T-shirts and jeans for the youth. In Mumbai, and India in general, there remains a certain formality to the dress. One sees a lot of Nehru jackets and caps but the younger lads still wear dress shirts and slacks, even if they shun ties. No objection from me – among the grey rock of the cave art and sage and sienna of the surrounding hills, the saris added a vivid rainbow dash.

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Later that afternoon, I walked the opposite way towards Mumbai’s celebrated Marine Drive, but the famous boardwalk, although striking in the sunlight, did not lend itself to contemplative strolls. Despite a placid blue ocean on one side, there was the turbulent, ceaselessly honking sea of traffic on the other. Of course Marine Drive assumes another identity in the evenings, when its gentle curve blooms in a striking cascade of lights called the Queen’s Necklace. There’s still no escape from the cacophony but this seaside Great White Way is a vibrant sight.

What was left in this town of shifting monikers? Appropriately, it came down to names once more, on the morning of my departure when I scoured Victoria Terminus looking for my train, looking for my carriage. Except in Mumbai the carriages are called chairs. On the outside of CHAIR 7 was fastened a computer printout, a passenger list. Nestled among the Sanjays and Salims and Sunils, as if placed there by mistake, I found my own name.

And that was pretty cool.

 

©Richard Taylor

 

 

 

 

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 October 2017