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Friday, 01 September 2017

Alias Mumbai

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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we approached India and honed in on the airport of BOM, a rather unnerving abbreviation on the flight map and quaintly out of date too – the city hadn’t been tagged as Bombay for twenty years and one would have thought MUM’s the word.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.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 03 October 2017

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