Mumbai, November 2012
Emerging from Mumbai international airport after a very enjoyable flight (see bottom of page for some of the films and shows I watched along with a short review of each) shortly after 1.10am on Tuesday 2nd November, myself and Andy jump into a taxi towards Patrick’s flat. Patrick? No he’s not some botched drug contact, but a friend of Andy’s Mum who’s kindly agreed to put us up for our two nights in Mumbai. He’s Sri Lankan and moved to the Colindale/Kingsbury area in 1980 where he lived until very recently, having moved out to Mumbai for work as an architect.
After snaking our way around town to his gated community in our taxi, passing several armed guards, we were finally escorted upstairs to his lair. He couldn’t have been nicer, waving a hand at our apologies for getting in late and instead, offered us his personal driver for the following day (after he’s been dropped off at work).
Most people shout about London’s multiculturalism and what its residents have to thanks for it; the different cuisines, the variations of skilled labour, Nelson Mandela’s endorsement of the Olympic Games bid. But more pertinently to myself and Andy, is the realisation that hailing from the most multicultural borough in London, means it makes perfect sense for us to rock up in an Asia hub city and get hooked up with a local resident and his driver on a whim thanks to the people we live amongst back home.
The following day, we meet Mohamed, the driver who we ask to take us to the Gateway of India. On the way, we pass what must be condemned as a normal day in Mumbai; men breaking backs and women carrying the equivalent of their own body weight on their heads.
Indian Women eh’, bloody hell. In fact, more specifically old Indian women, the ageing frail ones. Back home I’ve seen their resilience, strong-willed determination, impeccable leadership and their position as silent figureheads of the family. I’m seeing it now on the streets of Mumbai and I’ll see it even more so on my trip to Delhi to come. But stick them on a plane and it’s a different story altogether as I can testify from last night’s flight from London. From the formidable Iron ladies, they’ve a propensity to reduce themselves to a heap of sluggish excuses, shuffling up and down the aisle as an air steward’s nightmare, ageing visibly every few minutes while constantly on the lookout for sympathy, a free upgrade, or an obstacle to trip up on. All the while, ensuring their ever obedient, ever present loyal son feels a pang of guilt throughout about the whole dramatic ride. But off a plane and on the streets they’re as good as gold. The sons I admire. All six in fact.
Cars and people are flying in all directions, right of way does not exist and even if it did it’d be lost in the sounds of a thousand beeps. Chaos it may be, but god-damn it’s organised. The honk of a horn is used for its intended purpose; to warn of a driver’s presence, and not as a tool for rage and fury. I’m perhaps mistaking it for cultural difference and lack of sleep, but I quite like how people talk to each other. Watching Mohammed ask for directions from fellow drivers, it’s direct and to the point, allowing strangers to extrapolate as much as they need from fellow strangers without wasting time and effort satisfying socially-bureaucratic expectations. Almost child-like, they talk to each other the way everybody does before the importance of good manners are bestowed upon them. That’s not to say their rude to each other, but just talk to each like they’ve been mates for years. Even when they take up grievances, be if for pushing in the line of a queue, they scowl and shout like kids in the playground. Not everybody’s friends, but they know each other well.
On route, Mohamed drives us through a patch of the world famous Dharavi slum, which according to him is not safe for tourists to explore despite several posters I spotted around advertising tours. One in particular irks me somewhat, which boasts of providing the best sights of the slum “made famous by Slumdog Millionaire”. Dev Patel was made famous by Slumdog Millionaire. The lack of working-time directives for Asian child actors was made famous by Slumdog Millionaire. Though I’m not sure the same should be said about the largest slum in Asia. I’m pretty sure it didn’t’ need a summer blockbuster to bring it to the forefront of people’s attention, especially over here.
I don’t really have an appetite for poverty. Sadly, this only means that I’d be unable to stomach a bag of chips walking down one of its sewage strewn back roads, and not an indicator of how I’m going to focus my incredulity into kicking off the next series Live Aid concerts.
Another thing I’m uncomfortable with is haggling with poverty. If I don’t do it with the ticket controller at Liverpool Street tube station over the extortionate price of my Oyster card, why would I do it here in Asia? Though it is recommended, if only to maintain a stable market, and not one characterised by demand pull inflation which could have severe detrimental effects on all the other street sellers and local people, but that’s a different story altogether. One good thing they do here to shelter locals from the tourism-induced inflation is a two-tier pricing strategy which is in full force across the city most notably at the National Gallery of Modern Art and the former Prince of Wales Museum, now renamed to Chhatka Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. What a name. What a country.
Or of course, if you want to be treated the exact same as locals, both in service and in price, the Starbucks that runs at the back of the Taj Palace Hotel does all the same shit you get back home. Equality through globalisation.
As we approach the famous Gateway to India perched on its own mini-peninsula, me and Andy are apprehended by two ‘Holy Men’. Guessing this must be okay, we allowed them to wrap our wrists up in red and yellow bands, synonymous with the Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan, and then were quite taken back with the wording ‘small tip for Holy Man, a small tip for India’. Okay, you got me, fairs fair. I rifled through the notes I had in my pocket still quite miffed as to the value of each domination, each one adorned with a smiling Gandhi beaming up at me. My only tip for India thus far would probably be to get some more national hero’s, but just what do you give a self-blessed Holy Man. Could give some coins, although the R1 and R2 are the exact same size and weight, the former looking more like a token for an arcade machine if not a credit for the launderette machine with its flimsy appeal and image of a rogue gloved-hand giving the thumbs up, the sole markings save for the R1 sign. We bung them a couple of 100 notes in the end and he blesses us free of negative spirits – the only thing these and will ward off are other Holy Men annoyed they didn’t get to us first.
It’s incredibly hard to find anywhere in Mumbai city centre to sit down, take a breath, tie up your shoelaces, collect your thoughts and check your wallets not been stolen. Therefore it’s a must to get into the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel which sits along the main harbour opposite the Gateway of India.
The toilets in here aren’t that bad either. Great in fact, considering Mumbai has 17 public toilets per 1 million people. Given the stereotype, India appears to have quite an adequate sewage system, my first concrete example that this country is ready for the economic opulence the world expects of it. Not to mention sustainable. Greece was never going to be a taken seriously as a stalwart of fiscal stability when their toilet walls were adorned with requests not to flush bog roll down the loo.
Leaving Mumbai was kind of similar to how I felt about Los Angeles; had a really great time and couldn’t really fault the place but for some reason was more than willing to Dunkirk when the opportunity came.
After stocking up with biscuits we headed over to the train station to catch the overnight train to Goa; carriages made up of bunk beds instead of chairs, quite common in high-density, low income countries. Taking logistics into account I volunteered myself for the upper compartment, leaving Andy the spacious bottom bunk with the with window view.
Needless to say he woke first and wasted no time in inviting me down to share the great views of India’s invigorated countryside, him looking radiantly fresh like the housewife who’s had a great day at the spa.
We got off a few stops early at Thivim, as we had a place booked for a few nights in the happening beach town of Arambol.
Now, I’m sure we’d both agree that our time in Goa was perhaps the most eventful and enjoyable and undoubtedly the period of the holiday which we’ll no doubt bore our friends about the most, but it was also the biggest chunk of time devoid of moments of reflection, and consequently will be heavily disproportionally represented in text but in an attempt to summarise we;
Visited spice farms in Ponda, lauded it up in our own penthouse apartment in Calungute, showered with elephants in the jungle, reminded ourselves of orderly chaos in Panaji, rubbed up colonial Portugal in Old Goa, moved freely within the inner circle of the original hippy settlers of ’75, became favoured locals at the Peace, Love and Little Cakes bar in Chopara, floated around Goan-trance parties, floated around on 50cc scooters, discussed astronomy with Shia and exaggerated the size of local snakes with Scottish Gary, named from memory all 50 states of America and the England world cup squad from 1966 (Missouri and Roger Hunt being the final editions), initiated ourselves as honorary residents of Arambol, walked in on a very amateurish rap video shoot atop Fort Chopara, bathed amongst identified jumping fish, came dangerously close to falling in love with some Israeli girls and overall ate so much traditional Goan prawn-based curry that at one stage I thought my dreams of succumbing to gout at such an early age had been realised.
That and the beach life is kind of what we did. Then flew out to Delhi on the eve of Diwali.
See Part 2 for stories of celebrity in Delhi, analysis of the Taj Mahal in Agra and sobering it up with the Barmy Army in Ahemedabad
We emerged from the world famous Chandi-Chowk, its name embedded in folklore for its chaotic and non-stop movement of people, animals, vehicles and fluids. So much so, I even bought a blend of tea named in its honour. This may say more about me, but I kind of admire their perseverance to keep on toiling, battling for no distinguishable reward; no holiday, no pat on the back. What’s the point if it never stops? It’s the first day of Diwali when we arrive and every inch of pavement is covered by workmen or work vehicles. Was it this busy when India faced rivals Pakistan in the semi-final of last year’s cricket world cup? Or did it come to a natural stand still almost like the images of a tranquil Trafalgar Square when England are play in a high profile game – think England-Germany Euro ’96 for example.
The only way to cross the roads here is to wait for a pile-up or traffic jam and using it to manoeuvre across safely. And to think ‘jaywalking’ is illegal in the US. I’d like to see the reaction on people’s faces here if I told them that. I wonder what they’d say if I told them that in the UK people frown on those who shit on your own doorstep, another liberty these people take for granted.
Like Mumbai its incredibly hard to find anywhere to sit and rest in central Delhi, but here’s a tip; head over to the raised partition that runs between both side s of the Netaji Subhash Marg highway. From here you can sit on a grassy verge and dangle your feet off it while watching the traffic fly beneath, and count how many people you can spot on one motorbike/scooter – 2 people, 2 people and a dog, 3 people, a family, 2 families? An infinite numbers of opportunities of reckless transit. As for gathering your thoughts its also a great place to reflect on Delhi’s madness and discuss at length ways to solve the obvious town planning problems; but don’t stay too long, leave when the conversation begins to nose dive towards drastic and often irrational utilitarianism measures.
Directly opposite here, is the famous Mughal building, The Red Fort; pay particular attention to the museum of independence and have a read about how effective Gandhi’s non-violent practices were. If you don’t want your image of him tarnished, Just don’t read about the support from Nazi Europe, the supply of arms from the Berlin Committee or exploitation of the war effort by the Ghadar movement to stir trouble amongst certain factions in Turkey. Peaceful loving Gandhi? Was he balls!
Also, it’s imperative to follow in mine and Andy’s steps in making the mistake of sitting down in the comfy and spacious women-only compartments on the Metro system before being told to leave and join the perverts and cheats further down the carriage.
By the time we get back to our hotel, the fireworks are off. Kids and older kids hastily light bangers and whirl around uncontrollably with Catherine wheels in their hands. The sounds that greet us when we emerge from New Delhi metro station is too loud to think, though I manage to observe how many of the participants are kids out in the street on their own. From my experience, I thought Diwali was strictly a family occasion, though these street kids seem happy in each other’s company. Just as well, as orphans can pick their families, just not their friends.
After heading down the main bazaar towards our hotel for our shower, we head to Connaught Place for some dinner.
After a fine meal of Indo-Thai food in a plush place, we went in search of something for dessert. Being Diwali, and most places being closed, we had to settle for a Krushems from KFC. It was here we saw the full extent of the divide and conquer of the emerging classes. Waiting patiently in the queue behind some local students, in barges the town bully who goes out of his way especially to push his way to the front of the line in the most literal sense, followed shortly by his gang of younger and less cocky foot soldiers. Cartoonish in every way, he’s dressed in black trousers, white dinner jacket and heavily laden with gold jewellery. He rests his arm on the counter using it to pivot himself round to greedily take in the faces he’s taken advantage of. Then he sees the pale and inexperienced Rob and Andy, stops and comes over leading with his big meaty hand wishing us a ‘Happy Diwali’. Generously, he allows the students to rightfully take his place at the till. He’s quite nice, to us, and after telling him how much we appreciate his country he wants a photo with us – throwing his camera at one of his boys to do the honours. He’s definitely atleast the 3rd hardest person in Delhi. Based on the fact he’s the hardest person we’ve seen and I’m sure we’ve seen atleast a third of the 11 million people that live in this City today.
For all the talk of India’s position as the emerging power house, it’s very hard to get this when walking around New Delhi. With the exception of Connacht Place, there appears to be very little to accommodate for the vital role that the City plays in these aspirations. Unless India is to rely 100% on recruiting internally, I cannot immediately see what they are offering to attract foreign investment aside from perhaps a dedicated skilled work force and generous tax relief (just speculation). An enjoyable holiday experience, I’m not sure the world’s talent would have an infinite tolerance for it. But unlike London and other global cities, Delhi’s power will not stem from its centre, buts its periphery. Its new towns, its Milton Keynes. Noida. Gurgaon. After a while these settlements of glass buildings and gated communities will become the new city centres, and after that, the only city centre. New Delhi will become Old Delhi. A Newer Delhi will evolve, reinventing itself and giving up on its traditional beliefs and values, rebranding its appeal hoping nobody notices, all in search of a new type of Delhite. Newer Delhi abandons Clause IV. The Sun Backs Newer Delhi. Newer Delhi victorious after landslide victory in the polls.
The following day we rent out a driver who comes fully equipped with his own car, in which he uses to drive us to Agra, 200km south Delhi and home to the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal; Rudyard Kipling described it as ‘the embodiment of all things pure’ while its creator Emperor Shah Jahan said it made ‘the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes’ – The guides research, not my own. Nonetheless, would it have the same profound impact on us? Afterall we’ve already seen it in pictures and film and fo this I’m slightly worried this will just be another opportunity for what I liked to call Photo Tourism; Take picture now, upload soon, enjoy much later. Facebook and the need to share everything being the main catalyst for this type of tourism. Also, Kipling and Jahan had a far greater wit and came equipped with a far superior lexicon to explain such feelings. I was worried our only surprise would rise from its size (“it’s much bigger than I thought”) or its alignment with faith (“Muslim? I thought it was a Hindu thing”). But, it did have the intended gaping effect, though I’m just not aswell endowed with the necessary argot to tell you just how much so. So we’ll leave it there.
Lurking somewhere behind my left shoulder I heard a vaguely familiar voice, nobody specific just no doubt from film and TV, say to its company “wow, my first visit to one of the greatest man-made wonders. After this, my second must-see is the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil”.
Now, I’m not sure of what actually constitutes the Seven Wonders of the World anymore, what with all the derivatives and categories, but if I’m on a tour of man-made wonders, the hand-carved Inca trails of Machu Picchu would definitely take priority over a huge concrete statue of Jesus Christ – but that’s me.
After a good few hours at Taj Mahal, jumped into some kind of hybrid wheelbarrow/rickshaw to Agra Fort.
Alex James from Blur said that the stares you get walking through a supermarket with a wailing baby is the closet thing you can do to knowing how it feels to be recognisably famous. Well neither of us have much in the way of a proxy, but the last few days we’ve certainly been novelties and in some form celebrities over here, especially in the national parks and monuments. By the time we’d finished the Taj Mahal I’d lost count of the number of times we were approached by groups of Indians wanting their photos with us.
The national parks, such as Taj Mahal, Fort Agra and The Red Fort, are mainly made up of Indian tourists who have travelled from places less accustomed to westerners – hence our strong celebrity pulling power here more than ever.
It was mainly groups of lads, shuffling their way towards us, egging each other on to be the one to ask for permission until one plucked up the courage to come over. Normally bounding over like the kid at the school disco first to approach the girls, armed with his brother’s oversized jumper and his Dad’s overused chat-up lines. Sometimes, parents would give us their babies to hold for a photo. It was always harmless and good natured, though much to my surprise the novelty of being a celebrity worn off after a while – even on me. After a while, kids would just secretly take pictures of us, thinking we weren’t looking.
Though we couldn’t understand the language, we always knew when we were the core of their muffled jokes. Take it from me, all those times when you joke about somebody you see on the tube or at a music festival, whether it be questioning their gender or just their looks in general, there’s a very good chance the victim knows you’re fun is at their experience.
Only once at Agra, outside the world-famous Mausoleum was I asked to take a picture of somebody else. I actually volunteered as a very large family were looking around anxiously for somebody to capture them all in front of the great monument. Sadly for them it was an old Nokia, one of the pioneer camera phones. Nonetheless I took it. But Christ, I think they’re planning on getting it enlarged and putting it up in their homes as a heavily pixelated family photo; no doubt they’ll all look like the early Super Mario characters.
Once back in Delhi, we headed back to one of the city’s finest curry houses, United Coffee House (poor name, great food), feasting it up with India’s new wealthy. Eating at a relatively exclusive restaurant in the rags you’ve been wearing all day can do wonders for a man’s self-esteem.
Our last day, before we got the train to Ahmedabad, we paid a visit to the Lotus Temple. Completed in 1986 as a house of prayer for multi-faith it sits outside the melee of Delhi, amongst a soothing national park – “It looks just like the Sydney Opera House”.
It’s a lot less hectic than other monuments we’ve been to and for that reason one of my favourites. The steps besides the eight surrounding water pools that surround the temple make it an excellent vantage point for people watching. I’m surprised, impressed and disappointed by the lack of ambition the native kids have of pushing their fellow peers into the pools; it’s probably why India don’t do aswell in the Olympics as they probably should. On the flipside it’s probably why they, relatively speaking of course, manage to live in harmony with each other despite so many conflicting belief systems.
Unlike the crouching quartet of Chinese students, who are all crowded around one corner of the pool betting on whose coin will reach the bottom first. Chanting and egging on sinking coins. China won 88 medals at the last Olympics.
Inside was nice and neutral, looking strikingly like the interior of the English Martyrs church at the top of Blackbirds Hill in Neaden, with its wooden beams and semi-raised alter worshipped by rows and rows of oak benches. Having to be silent, it felt more like a school exam hall than a place of prayer, complete with their own Mr. Kent ushering in and out the packs of nervous students, his pointed index finger rather leaving his pursed lips.
The atheists definitely have the debating halls and the support of the comedy circuit, but no doubt religion will always have architecture.
Another sleeper train, which we stayed up most of the night with new friends Nick and Jana playing cards all night. This time the destination of Ahmedabad, a city just north of Mumbai and often labelled the ‘Manchester of the East’ owing to its industry and textile business. This in itself is not reason enough to visit such a city on such a short stay in a country, but we were actually hoping to secure tickets for the 1st Test match of England’s cricket tour of India.
After arriving at the train station we part with Nick and Jana, with vague plans of meeting at the match and head to our hotel for a quick check-in. After which we zoom in a cab to the Sardar Patel stadium which has a capacity of 54,000 but is not to be confused with the other Sardar Patel stadium in Ahmedabad some 7km away which only has a capacity of 50,000. Seriously, sometimes I think the planners of these towns want to fail.
The atmosphere outside the ground is electric – which in most cases means lots of flag waving and even more shouting, and now not an exception. Speculating our chances of securing tickets for this will be about as slim as reservations at Dorsia, we set about looking for the first tout. In doing so, we stumble across a ticket booth for foreigners only; if you ever see a queue in India, rest assured there’s a strong possibility there’s a much smaller one made up of Westerners nearby. We approach with caution but end up with a brace of tickets with the Barmy Army in the lower pavilion.
There’ s more people outside the stadium then inside, rather surprising given it’s the last few minutes of lunch when we enter. We see India declare and England lose 3 wickets in quick-succession before close of play.
We had great seats, but there was no denying the distinctive smell of piss and shit secreting its way from the nearby toilets. It really was basic for such a renowned sporting venue and definitely makes you think twice about romanticising the rough and ready of sport stadia gone by. Whether it be lamenting terraces and reasonable ticket prices at the footy, it’s probably safe to say the reality of the raw element of football has been effectively lost underneath a veil of nostalgia.
The stadium’s not quite full, though there’s certainly a great atmosphere present. The assault rifle-clad policemen encircling the boundary juxtaposing the benevolent and peaceful village setting playing out behind them, almost as well as the loyal sing-songer of the Barmy Army returning to his seat with a round of waters; Gujarat is a dry state, strictly no alcohol consumption. The whole scene throwing up images congruent with Banksy on some east London shop shutter.
We find some seats. Seating is non-assigned which is great for the real fans who get there early and have the pick of the lot, but not so great for us who have to make do with the unannounced waft of shit every so often.
The 3rd day of the test (our 2nd) is much better both in terms of atmosphere and entertainment. With a bad start, England are bowled out and asked to follow on for the 2nd innings with a loss looking inevitable. However, heroics from Prior and Cook see an impressive comeback with a draw looking possible. The day ends on a high, all suspecting we may see one of the great test comebacks. Even the kid who’s obviously been forced along for the ride by his Dad (and possibly psychiatrist) occasionally looks up from his phone to inspect the scoreboard. He has unnecessarily long finger nails and according to Andy this is a sign of an unloved child. Crickets a good laugh.
The 4th day (our 3rd) sees again a very promising display from the partnership of Cook and Prior. I agree to go ahead of Andy and meet him there, purposely choosing to sit behind guy who looks like Billy Connolly, using his flamboyant appearance as a meeting point if necessary. All this man’s life in public he must hears murmurs of ‘Billy Connolly’. Nick and Jana join us later on.
It’s quite something watching an event unfold no more than 100m away, especially when its being projected all across the world. All the lager soaked carpets it been discussed, or the back seats of cars its being followed and yet here we watching it live.
We leave shortly before the end to catch our flight back to Mumbai, where we will then transfer to our flight back to London.
Sitting at the airport, half expecting to everybody to break into dance like the culmination of a Bollywood hit, one side with the ‘baddies’ from our trip (the cheats, the queue jumpers, several uncredited Tuk Tuk drivers) and the other with the ‘goodies’ (Matthew from Little Cakes, Mumbai resident Patrick). The fact that the baddies of our trip were no worse than a pantomime villain is testament to how much we enjoyed our time in India. It’s a great country, really is, even if my notes have not fully illustrated this. But then again, nobody wants to hear the positive aspects of ones experiences. For these, I urge to make the trip yourself if you haven’t done so already.