A woman looks out over the harbor in Mumbai, India
Thanks to the multiple delays of my Delta flight from Paris, I finally arrived in Mumbai some time after 2am on Tuesday. Immigration procedures were very quick; there were enough agents so I didn’t have to wait in line, and he processed my passport and visa quickly. My baggage pickup wasn’t so efficient, though; it took about 30 minutes for the bags to arrive on the proper carousel, so by the time I found my ride to the hotel it was well past 3am. At least the hotel was only a 10 minute drive from the airport.
Even though I was exhausted from the flight, I was too wired to fall asleep. I tossed and turned for a while; the last time I remember glancing at the clock it was a few minutes before 5am. Nonetheless, I still requested a wake-up call for 9am; masochistic it may have been, but this would be my only free day in India, so I wanted to make the most of it.
I dragged myself downstairs to breakfast just before 9:30am, feasting on a chili and cilantro omelet and a generous bowl of sliced papaya. The coffee was scorching hot — so hot that I only got to have a few sips of it before going back upstairs to prepare for the day.
I didn’t have a detailed plan for the day, apart from contacting Rohit Gupta and Dina Mehta, hopefully getting together with them at one point or another. Both of them are contributors to the Worldchanging.org blog, but I got to know them while volunteering as a contributor to the TsunamiHelp blog, since they were integrally involved in the effort in the days and weeks after the tsunami. I called Dina first; she had clients in from the US, but she would probably be able to get together for coffee after 2pm. Rohit, meanwhile, was free all day, so we decided to rendezvous at the hotel later that morning, then head into Mumbai and play it by ear.
Once Rohit got to the hotel, we caught an autorickshaw to the local commuter train station. Being on the north side of the city, it could take as long as two hours to get into Mumbai by car, but taking a train would cut that time in half or less. The autorickshaw weaved through the traffic, honking constantly while evading other autoricks, pedestrians, bicycles, street children, street dogs, and the occasional cow. I was a long, long away from the orderly streets of Paris and Geneva, and I loved every moment of it.
We eventually arrived at the Andheri train station, which was jammed with commuters coming and going from Mumbai. Rohit bought a small book of ticket stubs, then stamped them in a machine; we then walked briskly across the station in search of the next train. On one platform, crowds of men jammed themselves into a train car. Rohit paused for a moment, looked around, then motioned for me to follow him. “Yeah, this is an express; let’s go,” he said. We quickly jumped onto the train and squeezed our way in. At first it seemed horribly crowded, but as we worked our way into the train, I realized it was just the usual bottleneck of people crammed around the doors.
As the train took us south to Mumbai, we talked about blogging and podcasting. I pulled out my iPod and demonstrated its iTalk recorder; several men on the train stared at me for the entire ride. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with the iPod, since they’d been staring at me since the moment I’d gotten on the train. I’d forgotten what it was like to have people staring at me with such determination. I was the only person in the train car who wasn’t Indian, and even though Mumbai is a very cosmopolitan city, I seemed to draw a lot of attention.
We arrived in downtown Mumbai about 30 minutes later. Rohit suggested that we get lunch with his publisher, whose shop was just a few blocks away. It was a hot, humid day — par for the course in Mumbai, but since I’d just arrived from frigid Paris and snowy Geneva, the heat was a shock to my system. I polished off my first bottle of water as we walked to the shop; I immediately began wondering when I should pick up another bottle or two.
As we walked through the crowded streets, dodging autorickshaws and bicycles, I began to notice random landmarks and buildings that looked familiar. I’d only been to Mumbai once before, but it was only for an afternoon, and my camera batteries had died, so I didn’t manage to take many photos to preserve the memories. Nonetheless, I sensed I was in familiar surroundings, somewhere in the southern part of the city. Hopefully I’d get my bearings at some time during the day.
Soon we arrived at the book shop; Rohit and his publisher gave each other a big hug, then suggested we go to a Gujarati restaurant around the corner. We hiked down the street past street vendors selling roasted nuts and plates of biryani rice, once again hugging the sidewalk to avoid getting squashed by an autorickshaw. At the restaurant, we each ordered a vegetarian thali platter featuring a selection of around half a dozen Gujarati curries, accompanied by chappati bread, rice, salted buttermilk and half a ball of gulab jamun for dessert.
After lunch, Rohit’s colleague returned to work; meanwhile, he and I began walking to the Mocha Coffee shop, where we planned to meet Dina Mehta. After walking several blocks, I saw a Victorian-era building that looked familiar; across the street was a long grassy maidan, or mall, full of people picnicking and playing cricket. Suddenly, I recognized exactly where I was — we were next to the Eros Theatre, an art deco movie theatre.
“I’ve been here!,” I said proudly. “Susanne and I saw the movie Lagaan here.”
“Are you a cricket fan?” Rohit asked.
“Would you believe that everything I know about cricket I learned from that movie? Pretty sad, isn’t it.”
Dina Mehta and Rohit Gupta exchange info on their mobile phones at Mocha in Mumbai.
We walked west towards Back Bay and the Arabian Sea, passing airline offices and Orange mobile phone stores. Soon we arrived at Mocha, a hip café packed with young Mumbaikars talking on their cell phones and smoking shisha water pipes. Rohit and I grabbed an outside table, waiting for Dina to arrive. She got to the café a few minutes later, and soon we were ordering raspberry milkshakes and chatting about blogging, Mumbai, Delhi and other common topics of interest. Dina hadn’t eaten lunch yet, so she ordered a panini, while I gave into temptation and ordered a cherry-flavored shisha.
“You should bring a shisha home with you,” Rohit suggested. “They’re very cheap here.”
“Yeah, but if I did that, I’d be tempted to use it,” I said, “and it’s better if I save it for special occasions — particularly when I’m traveling overseas.”
Meanwhile, I pulled out my iPod so we could record a podcast. We didn’t have any particular agenda in mind; instead, we just wanted to record some of our conversation. I recorded about 15 minutes of chatting, mindful of the fact that the Internet connection at the hotel might not be fast enough to post such a large file very easily.
Eventually, Dina had to return to her clients, so we parted ways. Rohit and I walked back towards the maidan, following it towards Colaba, the historic heart of Mumbai. Rohit told the story of the founding of Bombay, in which a Portuguese Jewish botanist was working in Goa, south of Bombay, when the Catholic church there decided it was time to bring the Inquisition to Goa. The botanist, who had hid his religion from the authorities, feared he would be found out, so he requested permission to relocate his research to the island of Bombay, so he could study hemp. With that, Mumbai’s history as a settled community began.
“So you’re telling me that Bombay was founded by a Jewish botanist pretending to be Catholic who leased a piece of land to get away from the Church and focus on studying pot?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s pretty much it,” Rohit replied, laughing.
Since then, of course, Mumbai has grown into megacity of the first degree, a juggernaut of a metropolis. But walking the streets of Colaba I got a distinctly different impression of the modern city I’d seen so far. Colaba was green, relatively quiet, with old colonial buildings stretching down each street. Small groups of tourists rode by in horse carriages. There was something almost New Orleans-like to Colaba — the last thing I expected to find here in Mumbai.
We continued our walk towards the Colaba waterfront as Rohit told stories about Mumbai. Along with being a blogger and published short story author, Rohit has worked as a professional storyteller, focusing on the fringe history of Mumbai. He talked about the founding of the Taj Mahal Hotel, the most famous hotel in the city. The founder of the Tata industrial empire was denied entry to one of the city’s most prestigious hotels because he was Indian, not British. In response to the insult, he decide to become a hotel entrepreneur, building the most posh hotel the city had ever seen, and one that would not turn away Indian guests. The hotel that dissed Mr. Tata is long gone, but his Taj Mahal still reigns as the grand dame of Mumbai hotels.
The Gateway of India
Walking by the hotel, we crossed the street to visit the Gateway of India monument, an early 20th century arch built on the waterfront to commemorate a visit by the king of England. The Gateway is now one of India’s most famous landmarks, and tourists from across India and around the world flock to visit it and sit in its shade by the harbor. For the first time since I arrived in Mumbai, hustlers started to accost me, trying to get me to buy dolls, balloons, postcards, hash. Fortunately I had Rohit with me so they generally left me alone after we both ignored them for a while. On several occasions we had a number of children follow us, begging for money, but they weren’t particularly persistent. There were plenty of other marks they could target here on the waterfront. They could even get in line to talk with the pair of hippies sitting on a bench, who were hearing a pitch from an Indian man as to why they should be extras in a Bollywood film the next day.
Rohit and I walked clockwise around the Gateway, as the sun began to set over the island. Indian families were now picnicking in the small garden adjacent to the Gateway. “I went to a Greenpeace protest here recently,” Rohit said. “It was really cool.”
We departed the Gateway and walked northwest to Wellington Circle, then hugged the road north towards Horniman Circle. Along the way we passed some of Mumbai’s most important cultural institutions, including the modern art museum and the Asiatic Society library. “This area has some of the oldest buildings in Mumbai, dating to the early 1700s,” Rohit explained.
“So there’s nothing here from the Portuguese period?”
“No, what you see is from the East India Company onward.”
We talked a while about the East India Company, and how they rose from a merchant company to being the de facto rulers of India until the British Crown reasserted its authority. Soon, we reached the old customs house. Rohit started to describe the neighborhood’s history when suddenly an elderly Indian gentleman in a tie and dusty dress shirt came running over to us.
“You are talking about history? Let us talk about history!” the man said. He introduced himself as a retired law professor, and he immediately began enquiring into who we were, what we were doing there, and why we were interested in history.
“So where are you from, my friend?” he asked me.
“The USA, I live in Boston,” I replied.
“Now that is a city with history, my friend!” he exclaimed. “Tea party, seventeen hundred and seventy six…. a city with history! And let us not forget the Kennedys. I adore the Kennedys… but what a curse they have upon them. One brother, two brother, three brother dead, fourth brother not get White House because he crash and women drowns…”
“At Chappaquiddick,” I said.
“Yes, that is it, but I cannot pronounce such silly words,” he replied. “Chappa chappa chappa chappa….”
“…Quiddick,” I finished for him.
“Yes, it is a silly word that cannot be pronounced….
We spent the next several minutes discussing the Kennedys; he blamed the family curse on old Joe Kennedy’s bootlegging. “That man was a corrupt, corrupt bastard, corrupt I tell you,” he said, emphasizing each word. “His children pay the price for his bad deeds. And Jackie, too – she pay the price. Such an elegant woman, most beloved by India… So why you in India?”
“I’m here for a conference.”
“Conference? Whose conference?”
“It’s organized by the Grameen Foundation,” I replied.
“Grameen? Grameen? Never heard of them. I hope they are not one of these big, bad companies.”
“No, quite the opposite, they do very important work.”
“So they organize your conference?”
“Yes, and Microsoft, I believe,” I started to say, before recalling his previous comment about big businesses?
“Microsoft!” he retorted. “Oh, they are okay in my book.”
Rohit and I could hardly contain ourselves; we had somehow stumbled upon perhaps the most interesting man in all of Mumbai. Knowing I couldn’t let any other of his quips go to waste, I took out my iPod and started recording his stories, just as he began telling an Internet joke, as he called it: A woman goes to a curtain store and says, I need to buy curtains for my computer. Curtains? The man at the store asks. Why do you need curtains? It is a computer, ma’am. Because it has windows, she replies.
Yes, it was a terrible joke, but our new friend had us in hysterics. We hung around with him for another six or so minutes, appreciating his unique wisdom and capturing it on my iPod. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy the audience.
Eventually, we parted ways, as we crossed into Horniman Circle. The circle reminded me of Dupont Circle in DC, yet tropical: lush green plants, scores of people reading newspapers or snoozing, it was quite a community hub. Soon, though, Rohit got a call from his friend Matti, a Finnish PhD student who was studying in Mumbai and making a documentary with another Finn on globalization. We made arrangements to meet at a bar for drinks. “We’ll see you at the sports bar,” Rohit said over the phone.
We jumped into taxi and soon arrived at The Sports Bar. It turns out that was the name of the place, not a general description. Indeed, The Sports Bar was a sports bar; once you got inside past the guard, there was a row of booths on the left side of the room, each with its own flat-panel TV set into the wall. To the right, a long, diner-like bar sported mushroom-like stools and giant TV screens, all showing cricket. To the back, there was a basketball cage in which you could shoot hoops.
Matti and his friend were already there, sucking down two-for-one Kingfishers. We joined them for the evening, talking about documentaries and globalization and psychogeographic mapping and beer, in no particular order. Eventually, Matti’s girlfriend joined us, as did an Indian friend whom I was introduced to as Mr. Fear, because he’s doing his PhD dissertation on the study of fear. Apparently he spends his days reviewing crime scene reports and his nights visiting actual crime scenes with reporters. And some day he’d become Dr. Fear because of all of this hard work, but for now, he seemed pretty brain fried.
“Usually I try to make light of the basic crimes, just to keep some distance from it,” he said. “But once you start getting into cases like Child rape and such, it’s not very easy to make light of the situation.” I wonder if it’s too late to change thesis topics, I thought to myself.
We hung out at the bar for a few hours, enjoying the two-for-one beers and chatting about dissertations, real and imagined. Matti was a really fascinating guy, and his buddy seemed to be enjoying coming down to Mumbai from Finland to make his documentary. By 8pm, we were getting hungry, and I started thinking about when I’d need to head back to the hotel, since I’d have to get up early the next day for the six-hour drive to Baramati. But Rohit and friends were eager to hop to their next favorite joint, a place called Ghetto. Given my previous confusion over The Sports Bar, I didn’t know if ghetto was the name or a description.
Ghetto was at least a 20 minute drive away, so we hailed a taxi outside of the bar. “Hop on in, man,” an elderly taxi driver said to us, with an odd hipster American accent.
“Where you cats going?” he asked us. Rohit gave him directions while I pondered his accent. The man was clearly Indian, but he’d picked up some unusual speech patterns in his time as a cabby, apparently.
“What is your good name, sir?” Rohit asked him.
“You already know my name, because I’ve driven you before, but you’ve forgotten it,” he replied.
“No, sir, I don’t think you told me the last time you drove me,” Rohit insisted.
“I will give you a hint — my name is the name of an American artist with an eye patch.”
“Andy, this one’s for you,” Rohit said, leaning from the front seat. “Who’s an American artist with an eye patch?”
“Uh…. Dale Chilouly?” I replied, baffled by the question?
“Dale who???” the taxi driver replied, shocked I blew the question. “Not that muthafucka. A cool Daddy-O with class, with friends like Frank…”
“Uh… Sammy Davis Jr?” I replied, suddenly connecting the dots?
“You win, my man,” he replied. “I look like him, I talk like him, I have the same glasses, I am Mr. Sammy Davis. So are you guys looking to by any hash?”
I nearly wet my pants laughing. Where on earth did this guy come from? Meanwhile, Sammy kept at it for the next 20 minutes, including demonstrating his ability to swear in Finnish, then explaining in dramatic detail as to why he was the best drug connection in Colaba.
Sammy’s comedy act continued as we drove north to Ghetto, but then things took a turn for the worse when he decided to talk about politics.
“The US blames Bin Laden for 9/11, so they bomb Afghanistan even though Bin Laden is not in Afghanistan? And why are they doing it? For the Jews, that’s why!”
All of us glanced at each other with that last remark. Sammy kept talking and talking, explaining why the war in Afghanistan and Iraq were both done at the behest of Israel. Rohit looked at me apologetically and rolled his eyes. I shrugged my shoulders and tried to brush it off. It seemed harmless.
But Sammy kept at it. Apparently he’d struck his own nerve, and he wouldn’t stop talking until he’d had his fill of anti-Semitism. “And you know what about 9/11? No Jews died that day, because they were all warned. Every Jew in New York and Washington was warned by the Israeli consulate that morning so they wouldn’t go to work.”
“But what about me?” I jumped in. I’d had enough.
“What about you, man?”
“Why the hell wasn’t I warned?” I demanded. “I mean, there I was in downtown DC, just blocks from the White House, and no Israeli consulate or anything sent me an email telling me to play sick that day…. So either that means you’re totally full of it or somehow I got on Israel’s Pay No Mind list! Whadya think of that, Sammy? Do you think they just forgot to leave me a voicemail or something? Why the hell didn’t I get that memo?”
I kept at it for a while, stunning Sammy into a relative stutter compared to his previous confidence. Meanwhile, my cab mates were laughing wildly, egging me on to put this small-minded hep cat in his place.
“You know, I just remembered something. Let’s not forget who else is Jewish – your main man, Sammy Davis Jr!”
“Yes, that’s true, ” Sammy replied, “but…”
“But what?” I continued. “Do you think he would have gotten the memo from the Israeli consulate, or do black Jews not count? This must weigh heavily on your conscience, I bet….”
Sammy finally shut the hell up.
A few minutes later, we arrived at Ghetto. I’d been thinking of just catching another cab and going back to the hotel, but my war of words with Sammy Davis had gotten me in a fighting mood, so I figured I needed to settle down with a beer and some food. Inside Ghetto, I found a dark, small bar with black lights illuminating the room; graffiti art of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix dominated the walls, while Jeff Beck and the Grateful Dead dominated the juke box. Rohit ordered a pitcher while the rest of us got some food; I requested a chicken quesadilla, which fascinated me simply because I found it on a menu in Mumbai.
We hung out for a while, eating our food and picking up the conversation where we’d left it off before Sammy came into the picture. Rohit then introduced me to another friend who makes TV commercials for car companies and other big players in the Indian ad market.
But by 10pm, I didn’t think I’d be able to take it much longer. I still had some jetlag and I worried about how long it would take to drive back to the hotel; if traffic were bad, it could be two hours. So I bid goodbye to my new companions and grabbed a taxi, with Rohit explaining the directions. We drove for just over an hour; fortunately, the driver only got lost at the end of the trip, so we only went a few blocks out of the way. I returned to the hotel thoroughly exhausted. My mind flashed back to Ghetto; for a moment the Grateful Dead lyric “What a long, strange trip it’s been” popped into my mind, but I quickly dismissed it. Too clichéd. -andy