It’s mid afternoon, and I’ve already been hustled into a tour of the city while trying to take a shot of the imposing Gateway to India. The stark acreage around the edifice is littered with tourists. But few are from my part of the world. A tour guide is eying to convince me to go a see a special religious festival that only happens today, when two young men interrupt us for a photo opportunity. They want the white man in their photos. I oddly feel like a celebrity, as Indian tourists take turns taking photos of themselves arm and arm with the white dude. I’m told they will proudly show off their new friend as proof of their travels to the famed city.
I’m escorted to an awaiting car, my driver’s name is Dilib. He tells me he’s a friend of Shataram, as many others in Colaba will certify. He gives me a brief history of Mumbai’s identity. When the Portuguese came upon a group of seven Islands they called the area Bom Baihia, or Good Bay. The islands were attached together by 16th century engineers which created the current peninsula. And when Portugal’s court married to the English, the former fishing village was offered as a gift to the British crown and the name was Anglicized to Bombay. It grew to be one of the most important trading portals of Asia and India’s commerce capital. In 1996, when the newly elected president campaigned to change India’s cities to their original Indian identity. The modern independent name of Mumbai came from a deity named Momba, and the 20 million citizens are now proudly called Mumaikers.
Dilib first takes me to the Washing Laundry in a Colaba slum. It is a petite version of apparently much bigger washing areas. I would come back to this slum, but I did not know it yet. We walk through a clustered narrow maze to the washing area which is open to the blinding sky above. The washers stand in concrete tub-like basins filled with soapy water in the blazing sun. The basins are glued one against the other in honeycomb style, while the men doing the washing flail wet slopping clothes in the air like buzzing worker bees. Earlier, I’d been asked if I wanted to have my clothes laundered by the hotel staff. I believe I saw my saffron colored pants being slapped on the concrete basins, as all hotels send their laundry to these places. (They pay the same tariff but charge different prices according to the status of the hotel).
I am guided through acres of laundry hung like Hindu prayer flags to dry in the sun’s rays. They are suspended on tall bamboo poles and sway in the wind like airborne waves giving me a slight feeling of sea sickness. I look up through the long strands of white sheets and towels onto a blue sky as if peering through domino shaped clouds. There is something again incredible in this slum. It is truly about the beauty within. The colors are vibrant. The aroma of laundry soap is sweet. And the laughter of children running through this maze of wind flapped dominoes a welcome relief to the raging mechanical honkers out in the streets.
My tour continues up along Marine Drive, a wide avenue following the coastline which opens up to Chowpatty Beach. We could very well be in California, as people are playing volleyball on the golden sand. I ask my driver if one can swim in the ocean, he laughs and responds that Indians can but not foreigners, the water is too dirty for our sensitive unaccustomed bodies. It’s a pity, because the water looks tempting. So we continue up into a calmer residential area called Malabar Hill which also has a Southern California feel. Steep narrow winding streets, gated condo-style apartment buildings and lush old trees. The big difference from California is that most women are wearing saris. We stop in front of a marble Buddhist temple guarded by large carved white elephants, we do a quick tour of the temple, where I’m instructed of my photographing limitations. I am then taken to a shop, which annoys me. I’m not here to shop, and I know Dilib gets a cut of whatever his tourists buy. But I walk out with a beautiful cashmere scarf for my mother. And the tour continues, up Malabar Hill to yet another tourist destination, The Hanging Gardens. It’s not really what the name conjures, it’s a nice park sitting on top of a reservoir, but it offers a nice view of Chowppaty Beach, and what is said to be the most expensive apartment in the world belonging to a wealthy Indian businessman. It is a modern anthracite grey skyscraper with jutting platforms, the top being a helipad. It is probably exquisite inside, but when standing out his vast balcony, the owners breathes the same polluted air as all of us.
We drive down a long narrow shaded street with colonial mansions on either side, until we stop in front of an old wooden four story house. It’s the Ghandi house. I get a brief glimpse of Mahatma’s life in a short 30 minute visit. I don’t want to keep my driver waiting, so on the way out I buy a book of the great man’s writings. I will have to catch up on my Indian history when I return to the comfort of old Europe.
Back with Dilib, I ask him about the special unique one day festival I was told about back at the Gateway. He tells me it’s too late now. Slightly annoyed, I agree to go back to Colaba, it’s been a long day, and I’m ready for my dose of Indian brewed refreshments back at Leopold’s. I enjoyed what Dilib showed me and his information, but I could have done without the visit to the shop. Oh well, I didn’t see the festival, and I have a nice scarf to give to my mother.
I like Leopold’s, it’s just like in the book, and the food is really quite good. Today I tried the chicken Tandoor, delicious. Then I wander back in the street, just up the block is Mondregan Cafe. It’s similar to Leopold’s, and I’m still thirsty and hot, so I venture inside for yet another Kingfisher. I always drink the local brew, I can’t bring myself to drink imported beer, makes no sense to me.
Stepping out of the cafe, I see my new friend Anil. He asks me what I did, and I tell him about my tour. He’s curious how much I paid, and of course his reply is that I got ripped off. I should have gone with him and one of his driver. This is when I meet Gufram, the young man who will become my Prahbakar, like the taxi driver character in the Shantaram book. Gufram is a handsome sturdy young dude with style. A great smile filled with bright white teeth. Not always the case to see good dental hygiene. He too tells me he would have taken me for the same tour at a better rate. But what is done is done. “What are you doing tonight?” he asks with his enthusiastic smile. I agree to meet him and Anil after I take a nap. But before that, Anil takes me to a local tour operator. He and Gufram suggest I go and see the National Park north of the city. It sounds far, and I’m not so keen, but Gufram shows me stunning pictures of 2000 year old caves carved in the solid stone hills, so I agree. Tomorrow will be another day of discovery.
Tonight has just begun, and jump into Gufram’s taxi. “Front seat sir” he commands, and off we go, Hindi dance music blasting out of the windows. I much prefer the hot Mumbai breeze and exhaust fumes over being sealed in an air conditioned vacuum box. I feel like a teenager who’s been released from the grasp of parents with my two new friends bobbing our heads to groovy Bollywood tunes up Marine Drive. The sun has set over the Indian ocean on my left. We rapidly pass by hundreds of little silouhetted people as if we’re riding the course of a giant zipper up the curved back side of a beautiful woman. It feels like we’re in Cannes on the French Riviera on a hot summer’s night. But I’m quickly reminded that this is India with the lavish wedding displays on my right. Replicas of palaces adorned with miles of colorful strands of flowers and bright lights welcome guests out of their flashy cars. So far my first night out in Mumbai is so alive, so warm, noisy, busy and bright.
Gufram makes a impossible u-turn across four lanes of mad ominous traffic with grace and a yet-to-be signature laugh as I release a slight gasp. He parks just below a no parking sign in front of packed restaurant. Inside, the air conditioning is refreshing as we are quickly seated because of Gufram’s obvious notoriety. Kingfisher beers are popped for me and Anil, Guffy gets a Red Bull. I’ve probably already consumed a six-pack, but can hardly feel their effect. The alcohol must be evaporating at a faster rate through sweat and adrenalin. We talk generalities about what life is like in our polar countries. As well as women, marriage and relationships. I’m alone, and in a way I’ve put my life in these young men’s hands. Given up control like an airplane passenger hosted by Anil and piloted by Guffy. “Welcome to India, sir. I promise you will have a great journey”, says Gufran.
How Gufram manages to drive in this madness is just short of spectacular. His cool maneuvering and cheerfulness should be packaged up and sold as over-the-counter stress medicine. “I’m going to take you to a special place with girls”. What does he mean I wonder, “You will see man. Trust me”. I’ve got no choice but to trust, or could I jump out into traffic and hail a cab back to the security of my tiny hotel room.
Somewhere in the vast mega-metropolis, we park the taxi, and follow Gufram into a guarded night club. Down a long blue neon lit corridor, around a bend and up a flight of stairs to a reception with a glossy white polyurethane desk. The suited attendant takes the 3’000 Rupees I hand him, escorts us up a short flight of stairs and opens the door. The large room is rectangular. It has a white marble dance floor surrounded by white leather seating with small tables just wide enough to hold drinks and a bowl of peanuts. At the far end of the room is a top-of-the-line sound system with a DJ and a couple of singers. The walls are lined with mirrors, and in the middle of the dance floor are three lovely women dressed in sensual outfits similar to belly dancers. They are mildly dancing in front of three seated patrons.
We take our place on the benches and order a round of beers. I’m not quite sure what is taking place here, as the women are barely dancing, and it doesn’t look or feel like a strip bar. But one of the women approaches a man sitting alone. He stands up extremely tall. The man is a very big imposing Sikh gentleman, as his turban suggests. In his hands is a full wad of Rupees which he begins to toss bill after bill onto the girl. The bank notes fall like a blizzard of cash all over the dancer and pile up like fresh fallen snow all around her. I’m in a state of what-the-f*ck-is-going-on-here!
I turn to Gufram with a look of total surprise. He whispers in my ear, “I wanted you to see this, because tomorrow I will take you to where I live in the slums, so you understand the contrasts of my city”. Astonished by the absurdity of this display, I notice that the Sikh man has a foot tall pile of Rupees on his table. Although they are just 20 Rupee bills, the value of the stack must be about $500. More than most Indians earn a month. I personally cannot comprehend this display of wealth, and my budget certainly cannot afford to play or compete in this game. On the other hand, the music great. The DJ spins excellent dance grooves mixed with Hindi vocals from the singers. It is entertaining!
We stay for about an hour, just long enough to finish our beers, and during that time the Sikh man continued to befall his wealth on the ladies, as well as another gentleman dressed in a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt sitting across from us. Bare footed attendants come and gather the money with small hand brooms sweeping the marble floor littered with Rupees like house-keeping staff.
It was about all we could take, as Guffy signaled we go. I paid the 1000 Rupee bill and left a hundred note as a tip. I was seriously frowned upon, and left another hundred Rupee bill, which did not satisfy or change the frown on the waiter’s face. Guffy urged that we leave immediately, as the staff expected more from the white man and his company. We were followed down the staircase, past the reception desk where it was obvious to the fact we were not going to shower anyone with money.
Out in the street, the hot evening air is a welcome relief to the air conditioning. I am astonished by what I witnessed, and so is Anil. We climb into the cab, and are faced with an ominous man standing by the window, probably the doorman also expecting a tip. Guffy speeds off, turns the music on, and we discussed what we just saw. There was really nothing to discuss, it is what it is… Mumbai India. Palace Of Rags.
Gufram takes us to another dance club. He assures me will not have to pay as it is near closing, and he knows everyone. The club is similar to the other one, except the girls are dressed European style. Tight jeans and blouses. They seem more into the music, as they are undulating to the grooves of the funky dance music. We are greeted with mores smiles here. The staff appreciate Guffy, and I would have preferred to be here as opposed to the previous place, but it is nearly closing time. We enjoy a few more minutes of music gazing at one girl who dances like a cobra mesmerized by the oriental Bollywood beats. Beyond our reach and means, there is serenity in simply admiring seductive beauty.
“Are you hungry?” Guffy asks. It is past two in the morning, and the evening’s discoveries have dug a hole in my gut. I’m not really hungry, and feel awake and light on my feet. I’ve barely eaten since I’ve been here, the heat and humidity do not encourage cravings to fill on carbohydrates as it does in my cold climate back home. And the continuous flow of beer have been nourishing. But I am a passenger on this adventure and follow Gufram. He knows a place that makes grilled chicken wraps. It is condescendingly called Street Food. But as any seasoned traveler knows, Street Food can rate as high as any gastronomical kitchen in the world – It is often the inspiration and root to some of the finest recipes found on fine tables. Skewered chicken burns on a grill like a pile of Mikado pick-up sticks. The demand must be of importance as we are told we must wait for service. And as Street Food connoisseurs know, it is the busiest stands that indicate the best in quality and freshness. We have our food, and Guffy suggest we eat along the ocean on Marine Drive.
The popular stretch is quiet and relatively calm at this time, but there are still people, mostly romantic couples lingering on the concrete coast line. We sit and unwrap the aluminum foil containing Naan bread wraps. A first bite, it is perfectly delicious. Indian food at its purest, with the dark warm Indian Ocean before us. The lights of the city skyline sparkle like a jewel necklace around the bay as if it were embracing the neck line of Lady India. There was no better way to enjoy the tastes and sights of Mumbai. We share a cigarette before we finally go home, and a little girl approaches us to ask for money. I figured Gufram would dismiss her with a swift hand – India Style – but his response was one of another India. A gesture of compassion and understanding. He gives the little girl fifty Rupees, but holds her hand before she could run off, and gets down one one knee. He asks her if she goes to school, she nods yes, and tells her he wants her to buy school supplies with the money. She says she will, but he makes her promise by looking at her with genuine humanity. She promises and Gufram offers his beautiful kind smile which is returned by the child. Of all the evening’s crazy events which gave me pleasure and laughter, this short moment released tears of joy. The actions of this fun loving young man demonstrated a truly remarkable human quality. That in a country of such absurd contrast and inequalities, there is hope for the less fortunate. There is hope that the kindness of the heart is right. That Gandhi’s message of love and tolerance is not just about having his image on the currency, that it has been transmitted in the hearts of Indians forever. Gufram made me smile, wonder, and laugh. Now he has managed to make me shed tears of sympathy.
CONTINUE TO DAY 3