I am outside my hotel waiting for my ride to the Kanheri Caves. It’s ten thirty in the morning, and I’m hoping Gufram will be my guide and driver as he said he would try to accompany me. But an older gentleman steps up and will be the one taking me on today’s journey. He’s a pleasant older man, and confirms today’s agenda. We are going to the caves in Gandhi Sanjay National Park with a stop at the Dharavi Slums, home of the Slum Dog Millionaire inspiration. The traffic is dense, and my driver is one who is trigger happy with his horn. One of many who is responsible for the blaring cacophony of Mumbai traffic. I’m not judging, just observing. I am a guest here accept the differences of the land.
We drive about hour, which is about mid-way through the city. My driver take a left off the rapid sky-way and onto a large boulevard dense with people and businesses on both sides. At a bridge, he tells me to go and take a picture of the slums along the railway. But I have to cross the avenue bustling with traffic! So I stand there watching others in this skill of calculated risk, and dart across the first two lanes and stand for a few seconds in the center of traffic realizing this could be my last few seconds on this earth, until there is a break in traffic and run across to the other side. I snap my photo, and now must return using the skills I learned coming across.
Back in the taxi, we drive another kilometer or so and park. On my side is a wide canal with shambles of construction above it. Looking down on the canal I am met with an intense smell of sewage. The water is more black than black water. The toilets are little brick outhouses precariously built above the canal, where it is clear that this is where human waste will end up. It is truly putrid an filthy, but again, I’m not here to judge. We make our way across a bridge over the canal and into tiny alleyways which take us into the heart of the slum. The roar of traffic is subdued, and we hear the sounds of life and work. Kids laughing, people talking, fans blowing, sewing machines, hammers, drills. This place is a hive of activity. Goats and chickens meander in these alleys. We make way for men carrying giant sacks of goods to be recycled such as plastics, tin and cardboard on their heads. No one is slumming here.
It seems like we’re walking through a house of cards because of the propped thin siding used for walls and roofs. It is an never ending labyrinth where people come in and out of nooks and crannies that barely resemble doors. My guide invites me to go up a steep flight of stairs that is more like a ladder as I monkey up using my four appendages.
In the room above are a few tables with sewing machines, four men are stitching together children’s T-shirts. My guide grabs one, holds it up to proudly to show me it’s identity; RONALDO! I realize that this is what “Made in India” means. All those clothes we purchase that have that label probably come from the many slum factories. In a way it’s reassuring. As these workshops seem more or less independent. Not some giant factory managed by a mega-brand exploiting cheap foreign manual labor. As we wander through the slums, such workshops make up a large portion of the slum, the rest are homes. They seem to make everything from clothes to suitcases, and lots of recycling. The slums are vibrant, alive, teaming with activity. They are impoverished, or are they? The people are monetarily poor, but seem rich in life. Few are overweight. Children are smiling. The people are working. We don’t stay too long, as I do feel like a spectator onto other people’s lives. But oddly enough, the slums are a tourist attraction not unlike a tour of Disneyland. The difference being that this is not The Magic Kingdom.
Back on the road, we drive through a continuous concrete jungle to Gandhi Sanjay National Park. The city seems to have no end. I imagined that the park would be on the outskirts of the metropolis, out in the hills detached from the city. But the park is across from a wide avenue. Another contrast of Mumbai extremes – human jungle on one side and natural jungle on the other. Here the taxi is not allowed. We can either take a bus or a private car deep inside the park. I’m recommended to take a taxi which will cost me another 2000 Rupees with the accompaniment of a local guide. We climb aboard a tiny bouncing van and into the park. On the way we stop at a Jain Temple. A naked sect who abstain from clothes and modern conveniences. The large marble deities are nude, but the few worshipers and tourists are fully clothed. The only indications of the naked lives of the sect are on a crude almost comical poster showing a nude round bellied Indian man in a paradisiacal setting.
Inside the temple are tens of carved sitting Buddhas representing gods of natural origins such as the goat, tree, fish, snake etc. I notice a prevalent symbol painted, forged and carved in and out of the temple. The Nazi Swastika. Taken from the ancient Buddhist culture, I am so conditioned to see this icon as a mark of pure evil, that I’m almost ashamed to look at it or take a photo. But here, it as a positive symbol of good fortune by the Jain and is also sacred and holy for Buddhist and Hindus. Dating back twelve thousand years only to be tarnished by a short European mustached thief who stole it to brand his evil empire. It is unfortunate, and I’m genuinely concerned that if I display photos of the many items it decorates may be misunderstood. So to clarify any misconception, the word swastik comes from Sanskrit and means a state of auspiciousness and the symbol signifies goodness and positivity to millions.
The road to the caves is another six kilometers, and we are well inside the park, but not far away we can see the tall buildings bordering the park. There are a few simple wooden dwellings and I’m told the people living here are park natives. Every speed bump we cross sends me into the ceiling of the tiny van. The men laugh and ask me if we have cars like these in Switzerland? I smile and make sure I don’t bite my tongue being bounced in this baking tin can.
It’s a weekday and there are not too many people visiting the caves. I’m glad to get out of the teeny van to finally walk and get some exercise. Monkeys come out of the trees and linger at a safe distance from us, probably waiting for food. The big males look like school yard bullies waiting to pick a fight with nerdy tourist while little ones run around like goofy kids.
The first cave is at the top of the steps. Carved out of a solid block of rock, it is monumental and curiously symmetric. A giant rectangular hole with two immense columns have been chiseled and sculpted by men more than two thousand years ago. It seems impossible that human hands are responsible for this architectural feat. The right angles are so perfectly straight they seem machine made and not the work of human origin. It makes me think of the theory that we were once visited by aliens who may have given us mere men advanced technology to move such massive amounts of solid stone. It is mysterious how such labor was undertook to create what I’m told are sleeping quarters. The cave is not a natural hole formed by geology, but a vast rectangular opening into the solid rock. The next cave is of more natural form, a gigantic mouth-like formation in the center of a huge brown rounded stone. Monkeys dash by and crawl around on the rock above like creeping insects. More rooms have been cut in the center part, as well as an odd looking monument surrounded by intricate deity depictions. The oddity of the monument is the simplicity of it. Basically it’s a two meter high column with a half a globe sitting on top of it. Almost like a golf ball on a tee, but a thick wide tee. “What is this?” I ask. I’m told it’s a Stumpa. What the hell is a Stumpa? I wonder, and don’t get a clear explanation, just that it is what it is. It must have some important significance as I discover an giant copy of the same monument in the adjacent cave.
This cave is not a cave. It is a phenomenal temple also cut out of the rock formation. It’s entrance is imposing. More than ten meters high with ornate columns reminiscent of Greek or Persian origins. As I enter past the columns I see fancy carvings of jolly dancing female figures on the wall and on each side two enormous eight meter Buddhas look down upon me. I can’t tell if they are male or female, a couple or what. Their faces have a happy or mischievous expression. As if they know something we don’t or that they’re in on a secret we will never know. Nothing like the scary ominous gargoyles or tortured angels you might find carved at the opening of a European cathedral. The figures here are more than monumental and give off a feeling of pleasure and an all around good time. Past the carvings, I enter the temple. It’s again massive. A formidable room of huge proportions. Must be thirty meters deep by twenty, with a domed ceiling well over ten meters high. The left and right sides are lined with about twenty columns which lead to the centerpiece at the far end of the room, a gigantic Stumpa. By gigantic, I mean huge, massive, monstrous. The same half globe atop a wide based column.
What is a Stumpa? It’s hard to believe it’s just a monument that was once worshiped. It seems like an instrument, an antennae or energy generator. It looks like an alien machine frozen in time and set in stone forever. That at any moment the sphere will again be set in motion and spin to generate incredible power and call out to the heavens above. I can imagine the climax of a blockbuster movie with Harrison Ford dashing for his life as the aliens come down to scorn us meek little humans. This temple is out of this world. It is of early Buddhist origins, but in my imagination it’s really further far out!
It is a popular tourist destination, but I am happy to see only Indian tourists, and none of my creed. There is a beautiful little family in the temple which helps give it scale. They’re dwarfed by the immense dimensions of the holy place, the woman holding a small child in her arms and the husband looking in curiosity at the Stumpa. The have the most beautiful full black hair. Almost blue and slick – as if it was oiled. The woman’s Sari is of rich colors which accented her figure in the grey brownish depth of the temple. The light from the opening creates a stage spotlight effect that is reflected as a tiny dot in her wide black eyes contoured with Indian eyeliner. She is almost saintly, like a renaissance portrait painted by a European artist that had been taken by explorers to record their findings of a unknown land. The sun’s rays were reflected from the columns and Buddhas so that inside it was diffused which made it the perfect portraiture lighting. I steal the instant with my camera to capture the mother’s maternal innocence as she holds her baby in the vacant emptiness of the temple.
It is a little cooler inside the caves as we step out and into the afternoon heat. We climb steps carved on the flanks of the rock around the first two dominating caves. The monkeys follow us along the top of the rock as the steps become a path following the natural geometry of the landscape. Pools of still water are left from past rains which indicate this is a flowing river in the monsoon season. We are in a small yet imposing natural valley between two rock formations. I will see later from above that these rocks are like the backs of two giant elephants. Rock that looks like the grey brown skin of the animal with dry golden grass passing off as elephant hair.
The next cave faces another across from the small river valley, both also cut to perfection. In front of the cave are water basins filled by small waterways cleverly cut to divert the monsoon waters. They are baths, laundry and drinking water facilities. It now seems like we are in a picturesque civilized small city with dwellings on either side traversed by a flowing stream of fresh water. Nature has been humanly enhanced to create cascading waterfalls and swimming pools. I can somewhat imagine how it must be a small heaven on earth during the monsoon, like something painted in a movie backdrop or sci-fi fantasy painting. I’m not quite in the realm J.R. Tolkien, but not far from it.
The path strings along more caves and more evidence of past intelligent civilization. Another wide gap house, more cavernous dwellings, and the monkeys toy with us on the stone lip above me, throwing nut shells. Perhaps they are the simian guardians chosen by celestial deities or just the current inhabitants of the abandoned city.
There are one hundred and nine caves. We have seen a dozen. Around every bend there is yet another cave facing another cave. They pop out one after another like the monkeys following us, while the stream sinewing the natural contours of the rock present more pools and ponds of clear water. This must have been a small piece of heaven on earth. I now comprehend why this place was inhabited by Buddhist monks and students of holy knowledge. But the engineering beauty I admire is that someone was able to blend human intellect within the natural elements.
On top of the rock formation is a long carved set of steps leading to the highest point of the park. From there you can see the city in the distance. It is fantastically quiet compared to the frenetic sounds of Mumbai traffic. But I’m ready to return to the city. This is what I came for, urban chaos. It doesn’t take long for my driver to take me back to my hotel room in Colaba, for I am fast asleep on the trip back. And even though Colaba is busy, noisy, bustling, it is a somewhat quaint neighborhood, a bit removed from the rest of Mumbai. And the bed in my tiny room is quietly waiting for me to rest, as I’m to meet with Anil and Gufram for more night life.
It’s the 26th of November, and I’m in one of the locations that was attacked by terrorists three years ago, Leopold Café. That’s when and where I met Ishana, the girl I mention at the beginning of this story. We were so consumed in conversation that I’d forgotten about Gufran and Anil – and there they are – “Alex, we said eight o’clock, it’s eight thirty?” Their smile and affable good nature is intoxicating. I introduce them to Ishana, and she urges me to go with them. So I step outside to explain my encounter, and they tell me to ask Ishana to come out with us. So I go back to tell her about my new buddies. But she’s apprehensive of the young men and their plans for the night. “I’m Indian, and I have pretty good idea where they will take you. You’re a tourist.” I explain that they already took me to the places they take tourists last night. Protectively, she offers to talk to the guys to feel out their intentions. She’s Indian, she affirms. “I’ll see what they’ve got planned. They can’t fool me.”
The four of us are in Gufran’s taxi. He’s taking us to the Car Bar. The concept sounds interesting, but I can’t quite imagine it in my mind as it may be one of those futurist ideas. On the way we stop at a liquor store to get some beers, Anil asks me if I want Heineken, but I tell him I want Kingfishers, I always drink the local brew. Climbing into the car, a woman asks me for change, so I hand her a few coins, but when she reaches out, I realize she’s a leper. Her finger are just stumps of what they once used to be, so I slip a bill in what’s left of her fingers. I’d read about lepers in Shantaram, and in today’s Mumbai it seemed this was a condition of the past, apparently it’s not. We cross over the Sea Link bridge, Mumbai’s newest engineering feat that crosses a large bay avoiding a large part of the city’s traffic. We are going to Bandra, a fashionable district by the sea where Bollywood stars reside. Just before we get off the bridge, you can see large high-rise buildings housing hotels and apartments, and just below are slums who have a beautiful view of the bridge and bay. It’s another perfect example of Indian extreme contrast.
Palace Of Rags is what Ishana calls Mumbai. It couldn’t be a better term. She’d mention this when we were talking at Leopold’s, and I was envious of the term she came up with. I was looking for a good title for this story, and this was by far the best I’d heard. I threatened to steal it, instead I will borrow it, and dutifully credit Ishana for this brilliant title. For Mumbai is a palace made of rags.
Bandra is much calmer that the rest of the city, perhaps because it’s the evening. Twisting an turning in the neighborhood streets until we finally arrive at the waterfront, we park the car facing the dark Indian Ocean, and I get the meaning of the term Car Bar. Gufran leads the way down to the rocky shore. There is no sandy beach, just dark black stone. The tide is low and the rock slippery as Anil picks himself up from an unwanted straddle. He managed to save the beers and we decide not to go further and take a seat. Ishana and Gufran have been talking non-stop and continue to do so. He’s fascinated by her ease and somewhat macho demeanor, and she’s amazed by the somewhat condescending tone of her two India counter-parts. She’s been away a long time and has traveled quite a bit as she proves with her smartphone photos. Anil has not even boarded a plane, and Gufran’s travels took him as far as Saudi Arabia to work like many Indians. The beers have opened up Ishana’s opinions, she asks sarcastically, “Is this where you take girls to make out?” Gufran doesn’t know the term but quickly picks up and explains that this is where all Indian couples come to kiss, grope and fuck. Tradition forbids any contact in the homes. And most young Indians live with their families, so they can’t just bring someone over to have sex. They must hide and pretend it doesn’t happen. Parks and ocean sides are spotted with this nocturnal local activity. In my opinion, it’s kinda cute and charming. Ishana finds it ridiculous and anti-feminist. Why do women have to hide their affection and desire in shame, is her point-of-view. A valid point, but this is India and not the more permissive Euro-zone. And the question lies there in; Is it better that women in the West are more equal, have more rights to express themselves and be whom they want to be? We have our extremes too. Women who are overtly seductive in attitude and poise. Drunken to masculine proportions. Libertines with no attachments.
The debate will probably rage on forever, but here Ishana will demonstrate her point. It’s been many beers and like anyone she must attend to bodily needs. She argued that in life men generally have it easier than women. They can pee just about anytime anywhere. And she actually said that for this reason, she would like to be a man. But she’s not, and must squat in the blackness of the sea rock. Anil politely offers an escort braving the slippery terrain and leaves Ishana in the protection of a split in the stone to do her business with discretion. Gufran and Anil are taken aback. Never have they seen a girl just do it like guys do. “This girl is really something. I’ve never met a girl like her”. Says Gurfan.
She continues to marvel the pair with her blunt statements, western ways and confident attitude. She admits she’s somewhat drunk to justify her bombastic character. Thankfully, she’s not drunk to the point of some of her Brit counterparts whom can drink to the point of oblivion. She’s got a train to catch and needs her wits about her, so we decide to taker he to the trains station. Getting up to leave, Ishana sinks her beer bottle in a shallow tide pool and I can’t help myself to comment. My Swissness exclaims, “What are you doing? Your country is so beautiful, shouldn’t you put that in the rubbish?” She doesn’t argue, she simply admits that it’s something you don’t worry about in India, and picks up the bottle. Anil had done the same and recognizes he should also dispose of his bottle properly. I tell them I don’t want to impose my Swiss ideals and that I genuinely admire their country. “It’s just that.. it’s even more beautiful when not littered.”
We climb back into Guffy’s taxi, and the two are talking non-stop in Hindi, when Anil turns to me with a worry-some look on his face. He’s been a little distracted lately, and I’ve already asked him several times if he was alright. But he has something on his mind he needs to express. “You know man, I’ve been in jail.” He says seriously. It flashes through my mind that I should use caution, but I can’t really see or feel an admittance of serious criminal nature. None-the-less, I ask him in a sympathetic tone. He admits that he has not been in Mumbai very long as he first told me. And that he is actually married and has a child. He shows me pictures he unfolds out of his wallet like a safe deposit box. He treasures them. They are visibly one of his most valuable possessions. The details of his incarceration are not quite clear, as I basically understand his wife had him arrested under dubious reasons. I grossly interpret that Anil had married into a good family with means and became enslaved by his wife and relatives. This lead him to runaway to the promises of Mumbai. There are millions of stories like Anil’s, as Mumbai is a city of dreams and opportunities. A place where you can become a celebrity or invisible. Anil really seems troubled by his situation. He apologizes for not telling me sooner. But I had relationship troubles of my own and a big mouth. “You are so honest man. You say everything that is on your heart. That is really cool man”, Anil and Gufran had told me. “That is why I feel I can talk to you and you will listen without judging”.
Guffy escorted Ishana to the train platform. It was near eleven PM, but she was confident an tough, and by now a little less inebriated. Before leaving she gave each of us a big hug an kiss on the cheek, slug the bongo drum she haggled for a song over her shoulder and waved goodbye.
“This girl is very strange Alex. I don’t understand her. Do you think she’s a lesbian?” In my opinion, she was in no way a girl-on-girl type. She was just ballsy, opinionated and sarcastic. “Dudes, she’s European. British. Liberated! That’s how woman are in Europe for he most part. It’s called equality of the sexes.” They still seem perplexed as they asked me questions about Ishana and Western women. “I told her to text me when she gets home.” Said Gufran. I thought it was very kind of Guffy to show concern and care for the young woman. But he did not think she would.
We are now going to a place where we can dance. That was my request for tonight’s activities. I’d seen girls dance to great grooves, showered in money while I sat idle gripped to a Kingfisher. Tonight I wanted to move to those Indian grooves. It is getting close to midnight as Guffy’s taxi slaloms in evening traffic when he receives an SMS from Ishana. She’s made it back to her apartment up north. I think he’s surprised and happy, but acts nonchalant. I tell him to reply to thank her, but he wants to wait – play the macho game I suppose – I try to insist, but he tells me he’ll reply later because we’ve arrived at he club.
I can only see that we are in a nice neighborhood and wonder where this club is? Across from us is a restaurant where I assume we are going. I’m a bit disappointed as it looks like we’re going to a Karaoke bar lodged in a back room of an ordinary restaurant. But that’s not where we’re going. We go by a small guard house and towards the back of the building which seems much bigger from this view point. More like a twenty story L-shaped warehouse. A few people are outside smoking just in front of the entrance guarded by solid looking blokes. With Guffy in the lead, he approaches the main dude standing behind a reception desk. We don’t seem welcome at first, but Guffy insists that they call the boss, and within seconds everyone bares big smiles and we go inside.
The club is two floors up, the sound of the music increases as we climb the steps. The entry fee is 3000 Rupees per head, and it includes 2000 Rupees each in drinks. I am given a credit card worth 6000 Rupees. I figure it won’t last long and don’t really want to worry about arithmetic at this moment. We get our forearm stamped and are ushered past a massive heavy door keeping the booming bass from bouncing throughout the building.
It’s still early by nightclub standards, so there are about thirty people tops. The places is filled with big House beats, wavy bass lines, dodgy keyboards and lingering chord pads. A laser light cuts its designs through the cool air conditioned mist. It is a relatively small space with high ceilings where disco lighting spins and turns like hyperactive robot heads bouncing colors and spots in the darkened space. The walls are painted black, there are mirrors on one wall and opposite is a sit down private lounge area. A neon lit bar is at the end of the space and across from it is the DJ firmly in control of the ambiance. We have a round of drinks, and surprisingly the cost is not what you’d expect from a nightclub. There will be plenty of credit to supply us with beers and Red Bulls for the next several hours.
I can’t remember having more fun at a club. The music is great! We dance continuously for hours with an occasional cigarette break. I am in the midst of an Indian club, dancing to Euro-beats and Bollywood favorites. Anil has the stamina of a Bollywood star, mimicking choreographed dance moves I’ve seen on my hotel TV. I twisted and turned to my own moves I’d picked up from my travels and many club nights of my past fifty years. In the darkness I stood out as the white foreigner and certainly the oldest, but my enthusiasm and general sense of happiness gained respect from my evening peer clubbers. Not that I cared much what people thought. And the scene was pretty much everyone dancing for themselves. There were plenty of attractive women, but they too were dancing alone or with a partner. It wasn’t a pick up scene and who cared, except maybe Anil, who was trying to forget his marital problems as was I.
I had not exercised so much in months and outlasted my friends. We decided to go at about four in the morning, Guffy seemed tired and hungry. There was some credit left on the card so we cashed-in on our last drinks and appetizers before we left.
It felt good to be back in the warm Mumbai air outside. This is perhaps the most quiet time for the city. There is little traffic and no honking. Guffy brought us to a late night eatery that served spicy grilled beef balls with the best fried Naan bread I’ve ever tasted. Crispy flaky flat breads just out of the fryer with these delicious tender meat morsels and fresh mint. I don’t know if it was because I had worked up such a famine from the dancing or the alcohol effect, there is just something so ritualistically satisfying about eating food after clubbing. Anil being Hindi, didn’t mind eating beef, and was now focused on getting laid. I had my fill of excitement for the evening, I was focused on getting some sleep. So we drive back to Colaba on deserted streets – there is a pungent smell of fish – but we’re not near the ocean or a fishing dock. We catch up to a large truck which is losing some fluids from its rear, the source of the smell. It’s a smell so strong it makes us grimace in disgust. “I want to take you to the fish market” announces Guffy.