The electronic sound of the doorbell wakes me out of a hot summer dream – it’s no surprise, as I had turned off the air conditioning. I wrap a towel around my sweaty self and open the door to be met by a Guffy smile. “Are you ready man?” He gleams. It takes me a couple of minutes to shower and brush my teeth, as I skip downstairs in my cheap rubber flip-flops. It’s still dark, and I wonder how my camera will capture what I’m about to witness. “You must see this early man. This is when the boats come to unload their fish.” Explains Guffy. I don’t argue and want to see with my eyes what my camera may not. The port is nearby, and at five-thirty is packed with trucks and foot traffic. We find a spot to park with a little difficulty. The sky in The Palace of Rags is beginning to show its daytime colors behind the masts of the fishing fleet. We are undoubtedly in a world of fresh caught fish, as the smell suggests. It’s pungent like the smell of the truck we followed two nights ago. Pity no one has yet to figure out how to transmit odor or temperature through tablets or computers. Forget 3D technology, what the world needs is 5D that ignites the senses of smell and feeling.
I follow Guffy closely as instructed through a fast flowing human current that makes Mumbai’s road traffic seem relaxed. The urgency coursing through the small pier is so furiously intense. I cannot stop to gaze and observe as I’m pushed around by a torrent of fish mongers like a dry floating branch in a raging monsoon river. Most are women in saris balancing baskets full of fish on their heads treading at a fast pace. Guffy points out opportunistic thieves that pick at the fast moving loot stealing an easy meal from the baskets like a silent thieving gull. The frenzy of the market contrast dramatically with the early morning empty streets just a few steps away. We are not here to buy seafood, just observing and trying to steal an instant with my camera which will not entirely capture the three hundred sixty degree dizzying freneticism revolving around us.
The noise and odor will not be part of any of my photographs, so I push the record button to at least try to capture this flowing freaky chaos in sound and action. Someone shouts at me not to photograph to boats, Guffy explains that the people here are afraid madmen will be inspired to attack the city by sneaking a bomb on one of the vessels if they see my pictures. Respectfully I refrain and aim my lens towards the piles of gooey dead sea creatures behind me. It’s astonishing how generous the Indian Ocean is. Giving mountains of shrimp, piles of prawns, squid and countless finned species piled, sorted, tossed and displayed so rapidly they seem have got a second life . But knowing that we are at the southern tip of the megalopolis with twenty two million people to feed, the huge amount of seafood here is actually little. Then comes the realization this is a daily reoccurring event that eventually will drain the ocean of its vitality…or not.
Mumbai is like the metropolises you see in sci-fi movies. Monstrous in density. Vast in distance. Dark yet bright. Loud and brash. Immensely open and deeply secretive. Suffocating yet teeming with life. Skyscrapers looming over scrappy slums. Mules racing Mercedes Benzes. Bright lights and dark places. The future is now in Mumbai.
We exit the pier and go to a nearby park Guffy wants to show me. The contrast is stark as the morning color hues ascend in the silence of dawn. Yet the clamor of the market is audible through the branches of crowing tropical verdure. A jogger will softly stir his or her jostling belly in hopes of losing weight and gaining room for the next meal. The price of middle class consumerism is seen strapped around the middles of the relatively wealthy. The ones with less seem the ones with more in context of health. At the market, few seemed overweight and none looked undernourished. In a country that once was plagued with hunger, the effects of consumerism has fed people and an entire city. There is irony early this morning as I make way for the occasional jogger, I’m reminded of dodging fast moving women loaded with a morning catch. They being slim and hungry, the joggers chubby and sweat ridden. Some look to gain and others to lose. We sit on a bench looking out to the bay and shoreline of what once used to be an island, behind us are bellyfuls of guffaws coming from a group in laughter therapy.
“Let’s get some breakfast” I suggest. Guffy agrees, but wants to take me to another market before we eat. We make our way north, uptown. There is still little traffic for the little black taxi. the tips of skyscrapers are sparkling like engagement gems from the rising sun filtered gold from the lingering smog. The air is still cool but starting to warm up to the suns rays, the exhaust of trucks and buses and the heated energy of the populace.
The flower market is yet another display of Mumbai contrasts. Here the sun is making its appearance through a hectic scene of carefully manicured leaves and flowers. The scent of roses has thankfully replaced the stench of fish. The market is on the East side of a busy four lane boulevard. Just outside are dozens of trucks unloading floral goods and tens of taxis, cars and motorized rickshaws loading the same. Men are carrying crates and bunches of roses at the same hurried pace as at the fish market. Inside the market is also similar. Bustling, energized and carrying sweet smells and aroma as loads of flowers, buds and petals whoosh by. Obviously there is also no shortage of floral goods. Mumbai is pressed between the vastness of the Indian Ocean and immense lands of Rajasthan. Fish to feed the people and flowers to appease the gods. For me it was already a great days catch of snapshots.
It’s about eight in the morning, the sun is rising through the skyline creating a natural strobe light effect as we cruise along the skyway back to Colaba for some breakfast. Directly across the street from Leopold’s is a traditional Indian eatery serving Muslim specialties. Anil joins us as Guffy orders a selection of breakfast specials. Thick soft bread buns, spicy mint speckled chickpea spread, puree eggplant and scallion omelet with sweet milky chai. I graciously nod and munch as Guffy asks for approval before I pay the check which is considerably less than Leopold. Guffy and I are tired, it’s sleep time for him as he’s been up all night, and I must meet my new friend Pooja this afternoon. Guffy will try to meet me and take me to see her, but he now must sleep, and his father is waiting for the taxi.
Pooja has become Mumbai’s “A” list baking sweetheart. A graduate of Cezar Ritz Culinary institute in Switzerland, Pooja got the delightful idea of offering French styled macaroons to Mumbai after living in Paris. It was a tough battle for the young woman in a male dominated society, as well as figuring out a way to bake the sweet little morsels in Mumbai’s sultry heat and humidity. Yet she managed to open three stores, a culinary studio as well as write a best selling cookbook. She is now a hit with trendy sweet toothed Mumbaikers, the darling of TV shows and a star bakery chef creating edible masterpieces for Bollywood stars. I had met Pooja while conducting an interview with her for her Alma Mater back in Switzerland. I’d been impressed by the entrepreneur’s zeal and positive attitude and was commissioned to make her the school’s latest poster woman of success. I’d enjoyed our conversations by the side of Lake Geneva, and wanted to see her in her Indian environment, so a meeting was set at mid afternoon in her studio in Lower Pavel.
After a pleasant midday nap I attempt to contact Guffy to take me to Pooja’s studio but he doesn’t answer. According to the obviously Muslim hotel front desk help, he may be praying if he’s of the same faith. He is, but he keeps his religion discrete and moderate, so he may simply be sleeping. I decide to have a look in front of the Mondregan cafe where he usually waits in search of fares and I’m pretty quickly solicited for a ride by a round faced young man with a friendly smile. I ask him if he knows where I can find Guffy, and I’m met with a bigger smile “He’s my best friend!” he exclaims. “I’m Ali!” Guffy had mentioned him, plus his name was easy to remember, so we hit it off immediately as he describes my evening out with his friend at the Hard Rock Cafe. He’d seen the pictures and video from Guffy on his smartphone.
Ali drives a classic Mumbaiker taxi, the Premier Pandini. Born in the sixties, this tough little engineering wonder was licensed from Fiat and manufactured in Mumbai in numbers reaching tens of thousands. Part of the city’s gridlock landscape, the little black cab with a yellow roof has been snaking through the streets for decades and takes you a few years back in time. There is no air conditioning, no radio and little suspension. Ali pumps and grinds on the manual transmission barefooted in the constant stop and go traffic stopping at times to get directions. He knows where we are going he assures, but has no clue either. I don’t mind and can honestly say I truly understand. I was a New York cabbie. Being a taxi driver is one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever performed, and since hold great respect and good relations with cab drivers everywhere I go.
We are an hour late, yet Ali did find our destination attesting to his know-how of the gigantic labyrinth. The studio is a small newly renovated two story storefront with discreet white on black minimalist signage among the hustle and bustle of a modest neighborhood. I see Pooja sitting behind a computer in a slick designed office through the front window. I walk into the refreshing air conditioned office relieved by the cool breeze and Pooja’s warm smile. I apologize for my less than Swiss punctuality to which Pooja says “Welcome to Mumbai”. I then hand her a framed photo of a Swiss Narcissus flower as a gift which will fit just right into the decor.
Pooja is a modern Indian woman dressed impeccably in jeans and loose fitting shirt draped over ample curves. Her skin is the color of a golden mocca macaroon, her shoulder length hair is jet black to match the simple eyeliner make up. A gleaming snow white smile beams behind her full youthful pouty lips. She seems like an Indian cherub who has never been caught with her hand in the cookie jar as she is savoring her loot with a mischievous grin. A sincere indication of her love of goodies as stylishly written on her packaging “Made with love”. Yet this baking angel is also simultaneously on her phone and computer as well as giving directions to employees coming into her office. I’m offered a selection of macaroons to taste while I wait, and they are identical to the French versions in substance but are deliciously Indian in style.
We exchange some small talk before touring her shop which consist of a good sized room featuring a long centered stainless steel table with several chairs around it for students. All around the room are counter-tops neatly furnished with kitchen amenities. This is the learning studio. Next door is the kitchen divided on two floors fitted in latest stainless steel professional equipment. I cannot stand straight on the floor above because the ceiling is lower than my 1.80m frame. Here is an office where men are doing paperwork and another kitchen where a man and a woman are filling macaroons or frosting cupcakes. Pooja prefers working with her female employees admitting they work harder and better than the men. She believes it is because the women have something to prove to dominant males. I’m impressed by her command of her business, she’s still in her late twenties full of youthful energy yet at grasp with a mature grip.
There is more to see, so we jump in back of a small chauffeured minivan to her shop in trendy Bandra, home of many Bollywood stars. “What are you doing tonight?” she asks. I had no plans, yet was hoping to see more of Mumbai with her guidance. “I am invited to a Thanksgiving dinner with a friend who is one of Mumbai’s top chef, would you like to join us?” I’d zapped the fact it was Thanksgiving. Being in the midst of Mumbai’s sweltering heat, the late fall holiday which is synonymous with cold unpleasant late November weather did not register. I was all too pleased to be invited and to experience another side of the city’s social fabric as we would be joined by some of her close friends and family.
The traffic allowed us to talk about her struggles of producing her book with Goliath publisher Penguin Books. She showed me videos and news clips of the Bollywood sized wedding cake she constructed. And about the stress of being the feature in an upcoming Hindi television program. She’s just on the tails of a nasty flu, tired and worried that her command of Hindi would not be up to par. I was surprised to hear that she felt more comfortable speaking English although seemingly perfectly fluent in the local tongue. Which is felt in the colorful signature Indian accent we Anglo Saxons are used to hearing when she speaks. I tell her about some of what I experienced with Guffy, and is astounded by what I describe. She admits that I have seen perhaps more of Mumbai than she has. That being said, tourist have seen more of Switzerland than I have.
In Bandra she asks the driver to stop for coffee to-go. It is no surprise that we park in front of a Starbucks – we are in a trendy neighborhood. And just a little further is her first shop which could be the model for an another Western styled lucrative chain of franchised businesses.
The bright pink little shop glows of French flair and is more or less mirrored by a copycat neighbor next door. She’d mentioned this in our interview, and was a little shocked when faced with the reality of the actual fact of the matter. Her feelings towards the imitators did not steep into anger or revenge, but with a just get-on-with-it attitude. She acutely says “People can copy what you’ve done, but they cannot copy what your going to do.” She goes on to say that is why she wrote a book, so if people want her recipes they can buy the book. It’s clear this businesswoman has a trick or two up her sleeves which she is not afraid to roll up when necessary. The shop next door does not have the Parisian charm Pooja has created which is clearly stated in the name she’s chosen, Le 15eme. I am for a moment transported to Paris as we walk by the a couple sitting on the shaded outdoor terrace into the cosy shop decorated with savior-faire and French mementos. The refrigerated glass counter is almost out of the cute colorful chubby merchandise which signifies the shops success since it is late afternoon. Pooja tells her staff to rearrange what’s left, goes over a few issues with her manager and we’re off.
Her driver is not waiting for us, but one of her friends in a small compact car. A quick introduction to learn that her girlfriend is a dentist. The two gab away mostly in English which I question. They simply explain that English was the language spoken throughout their education and with friends at school. They spoke Hindi at home, but spoke English most of the day, so it stuck. The English occupation is not a physical one but a profound cultural influence which has made its way into India’s middle class and its children.
It takes about an half hour to get to our destination, The Phoenix Mall. An replica of America with all the popular chain franchises. Not the place I’d go when traveling to a far and distant land, and more like a reminder of the West’s power of invasion through culture rather than force. In a way the mall is like a temple of worship to brand name deities of consumerism. In the future will we study our relentless offerings to Starbucks, TGIF, Polo and other branded gods of goods? That we are enslaved to sacrifice our lives and belongings to god-like mascots like Disney, Apple or The Gap?
Pooja’s brand is along the big players in a little corner of the modern edifice to the right of the escalator. She pops in to check on the shop’s daily tally. We briefly discuss her branding which is modest and low key compared to the big players screaming their names in bold signage. She quickly dismisses the subject with frustration as she’s well aware of the problem. It’s an issue she’s got with the mall’s management. I follow her and her friend to a toy store. She’d like to offer a few gifts to one of her friend’s kids in Switzerland and asks if could take them back for her. The toy store is glitzy and upscale. I may have seen some of the toys manufactured in the Dharavi slums, alas most of them say Made in China.
Her driver drops me off at a taxi outside the mall. The contrast between the mall and the street is becoming a familiar Mumbai characteristic. She’s given me directions to a restaurant in Colaba where will meet for dinner a little later. I have time to rest and take shower, and make my way to the address. According to Google maps, it’s a short walk from my hotel which in reality takes me over an hour as I can’t find a street address and no one seems to know of the place. Eventually – there it is – a short walk away after all.
The restaurant is called Ellipsis and is housed in what appears to be an old stately Victorian mansion. Handsome stylish folks are smoking outside on the large stone patio. I go up the stairs wearing my cheap rubber sandals casually dressed in a button-down shirt to inform the doorman whom I’m with. From the outside, I can see the place is packed with Mumbai’s fortunate and perhaps a few fortunes. It’s a grand modern style interior with large dinner tables dressed with fine cuisine and luscious patrons. A staircase leads to another busy dining area perched on a loft and below is a long stark bar housing the finest liquors of the world as well as a large salon fitted with plump sofas and chairs. I spot Pooja and pardon my tardiness. She’s all smiles and gorgeous, a familiar face among the million Mumbaikers. She presents me to her friends and family and offers me a drink. In an instant my fingers are wrapped around a cool beer, which oddly is not a local brew, but an import. They don’t carry Kingfisher. I do my very best to remember all the names I’m introduced to. I did forget a few, but overall did well. I’m then introduced to the buffet. Prawns, prime rib, gratins, salads and pork belly – my personal favorite. Consistently replaced with more of the finest meats, vegetables, casseroles and seafood which I’m convinced I encountered at the fish market earlier in the morning.
In between bites I converse with everyone, who seem curious about my recent adventures. They are genuinely interested and I’m living another Mumbai contrast – last night I was eating goat stew in a slum not very far – and now in a posh restaurant within Mumbai’s elite. They are aware of their neighbors of the slums, the problems of housing. They tell me of outdated housing laws, corrupt land deals that push the extremities of rich and poor. It makes no senses, yet it is working. Grime next to gleam. Luxury above labor. Slums and millions. Everyone seems to get along, rich and poor, Muslim and Hindi, foreign and local. And it’s of no use to try to understand something that may not be understood. The best one can do is marvel and enjoy all Mumbai offers from best to worse.
A group of four blond longhairs stroll in the bar looking like the latest hot Swedish rock act. The leader seems somewhat older than the other three. His blond locks frame a jolly goateed face. He’s dressed in black and tattoos. I’m wondering whether they’ll be playing at the Hard Rock Cafe. As Europeans in India, nature has gravitated us towards each other and I find out they are not a rock band, but a father with his three kids. Originally Swedish and living in Australia for many years. His name is Claus, and it turns out the man in question is Claes Loberg, founder of Guvera, a new online music distributor generating a small fortune in Australasia and now India with over twelve million users. They were simply here enjoying their recent success staying in a large hotel penthouse overlooking the Palace of Rags. We pound scotch after scotch exchanging stories of marriage and love, kids and family, drugs and rock&roll. Claes has a modest attitude about his success, a regular guy. I tell him about my Mumbai adventures and he seems quite keen to come down from his ivory tower to mingle in the mosh pit below. I tell him about Guffy, and sincerely hope he’ll seek out my new Mumbaiker friend so he and his kids can discover the depths of the city’s unique personality.
We mingle a bit more outside, bid farewell to Pooja and her friends. Everyone boards taxis and private cars. I’m offered a ride, but decline as I’d prefer to walk the few minutes back to my hotel. In the Palace of Rags, the traffic has calmed, the heat settled and make my way back on the sidewalk stepping over sleeping families on flattened cardboard boxes. People are sleeping on carts, steps, nooks and crannies and I’ve just stepped from a buffet of wealth to ragged sleeping children And on this filth day, it seems absolutely common even normal.
DAY 6 COMING UP SOON