As I sit alone at Leopold’s (the famed café in David Gregory Roberts’ Shataram novel) it is the 26th of November, the anniversary of the 2006 Mumbai terrorist attacks. A young woman takes the empty table next to mine. We start a conversation – she is here because it is the anniversary of the attacks – and look around us pointing out the bullet holes which remain in the floor, the walls, columns and mirrors. They have not been repaired, as Indians will not forget.
Ishana is her name. Her English is perfect, it includes popular Anglo slangs, but she does roll her rrrrs in exotic Indian fashion. She urges me to drink – forgive me, I must be talking too much – I admit. She is in the film business, which is why I am a bit too excited to compare stories with her. It’s also my business. Ishana calls Mumbai Palace Of Rags. It’s a great movie title, I exclaim. She’s left rainy England to find work in Mumbai, her boyfriend is to follow soon. He’s in for a shock, he’s never been to India. Ironically he calls, she chats excitingly and blurts out that she’s met a cool guy, (that’s me) who she’s guzzling beer with. I feel great to be considered cool, but I’m a rather uncomfortable knowing her chap is on the other end of the line. “Tell her I’m old!” I say. She smiles and tells her boyfriend not to worry, the guy sitting with her is old.
The incredible India I find most incredible are the people I’ve met. Pooja Dhingra was the first of my recent meetings. She sat in front of my cameras for an interview back in Switzerland. She’d attended Cézar Ritz Culinary College several years ago, and was invited back to speak to students about her successful patisserie business venture in Mumbai. She discovered macaroons in Paris and returned to her home city with the idea and ambition to recreate that Parisian feeling of biting into scrumptious French sweets. Her idea became a reality and is now a celebrity chef making cakes for Bollywood stars and running a small growing chain of shops and culinary kitchens.
Pooja’s drive, cool enthusiasm, and beautiful personality rekindled the desire for me to experience India. And within a few days, I check into my hotel just a few short meters from Leopold’s. It’s far from fancy but it’s small, clean and I have a private shower and bathroom. A welcome relief as my long ride from the airport had my clothes sticking to me like plastic wrap to packaged chicken breasts from the heat and humidity.
So I venture out for a first look of my temporary neighborhood in shorts, T-shirt and newly purchased sandals from the shoe shop crowding the hotel entrance hall. No space is wasted here. Every inch of wall along the shaded sidewalk is covered with garbs destined to end up somewhere in the hands of worldly tourists foraging for a good deal. It’s not only hot and humid, but stifling from the crowd, and a break from the jumble of people comes at the street corner, where taxis, scooters and bicycles honk incessantly as the sun beats down on my white bald head. Time for a deep breath of a cigarette. The caustic smoke I inhale is not much different from the polluted air I breath in. I stand out in my white T-shirt and shorts, so it doesn’t take long for hungry salesmen to see me as an opportunity for a meal. Balloons, bongos, jewelry, peacock feathers are offered, and of course local mood enhancement specials. I turn down all offers for any kind of local pharmaceuticals, as I am riding a high stimulated by the environment and plenty of left-overs in my system. I’m not here to buy stuff or get wasted, but to see, feel and taste India, so the next offer is more to my liking when a smiling young man asks me how I am, and the next question everyone asks, “Where are you from?”
“Switzerland?” he repeats. They all seem impressed when I give away my origins, as is this young man. His name is Anil. He offers me the city and its sights, and basically anything I desire. His smile is good and enthusiasm genuine. But I’m not ready for a guided tour, just some naive and spontaneous discoveries. I respectfully dismiss Anil, and go about my way towards the famed Gateway of India, where Queen Victoria was welcomed over a century ago. I am just under the monumental Taj Mahal hotel and can barely get my camera out to snap away as I am spotted as the curious tourist. A dark smiling young girl wrapped in bright colored fabric holding a chubby naked baby in her arms ties a jasmine petal bracelet to my wrist and says “Take it. I don’t want money”. Perhaps not, but she wants something. I reach in my pocket to try to find a small bill, hopefully a 20 Rupee bill, and hand her 50 Rupee note, but she refuses to take it. “Buy milk for my baby”. Just take my money and leave me alone, I insist. But she throws the money to be ground. I don’t understand that this is a common ruse – to connive tourists into buying nourishment for street kids under the guise of humanitarian goodwill – but I will in a couple of days. She follows me, and I can’t shed her, another man jumps in to help to offer me all the illicit things one could be tempted by. Now I can’t shed him, so I head in the direction of a hotel I saw online offering a rooftop terrace and harbor view. As I cross the property line, my followers fade away.
I am alone and well before the dinner crowd, I swallow a couple Kingfisher beers looking out over the bay down on fellow tourists shooing offers from peddlers like pestering flies. As the sun sets behind me, the Gateway slowly fades in the golden grey haze. The heat is calmed by a wandering breeze – as well as is being six floors above Indian ground and comfortably buzzed by the beer. I want to take a few more pictures during the golden hour, and I can’t hide from the reality below, nor do I want to. The beers and heat remind me that I have not slept much on the plane, and my eyes burn not only from the airborne CO2, but jet lag.
The streets of Colaba, the neighborhood on the southern tip of city, are shaded by huge trees with heaving branches weighed down and heavy like my eyelids. Crows bark in the dark leaves which hide the run down British colonial architecture, its beauty remaining under years of dirt and grime.
It doesn’t take long for Anil to spot me, he again proposes sights and stimulation, and I decline. He is gentle and friendly and suggests we sit on a flower box along the sidewalk “India style”, he says. We talk and I explain that in my jet lagged condition I cannot make a decision at the moment. Passer-byes look at us in slight curiosity, when a young man stares in my eyes and signals to my ear. I have something in my ear, I wonder? He nods positively then shows me a straightened paper clip he plans to use in there. Before I can react, he’s poking in my ear and pulls out disgusting ear snot which he wipes on his wrist. Somewhat horrified, I look over to Anil – also seemingly surprised – he asks, “You don’t clean your ears man?” I do! Really! I regularly prod my ears with cotton swabs! The man goes for the other ear and fishes out more gunk, then shows me a pair of sharp tweezers he’ll be foraging with. By this time I’m absolutely convinced of his ear cleaning skills. He digs within my aural cavity and gently pulls out a small black pebble. I am truly disgusted and shocked, as he dives back into my cavern to mines for more minerals. In total, he pulled out six little black rocks! He finishes his unappealing job by washing and swabbing, then asks for 1’000 Rupees, not cheap by Indian standards.
I am perplexed… there is no way my ears were so clogged, or were they? I look over to Anil, who also seems surprised. I will learn later that Anil is new to Mumbai, but at this moment I ask him if it’s a trick? He shrugs, and doesn’t want the responsibility on his conscience so we briskly chase down the ear cleaner. Perhaps a little surprised by us, the ear cleaner defends his profession by showing laminated cards of pleased tourist customers. We are surrounded by a small group of other aural cleaners who proudly flash their proof of customer satisfaction. I get swabbed one more time, and I accept the consequence, and must admit my ears feel unclogged and popped like I just yawned after a sudden change in altitude.
Anil escorts me on my short discovery of the nearby surroundings. British rule stands firm in imposing decorative colonial architecture. The golden sunlight filtered by the pollution cast a faint saffron hue on the carved stone. Churches, museums, universities rise behind wrought-iron fences surrounded by lush gardens. We cross the street and wander through a vast yellow green lawn where hundreds of cricketers swing away at tennis balls. In the distance immense modern buildings can barely be distinguished in the haze, but the presence of modern India is clear. Their independence from British rule is convincingly felt – as beautiful as Victoria Station is, it looks haunted from the days of the colonial monarchy. Old and decrepit in comparison to the towering glistening skyscrapers in the distance.
Anil is pleasant company. Having chosen to travel alone is perceived as questionable by some, but it is a great way to meet people. And in a city of more than 20 million people, you cannot be alone. So we walk side by side as if we have been long time friends. He accompanies me to my hotel, and accepts my fatigue. Perhaps we will see each other tomorrow.
CONTINUE TO DAY 2