The people of India are constantly on the move, travelling between towns and villages, seeking work in the cities, visiting family back home, bringing produce from fields in the countryside to urban markets, or making an endless assortment of religious pilgrimages.
The vast majority of these journeys rely on public transport – buses, trucks, trains and ferries – so one would quite naturally assume the average Indian is a seasoned traveller. And indeed, this generally proves to be true. I was often struck by the saintly patience of Indian travellers when faced with infuriating delays, queues, and crowded railway carriages. Indians, at least as it seemed to me, have the capacity to endure the most excruciating of journeys, without a word of complaint.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
In one important respect, however, Indians are without doubt the worst travellers I have ever encountered. Namely, they are almost preternaturally susceptible to motion sickness. It is a phenomenon you can set your watch by: train pulls out of station, count to ten, and someone in the crowded carriage will begin heaving their cookies.
In all our time in India, nowhere was this more evident than on an eight-hour journey by high-speed ferry from Goa to Bombay (it is more usually now known as Mumbai, but when we visited it was still going by the old English name).
Our seats, the cheapest category available, were on the lower deck. There we joined about fifty Indian travellers, who appeared to mostly be part of one extended family. While waiting for the ferry to depart the women in the group producing a series of metal canisters filled with gooey curries, rice, lentil stews, and bread. Every man woman and child then proceeded to tuck into this impromptu banquet, with gusto.
About twenty minutes later the ferry cast off from its moorings, and soon we were travelling at high speed. We reached the open sea and the ferry began shooting up off the crest of each rolling wave, before crashing down onto the water with a loud bang.
A few minutes of this sustained up and down motion passed and then, like a volcano erupting, the retching began. It started as a low grumble, a few moans here and there. Then one or two people were sick, and then suddenly all around us people were vomiting, in a coordinated concerto of sickness. The sound and the smell were, quite simply, unbearable.
At first the cabin-crew ran around frantically handing out small pink plastic bags, which were promptly filled and returned. But the retching didn’t stop, and when they had no more food left to regurgitate, our fellow travellers began dry-retching instead. Just as well, because the crew’s supply of pink plastic bags was quickly exhausted, and after a while they just gave up.
On and on it went, for eight long, long hours. In between bouts of hurling the men groaned, and the women whimpered like whipped dogs. Some even cried. One lady plaintively called out “please stop, please stop”, as if she were being tortured.
Eventually as we approached Bombay the ferry slowed, at which point the retching ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Everyone began pulling themselves together, as if this bout of communal purgation had never happened. The men smoothed their shirts, wiped their mouths and recommenced a loud and boisterous banter. The women touched up their make-up, brushed their hair and adjusted their jewellery. A fat young boy of around ten, who had literally thrown up every morsel of food that he ate in Goa, somewhat unbelievably began munching on a pakhora.
We disembarked and as we walked ashore I recall one lady in particular tossing her mane of hair arrogantly in my face, and stepping in front of me to snatch the first available taxi. Such smugness – it was all I could do not to remind her that half an hour earlier she had been sprawled out on the floor of the ferry in a pool of her own sick, begging for mercy and squealing like a stuck pig.
Bombay is a bona-fide Indian metropolis, complete with freeways, a Manhattan style skyline, traffic choked streets and a constant pedestrian crush. Give this it is hard to believe that the city started life as a group of quiet, rural and isolated islands. Over the years the shallow sea between the islands was filled in, the land was reclaimed, and the people arrived.
Today Bombay is a contiguous thirty kilometre long, densely populated peninsula. The western side of the peninsula faces onto the calm waters of Bombay Harbour, the eastern side onto the sea. At the southern tip of the peninsula is Colaba, which is where hotels, restaurants, commercial facilities and tourist attractions are most concentrated.
On approach to Colaba the land curves to form a protected and tranquil bay, known as Back Bay (or “Bom Bay“- the Good Bay as it was originally called by the Portuguese). And along the gentle curve of Back Bay is Marine Drive, an eight-lane road that links the city’s posh northern neighbourhoods to downtown. Along its length runs a wide oceanfront promenade, with glorious views of the water and the skyline beyond. Leisurely strolls along Marine Drive are a favourite Bombay activity.
Although our first experience of the Marine Drive “speed track” was anything but serene.
It was late afternoon, and we were in a taxi en-route from the ferry port to our Colaba hotel. As the taxi swung onto the broad sweep of Marine Drive, something in the brain of our driver (who I shall refer to simply as “Fangio”) went “snap”. I swear it was almost audible, and in that instant Fangio morphed from meek taxi-driver into daredevil Formula One driver, engaged in a bout of dogged warfare with several thousand other Bombay motorists.
We found ourselves praying as we hurtled down Marine Drive at over one-hundred kilometres an hour, all the while weaving madly through a high-speed stream of buses and cars. There was often little more than a few inches to spare between us and the next vehicle. The moves were reckless, the swerving traffic scary, and the speed terrifying. So much so that Fangio earned himself the much coveted honour of our “Worst Driver in India”. And believe me, if you have spent any time at all on India’s roads, you will understand that this is no small achievement.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we avoided taxis for the remainder of our stay in Bombay. Instead, we resorted to old-fashioned walking.
One evening we strolled along the Marine Drive promenade. In the soft light of sun-set Bombay’s skyline turned out to be surprisingly attractive, almost romantic. Perhaps this was why there were an inordinate numbers of young lovers moseying back and forth, holding hands, cuddling on benches, even kissing. Although there were also families on outings, groups of raucous children trying to escape the attention of their nannies, track-suit-and-Reebok clad joggers, and elderly ladies walking dogs on leads. Not to mention the usual crowd of coconut sellers, juice-wallahs, beggars, and teenage boys selling everything from cigarettes to batteries to newspapers to furry dolls.
We called in to the Tarporevela Aquarium. In one tank lives the Koran Fish, an otherwise ordinary fish with markings on its side that are said to spell out a line from the Koran. The next tank is home to the Christ Crab, an otherwise equally ordinary crab with the symbol of the cross on its back. There was a bit of a crush around these two star attractions – people had come from far and wide to see them – and it occurred to me that this was probably the only aquarium in the world which doubles as a pilgrimage site.
As the sun dipped below the skyline, hundreds of lights slowly flickered to life all along Marine Drive, so that by the time the last rays of day had disappeared it felt like we were floating in a sea of twinkling stars. The darkness hid the smog; the crowds melted away into the night; and even the gaudy neon-strobe lights looked enchanting from a distance. The British nick-named this strip of the Bombay coast as the “Queens Necklace”, and it was easy to see why.
At the northern end of Marine Drive we came to Chowpatty Beach (a bit of a misnomer given that anyone who attempts to swim there will almost certainly die of lung infections contracted in the polluted water). Here, the festive atmosphere of the Marine Drive promenade crystallises each night into physical form, in the shape of a spontaneous, colourful and noisy fun-fair.
There were pony rides, a decrepit looking Ferris-wheel, and a merry-go-round. We walked through the side-show alley, where I had a turn at the shooting gallery, only to become embroiled in a dispute with the owner as to the number of bullets I was entitled to per rupee. We sat at a table, our chairs sinking into the sand, and ordered Bel Phuri, a uniquely Bombay treat that is kind of like a sweet muesli, served in a cone of newspaper and eaten with spoons. Later we saw astrologers and masseuses and knickknack sellers, and even old men who made a living from cleaning out people’s ear wax, and trimming unruly nasal hairs.
It was all quite wonderful, reminiscent of the cutesy country fairs that you often see depicted in films. Except instead of wholesome mid-westerners eating apple-pie and saying things like “yes, ma’am” here there were men in lungis and sari-clad matrons, eating Bel Phuri and talking in Hindi.
One morning was spent wandering through the dense streets and dilapidated buildings of Colaba, at the southernmost tip of the Bombay promontory. We started in the super-swish Taj Hotel, where we planned to have tea in the lobby. These plans came unstuck when the hotel doorman politely ordered us to find somewhere else to loiter. My sandals and shorts were obviously incompatible with the suit-and-tie businessmen and Gucci-clad women frolicking ostentatiously in the hotel’s foyer.
All of which was slightly ironic, given the story of how the Taj Hotel came to be. India’s wealthiest industrialist, J.R.D Tata (who lent his name to the millions of smoke-belching Tata trucks and buses that ply every road and byway on the sub-continent) was supposedly once refused entry to Watson’s, which at that time was the most exclusive hotel in Bombay. Watson’s, like many other colonial-era institutions, had a strict “Europeans only” entry policy. According to legend Tata was so enraged by this slight he built the Taj Hotel, thereby ensuring that as owner he would never again get turned away at the door.
We walked from the Taj along a sunny seaside promenade, down to a large triumphal arch that is poetically known as the “Gateway of India”. This dominating structure was constructed in 1924 to commemorate the visit to India of King George V and Queen Mary. The fact that their visit had occurred fifteen years earlier, in 1911, tells you something about Indians’ sense of time. Also from this spot the last platoon of English troops on Indian soil sailed away, in 1948, thereby ending Britain’s four centuries old rule of the country.
From there we took a ferry, across the bay to Elephanta Island, famous for its “cave temple” – a large hollow chiselled out of the hillside and filled with statues. At one point I lingered behind to study a marvellous carving. This did not please our tour-guide. When I rejoined the group a few minutes later, she held up her index finger and sternly admonished me: “From now on pay attention! You will learn much from listening to what literate and educated Indian people have to say”.
Other pleasant ramblings over the next few days brought us to the Bombay Yacht Club, filled with unpolished trophies and fading photos in worn frames – yet another of India’s fine old colonial institutions, gone to seed; and to the Prince of Wales Museum, housing within its genteel surrounds what is perhaps India’s finest collection of antiques, colonial memorabilia, paintings, sculptures and artworks.
We also explored Bombay’s endless markets – from those at the Sassoon Docks at the southern tip of Colaba, where bundles of smelly dried fish were on sale by the crate-load, to the Thieves Market at the northernmost end of the city, where acres of antiques and bric-a-brac were on offer. In between there was the Crawford covered food markets; the pet and poultry market; the brass market; the wigs and false moustaches market; the fabric bazaars, selling silk and cotton, scarves and saris; and the glittering jewellery market.
At the flower market, stooped grandmothers and nimble-fingered young girls blended jasmine, lilies, daffodils and gardenias into fragrant garlands, for use in temple rituals throughout Bombay. Despite the heady aroma of the fresh flowers no-one dared to bend down and smell the buds. Apparently, by smelling a garland you rob it of all future religious purpose – the deity to whom each garland is proffered is entitled to the first sniff.
At one point we emerged from the packed marketplaces into Bombay’s red-light district. It was daytime, but even the glare of sunlight could not mask the overpowering aura of sleaze and human misery that permeated the whole place. A number of shop fronts had bars across them, so that they looked like prison cells. I later read that at night these are lit-up and young prostitutes (often sold into virtual slavery by their cash-strapped families) are made to stand behind the bars and offer themselves to passers-by, earning them the nick-name “cage-girls”.
Being there in the context of exploring Bombay’s markets felt awful. It was like we had done little more than move from one market to another, only now we were in the one that sold human flesh. It was all very sad, and we left well before nightfall. We had no interest in seeing this “market” in action.
Each morning, the accumulated dirty laundry of Bombay’s millions of residents finds its way to the open-air municipal dhobi (laundry) in the north of the city, where it is thrashed and beaten into a state of cleanliness by an army of men and women, known as dobhi-wallahs.
Dhobi-wallahs are, in fact, a common feature of almost every Indian town. In Bombay, however, the sheer number of dhobi-wallahs, and the fact that they all seem to work in the one spot, makes the municipal dhobi a remarkable sight.
There we saw row after row of dhobi-wallahs, lifting saturated garments high into the air before thwacking them down onto worn stone slabs. It looked almost like a synchronised dance of sorts. The pool of knee-high water in which the dhobi-wallahs stood was filled with brown soapy suds, and the air was thick with both the rhythmic sound of laundry being pounded onto the stones, and the incessant chatter and grunts of the laundry workers.
Even more amazing, every bundle of washing is sorted and separated, so that your jeans will ultimately be washed by one person, your saris by another, socks, shorts, and underwear each by a different person again. But, somehow, incredibly, at the end of each day the various pieces of freshly thrashed, dried and pressed laundry are gathered back into their original bundles, bound up in newspaper with string, and returned to their rightful owner. I can’t do a load of washing without losing a sock, but at the dhobis, hundreds of dhobi-wallahs handling millions of garments don’t make any errors. It is nothing short of miraculous.
Bombay is home to a small Parsi community. They descend from Zoroastrians, who fled to India from Iran in the 10th century, so as to avoid the Islamic armies that had conquered their homeland.
Compared to the minuscule size of their community (about 90,000) the Parsis of Bombay have had a disproportionate influence on Indian life. India’s richest family, the Tatas, are Parsis, as are many other high-profile members of India’s economic and political elite. I particularly love the family name that Sir Cowasji Jehangir, one of India’s wealthiest Parsi businessmen, adopted for himself on being knighted in 1908: “Readymoney”.
A basic tenet of the Parsi faith is that earth, water, fire and sky are sacred, and should not be polluted with dead bodies. This is in stark contrast to the practices of the Hindu majority, who first cremate dead bodies before scattering the ashes into the nearest body of water. Thus conventional burials and cremations are out for religious Parsis.
Instead, the dead are placed on the tops of high stone columns, called Towers of Silence, so that the bodies may be eaten by vultures, and the bones cleansed by the wind and sun. Meaning that possibly the most bizarre “sight” in Bombay is the seven Towers of Silence on the top of Malabar Hill, not far from the homes of film stars and politicians who reside in the affluent surrounding suburbs.
I later read that nowadays many in Bombay’s Parsi community are opting for “conventional” funerals, so the Towers of Silence are being used less and less. This is supposedly in response to complaints from Malabar Hill residents, who say that the overfed vultures occasionally drop bits and pieces of flesh and bone onto the balconies of their exclusive residential apartment blocks. Although this is just rumour – on our walk, much as I looked, we didn’t stumble across the odd finger or two that the vultures had discarded. Sorry.
Closer to home, for me at least, there is another small religious minority in Bombay, which these days has all but disappeared.
At one time India had a large and thriving Jewish community. Jews could be found in most of India’s larger cities, with sizable communities in Bombay, Calcutta and New Delhi. Bombay’s was the largest, although each supported the full range of schools, charities, burial societies, kosher eateries and other institutions that define any vibrant Jewish community.
In most of these Jewish centres large and exquisitely beautiful synagogues were built, and they became the focal point of communal life.
One of the finest of these synagogues is in Bombay – Beit Knesset Eliyahoo. It is not mentioned in most Indian guidebooks, but a Jewish backpacker from England had recommended it to us, and the address – Rope Walk Lane – stuck in my mind (Rope Walk Lane has since been renamed VB Ghandi Road). When our hotel turned out to be around the corner from Rope Walk Lane, I decided that fate was calling, and so one hot and humid morning we set out to find the synagogue.
From outside, there was nothing to designate the building as a synagogue, and but for a small plaque on a wall beside a large wooden door, we would never have found the place.
We entered, and after walking along a narrow corridor, we emerged into the main room of the synagogue. It was a beautiful structure, in the classic Sephardi style, with wooden benches arranged in a circle around a central bimah (prayer platform). The décor was quite plain and unostentatious, the interior painted in a simple light blue – traditionally used in oriental synagogues as a means of warding off the evil eye.
I was approached by an Indian man, who was the synagogue guardian. He was not Jewish, but he told me that if we called in on Friday evening, we could meet “Mr Freddy”, who was.
We returned on the eve of the Sabbath in our least wrinkled items of clothing. The guard met us at the door, and led us inside, where we were introduced to Mr Freddy Sofer, who welcomed us warmly, and gave us a quick guided tour of the synagogue. Freddy apologised that no-one else had arrived for the service, and asked if we would like to join him in Sabbath prayers. So we sat there, alone in the middle of this beautiful synagogue, intoning the Lecha Dodi. Our voices echoed in the emptiness of the room, and wonderful as it was, I was saddened by the thought that if it wasn’t for Freddy, no-one would ever use this synagogue.
After we had finished praying, Freddy invited us to his home for a meal. It was amusing walking back through the streets of Bombay with Freddy. He was in his mid 60s and had a little white goatee, pale skin, starched white shirt, and beige cotton trousers, so he looked like a true English gentleman. Indeed, when speaking to us his English was flawless and unaccented. Yet, without skipping a beat, he would turn aside and shout to a passer-by in fluent Hindi, pushing and shoving his way through the crowd like a native.
At Freddy’s home – a very large and well-appointed apartment in one of Bombay’s most fashionable neighbourhoods – we met his sister. She now lives in London, but was visiting for a few weeks. We were also joined by a Jewish South African businessman, in Bombay for work purposes. Somehow, Freddy had found him too.
After Freddy made a blessing over the wine and bread, two house servants appeared, and laid on a Friday night spread that would do any Jewish mother proud. Freddy apologised that there was no meat, but, as he explained: “I like to keep kosher, and it is not easy getting kosher meat in Bombay these days”.
During dinner, we learned that Freddy had been born in Bombay, and although his whole family had moved to England, he had chosen to stay. “I am a child of Bombay”, he said. “This is where I belong”.
He also explained to me that every Friday night he always prepared a full Shabbat meal, and visited the synagogue in case there were some people around who he could bring home. He told me that many of his guests were not Jewish, but were tourists who had visited the synagogue and were keen to experience a traditional Sabbath meal. “It is my little mitzvah” (good deed), Freddy said.
The whole time at Freddy’s I marvelled at how I could enter a Jewish home, in Bombay of all places, and everything was the same: the candles, the prayer books, the wine, the familiar, family like atmosphere.
On our way out the door, Freddy pressed a bag filled with fruits into my hand. “It’s for the journey – I know it will be a long one”, he said. “Look after yourselves. If you ever return to Bombay, you are always welcome in my home. And try the mangos. My house girl gets them especially for me at the markets. They are superb”.
He was right. They were the best mangos I’ve ever had.
We left by train, later that night. As we pulled out of Mumbai Central, I couldn’t help but reflect on my impressions of Bombay, and all we had seen and experienced there.
It is not a city loaded with tourist attractions, but we were still quite effortlessly able to fill a whole week with sightseeing. It is the world’s 3rd largest metropolis, but within it are hundreds and hundreds of small villages. It is the world’s largest Hindu city, but also home to Muslims, Christians, tiny communities of Parsis and Jews, and countless other minority groups.
In Bombay, lunatic drivers turn scenic waterfront promenades into makeshift racetracks. In Bombay, a Christian Crab and a Muslim Fish live side-by-side in a run-down aquarium. In Bombay there are markets offering a kaleidoscope of colour and sound and fragrant smells, and then there are markets where the only thing bought and sold is the innocence of young girls. In Bombay there are slums and there are skyscrapers; there are dhobi-wallahs who eke out a living hand washing clothes, and there are wealthy socialites ensconced in the lobby of the Taj Hotel, who might spend more on a single cocktail than a dhobi-wallah earns in a week.
In short, Bombay for me was one big contradiction – the ultimate mad crazy city, like nowhere else on earth. I was happy to leave yet I couldn’t wait to go back. I enjoyed every minute there, but every minute there made me want to scream. I loved the whole city, and I hated it, all in the same breath. And by the time we left Bombay, none of this seemed like a contradiction at all.
The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time – Exploring India’s Forgotten Places.
[Note: artwork in this post is not mine. Thank you to the many artists].