Articles By Gord
As I see it... Mumbai

July 2010 issue of Vibrant Magazine, view the actual article (including images).

As I see it... Mumbai

Tap Tap Tap Tap.

Their fingernails snap like summer insects against a pane of glass, trying desperately to escape, but these taps cry not for escape, but for our attention.

We sit in the darkened back seat of a taxi. The car's motor is off, the car's driver is gone. We are tired and our dabble of conversation dwindles into silence. Tap. They begin. Tap. There is no rhythm to their tapping, only a flurried persistence. Notice me, they tap. Look at us, they beg. Put down your windows and give us what you have, they plead. They don't speak or call out or thump the hood of our cab in frustration. No. They are like zombies, a number of them moving silently about our cab. Tap, tap. In the brief moment that our driver has slipped away to get port clearance to take us back to our ship, these street beggars have found us. Cath nervously slides her hand forward to the door lock. She urges me to do the same. I hesitate because I have heard the click of Cath's door lock. I know these tapping beggars have heard the click as well. What does it say if I click my door lock too? What does it say? That I am afraid? Afraid of street beggars? Like they're going to pull open our doors and haul us into the street? No. I relax. I am a tourist. I am gold. Gold not just to these beggars, but gold to the population of Mumbai. Gold to the economy of India. These street beggars cannot risk doing more than fingernails on a window, because to do more will put their own lives in jeopardy, ‘cause nobody messes with ‘gold.' I sit uncomfortably, anxious for our driver's return, but I feel secure knowing that there will be nothing more forceful, nothing more demanding of our attention than tap, tap, tap.

Two days in Mumbai, India. Would I go back? Yes. Return to Mumbai without hesitation? ...I would return to Mumbai... with hesitation.

Mumbai is unlike any other city Cath and I have ever visited. It is twenty million people. The bulk of whom live in poverty. A city where the rich and the horribly poor peacefully co-exist. Why? I have struggled to understand the poor's complacency, their acceptance of a bad situation. Why do these poor not protest, clamor for assistance? To the best of my knowledge the Indian government does not offer them housing or education, nor are there welfare or unemployment cheques. They are to survive by their wits or die. Tap, tap! It is a very simple equation.

Mumbai is an assault upon the senses. Two minutes in Mumbai and I said to Cath, “Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.”

I've been to many cities where breathing is difficult because of motor vehicle exhaust --Athens, Paris, Rome spring to mind-- but Mumbai has them all beat. In kindest terms, Mumbai has an odeur that is far beyond vehicle exhaust. I shudder imagining its ingredients. There are the usual smells of car and diesel truck exhaust. These are complimented by foods and incense, by animals in all stages of life and death, but most prevalent is the massive simmering pot of humanity. If you've ever tried to stop biting your fingernails, two days in Mumbai will cure you of that nasty habit.

Each time we returned to the comfort of the ship, our routine was the same. We'd strip off our clothes as quickly as possible and discard them in the dirty clothes hamper. Then it was a race for the shower and shampoo and just because we could, we'd flush the toilet. “Oh my God!” Catherine shrieked, from our bathroom. “I washed out this top in the sink and the water has turned absolutely brown.”

As the only words of the Indian language that I know are ‘chicken tika and curry', we thought it a good idea to kick off our stay with a ‘Welcome to Mumbai' bus tour. At nine o'clock on a Saturday morning the Gateway to India seemed surprisingly calm, clean and inviting. We only had a few minutes to stroll about the square, but Cath and I decided that we'd revisit it and the Taj Hotel later.

What a shock later proved to be! The Gateway was churning with people. Lots of families. Lots of foods. Lots of hustlers and street venders. Lots of heat, the temperature was 32 degrees Celsius. And there were lots of police officers milling throughout the crowd. Since the terrorist attack of November 07, police presence in touristy areas has been stepped up. They keep an eye on their flocks of ‘Gold.'

Our tour took us to the famous Dhobi Ghat laundry.

The laundry employs thousands of poor labourers, some standing knee deep in these concrete tubs of water for hours on end. Others are employed rubbing soap into sheets and pillow cases and there is a constant thwacking sound of articles being beaten against concrete walls of the washing tubs. And over the rooftops for what seems miles the sheets are stretched out to dry in the intense heat of the sun. According to Catherine the water looked filthy, but we were assured by our guide, Marla, that the water was changed at least twice a day. Changed with what? Good, clean Mumbai water? It doesn't exist, which may explain why only the poorer hotels, public hospitals and orphanages use the Dhobi Ghat.

Day two in Mumbai was weird for both Cath and I. There was no question of us not going back into the city, but it was like we were going to visit the dentist. You know you've got to go but there is a niggly corner of your brain screaming no, no, no, I don't want to go!”

We waved goodbye to the comfort of our cabin, the safety of our ship, descended the gangplank and got into a cab. We negotiated with the driver to take us to some specific stores for shopping. He was to wait for us and then drive us back to the ship and all of that for the lofty sum of four American dollars. I felt like we were cheating him.

As the last of the big time spenders we flipped him a fiver, but we wondered what else we'd given him. This cabby, like other taxi drivers we'd encoun-tered, took us where we'd asked to go but only after he'd taken us to his buddy's store. He assured us we didn't have to buy anything but that we had to go inside. Upon our return to the taxi we were asked had we bought anything and if so, how much we had spent. Cath and I decided that the driver must have got some sort of kickback for bringing us to the store and a commission on the value of the goods we purchased.

“I bought this stupid little elephant.” I showed it to the driver.

“Aw it's most beautiful elephant. How much you buy?” he keenly asked.

My first thought was it's none of his business. My second thought (as a happily married guy) was maybe I should lie. Tell him two or three hundred bucks. But I figured I'd somehow get caught so I told him the truth--ßfifty dollars.“Aw it's cheap junk.” His disappointment was palpable. As we were overnight in Mumbai we decided to sample real Indian cuisine. The Khyber restaurant had been recommended to us by personnel on board ship and our tour bus guide Marla.

“Ask for Mr. Shaky and tell him Marla sent you.”

We did so and it was like rubbing Aladdin's lamp. We were ushered through the restaurant to an upstairs private room where six or seven waiters buzzed about us. The menu offered an incredible selection and I was anxious to try everything. Cath was slightly less anxious as she scoured the menu for a grilled cheese or the basic BLT. I settled on really spicy tomato broth soup with lime, papadums loaded with onions and chili peppers and a fantastic main course of mutton kabobs and vegetables. My three wishes, my three dishes, had come true.

In Mumbai money is everything. And everything is available, most often at a ridiculously low price. We were told to barter and to never pay the price they asked. I found doing so difficult, because their need appeared so great.

When we descended the steps of a bus or emerged from a taxi, the beggars/hucksters were immediately on us. Some of these street people were just children, three or four years of age. They jostled with the adult beggars to gain our attention, but they all had memorized the pitch: “Sir, sir, ten postcards one dollar...please, sir?” I could have taken a wheelbarrel full of money and spent the day shoveling cash to the people but there would never have been enough.

So how do you not hear their cries or feel for them?

You must be blind and deaf. Don't stop. Don't look. Don't ask to see, just brush them aside and keep moving, repeating, “No. No. No.”

Tap. Tap. Tap.

 
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