Monday, March 6, 2006

Bill Bryson's Bombay

I landed at the Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport and stood at the entrance to Mumbai in that state of mild indecisiveness that comes with the sudden arrival in a strange country when you’re pounced upon by hundreds of swarthy young men clamouring to take you home. I breathed in the warm, humid air that carried whiffs of petroleum fumes, drying fish and the impact of water shortage on several million bodies, and bravely resisted twenty seven taxi drivers urgently tugging at me until I spotted with relief the hotel welcome board with my name on it.
The first time I came to Bombay was 25 years ago, with a high-school acquaintance named Steve Gatz, which I soon realised was a mistake. The best thing that could be said about travelling abroad with Gatz was that it spared the rest of America from having to spend the summer with him.
We stayed in a guesthouse near the Gateway, sharing a room with two Germans who knew where to get good dope and we would have featured in Shantaram if it’d been 2 decades later. One evening we decided to get some native colour and walked down to Churchgate Station to experience the death-defying sport of catching a commuter train into the suburbs. A filthily ragged woman in a headscarf squeezed into the carriage loudly orating the tale of her troubled life and asking for money. The baby on her hip was so startlingly ugly that it was all I could do to keep from putting hands to ears and screaming, “Baap re!” (for by now my Marathi was coming on a treat). I quickly gave her twenty rupees before Junior loosed a string of dribble onto me, but soon discovered that my wallet had been lifted. The woman of course was nowhere to be seen – she was probably at this moment sitting down to a feast of truffles and Armagnac with seventy-four relatives on a secluded railway siding near Dombivili with $1500 worth of traveller’s cheques, not bad for five seconds’ work.
But this was only memory, and the entire workforce of my hotel now glowed with joy at my arrival and the bellboy all but touched his forehead to the ground near my feet, a welcome change from last time when I would don my rucksack each morning, staggering around in the manner of one who has been hit on the head with a mallet.
The TV in my room showed a local soap, alive with beauty, agony, and malice, and I watched with appreciation. Here was progress: before, Indian television was only good for the sensation of a coma without the worry and inconvenience. About every fifth word was in English, but the strain of putting it together became wearying and I decided to go for a walk.
Mumbai is not a good city for walking. The humidity makes biscuits soggy, preying insects plentiful, people sweaty and exhausted. There’s also the constant danger that you will fall into open pits, and even when you stumble out limping, it’s all you can do to dodge the rush of dilapidated taxis and occasional Mercedes Benz that come sweeping down. It’s not that Mumbai drivers intentionally want to kill you as they do in Paris – they’re just too busy blaring horns, cutting off other vehicles, talking on cellphones, indulging their lap-held progeny with a chance at the wheel. You can’t help but admire the free spirit of this great democratic nation.
I wandered around, looking for The Ideal, which Gatz and I had frequented. I hate asking directions. I am always afraid that the person I approach will step back and say, “You want to go where? Mohammed Ali Road? Boy, are you lost. This is Andheri you dumb clot,” then stop other passers-by and say, “you wanna hear something classic? Buddy tell these people where you think you are.”
So I trudged on. Rats the size of young swine scuttled alongside. Lounging at intervals were some of the most astonishingly unattractive prostitutes I’d ever seen – fifty year old women with crooked lipstick and body parts reminiscent of flowing lava. They stood side by side in a seemingly endless row of doorways. I couldn’t believe that there could be that many people in Mumbai – that many people in the world – requiring this sort of assistance just to ejaculate. Whatever happened to personal initiative?
Just as I began thinking about phoning my wife and asking her to come find me, I turned the corner and there it was.
By now I was so hungry that I would have eaten anything, even a plate of my grandmother’s famous creamed ham and diced carrots, the only dish in history to have been inspired by vomit.
The Ideal used to be one of those places that had marble-topped tables, bentwood chairs, a surly owner, and a list of stern instructions regarding Outside Food and Hand Washing. They served chai in glasses but Gatz and I would be honoured with white china cups. It now had formica tables, muted lighting, and a menu that included paneer dosa, Manchurian pizza, and even Mexican and Lebanese food. I tried to think what my jaljeera put me in mind of and finally decided that it was a very large urine sample, possibly from a circus animal with hepatitis. The kheema pau at the Ideal (short, I now realised, for “Ideally you should stay home for dinner”) had been our staple for weeks but it was absent. The intriguingly named Vegetable 65 I now ordered was so bad that to say it was crappy would be to malign faeces. I returned to the hotel and retired with Philip Ziegler’s classic account of the Black Death, imaginatively entitled The Black Death – just the thing for lonely nights when travelling.
I walked down Marine Drive next morning, exhilarating in the beautiful sweep of bay and energetic morning walkers, but stayed clear of Chowpatty. I remember Gatz’s enthusiasm as we climbed down Walkeshwar after an early morning excursion to Ban Ganga, sighting the flock of exotic migratory birds that appeared to be roosting there – and his horror when we found it was just some squatters engaged in alfresco excretion.
When I was twenty I liked Bombay for its laid back attitude but it was oddly wearisome now. Indians have been congratulating themselves on their tolerance for centuries, and it’s now impossible for them not to be nobly accommodating to graffiti and queue jumpers and excrement and litter. I may be misreading the situation. They may like excrement and litter. I hope so, because they’ve certainly got a lot of it.
Later, I headed for Dharavi, pausing briefly to admire Mumbai’s gothic railway station that had once been named for Queen Victoria but now, like many other city spots, revered the mountain hero Shivaji who with his band of guerrilla warriors successfully stayed Moghul penetration to southern India.
Dharavi seemed agreeable enough in a thank-you-god-for-not-making-me-live-here kind of way. I walked through narrow lanes, stepping over gutters oozing slimy, ill-defined fluid, when two vaguely thuggish-looking men walked purposefully towards me. Uh-oh, I thought, causally sliding my hand into my pocket and fingering my Swiss Army Knife, but knowing that even in ideal circumstances it takes me twenty minutes to identify a blade and prise it out and I’d end up defending myself with a toothpick and tweezers. But all they wanted was a friendly chat to practice their Conversational English – where I was from, my wife’s maiden name, how much I made last year – that kind of thing.
Back at the hotel, I wandered the maze of shops selling pashmina, jewellery, carved elephants, silken garments and leatherware. Tourists from every continent beamed, dazed and laden with shopping bags. I heard an American trying to knock the price of a jade figurine below two hundred rupees, less than $5. There was no pharmacy here – strange for a city that has several on every stretch of road – more medical shops than litter bins. Gatz had once bought a bagful of dangerous and addictive medication at one of these without the word “prescription” mentioned once in the transaction. This must make it fun for people who live here. Still, if you wake up with a bubo on your groin, better see a doctor all the same.
First appeared in  Sunday Mid-day on 5 Mar 2005, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.

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