I flipped out my phone and called the hotel. We were waiting outside the Mumbai airport, it was late, dark and the pickup area was badly lit by the low lightbulbs common all over the country. There was a long line of waiting taxi drivers all holding placards, but none with my name on. They stood all silent, like the crowd in a Greek tragedy, watching our every move. As if, suddenly, we were about to remember who we really were and claim the name on one of their boards.
The phone connected and rang.
“Hello?” Came a voice, its strong India accent being the very first I had heard since landing.
“Hello, there. Basho here, I booked a pickup. Tell me, has our driver arrived at the airport?”
“Yes, he is there,” assured the voice.
“Great,” I looked around at the horde of drivers. “Whereabouts? I can’t see him.”
“15 minutes he will get there, he’s leaving now.”
15 minutes? I asked myself, “You said he was already here. Is he here?”
“Yes. He is there.”
“15 minutes, he will leave in a moment.”
I was beginning to get confused. “Leave? The hotel? But, is here actually here or not?”
“Yes, he is there.”
I must admit that a little incredulity crept into my voice, “So, you say he is here already, but he hasn’t left yet and will be here in 15 minutes?”
“Yes I call him and tell him to leave to come pick you up.”
“Thank you,” I said and I hung up.
Cesca came up to me, saw the confusion in my face and said, “Where is the driver?”
“He has yet to collapse as a waveform. He is both right here and yet also 15 minutes away.”
She furrowed her brow, Quantum jokes being lost on her, “What?”
“He has not yet achieved a Quantum state of 1.”
“Look, I’m tired, please make sense.”
I handed her the phone, “You will have to open this box yourself to collapse the waveform.” She took it and dialled, watching me like I was a crazy person who might explode at any moment.
“Hello,” she said into the phone, “Cesca Bell here, I booked a pickup to the hotel, is he here?”
I turned away and went to find buy a drink of water, behind me I could hear Cesca continue.
“What do you mean 15 minutes, you just said that he was here!”
Welcome to India, I thought.
And sure enough this was our first hour in India. At the time I couldn’t grasp something that later, after a month travelling, I took for granted: Indians hate to say “no”.
When presented with a question with a yes and no answer, Indian people will always say “yes”. Always. Quite how a country like this is going into space is beyond my understanding…
“Hello home base, this is Astronaut Choksi.”
“Reading you loud and clear Choksi, this is home base. Please advise your position, have you reached the moon yet?”
“Yes, home base.”
“Great, prep for landing.”
“15 minutes, home base.”
“Now listen here, stop playing silly buggers…”
Stranger still is the fact that after a while this behaviour starts to make sense; after you have lived amongst the locals you eventually get it. There is something about saying “no,” something about letting the person down with that word. Therefore, they simply never say it. As a visitor, you need to ask an indirect question to get anywhere with local people. So, “Is this the right way to the shops?” will always received the answer, “yes,” even if it clearly isn’t. You have to actually ask, “What is the way to the shops?” I have been in situations where I asked the first question and was told the requisite “yes” only to have the person grab my arm and steer me in the correct direction, and not the one he recommended. Sometimes, if the person likes you or is trying to be polite, they will use a little hand wiggle alongside their answer, a sort of raise of the arm to face height and a twisting motion; like they are trying to screw in a light bulb. Any time you see this, then the inference is that you should ignore everything coming out of their mouth. “Yes,” they are saying, “this IS the way to the shops… to a given value of ‘is'”
For a person from a country with very little left in the way of social values and customs. That is values in common to all, to come to country with so many can be quite a confusing experience. We coined a phrase to cover this feeling. When one of us was exasperated with an Indian custom, the other would try and defuse the situation by whispering, “TII” into their ear. TII means, “This Is India,” and it soon became a mantra for us on our whole journey through this massive country and its amazingly complex social customs.
I returned to Cesca and gave her a drink of water. Water is cheap here and the most plentiful thing to drink. There are literally hundreds of bottled-water companies, because the tap water is very unsafe to drink. We later met the American CEO of one such company. The cooling water was my first taste of the filtration levels common here. It has a slight tang quite unlike anything in the UK. There are bottled waters by such companies as Coke, Pepsi and even Kingfisher, but they all tasted the same. I didn’t care, as long as they were cold, and they were. She took the bottle and drank a deep draught.
“Well?” I asked.
She fixed me with an eye and simply handed my phone back. Eventually, after about 15 minutes, the driver arrived. We clambered into the taxi and it sped off into the night. Off into India. Into the heart of Mumbai. The roads winded through the city and I craned to see the buildings pass. I don’t know quite what I expected, but just saw thousands of people running shops by lamp light, hundreds of run down roads with buildings mixed in and large over-sized modern infrastructure that clash with all of it. It looked a mess. I remember being very nervous, but I can’t even now understand why. We sped through the night for quite a while before pulling into a parking space on the side of the road by a large flyover. To one side of this wide and busy road was our hotel.
We were glad to have made it.
The hotel was old and had much in common with other traveller hotels in India. The staff was brisk and unfriendly, seeming to be the members of a family, or at least a common people running the place. The cost was (in Indian terms) astronomical, but as this was our first night, we put up with it. They showed us into a very old and dangerous looking lift and up to our room. At first, I thought they had perhaps brought us to the broom cupboard, but no this tiny space was our “Two-bed Deluxe” room. Terrible. We were left and Cesca opened the window; it opened into the shared toilets so she closed it again. We sighed to each other and sat on the two ridiculous single beds that were for some reason end to end. I stood up to take off my top and immediately and painfully caught my hand on the ceiling fan. Crouching, I got undressed and prepared for bed. Cesca tried the TV, it was stuck on the “God Channel” showing the “Hour of Power” American evangelical broadcast. It was like the previous occupants were trying to send us a message, one I completely understood. I had only been in this room for ten minutes and already I felt like asking the Almighty for deliverance. I was feeling very tired and needed to sleep before even thinking about trying to see this city and get some idea of it. Cesca pulled out her silk sheet from her bag and froze as she unfolded it. Sitting atop it, clearly contrasted with the yellow of the sheet, was a bedbug. There was a moment of sheer frozen horror. Then Cesca killed it. This find necessitated the total emptying of her bag followed by a painful inch-by-inch check for further bedbugs. Only when fully satisfied that there were no more in her bag, did I lay back on my pillow. It was full of straw and about a comfortable as a house brick.
TII, I thought. This Is India. What have we let ourselves in for?
The next morning, it became clear.
After waking, I ventured into the shower. It was in the same room as the toilet. Well, I say toilet, because all it really comprised of was a hole in the ground with a dodgy showerhead above it. I washed, shaved and told myself that I was semi-used to this already (steeled by our months in SEA) and I had better just get on with it. Sure enough after a month I no longer missed a British bathroom. When we were both ready we went looking for food. The hotel staff recommended the place next door. It looked like a staff canteen open to the street, but we went and sat down anyway. The locals eyed us sourly. I wondered if this was our relative whiteness, but after a moment I realised that it was because Cesca was the only women in the joint. Seemingly, again, we had come up against a local custom and blundered right into it. Obviously, this was a male eating-place. Cesca was getting the sort of look a women might get in England if she went to a sports centre, entered the wrong changing room and got changed in front of a room full of men. We ordered toast. It was the only thing on the menu I had a clue what it might look like. It came quick, so we ate, paid and left.
Back in the street, we walked towards the city proper. We were clearly staying in an area that wasn’t actually the normal tourist part, but then this suited us mightily. I hate feeling like a tourist and, while tourist I am, I like to “muck in” and get local.
Over the coming months we would test that idea to extremes.
For now we had a short mission. At least, if should have been a short mission. We were going to pick up the Lonely Planet India that Cesca’s mother had posted to Mumbai for her to collect. Post Restante. It is an old word, but then this was an old city. The city sprawled out as we walked down the street packed with the unusual taxi’s they have here; an model from the stone-age. It is a miracle that they still run, but they hang to them the way a Londoner would a black cab.
Crossing roads is another challenge. Cesca almost died on the first attempt. No joke. Only my pulling her back saved her from a Police Car running her down. It wasn’t her fault; the light was on red for stop, but in this city it was more of a recommendation than a commandment and doubly so to a Police Car. After my heart recovered, we found the post office. It was huge and ancient building, the sort of which would have been converted into either flats or chain-pubs in London. It had a wonderful and humbling frontage that reminded me of the old British Museum. Inside we found chaos. Hundreds of people queued for what seemed like over a dozen counters. Behind these a platoon of people wheeled large baskets, full to bursting with post, to and fro. It was like stepping back in time or watching an old movie. We tried to work out which of the counters we needed to find the post restante section, but it was hopeless. We tried to garner some help, but nobody either understood us, knew what the hell we were on about or both. Eventually, we realised we were in the wrong building. After coming out we rounded the corner and found another enormous building behind that post office. It was a maze of complicated rooms similar to a major English hospital. After wandering place to place, we found an office. Inside a couple of people listened, nodded and reached into a filing cabinet and pulled out Cesca’s package.
The whole thing had taken over two hours and couple of chewed fingernails.
Now, armed with the Lonely Planet; indispensible for its map if nothing else, we were free to explore the city.
“TII Baby” I said to Cesca and we set off with a purpose.
“I am hungry again, how about we go visit Landor (Cesca’s old employer) Mumbai and see if we can have lunch with my friends Lulu and Anaheeta?”
Half an hour and a few phone calls later we were in the north of the city on the roof of the Landor building. Lulu and Anaheeta are two ex London employees of Landor that Cesca knew well. We had arrived in their office and, after a short conversation and catch up, they invited us to lunch with them in their alfresco canteen on the roof.
The sun was high and we sought the shade of some tables with umbrellas and tucked into the amazing food. We dicussed our plans for travelling around India, and I got the idea of asking something,
“Can you teach me some local phrases?”
They both looked at each other, “How do you mean?” asked Lulu.
“Well,” I smiled, “we like to blend in a little more than most travellers, and so we have always learned basic phrases like ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ wherever we go. It helps break the ice.”
“Oh…” I replied, unsure.
“No one outside the city would understand you.”
“Oh, how to explain,” Lulu began looking to Anaheeta for help.
“Try this, do you have an Indian note?” ask Anaheeta.
“Sure,” I said and pulled a 50 Rupies note from my wallet.
“Take a look at it.”
The notes in India are similar to those in England, which is not suprising given the heritage England has here. I took a look at it. The first thing that struck me was the picture of Gandhi on the front. Indeed, he is on the front of all Indian notes. No wonder, he is one of the most important and influential Indians that has ever lived. Perhaps, second in the all time stakes. Behind the Buddha, of course.
“See the lines of small text on the left?” Anaheeta asked.
“Yep,” I squinted to read the approximately 15 lines of small text stacked neatly on the left of the note.
“They are written, one line each, in the official languages of India.”
“Amazing, what do they say?”
“Each one is just the value of the note.”
“So, they print this for all the local dialects?”
“I don’t think you understand, you may call these local dialects, but they are all spoken by millions of people. Remember that there is over a billion people in India. It is a huge place. You need to realise that it has four times the number of people than even in the US.”
“Each state of India speaks a different dialect and won’t understand a dialect from the North. Your plan is to head south, you won’t be understood speaking the language of Mumbai.”
Suddenly, this sounded a lot harder than I expected. “OK, so, how should we make ourselves understood in these places?”
“It’s simple,” said Lulu, “The common thread between the various states is not an Indian dialect. It is English.”
“Yes,” continued Anaheeta, “If someone from Karnataka (the state in which Mumbai resides) wants to speak to someone from Kerala (in the far south) they speak English.”
Cesca smiled, “Cool!”
After the meal Lulu and Anaheeta had to get back to work. However, Anaheeta had an offer for us.
“My husband and I would like to take you for dinner,” she said.
Cesca was very happy, “Great! We would love to.”
So, it was set for the next evening.
“Where are you off to now,” Anaheeta asked.
“We are heading down to the museum areas.”
“If you want to try on Indian clothes, you should go to a store I know near there called FabIndia, it will be perfect for you if you want to dress like an Indian.”
“Perfect!” Cesca said brightly.
“Thank you Anaheeta,” I said, “we will see you tomorrow.”
I was glad when we left Landor; I had seen Cesca eyeing up the office. I wondered how she felt leaving all this, her old life. The office, the coffee’s, the work friends, the functional creativity on demand, the stress, the being passed over, the being made ill and the long recovery back to health.
“What do think about Landor now? Would you go back?” I asked as we walked hand in hand. I tried my best to keep my deep wishing for a certain answer out of my voice.
She turned and smiled up at me, “No baby, I’m free. I’m never going back.”
I smiled back, Cesca was truly cured.
And free we were.
Coming up: We visit the famous Leopolds cafe from the novel Shantaram (just recovered from its terrorist gunning), watch the Bollywood Super-film Slumdog Millionaire with the Mumbai locals, eat and drink in the city’s top hotel, try the best Kofi Ice-cream in the world and Basho gets offered a part in a Bollywood movie! All to come in the next week. Stay tuned.