The November terrorist attacks on Mumbai was something we had worried about before landing in the city, but to look at the place it was as though they had never happened. In any city with such a varied and ethnic population, it had probably not fully been disseminated. Sometimes, I have wondered about the quick dissemination of news. Does it actually help or hinder? Is, in a very real sense, ignorance bliss? In India, of course, they are as used to terrorism as any Londoner. Terror was in at the birth of this nation, it was in the separation from Pakistan, it never leaves. I think perhaps that they have become numb to it.
This is what I thought as I sat at the table. Leopold’s cafe is a travellers legend. Not least of all because of the famous gangster novel, supposedly mostly true, called “Shantaram”. In that book, which I read in two days (a sure sign that I didn’t enjoy it), the main character is taken here by a local guide and it is here that he meets his friends for the first time. In my mind, I imagined something grander. Something with a “old empire” feel, like some of the journalist bars we had visited in places such as Cambodia. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. It is a cafe like a greasy spoon.
Albeit one with machine gun marks on the walls.
Sure enough, the terrorists struck here too. I wondered if a lick of paint would cover the damage. We ordered standard traveller fair, burgers with chips, ate and then left. Shantaram is a unique book, a special book. It changed a friends life, it opened the minds of many people fascinated by India and Mumbai.
It is a fantasy.
The reality, as always, requires that you come see for yourself. The reality is, even by the standards of Shantaram, richer and more complex. And at the same time, tragically run down and heart breaking. Everything you would want to see, and much that you would not followed by things you simply wouldn’t, is all over Mumbai.
Cesca had a plan for the day. The plan was to visit the museum (which I was really looking forwards to) and then to visit Fab India clothing store (which I must admit that I was not looking forwards to). She smiled at me and reminded me that we were going out on the tiles tonight, so I could relax. As we left, and for those who have read Shantaram: I promise you this really happened, a man came up to me. He was dark and Indian, but clearly used to Westerners and spoke excellent English,
“Hello sir,” he said.
I pulled back slightly, “Hi there.”
“Excuse me sir, I am an agent for a film studio. May I ask you, would you like to be in a Bollywood movie? We will pay you 1000 rupees.” He smiled genuinely, clearly this was a deal that would sell itself.
A lot of things went through my mind. Firstly, my natural sense of danger wondered about being lure somewhere and then subjected to an attempted mugging, then I wondered about being able to tell people that I had been in a Bollywood movie, then I wondered about missing the museum, and then I remembered the bollywood films that I had seen in my life.
Bollywood films all have the same theme. It doesn’t matter what is going on in the rest of the movie, what the characters names are or the look is, it doesn’t even matter if the story is set in the past, present or future, they all follow the following template:
Firstly, there is a son. He is a good son, and his mother loves him. He is a little boisterous, perhaps too easy going and a little bit of a fool, but he has a big heart. He comes form a good family. Then there is a girl. She is the perfect women for this boy, she is kind, beautiful, sweet and tender. I would normally add that she could sing, but then so can everyone else in the film. The only problem is that she is from “The wrong side of the tracks” and thus their love cannot be for societal reasons. Love blossoms, but the parents try and stop the lovers. Then son gives her up because he loves his mum (This part is a reference to the Elephant God Gnesha – who never married as he couldn’t find a women to match his mum. Mind you his mum was a goddess, so…) Then in comes the villain. He fancies the girl and nominates her for his bride. He can do this because he is a man, but also he is rich and/or powerful. The son finds out, makes the choice and rescues her. He then stands up to his parents who seeing the love in his eyes, let him have his bride. Then everyone starts singing and dancing. A dance representing the cycle of life and love. Thus it is a story that touches all the potential audience, the mums love dutiful sons, the fathers love the bitter sweetness of children growing up and marrying, the girls love a romantic male lead, and the guys love sexy ladies in skimpy tops body-popping to big musical numbers.
And this is the only story in bollywood.
Sure they may play with the format, they may change around the actors, and the setting. An elephant is often involved, or other love rivals, but the story remains the classic template of a thousand movies. Suddenly, I realised that I knew my answer,
“No,” I told the man. “I have already seen this film.”
He was astonished, “bwaa? But, but sir, we will pay you 1000 rupees.”
I smiled at him. Obviously he has never had someone turn him down like this and also I guess he saw his commission disappear. I continued and said, “I really don’t want to miss the museum, sorry.”
The look on his face made it very clear that this was not, in his opinion, the sanest thing he had ever heard. Perhaps he had not met a history geek before. He was hovering in front of me, wondering what to say next, he had obviously chosen me based on two characteristics: firstly, I am a tall, white and British – in other words exotic to India. Secondly, I was coming out of the tourist hotspot of Leopold’s.
Unfortunately for him, I didn’t like Shantaram. I have had many books change my outlook on life, so I suppose it was up against stiff competition, but frankly it was terrible.
We walked around the area and around the Mumbai hotel that had been the target for the attacks. The terrorists choice of this hotel was obvious, it is right opposite the enormous Gateway to India. At the time, I wondered at the motives of the terrorists, but now I know better. We walked out of the area and caught a cab to the Museum.
The Mumbai museum is housed in one of those classic British buildings that we simply don’t make any more. It is huge and chunky, lined with pillars and exuding imperial power. It is wonderful. All over the world, I had come across such massive structures, so purposely built, so unique and immediately known they were the work of my countrymen. Why we no longer build like this I don’t know. Simply building a few of these would sort out the “who are we question” the British are asking themselves.
The grounds were littered with statues and Cesca and I wandered around for half an hour before buying an audio tour and proceeding inside.
Audio tours are a commonality in British museums back home. So, I am not easy to impress in this regard, but the audio tours in major Indian sites – all over the country – are of an excellence that is equal or better to anything I have ever heard.
I learned so much about India, about the past of this country – vital to knowing its soul – about the effect of the unifiers, the destroyers and the Gods that my understanding was blown wide open. Yes, it was that good.
After four hours of learning and wonder, we left for Fab India.
This bastion of Indian clothing is a firmly placed to serve the middle classes. It is very similar to many British institutions such as Hobbs or M&S. The place was heaving, full to the brim with sari’s and sari wearing women. Cesca immediately loved it. She rushed in, gasped in joy and started pulling out top after top of all colours and patterns.
With the sari its cut, its cloth and its colours are all vitally important. It relays a message to the viewer, a message in code.
Some colours mean that the women is a new bride, or a new mother. Some colours mean that she is a widow, some mean that she is available. Where the sari is from is equally important. Rich, modern fabrics are the order of the day, unless it is a special occasion. Most Indian women will have a collection of special sari’s that she has carefully sourced. These ones may even be quite plain, but they will be immediately noticed as special. They would come with a story, something about a “little village” and “traditional weaving”. All crafted to be worn when trying to be “ethnic” and “eco”. The lady will turn up in such a sari and her friends may say,
“Oh, what is that?”
Onto which she will pounce and be able to brush off the rare, special and authentic nature of the sari by saying the Indian equivalent of, “What this old thing?” before rattling off a story probably involving an old blind lady in a village in the mountains who is the final inheritant of ancient sari making techniques. Probably with a gauche wave of her hand, saying, “Oh, you simply must get one. When you have the means,” followed by a beneficent smile.
It is the Indian version of Habitat driftwood tables.
Into this bewildering world we dived. I tried on many different Indian male tops but, although some of them fitted me, I felt that I looked like a pirate and so passed on purchasing. Cesca, on the other hand, looked like a million dollars. So I bought her some tops and scarves for our dinner with Anaheeta and he husband that evening.
After all that shopping I needed a drink. The day before, Anaheeta had recommended a hotel bar over the other side of the city and we repaired to it. this part of the city has money, lots of money. In fact, the hotel turned out to be five star luxury. Immediately upon entering I knew this was a place out of our league financially. Cesca however, was suddenly feeling at home. She hugged my arm and, tidying myself up a little, we entered. We firstly had some drinks in the lobby bar – very good – and then entered the lift to the roof bar. It was open plan and had an incredible view of the sea.
We sat in peace for a good few hours, talking and making plans and holding hands as the sun dipped down. Above us buzzards tracked and dived for the pigeons and Cesca was soon snapping away at them with her camera. However, all this richness, this exalted position, was making me think about the gap between rich and poor that is very noticeable in India.
I felt I was on the wrong side of this gap. I suddenly felt privileged to have been born in my country and to my family, for while we were poor for British, we were very rich for India. And not just in money, opportunity as well. I sipped my drink, the cost of which would probably feed a family of 5 for a day in the slums, If not more. Around me, rich Indians and Westerners experienced India. I no not raise myself above them or look down at them from a moral high ground, I would only hope that these people, on their air-conditioned car tours, their 5-day Indian “adventures”, actually manage to peel some of the layers away from their eyes and see what is actually going on here beyond five-star. Over the next few months, we would meet many people who were unable to let India challenge them, who were only here to indulge themselves. We would also meet some, who despite their – in some cases immense – riches were on a spiritual journey to the heart of this country and through to the heart of themselves.
We left and walked the streets. All around me hundreds of people watched and walked too. The locals of Mumbai love the beach front as the sunset is amazing. As we crossed back towards our area of town, the bright lights dimmed, the shops became mom and pop stores and sidewalk stands. The clothes became dirtier and the streets piled high with burned litter and wild animals feeding in the gutters. Children pulled at my arms begging for food, for money, for anything. I have never been one to differentiate between so called high and low on the basis of finances. To me, it is all just life. I have little pride in that respect. But, Mumbai was the first city since San Francisco to make me examine that feeling. To look at it anew. Sure, life is life, whatever its circumstances, but I was to see things in India that would make me – if I had the power – start the world again. There is one particular vision I will never be able to remove form my mind. But, that experience was a month away and on the other side of this country. The children on the streets of Mumbai were here now and they followed us asking for money and, strangely, a “school pen”.
I don’t suppose that they have ever been to school.
We made it back to the hotel and got changed to go out. Cesca really did look amazing in her top with a large Indian scarf around her neck. We didn’t want Aneeta to realise the state of our room and so we waited in the street for her and her husband.
Soon they arrived and we jumped in their car. They took us to their club, built around the cricket ground, and we had a very nice dinner. They then took us for a drive around town and showed us the area from some of the vantage points. Then we went to Chapatti beach and tried Indian Kulfi Ice-cream, which was simply divine. They were really friendly, really nice and treated us with a warm welcome. I hope one day to be able to return the favour. The dynamic of the married relationship here is very different than in Britain, but we all made a good effort to get along and ignore it.
As we got back to the hotel that night, we made our plan for moving out of the city. We had another day to go (see the Gandhi entry a few before this one) and one more night, which I will talk about next time. Then, our adventure was going to begin for real, for we were heading into the wilds of India to visit the famous Elorra caves…
… by third class rail!