Mumbai day 3: Chowpatty, Malabar Hill and the Dhobi Ghat
The night before I looked up what buses we could take to Malabar Hill (106 or 108) but Mike suggested to walk there along the seaside. After examining the map we found that it would make a 4km walk from Churchgate along Chowpatty Beach to Malabar Hill. I agreed and we set off westwards straight to the Churchgate seaside. The walk to the seaside took us past two large maidans; long stretches of open green where locals come for a stroll or just to sit down in the grass.
A little further, after passing a large bronze statue of Mahatma Ghandi, we came across a small compound. It was buzzing with activity, lots of people were queued up in front of a central building. Nothing indicated what exactly was going on. Curious as we were, we decided to see how far inside we could go before someone sent us away.
The compound turned out to be an employment station: inside the main hall several recruitment desks were lined up by the walls; a couple of straight-faced Indians behind each of them. Behind each desk a banner or poster hung on the wall, specifying which positions the respective companies were trying to fill. It was mostly telemarketing, tech support and similar work. Wages were specified in three tiers, we tried to ask people what they meant, but all of them were too busy filling out application forms and having them examined by one of the Indians seated behind a desk. It all went with an air of great importance and seriousness. And it probably was: for all we knew this employment station was the one thing between the applications and poverty or worse. Especially the younger applicants had a dead serious look in their eyes that suggested their entire career hinged on their success today. In a city of millions of people all wanting the same jobs it must not be easy to get and keep a job.
Ten minutes later we reached the seaside and could see the entire bay, straddling the Arabian Sea and arching northwards towards Chowpatty and then further westwards to Malabar Hill. The buildings on Malabar Hill were barely visible due to the thick smog.
The coastline at Churchgate was simply a reinforced concrete sea wall. Hundreds of large concrete blocks, shaped like dull caltrops, were spread out along the sea wall to quell the power of the incoming waves.
Some locals had climbed down onto the concrete caltrops and were washing themselves or doing their laundry in the polluted sea water. A man who had been busy scrubbing his shirt with a bar of soap challenged us to clamber down onto the caltrops. Mike took the challenge and after some encouragement and instruction from the locals below us he managed to get one foot on the nearest caltrop. Once he had found his footing on the center of the caltrop he clambered further down over the concrete until he reached the water, then back again and reported to me what was already apparent from a distance: "The water is so dirty!"
After another twenty minutes w reached Mumbai's only beac:, Chowpatty, It was filled with leisuring Indian families. Some parents were getting their children into swimming gear leaving us to wonder if they would actually take a dip in the filthy water.
A bit further, the beach was covered in food and drink stalls. Upon seeing us the stall occupants beckoned us. One of them approached us with menus under his arm and gestured us to climb over the low fence that separated the street from the beach, then pointed instructively to one of the mats.
I took off my shoes before sitting down on the mat but this was met with some puzzled looks. Indeed the people on the mats next to us had kept their shoes on. My feet appreciated the fresh air, however.
With the stall owner crouched next to us, Mike and I examined the menu.
"What do you recommend?" Mike asked the stall owner, who let out an inquisitive hum.
"What's good to eat?" Mike simplified his question.
The owner turned over the menu and pointed at something. "Pahpajee, pahpajee" he repeated.
We looked for the thing he indicated and the closest match was a meal called pav bhaji.
"Pav bjahi?" I asked to confirm. The owner tilted his head and hummed a hum of approval.
We both ordered one. Mike asked the man if he had fresh juice. He didn't understand, but mention of the word ‘drink' resulted in him listing coke, sprite, limca and various other sodas. But nothing that sounded like fresh juice. The owner walked back to his stand, shouting something including the words "pav bhaji" to a teenager inside the stall, who promptly went to work.
Mike noticed the food stall next to ours sold fresh juice. He got up to order us some juice and the juice stall owner soon brought two glasses of fresh orange juice to our mat.
Our pav bhaji arrived soon after. It consisted of a metal tray containing two buns of appam bread, some meat in spicy sauce and some chopped red onion. It tasted very good.
We were now in the middle of Chowpatty beach and not so far from Malabar hill. The nearest point of interest was the Jain Temple. We followed the coastline further westward and soon found ourselves on an inclined road. After several hundred meters we looked down onto the small strip of sand that made a little beach at the foot of the elevated road. To our shock and amazement we saw that there were people living down there. They had makeshift built against the side of the concrete seawall.
Curious as we were we observed them for a little while. One of the people was busy making a fire inside a small stove made from mud. He somehow used wet mud to keep the fire going.
"Look at that," Mike exclaimed, "he's cooking with the mud!" Indeed he seemed to be doing just that.
Suddenly we found we weren't alone anymore. A boy, about nine or ten years old, stood beside us with an MP3 player clutched in his left hand and earphones plugged into his ears. We looked at him and started tilting his head.
"Hello, how are you?" I said.
The boy tilted his head faster as a response.
I put my hand out. "Nice to meet you, what is your name?" It's funny how your standards of communication sink when you're faced with people who aren't familiar with your own culture and language.
The little boy shook my hand enthousiastically and said: "Hamid!"
When I introduced myself the boy moved on to Mike and the ritual repeated itself.
We tried to ask him questions but he barely understood English. I pointed at his earphones and asked: "What are you listening to?" The boy held up his MP3 player for me to see. It was a cheap no-name brand, but the boy insisted it was an iPod.
Then he took the earphones from his ears and handed one earplug to me and the other to Mike. Together we listened to the Hindi dance music on the boy's MP3 player and stuck up our thumbs in approval.
The boy said something in Hindi (or possibly in Marathi) while pointing at me and I figured he was asking to hear some of my music. I happened to have my MP3 player with me that day and I took it out to let him listen to some pop rock. The boy excitedly tilted his head left and right and the meaning of it started to dawn on me.
"Do you know where the Jain temple is?" I asked him. He didn't answer and looked confused.
"Jain temple?" I tried again. The boy pointed further up the road and made some gestures which he further explained in Hindi (or maybe Marathi).
At least we knew we were going roughly in the right direction.
So onwards we went, but not after saying goodbye to the boy. An action that proved unnecessary as he dutifully followed us when we walked up the hill.
A few hundred meters later the road swayed away from the seaside and a low concrete wall with a chain link fence on top of it appeared on the left side. We peeked over the concrete wall and saw a sort of small natural reserve or park. The area was covered in trees. But if it was a park then why was it sealed off from the outside?
The boy held his hands as if firing a rifle and made pew-pew noises. Indeed, a sign on the chain link fence read "Military training ground - no trespassing".
From here the road became more and more steep and we weren't going as fast anymore. We passed a building that we would have never known to be a school if it weren't for the hordes of school children in tidy uniforms that raced down the stairs into the minibuses parked on the street. We became the subject of many curious gazes and some of the braver children called out to us: "Hello sir, how are you?" to which we invariably replied: "Hello, I'm fine, how are you?".
A bit further we saw a small temple across the road. We knew it couldn't be the Jain Temple but we wanted to take a look anyway. The temple was undergoing heavy renovations. A security guard sat outside by the entrance. We were wondering if he would allow us in but after we greeted him and started taking our shoes off to go inside, he made no effort to stop us. However he did carefully study us as we walked around inside, perhaps more out of surprise at these two unusual visitors.
Two sculpturers were hacking away at the marble beside the altar, under the watchful eye of a temple patron. It was possible she had donated money towards the renovation.
We left the small temple and continued uphill.
After a while the road met up with two other roads at a level intersection. The Indian boy pointed at the road that went further upwards, almost adjacent to the one we'd just walked along.
Once more we went up the hill, panting and sweating, and started to wonder how far it was to the Jain Temple. Before we knew it, we found ourselves standing at the temple gate.
The Jain Temple was considerably bigger than the smaller one we had just visited, and much more intricately decorated. Inside the beautiful main hall, many colorful ribbons had been spun between the green marble pillars. Seated on the ground against the back wall of the main hall was a band which softly played soothing and inspiring music.
Several Hindu worshippers were going from altar to altar, saying their prayers. When they were done praying, they rung a bell that hung beside every altar and moved on to the next.
The temple had a second floor which was divided up in rooms. Each room contained beautiful murals and paintings, and of course an altar. Mike and I entered the first room we came across. Two young Hindu women were busy praying at the altar embedded in the far wall, They didn't pay us any notice.
Mike pointed at a mural that covered the entire left wall of the room. It depicted a scene where Vishnu (in his three-faced appearance) intervened in a dispute between two men. On the ground between Vishnu and the two men lay a cobra.
"Have you seen a cobra?" Mike inquired softly so as to not disturb the peaceful atmosphere.
I answered I hadn't. "Well, not in the wild anyway."
"They say in Delhi you can see snake charmers. You heard about them?"
"Yeah, they can hypnotize the snake with their flute."
"And make the cobra dance. I've seen a movie once where a snake charmer could make a cobra shake," he mimed the motion with his upper arm, "like this."
"I'd love to see..."
We were suddenly startled by the sound of a bell directly above our heads. We hadn't noticed we were standing right under the bell. The two Hindu women hurried out of the room, giggling mischievously.
As soon as we came to our senses we walked outside the room to find one of the women giggling at us from behind a pillar, before scurrying off back to her friend.
Beyond the Jain Temple began the Parsi district of Malabar hill. In this area live many ethnic Persians, followers of the Zoroastrian faith, whose ancestors must have come to Mumbai well over a thousand years ago. Their ancient religious practices are upheld to this day.
One particularly interesting, if slightly disturbing, ritual entails placing the bodies of their deceased on a large tower. People are not buried in the Zoroastrian faith. One of such 'towers of silence' was situated somewhere on Malabar hill, but is reported in the Lonely Planet as strictly off limits to outsiders. Nevertheless we hoped to catch a glimpse of it.
The hanging gardens were about ten minutes further uphill. They were basically just a large, beautifully laid out and well maintained park. Several patches of green were separated by meandering gravel paths. Many of them had a group of Indians sitting in the middle, enjoying a conversation in the oasis of quietness inside the noisy city of Mumbai. A man in colorful Panjabi dress turned quite a few heads and several locals had their picture taken with him, in exchange for a small fee.
While walking along one of the paths we crossed ways with an Indian teenager. He smiled at us and spoke the words we had come to know very well: "Hello sir, how are you?"
We stopped to have a chat and I asked him if he knew how to get to the Parsi tower of silence. He pointed upwards to the many crows in the sky and said: "Follow the birds, they fly around the tower and pick the bodies."
The both of us looked up at the birds and a macabre feeling overcame us.
Unfortunately the crows circled an area that was completely surrounded with tall trees. It was impossible to catch a glimpse of the tower of silence. We passed a group of youngsters seated on the sidewalk. Their skin was noticeably lighter than that of Indians and their hair was different too. One of them asked us in a helpful tone what we were looking for.
"The Parsi tower of silence," I explained.
His face turned serious. "Go ask someone else, I don't know," he said dismissively while turning his attention back to his friends. His reaction made it perfectly clear how sensitive the tower is to them.
The road already went steeply downhill and by the time we saw the bottom of the hill, there had been no sight of the tower of silence. What we did encounter, however, was a group of Indian women who aggressively tried to sell us little Indian flags or pins in order for Republic Day the next day. We lost our patience and our polite demeanor when they tried to block our path and just about pushed their wares in our faces. It didn't help to walk away either; they persistently followed us. We finally got rid of them when we came to the end of the road where dozens of cars were waiting in front of a traffic light. The salespeople shifted their attention away from us and to the helpless drivers, who had no way of escape until the lights went green.
By then it was almost two o' clock. Too early to head back already. Mike suggested we take a train in the direction of the suburbs and we took out our maps to look up the nearest train station, which was Grant Road station. On our way there, while examining our maps, an Indian "busy man" offered to guide us there. He led the way at a brisk pace while talking animatedly into his cell phone. When we got there he stopped talking on his phone to point us to the ticket office and the platforms, which were in separate buildings.
But we had noticed a street market opposite the station and went there instead. The market was spread out along both sides of the road. Most salespeople sold fruit, vegetables or both. Several shops lined the street but they were nearly obscured from view by the market.
Mike was very curious about some of the fruit and asked if he could taste some of it. The salespeople started offering us various fruits to try, expecting to sell us a lot. One man handed each of us a brown skinned, oval fruit which we couldn't identify. The salesman and the man next to him watched our curiosity with amusement.
"Coca-cola," they said in chorus when we started smelling the fruit. Indeed, they turned out to be Kola nuts. We bought a bag of kola nuts and a bag of grapes.
From Grant Road station we took a train to Mahalaxmi to see the Dhobi Ghat, or washing grounds, right outside Mahalaxmi station.
This small slum, locked in between the comparatively wealthy suburbs, is where most of the city's laundry is done. The shacks were built around a corridor of washing basins where people toil day after day. It was late and most of the laundry hung out to dry on countless washing lines which hung just about anywhere where there was room.
We were hungry and tired and so we took a train back to Churchgate station. From there we walked back to Colaba and ended up in a restaurant called Bagdadi. The name and the beef on the menu suggested this was a Muslim restaurant, but the staff and patrons were equal parts Hindu and Muslim.
The cashier smiled at us and suggested we sit at the table next to his booth so he could talk to us.
Mike asked him about Indian eating customs and whether or not it was considered rude to use your left hand.
The cashier tilted his head: "Oh yes, left hand is use for wiping the poo."
"But what about left-handed people," Mike asked since it was established earlier that both of us are left-handed, "or are there no left-handed people in India?"
The cashier tilted his head with a slightly longer momentum.
"Oh yes, left hand people in India. Is OK for left hand people to use the left hand. No problem."
It was dark by the time I reached my hotel. Loud noise came from right across SB Road and I went to have a look, camera in hand.
The southbound half of SB Road was blocked by a small stage and numerous onlookers. On stage a percussion group was having a performance. The group was led by a man in his thirties sporting a large drum on his belly, who occasionally stepped aside to make pirouettes, dancing around on the stage and driving back the audience lest they get hit with his drum.
Most of the other players were teenagers, but the youngest member was no older than 10. He and the band leader received rupee bills from people in the audience, to which they did a little dance. The boy would lay the bill on the ground, then rest his stomach on his drum. In this position he tilted forward and picked up the bill by virtue of it sticking to the sweat on his forehead.
The climax included one of the teens climbing on top of the band leader's drum, followed by the little boy who stood on the teen's drum while balancing a glass of water on his head.
I was told by someone standing next to me that this was the first half of a two-day festival in celebration of Republic Day the next day.