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© Simon Strijbos

My last day in Mumbai

By Simon Strijbos on Monday 10 May 2010

Last edited by Simon Strijbos on Thursday 12 February 2015

My last day in Mumbai was too short to plan an all-day excursion. The plane left at 6am but unfortunately the trains stop after about 1am. I asked my hotel manager and he told me a taxi was the only way to get to the airport on time, unless I wanted to take a train at midnight and spend 5 hours at the airport. I opted on booking a taxi which I paid with my hard-earned 500 rupees from the day before.
"This is my Bollywood money," I said when handing the hotel manager the 500 rupee bill.
He tilted his head in amusement. "Oh, you were in a Bollywood movie? Which one?"
"It's called Once Upon a Time in Mumbai."
The hotel manager thought for a bit, then looked at his companion. "I have not heard of this movie."
"It stars Ajay Devgan, " I said
"Oh yes, he is very famous actor!" he said while he and his companion tilted their heads enthusiastically.

Friday January 29th

Yalong and I met for lunch one last time. Once again we ate at Baghdadi's. The flip-over menu on the back wall was now in its pre-dinner position and the place was swarming with high school-aged children. So far we had only seen adults there.
As we came outside we were at a loss for something to do. I told Yalong I wanted to see a movie. He said he might come with me, but he wanted to find out if any trains were going to Calcutta today. He was supposed to board his flight from Calcutta in less than three days and wanted a chance to see more of the city. Together we walked to Churchgate station where the long-distance trains left. At the ticket booths Yalong found out the only train to Calcutta left at 4pm. He had just enough time to get his luggage from his hotel and walk back to Churchgate. We said goodbye and Yalong went back to Colaba.

I took the underground passage towards CST. I figured if there wasn't enough time to go to the national park or to see the Haji Ali Masjid, I'd at least like to see a Bollywood movie. There were several movie theatres around CST and I went to see what they offered. At the Sterling Cinema I studied the schedule. There were both Hollywood and Bollywood movies playing. Two women sitting on the stairs in front of the theatre asked me what I wanted to see. I told them I wanted to see a Hindi movie.
"Why Hindi?" one of them asked.
"Because I can see Hollywood movies at home, there's no point in seeing them here, " I said.
She looked at her watch. "You can still see the Three Idiots movie."
I had seen posters for that. It seemed like a teen comedy. The posters for another movie, called Ishqiya, appealed much more to me.
"No, too late. It has already started, " the other woman said.
"What about the movie called Ishqiya?" I asked them. "Do you know what that's about?"
"It's about... ". They struggled to find the words. "It takes place in rural area. The Three Idiots movie is in the city. The other one is about crime. I think more traumatic."
Ishqiya played at 4. It was now 3pm so I still had time to grab lunch before seeing the movie.
The man at the ticket office didn't believe me when I said I wanted a ticket to Ishqiya. "Sorry sir, no English movie," he said in a tone of voice that implied I had no business buying tickets to a movie in Hindi.
"I know, but I still want to see it."
"You want to see the Ishqiya movie?" he replied incredulously while bringing up the seat plan on his screen. He suggested me a seat and I went with it. After paying 150 rupees I was about to head off to dinner when a young man came up to me.
"Hello sir, which movie will you be seeing?" He looked too old to be in high school, yet his clothes resembled a high school uniform. His beard and short hair suggested he was a Muslim.
He introduced himself as Asim and it turned out he had tickets to the same showing of Ishqiya as I did. We had the usual chat about backgrounds and jobs. He described his job as being 'in business' without going into further detail.
I told him I was going for lunch.
"Okay, perhaps see you later," he waved me off.

Pondering my options for lunch I quickly discounted the local restaurants. To boot, the closest one I had eaten at was the Koh-i-noor, where the cashier tried to withhold my change and I only had twenty minutes to have lunch and then make it back to the cinema. I expected eating at a restaurant to take much longer than that. Fortunately there was a McDonalds down the road from the Sterling Cinema. I was kind of pining for some western food and didn't mind some fries with a copious amount of chili sauce (they should have that at European fast food restaurants).

Now just because it's a McDonalds doesn't mean it works the same way a McDonalds back home does. For starters there's the menu that has been fully adjusted to local customs and eating habits (no beef or pork in this case) and secondly the process of ordering and receiving your food is never the same either.
Upon entering it became clear things were a lot more organized here. People didn't queue up directly in front of the counter, but instead formed a single file queue marked by queuing posts. At the end of the queue an employee took your order which he ticked off on a notepad-size form. I went with the Maharaja Chicken Burger menu, ice tea without ice (you know what I mean) and a sundae. The man, I guess you could call him a human load balancer, ticked off my order then ripped the sheet from his notepad and handed it to me. Three servers stood behind the counter and customers were assigned to one in a round robin fashion. The order taker directed me to the first server, who asked for my order. He read the order out aloud while things were handed to him by three different staff members. He put them on the tray in front of him, then shoved it towards me and quickly said: "Enjoy your meal, sir," before turning his attention to the next customer. The whole process took no more than ten seconds, a sharp contrast to McDonalds in The Netherlands where I once had to wait fifteen minutes before my server realized she'd forgotten about me. I did get free ice cream out of that though.
At the sauce stand I helped myself to a maximum serving of chili sauce and took a seat on the outside terrace.

I was back at the cinema a few minutes before the movie started, but two armed guards prevented people from going up the stairs into the theatre until everyone had come out from the previous show. There was no obvious reason for having two men armed with submachine guns. Perhaps it was a security measure instated after the 2008 attacks.
Once the guards let everyone in, about two dozen people stormed upstairs. I waited out the rush. The theatre was mostly empty so there was absolutely no need to run for a good seat. The usher looked at my ticket and pointed me to my seat. On my way there I heard Asim call me. He picked a seat on an empty row at the front and invited me to sit next to him. "This way can explain you the movie," he said. I was glad too, because the movie wasn't subtitled.
The show started without the national anthem or any other moment of cultural reflection for which Indian movies are famous. The movie itself turned out to be a sort of caper comedy with a bit of action at the end. Several times something on screen had the audience kill themselves with laughter. Either Asim was not so good at explaining the jokes, or Indians are easily amused. But all-round it was a very entertaining movie. The soundtrack was certainly good.

Afterwards I had a conversation with Asim. He told me he was going to visit family in England soon.
"Can I ask you something," he inquired, "why are westerners always so introverted?"
I didn't have a good answer to that right away.
"I guess it's culture," I said. "Here in India life mostly takes place outside, on the street where people meet each other. In the west it takes place indoors and if you want to see your friends you have to call them up."
My explanation didn't seem to satisfy him but he didn't ask any further.
I told Asim I had to go back to my hotel to pack my luggage. He shook my hand enthusiastically and thankfully without squeezing too hard.

At the hotel I packed my backpack and made sure I would be able to leave at about 2pm when the taxi would pick me up. When packing was done it was nearing 7pm and I went outside for my final stroll through Mumbai.
I got some curry at a restaurant on Dr. DN Road. After that I walked towards the western seafront (near Churchgate) and along the way I bought some ice cream. In a music store I bought the soundtrack album to Ishqiya and a Panjabi dance album. Instead of going all the way to the coast I went past Mumbai University to the large maidan just beyond it. The area was abuzz with activity in the humid evening heat. Street vendors sold all sorts of trinkets, souvenirs and food along the dusty dirt path that crossed the maidan. I climbed over the low fence and sat down on the grass. Sitting there I ate my ice cream while contemplating the things I'd done in the city. It was a farewell ritual, although I might return to Mumbai some day.

I went back to the hotel to get about four hours of sleep. I woke up at 1:45 in the morning, quickly washed myself, brushed my teeth, put my clothes on and quietly made my way downstairs with all my gear on.
At the foot of the stairs to the street a dark silhouette watched me come down.
"Hello sir, you ordered a taxi?" the man asked. I confirmed and he relayed my answer to the taxi driver.

The main roads were completely empty at this hour, save for the occasional push cart that was brusquely evaded by the driver. It wasn't one of the old taxis you see so many of in India, but a relatively new Japanese model which seems to be slowly replacing the old models. There seemed to be something wrong with the front axle which made the car quite unstable. I hoped it wouldn't break down before we reached the airport.
The smog was even more apparent during the night. The air was thick everywhere and gave the street lights a hazy glow. During the hour it took to get to the airport all of Mumbai's faces were visible. We passed business districts, suburbs, common residential areas and slums. A lot of the road was elevated causeway which offered a good view of all these areas.
During the ride the realization sank in that I was really about to leave. Even though I'd only been here a week I still got the same melancholy feeling I got when I flew out of Bangkok two years ago. Indeed Mumbai had an atmosphere very similar to Bangkok. Through all the smog, rubbish and poverty shines this undeniable charm that manages to captivate you.

I arrived at the airport with plenty of time left. My small backpack still had a full 1 liter bottle of water and a 1L bottle of self-mixed mango crush in it. It was a waste to throw them away at the security checkpoint so I finished both the bottles before queuing up for the security check.
An Indian soldier who patrolled along the security checkpoint, rifle hung over his shoulder, stared at me as if he suspected me of something. Then I realized I was wearing the t-shirt I had bought that had a joke in Hindi on it. The soldier displayed a brief sign of amusement before quickly returning to his authoritatively serious grimace.

On the plane I sat next to Swadha. She lived in Mumbai where she had a well-paying job in IT, but now she went to join her husband in the Netherlands. Her husband had been working and living there for several years and she too was hoping to find a job.
The climate gradually changed the closer we came to Europe. Starting over Germany, the ground everywhere was covered in snow. Things were no different in the Netherlands. The captain announced that ground temperature in Amsterdam was -10c. Everyone started putting on sweaters.
The freezing cold was a harsh departure from the 30 degrees in Mumbai. Fortunately Stephan was there waiting for me. He brought my winter coat with him, which I dearly appreciated.

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