© Simon Strijbos

Mumbai day 2: reconnaissance

By Simon Strijbos on Monday 22 February 2010

"I woke up late, at about noon, just thought that I had to be in Mumbai soon."
The exhaustion from work, the flight to Mumbai and my first day here took their toll on me: even after going to sleep early, I woke up well after twelve and by the time I had showered and dressed it was 2 PM. There was no point in making big plans for the day and I thought I'd walk around Fort and Colaba a little more.
But first I needed some food.

Sunday January 24th, 2010

On the corner of Mody Street, facing a side wall of CST station, I found the Koh-i-noor restaurant: a regular Indian place with local patrons and local prices. Fortunately all the menus in all the restaurants were in English. Or more accurately: they were written in the western alphabet. I still had no idea what a dosa, pakoda or samosa were. One thing I did know was chicken massala which I ordered along with a glass of freshly squeezed lime juice (which was only 10 rupees!).
My chicken massala was delivered fairly quickly and I started eating in the assumption that my lime juice would follow shortly thereafter.
The massala turned out to be a lot more spicy than I anticipated and I was starting to need that lime juice. There had been little activity in the kitchen for the last five minutes so I asked one of the restaurant staff, an elderly man, about my lime juice. He gestured reassuringly at me and disappeared into the kitchen while I continued eating my chicken massala and becoming in even larger need of some refreshing, fire extinguishing juice.
The old man took his sweet time but after about 10 minutes he emerged from the kitchen with my eagerly anticipated lime juice, and walked towards my table. Shortly before reaching my table he made a beeline for a some shelves on the nearby wall and started looking for a straw.
"Forget the straw, just give me the goddamn juice!" I thought to myself because the old man hadn't given me the impression that he understood English. He rummaged around the items on the shelves and called out to the kitchen. A reply came from the kitchen and the old man rummaged around some more, leaving me increasingly desperate for the glass of juice in his hands.
He called out something to the kitchen again, something I interpreted as "It's not here!"
The reply must've meant something like: "Yes it is, did you check well enough?"
"Why don't you come out here and show me?" the old man (presumably) replied with great annoyance.
A guy in his late teens and a black t-shirt with a death's head on it emerged from the kitchen and repeated the rummaging around on the shelf, coming up empty handed as the old man had.
Finally he walked behind the counter at the front of the restaurant and retrieved a slightly cracked drinking straw from a dusty drawer. The old man put the straw in the glass and presented it to me.
"Dhanyawad," I said while I removed the straw from the glass and drank it halfway down in one go.
The old man looked indignantly at me and muttered something as he walked back to the kitchen.
After I finished my lunch the man behind the cash register tried to screw me over by not giving me my change and pretending I didn't pay him yet. But after some insistence he reluctantly reopened the cash drawer and took out my change. Like I said: Indians are a bunch of sly bastards.

Instead of going straight to Colaba via Dr DN Road, I went back to SB Road. Yesterday I had ventured into the busy area between SB Road and Dr DN Road. Today I walked into the area on the other side of SB Road and found it to be completely quiet. There was no business, no traffic, only a few pedestrians and most of the buildings gave the impression that they might be vacant. Still, it wasn't a slum of any kind. Most structures were stately office buildings from the colonial era.
Walking ahead I heard some noise coming from an intersection: a group of kids were playing cricket in the middle of the street. I decided to go check it out. There were about 12 kids, ranging from 8 to 16 years old. I stood on one of the corners to observe, making sure not to get in anyone's way.
Let me make it clear that I don't understand cricket. What I saw was two kids with cricket bats on either side of the intersection and behind them goalposts constructed from street debris. The two were surrounded by all the other kids who took field positions at various distances from the batters. In the middle stood a boy holding an old tennis ball.
The boy in the middle threw the ball at the batter on my left. As soon as he hit the ball, everyone sprung into action. Both batters ran towards each other's goalposts, tapping the ground with their bats and running back to their own position. At the same time the field players all rushed to catch the ball. One of the older kids caught it directly in his hands and was cheered on by the rest. It wasn't clear what the consequence of catching the ball was, because both batters kept running at the same pace.

Then I noticed a small food stand left of me, constructed from debris and tarp. where a little boy sold cookies. He gestured me over, took a cookie from the big jar in front of him and showed it to me with an inquisitive look on his face. I asked him how much and he said something in Hindi while holding up five fingers, then raising just his index finger. "OK, one" I said while holding up my index finger. He gave me a cookie. I didn't have exact change so I handed him a 10 rupee bill. The cricket game came back to life, distracting me from the fact that the boy hadn't given me any change.
After I watched the game some more, nibbling on my cookie, he asked: "Coffee? Tea?"
"Tea," I said and he poured some chai into a small glass. I stood there, observing the cricket as I drank my tea and ate my cookie. An older man in a police uniform walked up to the stand and exchanged words with the boy. They seemed to be having a conflict over something and the boy gave the policeman a glass of coffee and a cookie for free.

When the policeman left, the cricket game had died down and the kids shifted their attention to me. At first they kept their distance, shyly smiling at me. When I smiled back, two of the bravest walked towards me and asked "Hello how are you! What is your name!" while wildly shaking my hand. This broke the ice and the rest joined in. A lot of hand shaking and "I'm fime, thank you. How are you? My name is Simon, what's your name?" later, they invited me to play cricket with them. I protested saying I didn't know how to play cricket, but one of the kids pushed a bat into my hands and gestured at one of the goalpost. Another kid stood ready with the ball. As soon as I was in position he threw the ball at me. I was never any good at baseball in high school, but I managed to hit the ball pretty good on the first go. The ball went up in the air and the kids chased it cheering.
They seemed to have simplified the game down to just ball hitting in order to make it accessible to me. We played like this for a while when I indicated I wanted to move on. As I started to thank them, several of them flocked together on the middle of the intersection, taking various picture poses and shouting: "Photo, sir!". I took a few pictures of them and several other kids who came up to have their picture taken.

Onward to Colaba.
After a short while I came to Khala Goda which lies exactly between Fort and Colaba. This area is home to several art galleries. Stuccos depicting colonial scenes were visible on walls in every street.
I passed the Chattrapati Shivaji Museum, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum. Like many colonial buildings it had been renamed after a great Marathi warlord to reflect the change of regime.

On the sidewalk sat a group of poor people. They begged me for food as I walked by, but I tried to ignore them. One of the women stood up and followed me, begging me to buy her food in poor English.
She was very short, maybe no taller than 1,40m but despite being poor she wore a brightly colored sari. She had various pieces of jewellery seemingly stuck to the skin on her forehead, ears, neck and shouldders. There was a large burn wound on her left shoulder and it seemed as if the molten skin had gotten meshed with the fabric of her sari.
I tried to walk past her but she persisted. I really don't mind giving to beggars. I often do. And usually I favor giving food over money so her proposition sounded good. But the one thing I don't like is feeling like I'm being coerced, or forced into giving. This woman would not let me go.
"Supermarket," she said as she pointed to a location somewhere across the street. Again I tried to walk further but she blocked my path.
"Please, buy food. Supermarket." Again she pointed in the same direction but I couldn't see a supermarket from where we were standing.
I was prepared to just give her money so she would leave me alone. I said: "If I give you money, you can buy food at the supermarket."
"Nooo, cannot" she objected.
"Why not?"
"Not allowed." She shook her head while looking defeated.
At this point I realised this woman and the people with her must be Dalits, members of the lowest caste. Either the people at the supermarket would simply refuse her entrance, or they might accusing her of stealing any money she had to spend.
"Please. Buy rice," she continued. "You buy bag rice, I can feed my family one month." she said while reinforcingly holding up her index finger to emphasize the number one.
I hesitated for a moment but then decided that buying her some rice would be the easiest way to get rid of her. Besides, how much could a bag of rice cost?
"OK," I said and she smiled triumphantly, "let's go."
She led me across the street to a grayed colonial building and I had to do my best to keep up. She waded through the traffic with the power of someone very hungry who knows she can eat soon. The supermarket, called Sakahar Bandhar, was actually in the main entrance to the building, but it was concealed from view by large advertisements on the sidewalk.
She walked inside ahead of me to the rice aisle, almost commanding me to follow. I felt a bit silly. Once we were at the right aisle she walked to a stack of big rice bags and patted the top bag.
"This," she explained, "whole family eat for two month." Once again she emphasised the number by holding up two fingers. "Two month," she assured me.
I looked at the bags and saw that they were the top quality rice and cost 800 rupees per bag. A lot more than I was willing to spend.
"No, no, no," I said. "Too big." I searched the aisle for a bag that came closer to what I intended to donate. I found shelves with smaller bags and patted a bag of regular quality rice on the bottom shelf.
The woman hummed disapprovingly and patted a bag on the shelf above, which was as big as the one I was patting but again contained top quality rice. It seemed to me that if you need to beg for food, low quality rice is better than nothing. So I persisted and she gave in. She picked up the bag of rice and quickly made her way to the cash registers. I followed in tow.
At the register I received seemingly emotionless glances from the people in line and the nearby store personnel. The woman demonstratively put the bag of rice on the conveyor belt. I tried my best to seem completely comfortable with the situation.
A few minutes later I had paid for the rice. At the end of the cash register sat a store employee who examined the receipt given to him by the cashier clerk. The woman took her bag of rice and held it up for the clerk to see. He stamped the receipt and gave it to me.
"Keep," the woman said, pointing at the receipt. We reached the exit and she pointed to the man standing in the doorway. He scrutinized the receipt, looking incredulous at the woman with the bag of rice in her arm. Finally he put another stamp on my receipt and turned away from us.
We walked outside and I expected the woman to take off right away, but she walked along with me.
"Where you go now?"
"To Colaba," I said.
"She gestured down a road. "Go," she clarified. "Thank you."
I folded my hands and said "Namaskar". She simply nodded, then turned around and walked back to her family. I watched her cross the busy traffic on bare feet.

I took the road the woman pointed out to me, but didn't end up at the waterfront like I expected. Instead I came to a decidedly untouristly residential area. The ubiquitous crumbling houses and apartments were circled around a small marketplace. Several small streets led away from the marketplace further into the residential area. I thought I'd look around a bit and took out my camera.
I proceeded into one of the smaller streets. Some local teenagers were goofing around on a wooden horse cart parked on the side of the street. One of them called out to me: "Look out, sir!" and before I knew what was going on, two fighting street cats appeared in front of me, forming a hissing and screaming ball of fur as they do. As I stood there perplexed, the fur ball rolled away from me.
"Catfight," one of the teens commented, smiling at me.
A little further down the street stood a Chinese looking guy, a tourist like me, who had come to see what the ruckus was about. I walked over to him and asked him if he knew where we were and how to get to the Colaba waterfront, but he had gotten slightly lost himself.
We struck up a conversation and it turned out he was Chinese. I told him I speak a little Mandarin and he enthusiastically replied: "Oh, ni xiezi zhongwen!" but I couldn't formulate a fitting reply in Chinese fast enough so I just said "Yeah!" and laughed.
Together we left the residential area and backtracked a bit, coming back in tourist land where the sidewalks are filled with salespeople selling t-shirts and souvenirs. At an intersection we ran into two Australians who confirmed we were going the right way towards the waterfront.
The Chinese guy was staying int the dorm at the Salvation Army guesthouse. I curiously asked if he could show me his dorm. I wanted to see if it was as bad as everyone says.
He led me upstairs to the third floor of the building. A girl passed us on her way down, sporting a heavy backpack and two more bags, also heavy looking. She didn't seem to be very comfortable.
"Are you going to be okay?" I asked.
"Yes," she snapped at me, "I've been carrying this for four months so I think I'll be able to manage."
She continued down the stairs, moaning and cursing.
The dorm actually seemed pretty clean but the mattresses were absolutely worthless. My decision to get the 1000 rupee room was vindicated. "You do get free breakfast here, but it's not much" the Chinese guy added. "It's three slices of toast, an egg, one piece of fruit and a glass of milk."
It had become dark and I wanted to go back to my hotel. I asked him about his plans for tomorrow.
"Not sure, what about you?"
"Actually I was planning to go to Malabar Hill."
"What's to see there?" he asked.
"There's a few temples, the Hanging Gardens are there, and there's a Persian burial ground called the Tower of Silence" I summed up the points from the Lonely Planet.
We agreed to go together and decided on a place and time to meet in the morning.
"By the way," I said, "my name's Simon."
"My name is Yalong," he replied, "but my English name is Mike. You can call me that."
We shook hands. Most Chinese people I've had the pleasure of shaking hands with, had a very weak handshake. Not Mike though. Yowch.


Write comment

By swadha on

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Hey Simon!
You have understood Indian mentality very well:) The places which you have visited, I myself could not visit in last six years or so of my stay there! The cricket you watched, is called "gully cricket" in India. Gully means a street. Keep writing!

By Yalong on

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HI, Simon,

It is wonderful to read your writing , which took me back to Mumbai again. I am looking forward to more...

By Pa on

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Nou jongen ik lees dit nu pas maar de bamhartige samaritaan is er niks bij.