I have since come back from India and have continued the generic blog I used before going:
would love it if people read it!
Thanks for reading
Me outside the Taj hotel
The next day, we headed to a free photography exhibition that we’d read about in the Time Out guide to Mumbai. It was snapshots of the city throughout the 1980s and 1990s - all in black and white, but reflected really well the juxtaposition of a developing, modern city well on its way in the industrialistion process, but growing out of a country still entrenched in poverty. For example, the photographer, Pablo Bartholomew, portrayed beggars and children lying on the street, wrapped in blankets, next to soaring skyscrapers; the Taj Mahal hotel; shots of Mumbai looking not unlike Atget’s Paris in its faded colonial glory. It was an incredibly interesting exhibition, particularly as it documented the city through what must have been one of its major periods of change, and really brought out the diversity of the place.
After visiting the exhibition we remained in the vein of juxtaposition by paying a visit to Cafe Coffee Day, an Indian coffee chain which I guess is like their version of Starbucks. It was air-conditioned, with fancy coffees, sundaes and desserts. We both ordered a “chocaccino” and wrote our journals for a few hours. The cafe was clearly popular among the middle-class Mumbaikers in their tight jeans and busty blouses, iphones strapped to their ears and designer handbags. Similar to the social commentary of Bartholomew’s exhibition, an elderly woman without the use of her legs hoisted herself along the pavement outside with her weathered hands, pausing by groups of affluent, pale-skinned Mumbaikers and tourists to beg for food; this was less than a metre away from where we were stitting, cocooned in our air-conditioned box and protected by a security guard from the reality of the street.
After lunch of a masala dosa at a local cafe, we took another train to Grant Road station again, to visit Chor Bazaar, a market famous for its antique goods and where Sarah bought a beautiful Bollywood poster. Unfortunately it took us a while to find; we ended up walking through meat markets before we found the area we wanted. Neither of us could look or breathe: the lasting image I have of when I did look was of a bloody hairless chicken still squawking away as a butcher chopped it up.
We went to treat ourselves to a drink in the Taj; Rob had done it and admitted that despite the extortion it was definitely worth it. Outside were posh Indian families getting horse-drawn silver carriages along the seafront; whilst they were clearly having fun it did look pretty tacky. We went through a bag-check before entering, using the amazing toilets where we were waited on, and went to the Harbour Bar for a ridiculously overpriced Diet Coke.
In the evening we finished off some shopping, and the next morning crammed everything into our rucksacks… it was goodbye to India!
statues of Gandhi’s life
Me outside Gandhi’s house
Haji Ali’s tomb
After the slum tour Florence and I took a train up to Mahalaxmi station to look at the “dhobi ghats”, the streets where people are employed to wash laundry from all over the city; this tradition goes back hundreds of years. To be honest I was expecting it to be more impressive than it was… it was essentially a long line of washing hanging, though I’m not really sure what I expected…
After this I was ravenous, feeling the effects of not having eaten for a while. We stumbled upon a local cafe which had a really cheap menu, and each ate palak paneer and a chapatti for Rs.90 between us! We were stared at a bit because they clearly weren’t used to foreigners eating there. But the palak paneer ranked amongst some of the best I’ve had; they’d fried the paneer separately so that it was brown and crispy on the outside…and ironically, we found this place because we walked the wrong way to get to Haji Ali’s tomb. It just goes to show what you can find if you wander off the beaten track!
We then walked (in the right direction) to Haji Ali’s tomb. One of the reasons I’d really wanted to see this was because I’ve felt so overwhelmed by the Hindu dominance in Tamil Nadu and have even come into more contact with Christian Indians than Muslims, who I’d thought I might see more of. I was interested to observe a Muslim place of worship, to experience a different religious context in action.
Haji Ali himself was an Afghan mystic made Muslim saint who is clearly revered by many Mumbaikers. The tomb itself was in a bright white building of Muslim-style architecture, with an arched dome gateway as an entrance and cylindrical turrets above. The main point was that it was at the end of a long, rocky walkway protruding from the land into the sea. According to the Rough Guide, this often gets covered by sea in high tide, which I thought must have complicated matters considering there were many stalls selling things and also scores of beggars. The sad thing was, it was obvious they had some kind of beggar-master controlling them and who’d placed them there, because almost all of them had some sort of disability, whether it was stumps for arms or crippled legs.
After a brief peek at the tomb - we weren’t sure how far non-Muslims were allowed in - we took a train to Grant Road station, to visit Mani Bhavan, the house where Gandhi lived for a long period of time, including when he plotted his resistance movement. Frankie and Greg had recommended we go there and I’d really wanted to especially as we missed out on the Gandhi museum in Madurai.
It took us ages to find, but after asking directions from about thirty people (it’s astonishing how many Indians seem to have no idea who Gandhi is) we found it on a quiet, leafy lane that could just as well have been a London suburb. It was free to get in, but you could make a donation, though the staff were rather distracted by the cricket on TV - today was the first day of the World Cup in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
There were many interesting artefacts in the museum, including a plaque from the Obamas during their visit in November 2010, stamps with Gandhi’s face on from all over the world, photos and quotes, letters he wrote (including correspondence with Tolstoy and a letter to Hitler in 1939 asking for world peace, insisting that the Fuhrer had the power to prevent millions of lives being lost. Ahem), and the room where he famously did his spinning, everything in place as it had been. There was also a room with about twenty to thirty glass boxes, containing wooden dolls in each. Each box depicted seminal moments from Gandhi’s life, and so lifelike: there was Gandhi with his dying mother, being kicked off the train in South Africa, in court at his trial, at a protest to boycott British goods, on the salt march etc. There were several crowd scenes and the detail on both faces and material for clothes was superb; there was also the background, with buildings, trees etc.
Florence has read Gandhi’s autobiography and is disappointed by his stance towards women; apparently he was willing to let his ill wife die rather than let her eat meat, when the doctor had said that was the only way for her to get healthy again. It’s one thing to abstain from certain “luxuries” because of a particular belief, but another altogether to enforce it on others, even in a matter of life-or-death; this seems all the more ludicrous applied to a loved one!
After seeing Mani Bhavan, we walked down the road to Chowpatty Beach, the famous long stretch of sand with the city’s skyscrapers in the background, where Mumbai’s families and lovers come for strolls. It was 5.30pm - the perfect time of day - and we bought a chai from a passer-by as we watched the couples fertively with their arms around each other on the sand.
We then took a train back to Churchgate station and walked down to Colaba where we went to Leopold’s for a drink. We both only really wanted to go to Leopold’s because it’s famous for being Gregory David Roberts’ haunt of choice in “Shantaram”, the epic semi-autobiographical tale of a fugitive in Mumbai. He and his friends are always gathering there: it’s what Cafe Flore was to Jean-Paul Sartre, what Central Perk is to Monica, Chandler etc…
It was established in 1848 but I get the impression that it has had a complete overhaul since the fame of Shantaram. All the waiters were wearing matching red t-shirts as though they were in an American diner, it was full to bursting with tourists and prices were sky-high.
I woke up feeling a lot better, which was just as well because we’d booked onto Reality Tours and Travel’s Dharavi Slum Tour, the same one Rob had been on and which I wrote about in a previous post.
We had breakfast delivered to our room, and walked to Churchgate Station to get a train to Mahim, a suburb of Mumbai where we’d meet the tour.
We met the guides and the rest of the tour at 10am. I don’t remember the names of the guides, but we have nicknames for them: one called himself “DJ Shaker” as in his spare time, he’s a DJ and has recorded the sounds of the slum - recycling, manufacturing etc - to mix his tracks that he plays in Dharavi bars at night. He had grown up in Dharavi, and was also the official tour photographer, as we weren’t allowed to take photographs. He was originally from Tamil Nadu!
The other’s name began with “A”, but when I first asked him his name, he said “my name is Khan, I am not a terrorist” and burst out laughing; apparently it’s a line from a film…
The tour split into two; we had My Name Is… as our guid, and were with a group of American guys who worked for a software company and came to Pune on business quite often; they’d decided to spend a few extra days in Mumbai. My Name Is firstly stood with us on a railway bridge overlooking Dharavi and told us about the slum.
The word “slum”, despite its endless negative connotations, simply refers to any houses built on government land. The government has a rule that any structures built after 1985 on this land are illegal and theoretically have the power to turf people off at any time. But thanks to police corruption, they’ll often happily receive bakshish from illegal landlords rather than follow the rules themselves.
My Name Is… told us that “Slumdog Millionaire” was filmed in Dharavi and inf act one of the reasons that Reality Tours and Travel started the tour was a response to the negative, unrealistic image of the slum presented in the film. They thought that it didn’t show the bonhomie, community feel and hard work that really goes on there and will only exacerbate views of India abroad. It seemed like a perfect business idea to exploit people’s interest and educated them about the reality of life in Dharavi, whilst putting money back into their partner NGO, Reality Gives. My Name Is… told us to note if we ever saw any beggars and to consider how friendly everyone was; to conclude, I saw just one beggar, and everyone was, on the whole, very friendly.
He took us to some buildings where we watched the processes of recycling plastics and manufacturing goods. From the rooftop we could see similar goings-on all over Dharavi; we walked past men welding, a Muslim man making Hindu statues, women making pappad (or poppadoms as they are known in the UK)… they were all extremely welcoming given that two tours trample through their habitat each day, which must be pretty intrusive. Just to see everybody’s resourcefulness was so inspiring; of course there are no health and safety regulations so people have to work in the most horrendously dangerous conditions, but our guide reminded us that when there are fifty people applying for one job to feed their families, they can’t afford to be picky about helmets or whatnot.
Dharavi was heaving with people: after the tour I read that it is Asia’s biggest slum and the most densely populated “city” in the world; this was manifest on the tour from the families standing outside their homes, kids running atop gutters, women ferociously scrubbing clothes on rocks, men crammed in doorways smoking beedies. And whilst there were the narrow, dark winding passageways with just loose stones balancing precariously on drains to walk on, and only cracks of light overhead to let in the faintest of the sun’s rays, a lot of the slum had main roads, supermarkets, banks, a cinema… it was, in essence, a suburb.
Something I’d thought would be visually worse was the sanitation problem. Millions of residents share just one toilet, and I’d assumed there would be more people relieving themselves on the streets, and generally more rubbish everywhere. We were taken to an area with several large rubbish dumps where dozens of children were playing, some defecating in the open. Though these conditions would obviously be described as “squalid”, what struck me first was the good nature of the kids, playing so happily with each other. The whole slum was home to such a sense of community; there were also several schools we walked past - our guide told us that around 85% of Dharavi’s children are in education, which isn’t a bad statistic compared to other parts of India. Reality Gives has a primary school, and there are other NGOs also working in the slum.
At the end of the tour we went to Reality Tours and Travel’s office and I bought a poster of one of DJ Shaker’s photographs, of the huge manufacturing process carried out by men from the slum. I want to put it on my wall and remind myself, each time I look at it, of the resilience of some people in the world who are a lot less fortunate than I am. If I ever feel down, I hope that this photograph will inspire me to stop moping and to get up and go!