Friday 30 January 2015

Bombay Mix

I was about to begin describing Mumbai as a place of complete extremes and stark contrasts, but then what city isn’t? Bleurgh.

Mumbai lies on Salsette island, the most populous in the world, and at its southernmost point the city reaches out into the Arabian Sea like a claw. The money has made it's way down here over the years, so the closest you get to real poverty is what you glimpse through the taxi window on the way from the airport to your budget hotel.

The Taj Palce Hotel, Mumbai
The first impression on that journey is one of a developing country. The houses, when they are houses and not slums, are stained and crumbling and crammed together. The sidewalks are alive with noise and activity; people of all ages buying, selling and carrying things, negotiating their way through stray dogs, men and other animals. It is noisy, dusty, dirty and smelly (but not as smelly as one might fear). I gazed out of my squat little taxi, in that strange post-flight trance, and felt ever so slightly enthralled. 

The second impression, is that they drive like maniacs. There are no rules. I instinctively like places where they ignore the lines on the road. Why drive three cars abreast when you can fit four? Why not have people undertaking, pulling out in front of each other, ignoring red lights and persistently reminding each other where they are by sounding the horn?

The world's most ignored road sign
At 6:30 this morning I took a cab to the train station, and the driver, a man of indeterminate old age (or youth, impossible to say), was honking the horn the entire way, despite ours being the only car on the road. He drove his battered old Hyundai as fast as he could, probably faster than he’s ever been able to, and we were tossed around from pothole to pothole as though we were driving across the surface of the moon. Driving like a maniac is in this guy’s DNA.

If you’re not careful though you might never get beyond the soundtrack of the traffic, and you need to. Once you’ve tuned out and the cacophony is reduced to an irritating background squeal, you really start to notice that the city itself is actually quite peaceful, and most of the people in it rather sedate and serene. There is a natural pace and rhythm to life here: a soft, slow, lilting calm.

Horniman Circle, Mumbai
I stepped out of the madness of a main road into a small fenced park on a roundabout and sat in the shade to read my map, waiting for someone to come over and start hassling me. Hawking something I neither want nor need, or encouraging me to take a tour, taxi or daub red dust on my forehead and throw a garland round my neck. But they didn’t. Not here, not anywhere. (Actually someone did do that to me – in the lobby of the Taj, but that’s what you get for staying in the Taj).

In the side roads where there are no cars, the tranquility resumes. In Oval Maidan, there must be ten separate cricket matches going on, watched by countless people from the shade of the palm trees. Groups of men loiter outside buildings or huddle around street stalls, eating, talking and smoking. But mostly eating. At times it feels like the whole place is on a permanent lunch break, or that the city just held a simultaneous fire drill and everyone's standing around waiting to be allowed back in to work.

Cricket at Oval Maidan, Mumbai
When I went for a run yesterday morning, the streets were still empty, but the Maidan cricket pitches were full and the long curving promenade of Marine Drive thronged with people of all shapes, sizes and dress senses; stretching, doing yoga, balancing, walking, chatting, jogging. There was a wonderful sense of joy and contentment - that this was a part of the day they were having for themselves.

The cab I got last night pulled over after 100 yards and the guy asked me to wait a minute while he went for a piss. Maybe he wanted the extra 5 rupees this bagged him, or maybe everyone's not actually in such a hurry, and when you’ve got to go, you’ve just got to go.

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