The Gateway of India

Far away,
This ship is taking me far away,
Far away from the memories
Of the people who care if I live or die.


Starlight,
I will be chasing the starlight,
Until the end of my life;
I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.
—Muse


Bored of the monotony
of the Middle East, of the slow transitions that characterized my overland journey, changes as subtle as colors on a spectrum, I found myself needing a sudden shift; and so, having traveled an indirect route from the Thames and Fleet to the Nile’s Second Cataract, from highland moors to snowy mountains, from Scythian steppe to seas of sand, by bus and train and the power of my thumb, I flew out of Amman and across the holy desolation ruled by the House of Saud to those seven wealthy kingdoms by the sea.

Indians and Filipinos manned the great way-station of Sharjah, conscripted from the provinces of the Empire of the Buck. Emirati men in long robes and turbans, laptops slung across their slim shoulders, shuffled between the terminals, and Emirati women spooned food court fare under their veils with a deft hand, a wide-eyed babe held in the other. Their minarets were oil towers and glass skyscrapers. Outside the windows of the station spread a panorama of brown earth, short green trees, the layered sky of sunset—I had lost two hours midair—and the finned vehicles of my escape.

I had nothing in my stomach but a small feta pizza and a slug of whisky. I carried a courier bag with my valuables and electronics in it, and the haversack I bought in Varna, now splitting at its seams, contained naught but clothes, shampoo, band-aids, sowing needles, and a copy of War & Peace, things no sane thief would steal. The passengers ready to board the plane to Bombay were split evenly between Indian businessmen in leather shoes and Ukrainian Krishnas in colorful sarongs, with yellow lines running down their foreheads to arrows on their noses. The Indians could not keep their eyes off the strange pilgrims of that Berkeley-born order, and the Hare Krishnas told me they worshiped a God of Love. I pulled out the Indian guide book I bought in Israel, my Bible for the next three months, and started reading.

I lusted for India, for its sweltering culture and spicy cuisine. The continent represents a fifth of the human race, 1.3 billion people. Travelers spoke of it in whispered tones. India, that backpacker’s heaven—diverse, difficult, cheap, with good food and plentiful weed—and all of them say, “It is chaos. Nothing can prepare you for it. You will love it.” India, an impossible nation, a country of greatness, of powerful faith and violence, of colorful history and myriad cultures; a work in progress, with the most staggering divide of wealth and poverty on the planet—“a nation often beset by famine and frustration, struggling towards modernity and industrial power through the burden of her multiplicity of peoples, cultures, tongues, and religions,” as Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins call it in the introduction of Freedom at Midnight.

The careful, colorful prologue of that book drew me to begin in Bombay, at the Gateway of India, “the rude arch of yellow basalt” erected for the King-Emperor George V on his visit to the crown jewel of the British Empire in 1911, the threshold of so many foreign adventurers:

“A strange world mingles there in the shadows cast by its soaring span: snake charmers and fortune tellers, beggars and tourists, disheveled hippies lost in a torpor of sloth and drug, the destitute and dying of a cluttered metropolis. . . Once, that vaulting Gateway of India was the Arch of Triumph of the greatest empire the world has ever known. To generations of Britons, its massive form was the first glimpse, caught from a steamer’s deck, of the storied shores for which they had abandoned their Midlands villages and Scottish hills. Soldiers and adventurers, businessmen and administrators, they had passed through its portals, come to keep the Pax Britannica in the empire’s proudest possession. . .

“All that seems so distant today. Today, the Gateway of India is just another pile of stone, at one with Nineveh and Tyre, a forgotten monument to an era that ended in its shadows half a century ago.”

Bombay survived Independence, the largest city in India, the capital of Bollywood, and the center of India’s youthful modernity. The megalopolis is the vivid crater of an explosion of growth, a cesspit and a pinnacle of humanity, for beneath the crystal skylines and the imperial monuments and the misery of the slums, the seven swampy islands that formed Bom Bahai are connected by an infill of garbage. They call it Mumbai now that the Hindu Marathi faction, Shivaji’s Army, has taken control and rededicated the city to the ancient Kingdom of Maharashtra. The landmarks of the Raj and of India’s cultural plurality remain, and though the new rulers have changed the names, everyone knows that Chhatrapati Shivaji (meaning Shivaji, King of the Universe), the busiest train station in Asia, is the Victoria Terminus.

I arrived at that station at the end of the line in Bombay, a year after setting out from home and with two blank pages left in my passport. The massive colonial structure was built in an Indo-Saracenic style that combined Hindu and Middle-Eastern designs in a mass of towers arrayed about a huge dome. Crests throughout showed elephants, boats, trains, and crosses, and the gates opened onto the imperial neighborhoods and polo maidans of the peninsular crab claw at Bombay’s southern end, the center of its metropolis. Arrayed around the toxic bay enclosed by that pincer of land are the oldest bazaars and markets, the University, the neighborhoods of Colaba and Fort, and the Gateway of India.

Cabs in India are cheap, if you can get the driver to turn the meter on, but I hate the easy ways. I took a tuk-tuk to the dark alleyways of Andheri train station, and after a hot chai and some doughy things in spicy gravy from a spicy street stall—always follow the crowd when it comes to street food, O Reader, and wash your own vegetables—and after becoming lost along the platforms of the dark station, I boarded the wreck of a British machine, the slow train to Victoria Terminus. Five million people go through there a day, but it was still quieted by the earliness of the day and the darkness. As hot as it was, hot enough for shorts and a T-shirt, the sun would not rise for an hour yet.

Bombay was coming alive. Squatting vendors slapped piles of fresh newspapers to the pavement, to feed the worldly appetites of the world’s largest democracy. Food stalls sizzled, and the cooks cried out the names of their delicacies to the great crowds of workers in collars and slacks or colorful saris who poured out from the station. Clusters of narrow Muslim women, shrouded in black robes, turned away like shadows as I passed, and burly Sikhs took no notice of me. They never cut their hair, which they wrapped on their heads in turbans, or their beards, so they could never hide what they were, and would always have to defend it.

I walked beneath the eves of Victorian ramparts, the clocktower, the heights of offices, the jutting upper floors of apartments, the strangled columns of banyan trees and the pillars of palms, past fenced off polo maidans and Christian churches. Under the colonnades or benches or in the open spots between bus stops and trees, vagrants slept curled under blankets, alone or in couples or entire families laid out on mats, some restless babe squirming against a gaunt mother. They were the homeless of Mumbai, or the country poor sent to win bread in the big city, or teens that have run away from villages to escape poverty or bad grades, or the Pavement Dwellers whose shantytowns have fallen under a construction project. I was clearly lost, but by following my compass southeast, I came out of the city to a wide plaza along the surf, looking out past the Gateway of India on the Arabian Sea.

My hostel of choice was the Salvation Army’s Red Shield, a high building of red and white and wood just behind the Taj Mahal Hotel that was occupied and besieged during the Mumbai terrorist raids two years ago and still bears the scars of conflict under a patchwork of scaffolding. The Red Shield came recommended by both the Bible and fellow travelers, and it was notorious for its bedbugs. The reception desk was empty when I arrived, so I followed the noise of a hymnal up the stairs to a common room, where six Indian staffers huddled around a table while the security guard read from the Gospel of Saint John.

Two other travelers waited for the mass to finish so they could inquire about beds. One had a mustache and a mop of hair and could have been from anywhere, and he would have told me he was from nowhere, he had been on the road so long. The other was a tall Canadian with short hair and a fresh beard, with ears and a baseball cap prominent. He sat cross-legged on a table, back straight against the wall, and lost in the concentration of meditation. When Thomas woke up, and when the sergeants of the Salvation Army told us to ask again at 9, I started talking to him in the way of travelers, and he and I went around the corner to a Punjabi restaurant called Bagdadi. We ordered chai and channa masala, a spiced curry with lentils popular in the old Mughal heartland of the Indus River valley, with a bread like naan but thinner, called roti. O Reader, I love this food! Rest assured, a fuller report is coming, once I have tried all the tastes of the south.

Tom was a palliative oncology nurse. His patients were the hopeless victims of cancer. Unlike physicians of other branches of medicine, he became familiar with his patients; and unlike other physicians, he knew his patients would die. “I had some amazing conversations,” he said back in the Red Shield dorm room, when we were talking with a Londoner and an American named Joe. “They have so much to say about life. I think my problems are important—my job, my girlfriend, my family—but what does that matter next to life?” Tom’s girlfriend was a pretty travel agent back in Toronto, a high school sweetheart, and he would miss her sorely in the three months of his long-planned trip, his second international excursion after a visit to Thailand’s beaches and jungles.

For him, India was a place to discover change and enlightenment. He had renounced meat—easy to do in vegetarian India, where the cow is sacred—and smokes and grass and most of alcohol. “Many people come to India to change themselves,” said the Londoner, “so it’s a good goal.” Tom intended to volunteer in villages and study yoga in Rishikesh and climb mountains in Nepal, but my descriptions of the Dravidian India that lies south of Bombay made him want to go there for a few weeks while the weather was fine. First, though, he had to wait for the delivery of his bag, which the airline had left behind in Abu Dhabi.

There were many characters in the hotel. It was their first trip to India or their tenth. They came for yoga classes and meditation, to volunteer, to have adventures, or to idle away as much time as their money permitted. Common items were extensive journals, long hair, loose shirts or tight singlets, a month’s stubble, pegs of hashish, and the puffy leggings called Ali Baba pants, connected loosely around the knees. They smoked out on the porch and talked about Udaipur and Goa and all the places travelers want to go with so little time for it, and all the cold weather and hard work they did not miss from back home. The Army served a simple breakfast between seven and nine in the morning, and I was always up too late, and once too early, to receive it.

Tom and I had lunch with a Danish couple, Rasmus and Malacca, at a place famous for its South Indian food—Laxmi Villa, in one of the alleys behind the Taj Mahal Hotel. Leaving the Danes, we wandered around until we came to some slums on the Bay of Bengal, a rocky strand where children defecated on the rocks and tried to hit us with their simple kites. We asked directions to a cafĂ©, next to Churchgate Station and the Lord Brabourne Stadium (where we tried and failed to buy cricket tickets), that served shisha to young Indians in a glass smoker’s box. I was addicted to the stuff, which is sadly as much a novelty in India as in the states. Farewell to ye, packed narghiles!

I took a nap when we got back, having been awake since I left Amman, and then went back to Bagdadi for chicken kadai. Thankfully, they gave me a fork for the meal. I went with Tom to a famous bar called Leopold’s and had a drink with a Polish cinematographer. There is a novel called Shantaram that one-in-five Indian backpackers are currently reading, the story of an Australian convict who escaped from Aussie prison to the slums and jails of seedy Bombay, and was there reborn. Much of the novel takes place in Leopold’s, which in the 1970s was Bombay’s expat bar.

Paintings of the world’s wonders—the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China—decorated a frieze along the high ceiling, where whirring fans kept out the sultry, sweltering night and a forest of red columns met the white roof. Unlike most Indian places, that were sealed and dark and humid as a reptile house, Leopold’s left its huge segmented doors open for ventilation. Despite a recent bombing and a drive-by shooting that webbed the window with bullet holes, it remains a prime watering hole and rehabilitative center for travelers to India. So many crowded around its concentration of cafe tables that, in my many visits there, we often had to order twice from their selection to get any of the foreign beers, local Kingfisher, or the draught drinks in high glass tubes with taps on the bottom.

Back at the hotel, we woke up the poor manager, the one with a blind eye behind his glasses, to let us in after the midnight curfew, and I fell into a card came with a gang of Aussies and two German girls. It was a version of Shithead, an Australian variant of the American game Asshole that I had learned from a girl off the coast of Lycia, but played by as complicated a set of rules as three males can cultivate over five years of close friendship. They had just finished explaining the role of Presidents and Vice-Presidents to the incredulous German girls when Joe came in looking tight. The three Aussie blokes played most of the girls’ hands, and explained rules to Joe, and they shouted to pass faster the flask of rum and the bottle of white wine that were circling the table, and I held my own, though I never became President.

The markets of Bombay throw themselves across an area big as any normal city, alleys of stalls between fortresses full of them, organized into districts of electronics and watches, shoes and bags, fruits and vegetables and spices, meat and viscera. Strange things break the order: colorful rainbows of fake flowers from China or stolen car parts. The merchants speak Bombaiya, mixing Marathi Hindi, Indian English, and street slang, and shout out at the tourists who venture into their world.

From the Crawford Market, we went north to the Mangaldas Market. Tom was unused to the wild Asian traffic, confluences of cars that move like threading needles, and to the excessive use of horn. The Arabs contented themselves with a constant tapping, but the Indians screamed their louder, penetrating horns for long lengths of time. I was familiar with it all, but Tom’s surprise reminded me again how far I was from home. An old man found us as we entered Mangaldas and asked, “What are you looking for? Scarf? Sari?” I said I wanted a scarf, and he led us forward. The crowds hid from view the cobblestones of the long street, and a strange Indo-Saracenic mosque peered over their heads from the far end.

I bought a scarf in a store, with a little back and forth haggling, and then our decrepit guide led us into the warren of cloth venders who lounged on their merchandise and tailors who wore theirs. Tom was out to buy a pair of tailored suits in one of the world’s cheapest markets—because a good fit is better than quality, and the quality of these was very fine.

The old man took us to a cloth stall, and while the fashionable young merchant was unrolling bolts of black striped cloth, the tailor arrived, a distinguished Indian named Makwana with measuring tape around his neck and a well-trimmed white mustache and wire-frame glasses, to assist with choosing fabrics. That finished, Makwana took us back to his nook, where two assistants showed us a hardcover Italian fashion catalog, “2010, just released.” They used it as a reference book for their own work, Indian emulations at a twentieth the price, and had Tom pick out the styles he wanted. For $240, the Canadian ordered two suits and shirts. Makwana would come by for a refitting on Thursday, and they would be done the morning after.

We took a cab north to the Chor Bazaar, the Thieves Market, where you can buy anything. The dirt lanes and dirty towers looked more like bits of Cairo than India. At some stalls, teams of Moslems, in knee-length sherwanis and trousers and little hats of white cotton, tore at old cars with their bare hands and had them dismantled into bit parts, and the sellable bits set aside from the repairable ones and the junk, in twenty minutes. Goats wandered around the streets. They would go home at night for food, and at Eid would be sacrificed. We had lunch at a street corner diner, then continued up to a sort of stadium surrounded by goats. A man had just slit the throat of a chicken, and it kicked around in a bucket making a lot of noise. We went out onto the street near the leatherworks—Muslims deal with most leather produced in India, though the Hindus will wear it—and bargained hard with a cab driver to take us back to familiar things.

The sun had almost set on the Gateway of India. A construction crew was busy setting up the scaffolding of a stage for the coming Independence Day celebrations, and we mixed with the tourists and hippies and con-men and beggars that flooded the forum. The girls asked for food, and refused money, to feed their families. One swooped in and tied a string of flower petals around my wrist before I knew what she was doing, and I untied them and gave them away to another beggar. The touts sold random things to the foreigners—tours or information, hash and weed and opium, and giant inflated balloons that served no purpose and that I never saw in the arms of anyone but an Indian. A snake charmer walked the crowd with his defanged cobra in a leather bag across his shoulder.

(A man sometimes danced down the street outside the Red Shield, flagellating himself with a leather whip so long it wrapped around him harmlessly, and his wife accompanied him on the flute like a cobra charmer, which as it happens was the man’s second profession. To those who look out the windows at this noisy spectacle, he stops and glares and shouts, “Throw down money!”)

As we left, the strain of the crowd too much for us, a Brahmin, in his saffron robes and his most meditative expression, approached with a partitioned tray. He said a prayer as he tied a red, orange, and gold cord of cotton around our right wrists, put sugar beads in open hands, and a red dot on our foreheads. Then the Brahmin held out his own hand for a Western blessing.

“You must give more than that,” cried a passerby. “He is a holy man, you must pay more. One-hundred each. No, hundred for each! He is a holy man! Hey!”

We paid a hundred rupees for both of us and wandered around the court, protestations at our back, and then down the arcade. On the way, we saw the Brahmin again, blessing two German girls with all but the third eye of the red dot. They paid ten each, when we asked them, and we were outraged. We asked them, “Where are you going in India? What are your plans?”

Several times, Indian tourists in collared shirts asked, “One photo please?” We posed, the hired photographer snapped a few, and they all departed, leaving us in confusion. Were we Westerners, gathered by habit around the British Gateway, a tourist attraction for Indians? The Hindu next to me, his round face dark as chocolate, said, “Those fucking people. They come from Varanasi. You know it? They are not from here. I am Maharashtran. My family is from here for twenty generations. They just come here. They come and the fucking Tamils come.” He told me, “I am Indian, but I am Maharashtran before I am Indian,” and called Gandhi “a fucking bastard of India” from South Africa.

Sachin Hande was born in South Africa (Gandhi in Gujarat) but he was a Marathi, a native of Maharashtra, a Hindu—like the men who killed the Mahatma in the streets of Delhi. “Look at that fucking girl,” he said as a beggar girl passed. “They are Maharashtran, and they are like that because of all the immigrants. They are Untouchables. You know what that means?” Sachin was also an Untouchable, like the old sweepers of Bombay who benefited so much from Gandhiji’s visits and support and from their liberation under Gandhi’s nation, yet once the Untouchables lay so far beneath the caste system that a devout Brahmin would not share an open road with one, much less a meal. If caught in the same room, ritual ablutions were sure to follow to cleanse the priest of the taint.

But Sachin was a Marathi and a Hindu before he was an Indian, and he hated Gandhi.

Later, another Marathi, the package wallah who wrapped up some things of mine for home in newspaper and sowed them shut in a linen sheet, told me that only 23 per cent of Mumbai was Marathi, and that, “the other seventy-seven, from outside!” Know that the Marathi speak the word “Outsider” with a sense of horror, as a Westerner might say, “Arab,” or as Joseph Conrad would say, “Other.” Such conversations are awkward to liberal outsiders. Few open-minds tolerate hatred. The German girls had left, and Tom and I finally excused ourselves to go nap when Sachin started shouting at Tom, “Ten thousand for two suits! Fuck! You got ripped off! I can get one suit for one thousand seven hundred! Fuck!”

“He-he-he, ho-ho-ho,” went the old man, as he had every day but Sunday for the last thirteen years. “Now,” he continued, “China laugh.” The old Indian had an audience in a spacious circle before him, and, by the gray light of the emerging sun, that gathering emulated his every move as he twisted clawed hands around and laughed, “Eee-heee-hee, eee-hee-hee! Now, Korean laugh,”—that was for the benefit of the attending Koreans,—“Ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha. Danish laugh!” He held his gut and laughed, “Oh-ho-ho, oh-ho-ho! American laugh. Yea-haw,” and he slapped his knee.

No jokes or slapstick prompted the laughter. It was an exercise in humor, a workout for the diaphragm and the smiling muscles, for the laughing man and his audience. The half-dozen laughing Hindu women bound up saris distinguished themselves as regulars by their energy and their knowledge of the leader’s softly spoken commands. There were two other Indians in the circle, and the rest were foreigners—three Koreans, the Danish couple Rasmus and Malacca, the two German girls from the promenade, an Italian globetrottress, Tom, Joe, and me.

We three were exhausted. The night before Tom and I went back to Leopold’s with Joe and Kathy, the pretty blonde German. “Midnight!” said the bespectacled receptionist with a surly sense of humor as we left the door of the hotel, and at our assurances that we would be back in time for the curfew, he only laughed. We had Kingfisher beers with the Polish cinematographer, and left with the intention to do something crazy. An hour later, we were strewn out on a stairway in the Red Shield, drawing pictures with Kathy’s graphite pencils and passing around bottles of Indian rum and port wine.

“One, two, three,” said the laughing man and his Hindu disciples,

Laughing is for me.
We are the Laughing Club of Mumbai!
Laughing is the best
Thing in the world.
We are the happiest
People in the world.
Laughter is the best
Medicine in the world.


So went the Laughing Club motto, and so the morning meeting adjourned, and we foreigners went to Bagdadi for channa masala and roti and chai. The Italian girl couldn't handle any more of the stuff, and said Indian food was all the same, just curries and flatbread. "All the same compared to what?" I asked, and I saw the cogs working as she tried to think of something else to say, something other than, "Italian food," but that's all that came out. The Italians, like the Turks, as the master races of cooking, tend to look down on the food of all other nations.

Tom, Joe, Rasmus, and I left the table early and in a rush, since we had booked a tour of the Dharavi Slums, the largest slums in Asia, and the ones in Slumdog Millionaire—and hesitantly, O Reader, since even we are not so inhuman as to be tourists of human misery! The tour guides knew the slum, had spent three months knowing the residents, and sponsored schools and programs in Dharavi with the money we paid them for the tours. Photography was forbidden. Rasmus’ girlfriend Malacca had taken the tour on one of her previous visits to India and recommended it.

We met Shiva and Ganesh, one our guide, the other our driver, in the Land Rover that would take us to the slums, and said hello to Reuben, a trauma surgeon from New York. Reuben had accrued vacation time and overtime, and instead of taking the offered money, he took six weeks off and bought a ticket to India with his already substantial funds. The five of us talked about netbooks and phones and things, and then Shiva pointed out some of the Chols, the long tenements built by textile workers when Bombay was a manufacturing city, in ordered lines and tightly spaced.

We passed a youth home for runaway teenagers, a series of two-story shacks built on the sidewalk by the Pavement Dwellers, and the tragedy of the Red Light District. Young girls, lured from India’s villages to Bombay by promises of good jobs in the city, are there bought by brothels and made to work off the debt of their purchase, held by force or by addiction to opiates. Only the ones who are close to freedom can stand out front. Those who buy themselves free see no opportunities for one so shamed and work at the brothels as matrons. “And look,” said Shiva at the end of the road, “a police station. The police can go to the girls for free, any time. Every once in a while there are raids, but they never catch anyone. One of the clients always warns the brothel that the police will come.”

The Dhobi Ghat is a washing compound north of TK train station. There were several dhobis throughout the city, but this one was largest. Two-thousand workers slapped clothes clean in a thousand vats of gray water, arrayed out like a V from the overpass where we stood gawking. Clotheslines obscured our view, hung with sheets and shirts to dry. Nobody owned the Ghat or managed it. The workers lived there and ran their own pools and washboards, conducted business with a few neighborhoods or hotels or businesses, picked up clothes from them, cleaned them in the compound, and dropped them off. The decentralization of the Ghat made it strangely efficient: clothes were never lost, because each man was personally responsible for his loads of laundry.

When the Reader considers that this human laundromat is in a country that is an IT superpower, has launched lunar missions and developed the atom bomb, he begins to grasp the strange contrasts that make India. Economists call it schizophrenic, with a tenth of the sub-continent advancing at a breakneck pace unknown in human history, banners of Nehru at the head of their rising waves, and the other ninth remaining poor and dirty and low-caste citizens of a world that consists entirely of the village or the neighborhood or the slum, under the low protective ceiling that Ghandi built. How does it stay together?

Ganesh stopped the car over a green, sickly looking swamp, with a sort of city on the other side of the road. It was the outside of Dharavi, where property moguls had built apartment complexes. The center was far too condensed for that. Dharavi was a city built on, with, and by the things that the world threw away. The foundations were garbage, the buildings shanties, the occupants the urban poor—but they represented a massive concentration of votes, so politicians promised them much and sometimes they had to follow through on those promises. That is how Dharavi got its water and electricity and sanitation, but it got its industry on its own.

One quarter was a man-powered recycling plant, a toxic dump of a business, based around a maze of dirty lanes and open sewers and dead-faced, glaring men. They earned between two and three dollars for their twelve hour shifts, then slept on the factory floor and mailed it all out to their country homes, where it was worth more. Inside the cobbled together factories, the workers shuffled around great vats and roaring fires, shoveling in aluminum shavings or plastic and breathing in the fumes. We climbed up from a factory onto the hot tin roof and looked out over that strange wasteland, contemplating the rising smog. “Well,” said Reuben, “it’s only twenty minutes off our life, give or take.” As for the workers, Shiva said none would not live long enough to see the side effects of the conditions.

They set the plastic with machines they made themselves and cut it into pellets, sorted by quality, to be molded into toys or keyboards by other factories. They cleaned out paint cans by putting them in kilns and burning out the excess paint, then applying a new label and sending them back to the paint manufacturer. The raw materials of their industry lay piled outside: old computer monitors, plastic jugs, empty paint cans and gas tanks, sacks of plastic shreds and crushed cans. Such waste came from India, but also from America and China, and the Dharavites built a city out of it.

We came to the slum’s main boulevard, a busy lane of traffic on foot and in auto-rickshaws, and took in the city outside the constrictive lanes of the factories. The buildings looked like impressions of buildings made from garbage. The people were happier and better dressed. They were professionals. Students, lawyers, doctors, technology specialists, and police officers (70 per cent of Mumbai’s force) lived there in Dharavi, because their family came from there or because they could not afford to live anywhere else in India’s most expensive city.

I followed Shiva into the tight warren, lanes shaded by the closely matched eves of the tenements and barely wide enough across for one man to walk, avoided the blue chemical waste of the sewers where they were open gutters, and peeked into the hovels where I could. My college dorm was larger, and families lived there, under a five-foot roof, with another family living in the second story, reached by a little ladder. Yet, they had carpets and pots and flat-screen televisions. The women wore sarees or burkas. Dharavi’s Hindus and Muslims lived in separate neighborhoods, but got along peacefully enough. The locals waved to us on their way to the store or working on some cottage industry, molding clay pots or rolling chapatis in the sun of little courtyards, and the children popped out in packs and screamed, “Hello!” The bolder ones shook our hands.

Later we came to a preschool, which was as distressing and as heartwarming as any preschool anywhere in the world. We moved on to a primary school. The students were studying for an exam, and we saw keyboards and computers on the open books. “These kids will write the operating system we’ll use in ten years,” said Reuben. We conversed about the rise of the Third World. The West hired China and India to make its junk, and the Asian nations used that money to make a middle-class of modern professionals. Most Americans have called an Indian for technical support, and more and more are going to Thailand and India for cheap therapeutic visits of competitive quality. “Once they have a middle-class of consumers,” said I, “the relationship is over.”

The tour concluded at the vocational school that organized it. An American volunteer was up teaching computer-related grammar to a group of Indians, who paid 50 rupees a week for the lessons and received all their money back if they finished the course. The owner, an energetic young Indian, came down to talk to us. “It's not about having a good time,” he said of the tour. “It's about understanding.” Ganesh was waiting outside. He drove the five of us back to Colaba, though he had to bribe a policeman on the way.

I slept nearly all day the next day, except for a brief excursion to Laxmi Vila for a newspaper and a grilled paneer, that is cheese, sandwich, and another for dinner at Bagdadi. Joe and Tommy and I went to Gokal afterwards, a seedy Indian bar down the street full of people who want no more company than a whiskey glass. Joe and I had $1 mugs of Kingfisher, with a chemical taste of some preservative that gave horrible headaches, and Joe talked about the months he spent teaching English in Taiwan, the openness of the Chinese, and the strangeness of that country's wild west.

I was weary of Bombay. Weighed down by the aggressive cries of the street-vendors, the hands of the beggars, the taxis that swerved in my way, the giant inexplicable balloons that salesmen pushed in my face, I found myself becoming bitter and mistrustful of the Indians, all of whom appeared to see me as a dollar sign or a photo opportunity. This annoyance was particular to Mumbai, I know, but it twisted me. Tom was also angered by our treatment and would complain later of a lack of compassion; but it is easy to lose your empathy when humans act so. It was time to move on from Bombay, a good city to visit, but four days are enough. I'd been there five.

Tom and I went with Joe to the Churchgate Train Station. He had a 30 hour trip to Delhi, and hopefully to a science writing job with an English paper. A Harry Potter book that someone pressed on him was his only company. "You know," he said, "I'm actually getting into it. I want to know what will happen." At the ticket office, a busy woman told us that the only train to Aurangabad not entirely book left in three hours. Tom and I bought our tickets, and reserved some for Goa for when we got back, and rushed around the city to be ready in time.

Comments

  1. Ms. McDonald27 January, 2010

    Wow! I can almost imagine the crush of people. I hope you find the other India more enchanting. Mom

    ReplyDelete
  2. Houses and cars are not cheap and not everybody can buy it. Nevertheless, personal loans are created to aid people in such hard situations.

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