Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 11: Mumbai)

Nov. 16-17, 2011

Sampling a huge city – and The Albatross finally takes wing

There is no way to see Mumbai in 1.5 days. Not even the important bits.

In addition to what I did see (info below. You can skip ahead to that if you like), I wanted to see (and still want to see): the University of Mumbai, the Crawford Market, the Chor Bazaar (“Thieves Market”), the inside of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (“The Taj”), the city’s business district (Nariman Point), the Cuffe Parade (an upscale shopping area), Malabar Hill and the Hanging Gardens. I wanted to see a cricket match (or at least part of one) at the Oval Maidan, walk at sundown on Chowpatty Beach, and visit a museum and an art gallery. After that, I wanted to start in on all the stuff I should see in Mumbai but didn’t even know I wanted to see.

Our train arrived at Mumbai’s Bandra Station on the morning of Wednesday, November 16, and we left again the next afternoon by plane for Goa. The reason our visit was so short was in part because Mumbai is expensive for a group of frugal travellers which meant, among other things, that our accommodation was fairly basic. However we made the best of the few hours we had – a dinner at a restaurant near the Leopold Café (which is now unfortunately famous for being one of the sites – along with the The Taj and the Oberoi Trident hotels, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station and several other buildings – that were targeted in the terrorist attacks in November, 2008, plus it also plays a significant role in the novel Shantaram, which several people have told me I must read) served the tastiest chicken biryani ever, which was a lovely coincidence as on the train I had just read in Arivand Adiga’s new novel about two older men who went out for dinner once a week and always ordered chicken biryani: they were in search of the best rendition in Mumbai. They didn’t know about this place we went to, clearly, or they could have stopped looking.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus)

Because I knew we wouldn’t have enough time in Mumbai to see all the places I wanted to see on the tour, I intended to come back after Goa, and had booked a hotel there for my final three nights in India. Unfortunately, a glitch arose with the company with which I had made preliminary plans to do walking tours of the city: after two exchanges of emails, they did not respond again when I attempted to actually book the tours I wanted. My emails to them must have started going into their spam folder, although at the time, when I heard nothing back in response to my increasingly worried messages, I thought maybe they had gone away from their computers for Dawali or were over-booked or something. I did not want to wander Mumbai on my own, and when I could not get hold of the company, I ended up cancelling my plan to return to Mumbai and stayed in Goa (which turned out very well as you will see in my second-to-final post, which is coming soon, believe it or not). But do I need to go back to Mumbai some day to see some of the many things I missed.

A Bit of History

Mumbai (known as Bombay from the mid-1600s until 1996) is a huge city. Originally an archipelago of seven islands, the main section of the metropolis covers 603 sq. km. or 233 sq. mi., and the population is 12 million – fourth largest of any city in the world, and most dense in population. The extended metropolitan area has 20 million residents, and I have read that 500 newcomers arrive in the city daily from other parts of India.

Mumbai is much more Western than the Indian cities we visited to the north—there are more women in western wear, actual adherence to traffic signs and road markings, more English is spoken, and the streets are cleaner and freer of cattle (I don’t think I saw any cattle in Mumbai, in fact). According to the entry at Wikipedia (from which I also got the population and area stats), Mumbai is the richest city in India, but it seems likely that most of each day’s 500 newcomers end up in the city’s extensive and now world-famous slums. Most of the Indian people I asked cannot imagine how the country’s growing prosperity will ever be of real benefit to its poorest citizens.

"public facilities"

The Mumbai region is believed by archeologists to have been occupied by humans since the Stone Age. Like many other parts of India, it has been ruled by invaders from a whole range of different cultures and nations, from Buddhists through various indigenous dynasties and Muslims to the Mughals and the Portuguese. The British had a significant role in the development of Mumbai as it is today (particularly South Mumbai) between the late 1600s when the British East India Company moved its headquarters to Bombay, until Independence in 1947.

How the other half live: The Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai

The British influence is clear in the Gothic Revival architecture of many of the buildings in the Colaba district of south Mumbai, including the aforementioned Taj Hotel (which I saw only from the outside, but my friends Naj and Mark went in there for a drink and brought back pictures. It looks extraordinarily opulent. You can take a virtual tour here), and the railway station (long known as Victoria Terminus, it is now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), as well as in many other hotels and other buildings in the downtown area.

What We Did See

Gateway of India

After dropping off our luggage at the hotel and eating breakfast, we went as a group on an “orientation tour” of Mumbai near the Gateway of India (completed in 1924, it is made of basalt and concrete and is a magnificent blend of Muslim and Hindu architectural styles). From there, about six of us set off by ferry for the Elephanta Caves, which I wanted to see, and a few others were interested in checking out as well.

The Elephanta Caves on Elephanta Island (named by the Portuguese for a colossal stone elephant found there that was later moved to the Bhau Daji Lad–formerly Victoria & Albert  – Museum in Mumbai) are about an hour by slow boat, churning through some of the most disgusting-looking sea water imaginable – cloudy and slippery-looking, with garbage and dead fish floating around in it, it resembles very bad soup. There was a marvelous view of the Mumbai skyline and the Gateway as we moved away from shore, and we passed some interesting looking ships and off-shore edifices, but those were about the only things to recommend the voyage to a group of people who were hot, tired, and short-tempered after the train ride the night before.

The walk in the hot sun from the arrival dock at Elephanta Island to the caves was long and tiresome – first along a jetty and then across a low dam (you can take a decorative train/shuttle, but we didn’t: it looked hot as well – and again I was thinking, if this is November, what would India in July be like?), then up a very long set of stone steps roofed in blue tarps. The steps were wide and lined along both sides with dozens of vendors who wanted us to buy buy buy . . .  everything from carved wooden and stone Ganeshis and other gods to t-shirts to jewelry to textiles. In addition to being generally irritable due to heat and weariness, most of us by then had just about had it with hawkers, and to add to the aggravation, the wildlife on Elephanta Island seemed to have turned on us—or at least on one member of our group, which unsettled the rest of us as well.

Mean Monkey

At the first snack vendor we came to after the ferry, most of us had bought water and pop and chips—our usual fare when we didn’t have Abhi with us to warn us what was safe to eat and what was not. Before we had even reached the tarp-shaded stairway, a crow had swooped down on Liam, normally an even-tempered and fun-loving song-writer from London, and taken an entire bag of potato chips he’d just opened right out of his hands and flapped away with it. He was not amused. Then, when we emerged  from the blue shade into an open area at the top of the stairway, a colony of aggressive monkeys came at us and one grabbed Liam’s open bottle of pop, not only “stealing” it but also drenching him, and leaving him with no snacks or fluids. By that point we were all worried about the monkeys (there were signs to warn us that they could be nasty), but we carried on.

Fortunately, the Elephanta Caves are both remarkable and cool – and, best of all, the monkeys seemed disinclined to come inside them. The columns and the carvings of gods and humans and animals within the caves date from between the sixth and seventh century, one group of them carved by Buddhists and another by Hindus. Some were damaged when the Portuguese arrived (a perhaps-apocryphal tale says that they fired a canon into the caves to ensure that the structure was stable and destroyed a lot of the carved columns in the process).

After about half an hour of touring the caves, which did not do them justice, we descended again to the docks and returned to the mainland. It was by now late afternoon, but on the way back to our hotel we took a bit of time to check out the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, which—modelled after St. Pancras Station in London—is magnificent, elaborate and huge. Outside, I ran into Naj and Mark and as the three of us stood snapping photos I thought about how interesting it was that all three of us came from countries that had been “colonized” by the British to various extents (they are from Australia and Ireland respectively, and I’m Canadian), and that there we were in India – which has also had more than its share of British rule. Still, the Brits did know how to build a spectacular building (and railway system, for that matter).

I Bid Adieu (but not Farewell) to The Albatross

The Albatross, on arrival in Toronto (I whited out my street address so no one sends me any other albatrosses)

At the General Post Office (GPO) in Mumbai, I finally got rid of the package that so many of us have now come to know as “The Albatross.” I promise the “big reveal” of photos of its contents in the final installment of this blog. (I’m not being coy. I simply can’t bring myself to open it, even though it has now been sitting in my living room for two weeks.)

As I mentioned several months ago, I had read in my Rough Guide: “Sending a parcel from India can be a performance. First take it to a tailor to have it wrapped in cheap cotton cloth, stitched and sealed with wax. Next, take it to the post office, fill in and attach the necessary customs forms, buy your stamps, see them franked and dispatch it. Surface mail is incredibly cheap and takes an average of six months to arrive – it may take half or two times that, however.”

On the morning of the 17th of November, after being told by the front desk staff at the hotel that the small post office down the street would not be able to handle my big bundle, I took a taxi to the GPO downtown. The taxi driver, a man who has been picking up fares from in front of the Hotel Supreme on Panday Road almost every day for 30 years, he told me, took the personal interest in my welfare that I found so frequently in India. He was very kind: he knew exactly what I needed to do to get the Albatross out of my life for a while, and he was going to make sure I got it done. As a bonus, he pointed out local sights as we drove by them.

When we arrived at the post office – yet another enormous, impressive building  (why did I choose that day to leave my camera at the hotel? The whole experience was fascinating and photo-worthy. Now I need to go back to Mumbai so can I mail something else, and take pictures), my driver led me across the street (St. George, I think) to a row of booths where men were arranging the complex preparation of parcels for shipment for a few hundred rupees per parcel (about $5)  prior to their being taken to the post office.  One of the specialties of these packagers (I shall call them parcel wallahs, although I’m not sure if this term is correct or not) is the sewing of cloth wrappers for parcels to be mailed, and they weren’t impressed that I’d brought my own cloth wrapper, which had been quickly sewn together for me in Jaipur when I bought the things inside it. They felt their cloth would have been superior, and I am sure it would: I promised to use their system next time.

A senior parcel wallah then set to work with a very long needle and thick white thread to sew the package more securely so that the corners did not flap as they had when I handed it to him, when the parcel had been more like a small pillow inside a large closed pillow-case, which made the whole thing easier to carry around India because I could make a knot of the top of it. (I have read online that the sewing of packages is primarily to prevent pilfering, but it also makes them smooth and taut for shipping). After that, the parcel wallah filled out part of a customs form and then got me to fill in the rest of the information. He also gave me a felt pen so I could put my “return” address in India on one side of the package, and my home address on the other.

Then he got up from behind his bench and took me across the street (where my taxi was parked, its driver patiently waiting). He came into the post office with me and led me up to a wicket at the far end of the enormous main foyer of the GPO (25,000 served a day), where we waited together for at least ten minutes for a postal worker’s computer to start working again. (No one ever seems to charge for waiting in India, which is amazing because there is so much of it.) Finally the system came back on-line and the postal worker weighed my package and determined the cost of shipping.

It turned out I did not have enough rupees with me to pay the postage, and the post office took neither American money or VISA. So the parcel wallah patiently led me back out of the post office, back across the busy street, and returned me to the packaging area, where he sent one of his coworkers away with the $50 U.S. I had given him. (Interestingly, I felt no concern – I knew he’d come back with the change, and he did, within a few minutes, having even managed to get a good exchange rate for me.) The parcel wallah then led me back to the postal wicket where, at last, to my utter amazement, the Albatross was taken from me and tossed into a big bin. I actually didn’t care if it took six months to get back to Canada. I gave the parcel wallah a big tip. Well, “big” by Indian standards: another couple of hundred rupees.

My grandson and me with the Albatross - so you can see the size of it

(Note: As it turned out, it was only two weeks after I returned from India before the Albatross came back to me. When it arrived at my apartment, I missed the Canada Post delivery worker because I was in the shower. This meant that I had to walk five blocks to the postal outlet and carry the damned parcel home through the streets of Toronto with my arms wrapped around it. Seemed inevitable somehow that it should end that way.)

Despite the long wait, my taxi driver charged me no more than his original quote to get me back to the hotel (and when we arrived, I gave him a tip as well). As we drove back—with me feeling like I’d been released from some sort of bondage—he explained to me at some length why arranged marriages are a good thing. I thought he made some excellent points.

More photos from Mumbai can be found by clicking here

2 responses to “Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 11: Mumbai)

  1. Great post! Always nice to see a post on your city…we are from Mumbai and it is great to know that you could see some part of this crazy, but lovely city. However, we think that there is more in Mumbai to experience than to see….hopefully when you come back the next time you will have more time at hand!

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