A Wet Reality – Mumbai During the Monsoon Season

My first impressions of Mumbai were gained by driving from the airport to the hotel in the dark – not a great deal of impression at all. So I had to wait until morning to get my first glimpse of the Indian sub-continent. Throwing the curtains open once the sun had risen, I was greeted with a lush, green landscape, manicured front lawns and the misty mystique of the distant hills, typical of many British TV period dramas set in this ex-colony. It was time to go and explore!

Checking with the concierge about the state of the weather, he informed me that all roads were open and that they didn’t expect the weather to be as bad as Saturday. Liar!!! But taking him on his word, I climbed into a taxi, negotiated a fee of 1300 Rupees ($30) for the whole day and proceeded to point at various pictures in my Mumbai City Guide of places I wanted to visit, as way of communication with Sant Singh, my taxi driver.

Shortly after leaving the hotel, the monsoon put on a demonstration of its power. The amount of water is unbelievable and as one wry commentator stated in the newspaper, when it rains “everything in Mumbai goes down the drain except the water”. And it is so true. It doesn’t take long for this city, which sits at sea level, to begin to fill up. Soon we were driving through foot high flooded roads, huge pot-holes and, at times, no road at all – it had simply been swept away – two sections of “motorway” separated by a stretch of rubble, mud and randomly strewn boulders and rocks. It was a real obstacle course. And the most amazing thing is that no one really seems to take any notice.

The drive from my hotel to the center of Mumbai is about 25 miles and, this being a Sunday, the journey took about 45-minutes. I was lucky – on a weekday the same trip, I have been told, takes between three and four hours! So traffic was light today. Driving through the outskirts of Mumbai, one begins to feel the oppressive size of this city filled with 20 million people. And with a tremendous shortage of housing, every available space is taken up with ramshackle, improvised and, literally, thrown together dwellings. Where there are apartment buildings, they are built so close together that window mounted air conditioning units almost touch in the void between one building and the next. Piles of refuse litter the roadside, coming to life with stray dogs, scavenging birds and the odd person, seemingly looking for any reusable scrap. And then I saw my first cow.

These are not the pretty painted ones that appear magically in Boston and London each summer, but real, live, wild beasts. I have always known that the cow is a sacred animal in India and have often seen pictures of lazy bovines sauntering through crowded streets. But nothing prepares you for the actual sight of these huge creatures lying, standing or walking around the congested road system of a large metropolitan city. Many of them look ill, some even look dead but most just stand there, bewildered and seemingly in a perpetual state of confusion, possibly wondering how the hell they got there in the first place. I am not sure who feeds these animals or if they simply have to forage in the filth like everything else, but for all the deification of these poor creatures, they really do not look at all cared for – a very sad spectacle.

Driving into Colaba, the financial and tourist heart of Mumbai, the rain began to get even worse (if that was possible) so I cancelled my plans to visit the first photo I had pointed at (the ornate train station) and revised my itinerary by pointing at another picture – the Prince of Wales Museum. Climbing out of the car I was instantly drenched in a warm, sticky and not all that unpleasant deluge of treacle like rain.

In the same manner as a Brit abroad speaks English just a little bit louder in order to be understood by a foreigner, so the architecture in this lost British empire seems to represent a false grandeur of what the British aristocracy deemed appropriate for a conquered nation. Drawing on 17th century Arabic and Asian designs, “Indian” buildings erected by people named Steven and George become a caricature of a past beauty, with all influences from these simpler eras garishly mixed into one uniquely colonial form. The museum I was entering was no exception. With turrets and golden domes, gothic outcrops and sophisticated Arabic arches, this museum housed some beautiful sculptures and paintings from antiquity of various gods such as Siva, Bhrama and the gentle, pot-bellied Ganesh. However, after about an hour, hearing the rain stop I curtailed my indoor tour and decided to head outside while I still could.

Next stop was the Gateway of India – a huge archway complete in 1924, to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. A massive stone edifice, anachronistically placed in the middle of absolutely nowhere, it almost made me feel like breaking into patriotic song with a rendition of “Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules the Waves!” But I didn’t. And anyway, I was being accosted by enough people at the time to risk drawing even more attention to myself. While the place was packed, I seemed to be the only non-Indian there, so I was an easy mark. I was photographed, prayed for, sold balloons to, offered every form of handy snack imaginable and am sure at one stage, I was even worshipped – all of course in the expectant return of cash. Fighting my way through this growing entourage, I took some snap shots and fled, having been fleeced of only a few dollars.

Walking towards a handicraft market, a local stopped me and pointed strangely at my head. Being a wise and experienced traveler, I ignored him, quickened my pace and moved on. He shouted out some words to the effect that there was something about my person he wanted to remove. I kept walking. About 15 minutes later, in a crowded street, a second stranger seemed to reenact this odd behavior and, similarly, I ignored him, physically having to push my way onwards. Walking through any market like this requires the ability to literally fight your way through the endless stream of stall owners vying for your attention. However, it was when a third person stopped me in a quiet side street a good half-hour later and simply stated that there was something in my ear, that I began to take notice of maybe what people were trying to tell me.

I put my hand to my ear but could feel nothing. “Where?” I asked. He pointed towards my ear once again. Feeling around I still could not locate anything unusual and having seen probably the largest cockroach in the history of the world the night before, I suddenly had an irrational fear containing eggs and larvae and all things science fiction. Approaching me, this teenager said in passable English that he would remove it for me and then proceeded to dig something out of my ear using a small tooth pick like device. Triumphantly, he showed me the end of the toothpick, which now had a huge glob of sticky wax-like gloop on the end of it. Smearing this on his finger he proceeded to dissect the yucky substance until he dug out a small stone. Suddenly, the plot of every horror movie ran through my mind with aliens bursting from my belly and worms exiting every orifice. “What’s it from?” I asked. “Sand,” he said, before diving into my other ear to retrieve more of the invasive material. I couldn’t believe what was happening since I have never had any ear problems in my life and actually make it a point, using a cotton bud, to clean my ears every morning. So this incredibly rapid build-up of gunk was, indeed, alarming.

Then my good Samaritan opened his little shoulder pack and took out some tissue and cotton wool and offered, while retrieving a bottle from his bag, to put some drops in my ear to clear the problem up once and for all. I immediately thought that it was incredibly fortuitous that he should conveniently be carrying around a box of tissues, a packet of cotton wool and the required medication. I declined forcefully!

Due to tiredness or whatever, I didn’t really seem to put together the myriad of clues as to where this was all going. However, it was when he asked for 900 Rupees for the treatment that I suddenly realized that the whole thing was an elaborate, intricate and perfectly planned scam (of which all the other strangers were similarly trying to spring on me). Through slight of hand, he had the wax prepared on the end of the toothpick and like the famous magic trick of making a coin appear from behind your ear, had me at the reveal. I gave him 10 Rupees for a trick well executed (and to make him go away) and left feeling angry with myself for falling for the oldest scam in the book! The whole episode took about three minutes and was sublimely surreal. It was time for lunch.

A flight attendant on my journey from Paris took it upon herself to engage me in a monologue about all the great restaurants in Mumbai. One of her favorites was a downtown eatery called Leopold. Walking down one of the main thoroughfares, I happened upon this bustling lunch stop and since the heavens had now opened up once again, took refuge inside. Noisily filled will locals and tourists, I spotted the entire Air France crew sitting at a long table at the back and after saying hello to them, squeezed myself into a corner seat. The meal was so-so but at least it was fresh and authentic…and cheap. Leaving the restaurant, I did some haggling at the tourist stalls, purchasing a few mementos for almost nothing. However, the rain continued in such a ceaseless sheet of thick water that I felt it was about time to return to the dry sanctuary of my hotel.

I found my taxi where I had left it and off we went towards the north with every item of my damp clothing steaming in the air-conditioned atmosphere. Sant took the coastal road on the way back and what amazed me most was that the beaches were packed! Despite the rain, people promenaded along the wide sidewalks, the occasional umbrella being used like a parasol rather than for protection. Young couples sat on the beach wall hand-in-hand, elderly couples ambled along in a relaxed silence, groups of youths laughed and teased each other while others merely stood still, watching the violent waves. And all of this during a constant, heavy and thunderous downpour. Being an island city, there is nowhere to expand, so housing it at an absolute premium. Walking past some open windows earlier, I spied the sub-standard conditions that the majority of the population live in: ten people crammed in spaces normally reserved for one with little division between areas set aside for sleeping, cooking or ablution. I, too, would prefer to stand on a crowded, muddy beach getting soaked by the rain.

And so the hour-long drive continued, passing by the now familiar shanty-towns with people in every nook-and-cranny, all trying merely to make it from day to day. I would love to see this city in the bright sunshine and have the ability to truly look around this foreign land filled with a wonderful and exciting history. But the relentless rain really prevented that. Even Alexander the Great was defeated by the monsoon, packing up and returning home in 326 BC, having become so depressed by the constant wetness. So I didn’t feel too guilty as I walked through the doors of my hotel and headed up to my room for a well-earned hot shower and a refreshing cup of tea.

A strange postscript to this odd day happened around dinnertime. The one element I hate about traveling for business is eating in restaurants alone, so when not with clients or colleagues, I tend to order room service. However, tonight the promise of delectable offerings from this wonderful hotel’s broad range of restaurants was too good to ignore and I headed down to the “coffee shop”, which in reality is a sumptuous buffet of freshly cooked Indian dishes, wild spices and some amazing desserts. Sitting down at a table, the waiter came along and gently placed a small fish bowl in front of me with a little Goldfish in it, swimming around in circles. “This is Louise,” introduced the waiter, “she’s here to keep you company while you eat!” And with that, he left the two of us alone to become acquainted. Staring at the fish staring back at me, both of us with our mouths agape, I didn’t really know whether to laugh or burst into tears. However, it was actually a nice touch and Louise and I had a charming and delightful dinner together and parted on very good terms.

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