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A Geo-Tourism Smackdown: Reality vs.

the Guidebooks

A Day in Bombay

by Nancy Dowling Photos by Tom Niccum

Before my trip to India, I read the guidebooks – Lonely Planet, Footprints, Rough Guide. I knew what to expect in an abstract, theoretical way -- kind of like reading a recipe rather than eating the dish -- but when it came right down to it, I was unprepared for reality. Which is exactly what I wanted. Guidebooks can be all over the map: accurate down to the last detail, or totally offthe-mark. But you never know until you touch down and see things with your own corneas. As our jet came in for a landing in the middle of the night, I was excited to set foot on Indian soil (and I mean SOIL) for the first time. Nothing was visible on final approach except millions of specks of light. Would Bombay be like any other city I had visited before? I was eager to see. Stepping off the plane onto the tarmac, I thought, “Oh my god, the city is on fire!” Inhaling this bitter air reminded me of leaning too far over a bonfire to retrieve a fallen marshmallow. But here, there was no leaning back! Then I remembered something. Weeks before, when I had checked the weather from the US (noon there – midnight in Bombay), the forecast said “Smoke.” Like this:
Right Now for Bombay, India Save this Location 73°F Feels Like 73°F UV Index: Wind: Humidity: Pressure: Dew Point: Visibility: 0 Low From NNW at 6 mph 61% 29.88 in. 59°F 2.5 miles


Updated Dec 21 07:40 p.m. Local Time

Scroll down for satellite map

Not “Partly Smoky” or even “Rain with Light Smoke.” Nope. Just “Smoke.” What kind of a place is this where even the weather is man-made? That‟s not “weather”! What‟s the deal? Luckily, there‟s no conflagration at all. Unluckily, it‟s pervasive smoke from cooking fires -- and it happens every night. With 18 million people here, a few million dinners are being cooked the old-fashioned way over kindling. So the lungs have to deal with horrible smog by day, and this intense smoke by night. I pity the lungs.

We get in line at the taxi window at the terminal. We ask a Brit ahead of us if this service is legit, and he says yes, “but watch closely to see the fare amount they write down.” We arrange our ride, air-conditioned. We check and they haven‟t scammed us. With a vague gesture, they shoo us toward the exit. We stand outside a while, and then realize that no one is going to pick us up. Better ask. We show our slip to one of the many loitering drivers and he waves us toward a car with our number on it. Our driver is inside, sound asleep. With a few loud bangs on the hood, our driver is roused. His square little black and yellow taxi looks like something from 1950‟s France. The luggage barely fits in the tiny trunk. My husband‟s head grazes the ceiling. Seatbelts? Dream on. And the A/C is looking dubious too. Pre-departure, I had scoffed at this guidebook warning, which I put in the “needlessly alarmist” category: Due to the massive slum encampments and bodies of stagnant water around the airports, both Chatrapathi Shivaji and Sant Cruz are major malaria blackspots. Clouds of mosquitos await your arrival in the car park, so don‟t forget to smother yourself with strong insect repellent before leaving the terminal.

But it was true. As we sat in the taxi, I was swatting mosquitos until I got every last one. Then we rolled up the windows most of the way. Driving through Bombay in the middle of the night, the city looked especially grim. Not much wattage illuminating the storefronts. Lots of men milling about. Lots of bodies sleeping on streets, wrapped in raggy shrouds to keep warm (in this 70 degree temp) and protect against rats and mosquitos. On some blocks, there were as many bodies as there were shopfronts. I tried to imagine how terribly hard the concrete felt, especially to a body with little padding. My imagination failed me. (This would happen a lot on this trip, but I would persist.) But the guidebooks offered an explanation: One third of the population live in Bombay‟s desperately squalid chawls of cramped, makeshift and miserable hovels. There are also many thousands of pavement dwellers.

Each day, hundreds of economic refugees pour into Bombay from the Maharashtran hinterland. Some find jobs and secure accommodation; many more (around a third of the total population) end up living on the already overcrowded streets, or amid the appalling squalor of Asia‟s largest slums, reduced to rag-picking and begging from cars at traffic lights. We get to our hotel and crash.

In the morning light, this part of the city (Colaba) looks fairly prosperous. Then again, we‟re in the hotel section where Westerners stay. Buildings are in good shape and there are palm trees and decent cars driving around. We‟re not far from the premiere five-star hotel in Bombay, the Taj Mahal Intercontinental. On the way to lunch, we wander through its posh lobby. The guidebook said that this place is… …the preserve of visiting diplomats, sheikhs and Bombay‟s jet-set. Lesser mortals are allowed in to sample the opulent tea-shops and restaurants.

Its patron, the Parsi industrialist J.N. Tata, is said to have built the old Taj as an act of revenge after he was refused entry to what was then the best hotel in town, the “whites only” Watson’s. More on the Parsis and Mr. Tata (a Parsi himself) --and his trucks-- later. We‟re headed to a little restaurant a few blocks behind the Taj. guidebooks says: One of the

Male-dominated place famous for its meat: mostly mutton and chicken steeped in spicy garlic sauce. But another one says:

Warning: Drug addicts, drunks and prostitutes frequent the area behind the hotel; exercise caution.

Wrong! Not a single junkie, wino or hooker in sight. Caution be damned. There‟s a wait for a table at the Bagdadi Café. As we hang around outside, we see a homeless family sitting nearby in the street. The woman is thin and barefoot, and suddenly I notice that she‟s about 8 months pregnant. My stomach sinks. Man, I had never thought of a pregnant street person before. Where will she give birth? Her young daughter (about four) approaches and taps my arm gently, then motions with hand to mouth and says, “Milk” and points to the store across the street. She does this over and over to each of us. We ignore her as politely as possible and talk about how awful it is that we have to ignore her. Meanwhile, if I sold the sunglasses around my neck on Ebay, I could feed her family for a week. Inside the Bagdadi, the ambience is on par with an old high school cafeteria. Service is fast. Very crowded. Males dominate. Coke is served in glass bottles,

with a straw bobbing in it (just like on “Happy Days”!) We have some delicious chicken curry, so I beg to differ with the book‟s “garlic sauce” description. The walls are dingy and bare, except for one Notice Board. The code of conduct here is strict! Achtung, Baby!

Got it? No drunks making a nuisance asking for a 2nd Time Lemon for free! I‟m stuffed. I don‟t clean my plate and feel a bit guilty. How strange to think back at this moment to my mom‟s old chiding about “starving children in India.” But this time, they‟re right outside the door. Walking back to our hotel, from the sidewalk I glance sideways and see a man sleeping on the concrete – all my eyes catch are his face (two yellow teeth protruding from each side of his closed mouth) and an infant sleeping next to him on a blanket.

Lying in bed that night I think of all the things the little street children (fetus, infant, toddler) will never experience – a comfy bed, a warm bath, carefree play at a park, a full stomach at night, a stuffed animal to hug, a feeling of safety, knowledge of the world, travel to someplace better, a dream for the future, a way out. Again, my powers of imagination fail me. I just can‟t conceive of what their existence really is. We decide to go into the heart of the city, to the Chor (“Thieves”) Bazaar. We get into a tiny taxi again. On the way, we stop at a light and a begging man with no shirt approaches our windows. He‟s about 5‟ 7” and weighs maybe 70 lbs. He‟s really skinny, but not Auschwitz skinny. He just looks like a pre-teen boy with a man‟s head. The streets are crazy with taxis, cars, motorcycles, scooters, pedestrians, stray dogs, and very skinny cows. All the trucks are the Tata brand (he of the Taj Hotel). (I will soon come to learn that the monopoly-happy Tata dude makes everything in India -- from lipstick to computers to washing machines). Riding through these streets is like being in a Hollywood chase scene with 100 near-misses. Dodge the fruit cart! Glance off the bicycle! Race past the belching bus! Watch out for the mother with babe-in-arms! Avoid the limping pedestrian! Mind the lazy cow!

Everyone‟s in a hurry. Every bumper is a millimeter away from the vehicle ahead of it. It‟s chaos, but organized chaos. The arcane rules of “right of way” must be telepathic – especially in the roundabouts. Two cars with seemingly equal standing, racing toward a collision course, yet one concedes at the last second. What

determines the priority? Is it strength of will? Gross vehicle weight? The Eviler Eye? Decibel range of honk? Alphabetical by last name? Have I mentioned the cows? They wander. Along the gutters, into busy intersections – wherever they please. They rummage through piles of urban garbage, which look to contain about 10% edible matter. They‟re sacred, but not sacred enough to be granted a cushy life of endless grazing on Old McGupta‟s Farm. For dessert, the cows really enjoy munching the odd political poster half-peeled off a concrete wall. (“Mmm, that Sonia Gandhi photo really tops off a trashy meal!”) They become just another traffic obstacle, though a bit less predictable than the humans, perhaps. I wonder if the cows grok this mysterious “right of way”? Bombay always feels like it is about to burst at the seams.

Right on, Brother! As I step out of the taxi at our destination, I look down and see a dead rat with its mouth gaping wide. Three feet away, an old lady is sitting streetside sorting out a huge pile of yellow flower petals for the market. From dead rats to flower petals – that about sums up the vast spectrum that is India! In the Chor Bazaar, lots of men are polishing, pounding, and sitting around not selling anything. The shack-like storefronts are all dilapidated -- cobbled together from cement, plaster, wood and the ubiquitous corrugated metal. Check out the cultural diversity in this guy‟s inventory:

The bazaar is not bustling at all, and we‟re the only Westerners in sight. Not enough customers (correction – “suckers”) to go around. The guidebook was dead on with this editorial comment: Once, you could hope to unearth real gems in these dark, fusty stores, but your chances of finding a genuine bargain nowadays are minimal. Most of the stuff is pricey Victoriana – old gramophones, chamber pots, chipped china – salvaged from the homes of Parsi families on the decline.

Again with the Parsis! OK, maybe you know them better as Zoroastrians, founded by Zarathustra. (Remember when he “thus spake” the theme song to Kubrick‟s Space Odyssey?) The Parsis are a religious sect that‟s centered in Bombay. It‟s hard to forget about them after you read about their funeral rites: If you know only one thing about the Parsis, it is probably that they dispose of their dead by leaving the corpses on top of tall cylindrical enclosures for their bones to be picked clean by vultures. Recently, Parsis have been debating whether to switch to electric cremation as a sound, and more sanitary, alternative – supposedly because scraps of human flesh discarded by the over-fed vultures have been appearing on balconies, rooftops and gardens near the towers. And there are plenty of vultures hovering over Mutton Street. I sure hope they don‟t have “dropsy.” Anyway, back to our bizarre bazaar already in progress… At one intersection of alleyways, men are dismantling old cars and scooters for parts. One guy is chiseling something metal apart by holding it between his feet (clad only in flip-flops). All the resulting parts get thrown into a giant heap. Can you find the two Waldos in this photo?

Goats are everywhere, tied on very short leashes to stay put. The shop-owners have scrounged up a few branches of greenery for them to eat. God only knows where they found it, since there‟s not a tree in sight. Some of the men are chewing betel nut, and their spit looks like blood. A boy comes along, pushing a wooden cart from which he sells peanuts roasted in a wok. The flame is roaring. And for him, this will be an eternal flame, lasting the rest of his cart-pushin‟ life. We return to our hotel. In the lobby, a man is wiping the floor on his hands and knees with a rag. This is my introduction to the Efficiency Vacuum that is India. No mops, no push brooms, no wheelbarrows, no ergonomic tools. Even something as routine as a shovel has a two-foot handle, forcing the user into a crippling posture. Instead of efficient implements, there are brooms made from bundles of dried straw, shallow pans for carrying rocks atop your head (road construction), and when the going gets tough – an elephant for heavy lifting. Back in the hotel room, I turn on the TV and surf through the channels: cricket, music video, cricket, news, soap opera, music video, cricket, music video, news. This country is crazy for cricket (ours is not to question why) and music videos. The latter feature groups of dancers -- often outdoors amid backdrops of ocean, fields or mountains -- choreographed with great synchronicity. All the pop songs are in a minor key, but they are very catchy, with hypnotic choruses. In more than one, the female Love Interest is being drenched by rain as she belts out the Big Number. Lover Boy soon appears on the scene, and then the rest of the group joins in. Everyone seems to be having excellent fun. On the local news, not in English, the lead story is about a man with elephantiasis. Great – another reason to fear mosquitos, since that‟s how this hideous parasite is

spread. The poor victim had a lower leg the size of a thigh. Hmm, why was this the lead story for six o‟clock? I hope it‟s because it‟s rare. Another commercial features the McAloo Tikki at McDonald‟s. Per the website, this sandwich is “a fried breaded potato & peas patty that is flavoured with a special spice mix, fresh tomato slices, onion, and veg. tomato mayonnaise between toasted buns.” Yum, eh?

On another TV station I see the trailer for a new Bollywood hit coming soon. Get ready kids, it‟s Hanuman - The Movie! What‟s that, you say? Hanuman who? India‟s great monkey god, Hanuman, features in the Ramayana as Rama‟s chief aide in the fight against the demon-king of Lanka. Rama is the seventh of Vishnu‟s ten incarnations and the story of his life unfolds in the epic Ramayana.

Depicted as a giant monkey clasping a mace, Hanuman is the deity of acrobats and wrestlers, but is also seen as Rama and Siva‟s greatest devotee, and an author of Sanskrit grammar.

What a fun religion! Contrast this with Western culture for a moment – what Christian hero could Hollywood make a great cartoon film about? Davey and Goliath? They‟re so 1962. Archangel Gabriel? He gets some points for flying ability, but scores low in charisma. Hold those guys up against this dude and his promotional photo ops. He‟s got the coy poses and the menacing moves:

Face it -- this little monkey-man has it all: adorable looks, super powers, and a legend that dates back 3,000 years! The next morning, we head back to the airport for departure. Leaving the core of the city, the streets are a little less hectic than yesterday, because it‟s early in the morning. All along Marine Drive (the name makes it sound SO non-polluted), there‟s a wide embankment (a concrete “boardwalk”) and a few men are slowly jogging, dressed in street clothes and street shoes. I personally wouldn‟t dare do anything aerobic here, for fear of inhaling feisty carcinogens that would overtake my bronchial tubes in seconds. But I can see where the locals would prefer the breeze off the Arabian Sea (creamy style) to the air of the inner city (chunky style). For the first time, I see a few (obviously) pet dogs on leashes. Pet dogs tend to be white (not tan), and the females lack the giant nipples so noticeable on strays -resulting from their duties as perpetual suckling machines. But I don‟t see what the guidebook said I would on the embankment (perhaps because it isn‟t evening):

Evening sees servants walking their bosses‟ Pekinese or poodles and children playing under the supervision of their ayas (nannies). Innumerable couples materialize to take romantic strolls down to the beach, stopping on the way to buy from a peanut vendor or to pay off a hijra (eunuch) (see p. 195), threatening to lift up his sari and reveal all.

What? A eunuch threatening to expose himself to strolling couples? I cannot turn to page 195 fast enough!

Every country in the world has its share of transvestites, hermaphrodites and sexual ambivalents, but rarely do they play such a prominent social role as India‟s eunuchs – the hijras. Numbering well over 400,000, the hijras have been around for centuries. The hijras gather in clans that supplant the ties of family and caste renounced at initiation, and usually live in well-defined territories within major cities. Most hijras are effeminate, since castration results in hormonal changes, but they are not by definition homosexual. They are easy to recognize, gaudily made-up, unusually tall and often making crude gestures, and their dances to harsh rhythmic music are unmistakeably sexual. Some earn their living as temple beggars or prostitutes, but most dance and sing at weddings and births, being paid badhai (tips) either to pronounce blessings or simply to go away.

Can this be for real? Actually, yes. (Hey, there‟s too much detail there for it to be made-up.) In fact, I know people who have seen them at Indian weddings. But I would like to have seen them myself, walking tall „n gaudy on the embankment. And here‟s another Bombay character I wish I could have seen in action -- the dabawallah:

Every day, around 1000 dabawallahs deliver freshly cooked food from 160,000 suburban kitchens to offices in the downtown area. Each lunch is prepared early in the morning by a devoted wife or mother, while her son is enduring the crush on the train. She arranges the rice, dhal, subzi, curd and parathas into cylindrical aluminum trays, stacks them on top of one another, and clips them together with a neat little handle. This ain‟t no Partridge Family metal lunchbox. It‟s sleek and hi-tech (in a low-tech sort of way):

When the runner calls to collect it in the morning, he uses a special colour code on the lid to tell him where the lunch has to go. At the end of his round, he carries all the boxes to the nearest railway station and hands them over to other dabawallahs for the trip into town. Between leaving the wife and reaching its final destination, the tiffin box will pass through at least half a dozen different pairs of hands, carried on heads, shoulder-poles, bicycle handlebars and in the brightly decorated handcarts that plough with such insouciance through the midday traffic. Tins are rarely, if ever, lost – a fact recently reinforced by Forbes magazine, which awarded Bombay‟s dabawallahs a 6-Sigma performance rating, the score reserved for companies who attain a 99.9999 percentage of correctness. This means that only one tiffin box in 6 million goes astray, in efficiency terms putting the illiterate dabawallahs on a par with bluechip firms such as Motorola.

But I just pontificated about an Efficiency Vacuum! And now these guys come along and shatter my cultural stereotype. Hmm… needs more research. Maybe on my next visit, I‟ll watch them in action at the train station. If they‟ll let me. (“Away with you, crass American gawker! We‟re Six Sigma now!”) I really hope to return someday, if only for another 36-hour stint. But for this visit, time‟s up. Time to blast off to other parts of this mind-boggling subcontinent.