“An individual-to-individual callousness… is still so strong in the country that it is the greatest danger for a foreigner living in India, for it is a frighteningly easy thing to find it creeping into one’s soul.”
A. M. Rosenthal, The Future in Retrospective
I stepped, not looking, and slid; swayed backwards, snapped forward, and stopped. A smear of yellow brown behind me led to a large, fresh, now trampled, cowpat. It had been spread thickly over my sandal, and, despite thinning at the heel, continued up to reach my calf. A nearby woman – wrinkled, squatting, bony arms wrapped around her bony knees – noticed me: tall, white, with a soiled foot raised gingerly for inspection; she grimaced, then spat.
Khar Road had surprised us. The area, ten stops north of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai’s epicentre, is ugly: a sprawl held messily together by a busy suburban rail station. A few mildewed hotels have assembled near the station – including Hotel Samrat, our hotel, at the long end of the motley strip. It offered a service so identical to its neighbour that the two hotels shared one reception area. Inside, different men staffed different desks.
Mumbai, Claire and I had thought, was an easy way to enter India. It was said by Paul, the wild haired Kiwi, to not be properly an Indian city, because there were no cows to obstruct its traffic. Proper or not, it was India’s largest, most cosmopolitan city, and this appealed to us; it eased our fear of an anticipated shock: of a vast unknown, of abject poverty and assured stomach infections. Mumbai, after all, had not long ago been Bombay, an entirely British invention.
But Paul was wrong: herds of cattle roamed Khar’s streets. The animals were large, horns long and haphazardly twisted, or small, with the stubby, pointed horns of imps. Owners milked and presumably fed the cows each morning. Then, allowed to wander, the animals snuffled amongst Mumbai’s festering waste and watched shopkeepers; shopkeepers – particularly the men who spent long days standing in the street, behind carts laden with fruit – watched the cows, because, able to spot an unmanned stall, they might lumber over, and, tongues flapping spittle, gleefully help themselves.
The cows are sacred – to extract a blessing, Hindus occasionally offered a treat, touched the animal’s forehead and then their own – and have equal right to pavements and roads.
Outside Khar’s station was a small traffic circle, serving three roads. Auto-rickshaws – modified scooters with two rear wheels and a black canvas top – lined up at this circle, to wait for fares. Disembarked train passengers flooded its boundary, the pavement, demarcated by informal shops. Stray dogs – and once, heartbreakingly, a loping pup – crossed here, and demonstrated by limps or the progression of mange their varying states of neglect. It was not a terrifically busy intersection: traffic was restricted, mostly, to auto-rickshaws and motorbikes. Cars were infrequent, trucks and busses rare. But this encouraged people to swarm across it, and cows, some of them humped and impossibly white amongst so much grime and grit, to lie down, impassive amidst the tonk and squeal of obstructed drivers.
It was past this circle that I now walked, unhappily, squelching faeces at the heel of my shoe. I considered the old woman’s grimace: I had anticipated laughter straight after I slipped. People slept tightly packed on Khar’s pavements; thin, dirty sheets between gaunt bodies and the cracked cement. Perhaps I had ground the cowpat into this women’s small piece of earth, the piece she claimed as her own each night. Now, because of me, she would have to clean it. Perhaps, because Indians use dried cow dung as fuel, to cook, and because people lived on these pavements, I had destroyed something she planned to collect. My inconvenience might, for very different reasons, have also been hers.
I scraped clean my shoe near the entrance to Hotel Samrat. Paul had suggested we stay in Mumbai for two or three days: rest, and maybe see its most important sites – but then quickly leave. We stayed for ten, and made plans to return.
I clutched close a bottle of Kingfisher and attempted to step out of Hotel Samrat, to stand and smoke. The security guard, a young, wide smiling Sikh, opened the door; Toadman, the receptionist, stopped me. “It is illegal to drink publicly in India sir,” he croaked, and waved a chubby finger.
Neither Claire, who had christened Toadman, nor I learnt his real name. He had drooping jowls and a just discernable chin. He sat marathons behind his desk, on a stool, completely hunched – and rested his arms, at the elbow, on trousered thighs. To compensate for his bent back, when eye contact with a standing customer was required, Toadman would lift his head, stretch his neck and raise his bulging eyes – then talk through flapping jowls.
I accepted Toadman’s superior knowledge and positioned myself instead behind the only table in reception. The Times of India – on the table, in sections – had two women, photographed separately, in headscarves and lycra cat suits, on its front. Out of focus, behind the obviously Muslim athletes, were other women, also athletes, in ski-pants and crop-tops. The pun-heavy caption, “The Gulf between Hot Couture and Cool Couture,” led my eyes down further, to an article of obvious lament: India’s female to male ratio had declined. India now has 927 women for every thousand men. The imbalance is no longer a product of rural ignorance: the disparity is greatest in urban areas, where access to prenatal technology is easier. Only China is more awkwardly male: there are 832 women for every thousand men. China and India: one third of the world’s population; it meant more than 500 million men might never find brides.
The Times of India is sold in stupendous bulk: more than two and a half million copies are distributed daily. It the world’s most circulated English language broadsheet, and its editor has, because he believes its use inflates egos, abandoned the capital ‘I’.
Further into the paper, amongst the business pages, was “Biz Next: Talk soft, laugh light, dress right.” Etiquette institutes had begun to appear in Mumbai, said the article, because “if a senior manager gingerly balances a pea on a knife and tries to push it down his throat, he clearly needs a crash course in etiquette. (A 43 year-old top executive was recently watched doing precisely that. A tip: he could have done his country proud by elegantly eating straight out of his hands).”
India’s development, its unfamiliar strength, meant sending uninitiated executives to do business in the West. “The Indian executive increasingly travels on business, does stints abroad and entertains foreign clients at home. Now, if only he spoke a little softly, laughed a little less loudly and asked fellow diners if he could smoke before lighting up, the executive would have that personal edge too.”
It reminded me of an advert we’d seen pasted to a crumbling wall. Dr Rajesh D. Bhujle, “a miracle, the ninth wonder in English,” could, the advert suggested, teach us to “speak English like James Bond (007)… According to him [Dr Bhujle] there are two class (sic), first and no class. We have to develop the first.”
The Times article, and the etiquette institutes, suggested that “the big Indian failing… is absence of regard for others. The way executives behave in the boardroom, at airports or with clients is an offshoot of this callous attitude.” And many Indians, I had quickly discovered, are callous – particularly the professional elite, the “first” class.
Earlier that week, Claire and I had found Dominos selling pizzas for 500 rupees – meals in Mumbai could be had for as little as ten rupees, perhaps 15 – past a line of homeless, fly plagued people, and a child defecating in the street. Boards outside announced Domino’s delivery service, named the “Hunger Helpline.”
Claire had boarded the ladies only carriage of a metropolitan train past a woman lying, seemingly asleep, on the carriage floor. The woman, Claire said, was old, tiny: a bundle of rags. A guard appeared. He poked the woman with his lathi, a heavy, medium length stick. She didn’t stir. The guard felt her pulse, then her side. He called another man. The men picked the woman up and deposited her on the dirty platform. Still, she didn’t stir. Claire heard two passengers conversing. One, just boarding, asked another about the commotion. “Oh, there was a lady, she was sleeping here,” replied the other, then kicked the woman’s sandals and water bottle off the train.
Even so, I felt sympathy for the uninitiated executives. Protocol required a professional face in a world as – and perhaps more – uncomfortable and unfamiliar as the one in which I found myself now.
My beer was by now finished. Toadman – mouth pursed, eyes bulging – looked as if he had captured a large fly. I approached his desk to ask if there were any cinemas nearby. Mumbai is Bollywood’s home – the ‘Bo’ came from Bombay – and it seemed important that we watch a local film.
Toadman, head waggling (an affirmative side-to-side), said “You’ll need to take an auto-rickshaw sir. Tell them you want to go to the Gaity-Glaxy.”
“The Gaity-Glaxy,” I repeated. “How much should it cost?”
“The driver will use a meter sir. It is only ten minutes.”
Claire had appeared in reception a few minutes before. I thanked Toadman and we left.
The cinema, a tall, square building, its walls painted cream and peach, had seven screens. The screens – and I now understood Toadman’s “Gaity Glaxy” – had been named: the Grace, the Gemini, the Gossip, the Glamour, the Gem, the Gaiety and the Galaxy. These names were declared across the building’s front, near the appropriate door, in sturdy blue letters. Above the names were posters, advertising the films being screened.
I had bought Mumbai’s Time Out, a franchise of the London based magazine, and read an interview with Baabul’s director. The film, I gathered, was to be taken seriously – so it was Baabul, being screened at the Gaiety, that we decided to see.
Every screen had two ticket windows: one for advance purchases, another for that night. It had taken us a while, confusedly wandering in the direction ticket clerks pointed, to establish this. Another queue had to be joined before entering the cinema. A man just behind us in this queue – neatly dressed, standing beside his equally neat wife – addressed us.
“Are you able to understand a Hindi film?” The man’s thin grey hair and neat but informal clothes suggested a pensioner – as did the evening: a Monday night.
“No,” I said. “Are there no subtitles?” I had thought there may be, because the cinema screened films in three languages: Hindi, India’s most widely spoken language and the language of government, Marathi, the local language, and English. None of the three, the man explained, had subtitles. I though it appropriate, then, because of Dr Bhujle, the “ninth wonder in English,” that the Hollywood film being advertised was Casino Royale, James Bond’s latest installment.
“A baabul,” the man said – he seemed concerned now that we would not understand and appreciate the film – “is the father of a married daughter.”
“Like a father in law?” I asked, underestimating his English.
“No. It is a man whose daughter has been married. I do not think there is an English word.”
Inside, a uniformed porter led us to our seats. He was needed; the tickets were printed in Hindi. The theatre was as large as any I’ve been into. Adverts were already playing on the curved screen: a family, out for the day, happily scattered rubbish and spat, then returned, incredulous, to a foul smelling, litter filled home, then a woman, a mother, cried for the camera and asked us to “make Mumbai unbreakable,” because her son had died in the city’s most recent terrorist attack. The national anthem was played, the Indian flag was projected, and people stood.
Baabul began. I had encountered Bollywood at university, where I dabbled in film; I remember long, excruciating dance sequences and little else. Initially, Baabul surprised me. It presented an unrecognisable Mumbai: clean, wealthy, sanitised. A father and son raced through organised streets. The father drove a silver sedan, the son a bright red, just presented sports car. It feigned cool: pale skinned Indians and posturing, bikinied white girls danced to music influenced by rap.
The plot seemed simple: son returns home from studying abroad and is groomed to replace father at father’s successful business; son meets, courts and marries a beautiful, artistic woman; woman goes to live in son’s family home – with son’s parents, the Indian norm – and immediately abandons fashionable Western clothes, wearing the sari of a good Indian wife instead; son and wife have child; son assumes greater responsibility at father’s business and travels, for business, to London; son is killed, upon his return, in a road accident; wife mourns, becomes irrational; father travels, to London again, and finds wife’s former good male friend, now a pop icon; pop icon returns to India, courts wife, is liked by child; father suggests pop icon marry wife and, controversially, he does.
The film, spread over three hours, was broken by a short intermission. We considered leaving then, because we were only there to experience a Hindi film and an Indian cinema, and we had done that: the audience laughed loudly – informing us of the humour, in Hindi, that we missed – and cheered and clapped. They answered mobile phones, swapped places and ignored the film, to chat. But intermission came immediately after the son was hit, unexpectedly, by a car, and it was not yet clear if he had lived.
Afterwards, outside the cinema, the neatly dressed pensioner found us. “Did you enjoy the movie?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Claire. “More than we expected to.”
“It’s very controversial in India you know,” he said, and told us that the lives of orthodox Hindu widows, are, even today, considered over. The unfortunate women keep short hair and wear only white (and I now understood the film’s inexplicably solemn figure, a beautiful woman dressed in white). Neither able to remarry or work, the women live silent lives, anticipating nothing but death.
The pensioner, his wife still elegant and silent beside him, became excited. “The father is a brave man, a reformer!” The father, I realised, was the film’s baabul – and the term was heavy with patriarchal respect – because he had arranged the marriage of his son’s widow: he had treated his daughter-in-law like his own daughter. “He is quite right!” said the pensioner. “She has to have her own life, you know. And she must be happy and have lots of joy!”
Our train, a line of brown carriages and barred windows, approached the platform. It slowed – men ran at it, grabbed hold – and stopped. The carriage entrances, wide, divided by a single, much clutched pole, were a mess of brown skin and hard packed, wiry limbs. Men shouted. Forced between bodies, the individual shouts echoed and merged. Men pushed and came out: narrow, ragged, luggage swaying above their bent heads.
I wavered, but Claire moved, past one, two, then three carriages. All, she said, were impassably full. The shouts stopped, the echoes faded, and, behind us, new cries were assumed. Again, men pushed. I was caught in their momentum and, at the gap between carriage and platform, was forced to leap into a squash of bodies, a somehow penetrable space.
Claire, on the platform, carefully aside, immobile, said I should get off. I couldn’t, I had immediately been pushed back – and still people continued to board. The train screeched, then limped: a slow unsteady pace, but forward, imposing decision. Hands, the hands of the five people hanging at the entrance’s three person width, extended out. Claire grasped two, the hands of different men, and was pulled up, a sixth person in the three person width – then pushed through the carriage to stand beside me.
“Where you going?” a man asked. I could not, anywhere on the carriage, see women.
The man’s head was immediately beneath my chin, I could not look at him to respond. “To Victoria Terminus,” I said, “V.T.”
“Go in, go in,” said the man.
V.T. was the final stop. The man was suggesting we somehow move further into the carriage, because we would be amongst the last to get off. The train turned a soft, swinging arc. Handles, unheld, clattered against the rusting roof. A grip, I discovered, was unnecessary: we were supported by the press of flesh about us. I thanked the man, but ignored him.
I could see nothing but bodies; they obscured the scenery at windows and doors. The men wore short, oiled hair and singlets – perhaps their shirts were stuck away, protected, because of the inevitable rub against a neighbour’s sweat. White eyes, bright so near to black moustaches, studied us: we had enlivened the unpleasant commute.
I could smell our progress – a sulphurous, enveloping pong, burning plastic, manure, its slow final mingle with spicy food – and later, happy reading a book on the same route, above Indian heads, measured the journey by these smells.
Officially, Victoria Terminus is Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the epicentre of Mumbai. Above the platforms, hands tic-tocked slowly through the face of a large, Roman numbered clock. The clock, inconclusive evidence of our arrival at – according our guidebook – “the city’s most exuberant Gothic building,” had been superseded: at every platform, digital displays choreographed the arrival and departure of Mumbai’s throngs. Old, white bearded Muslims, in white robes and white skullcaps, stumbled toward trains, leaning on sticks. Chubby women shuffled, and made bright saris swish. Young men swaggered in tight trousers, swinging skinny hips. People appeared, boarded, and disappeared, obeying the bright yellow numbers displayed against black. Victoria Terminus was, quite obviously, Mumbai’s many-ventricled heart, and the digital displays dictated its pulse.
Two girls, hip-high, possibly sisters, pursued us through the station, insisting we distribute rupees. The eldest fingered soft hair, opened a mouth of gleaming white teeth – her dress, by immediate contrast, was extravagantly dirty – and stuck out a confident hand. We gave a few meaningless coins.
Outside, our guidebook’s description was justified. A four metre high toga-ed figure called “Progress,” resembling Manhattan’s “Liberty,” stood above the station’s brown-bricked, broadly Gothic building. I say broadly Gothic because its mishmash of Roman, Hindu, Gothic, Venetian and Damascene arches, all of them time-blackened and industrial, were also frantic and uncomfortable.
A three pronged radio antenna extended beyond Progress’s crown. It was a small sign, besides the soot, that this was not 1887, and Victoria Terminus had not just been built. The station became Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in 1998, two years after Bombay became Mumbai; but it is still referred to as V.T., just as Mumbai is still referred to as Bombay.
We walked south through a subway, below an impassable road of red, double-decker busses, yellow-black taxis and shrill, incessant hoots. At a distance, the Victoria Terminus was symmetrical and perfectly confident, a statement of Victorian certainty. Near Mahatma Ghandi Road we forked right, and slowly passed the Oval Maidan where cricket was being played in perfect whites. We entered the confusion and stacked paper of the city’s High Court. Barristers dressed in British robes, but forgot the silly wigs. Next door was Mumbai University, a palm fringed transplant from Oxford, built to imitate “14th century Gothic.” We lingered at the journalism department’s newspapered wall; front pages remembered men on the moon and the assassination of two Ghandis.
At last, through Colaba, we arrived at the Gateway of India and could walk no further: a harbour full of fishing boats began. Beggars, fishermen and balloon sellers swarmed at the Gateway’s base. Next to it stood the Taj, a luxury hotel in a Mogul influenced concrete tower block. It made the Gateway look small. J.N. Tata, an industrialist, had the Taj built because European owned hotels denied him entrance: he was a ‘native’.
The Gateway had no walls. It was a notion, a magical portal – and it might transfer people into a magical world. But the magical world had limits, and the limits, like the Gateway’s narrow arch, were British made. It was the beginning and end of British India. British troops arrived here, after long months of sea, and it was through the Gateway, on 28 February 1948, that the remnants of British government ceremonially left.
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