Reza's Travel Blog

Travels to Bombay and beyond...

January 30, 2005

Bombay 1999-2000

Mumbai for the Millenium

When I step off the plane at Sahar airport and walk into the wall of humid, mildly putrid air, it instantly makes me realize that I am in Bombay. I still smell of the west though – that somewhat sweet, clean smell that I am reminded of when I open my bags when I get home. My body remembers this Bombay smell and I slip into a familiar invisible garment. The city remembers me and I enter the cityscape that I traversed for the first 18 years of my life.

Bombay Report
Bombay smells – it smells of the sea, it smells of exhaust fumes, it smells spicy and tasty and overripe all at once. The city assaults your senses like a brash street hustler, in your face with an offer to show you everything from high culture and excessive wealth to downright filth and abject poverty. All this coexists together on a relatively small island just off the mainland of west India. Right next to the luxury high-rise buildings are makeshift huts made of cardboard, tin and cloth sraps. More than ten million people live here – almost all have a hope to make something of themselves in this city of money and dreams. A few have already made it and they live in comfortable, air-conditioned high rise apartments on Malabar Hill and Breach Candy. Six million live in ramshackle conditions without running water and sewer services. Five million travel on the local trains from the suburbs in the north to south Bombay, the heart of the business district. I rode on one of these trains and it wasn’t even rush hour. There is no private space to speak of. You are crammed in a compartment, some hanging by their fingers from the doors. Here is an excerpt from an article in Granta by Suketu Metha about the Bombay trains:
“If you are late for work in Bombay, and reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and you will find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outward from the train like petals. As you run alongside you will be picked up, and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the open doorway. The rest is up to you; you will probably have to hang on to the door frame with your fingertips, being careful not to lean out too far lest you get decapitated by a pole placed too close to the tracks. But consider what has happened: your fellow passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts drenched with sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, retain an empathy for you, know that your boss might yell at you or cut your pay if you miss this train and will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact. they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim of Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari; whether you’re from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.”
And that is the Bombay I know. Even with the teeming crowds and the choking traffic, people from all over India still come to Bombay – thousands a week – to try to find their place in it, to try to make something of themselves. And the others adjust, because they know that those that came before them, moved a bit to give them some space.
Bombay has always had money – only now, you can see it – flaunted in the new cars, tiny mobile phones, sharp clothes and other flashy accessories that the nouveau riche adorn themselves with. I visited the new mall in Bombay – Crossroads – and you would think that this is no different from a mall in the U.S., maybe a little smaller. There is a food court, a department store, a Hallmark shop, a McDonalds and other sundry shops for jewelry, clothes and gifts. The place is filled with people, many just gawking and enjoying the well lit shops, quiet escalators and the novelty of it all.
Dot-com mania has reached Bombay too. A couple years ago it was mobile phone ads that I saw everywhere. Now it is dot-com ads that seek your attention. Free email, shop online, news – you name it, we have it. Mobile phones have almost become a regular accessory. In fact, if you are really someone, not just you, but your driver has a mobile phone. (Most upper middle class folks here have drivers.) So, after you are done shopping, you call up the driver, and voila, he brings the car around and you are off on your way. How’s that for life in the big city.

Mumbai Millenium – Y2Care
The millennium passed by with nary a problem in Bombay – as in other parts of the world. Like my brother’s friend said – Y2Care. I did not think there would be much of a problem in India since many things are done manually still. In fact when I went to a train reservation office in Beas to get my ticket to Bombay, there was a sign posted in the window of the Computerized Reservations booth – Computer Out of Order – and it was a painted sign. We just got our tickets the good old manual way. Computers go down in India all the time, and life and work goes on. For that matter, electricity goes out, telephones go dead, workers go on strike, but life goes on somehow. The taxi drivers in Bombay went on strike for a few days. Almost half the cars on the road in Bombay are taxis and the cars are old and pollute a lot. Everyone I talked to was happy that they went on strike because there wasn’t the usual brown blanket of pollution covering the city and the traffic flowed without the choking snarls that are typical everyday. For those three days, it was like being back in Bombay fifteen years ago. What a treat.

Mood Indigo
The hip new restaurant in Bombay is Indigo – the place to see and be seen. The food is Indian-fusion – a mix of east and west. A variation on the flat bread Naan has sun-dried tomatoes to give it an Italian twist. When we drove up in our ordinary Maruti to hand over to the valet, there were three other cars behind us – all Mercedes. Inside, the décor is a mix of smooth surfaces, crisp design and a smattering of Indian colors and textures. It was designed by an architect that worked in L.A. for Richard Mieir, the architect who did the new Paul Getty Center in L.A. The preening crowd was dressed to the nines with one eye on the person they were talking to and another on who was walking in and out. Quite a scene and quite an experience. I like the décor and I enjoyed the food. The good news is that someday, after its fifteen minutes of fame, it won’t be a hip place and you will be able to enjoy a good meal in good company.

Three Flights Up – Party like it’s 1999
I went with my mother and her friends to a disco. I have not been to a disco in years, and there I was with my mother, her friends, and their adult children, who like me, were visiting home from the U.S., Australia etc. Three Flights Up, literally three flights of stairs above the street over a popular tourist shop – Cottage Industries – in downtown Bombay. The crowd was young – very young – or is it that I am getting old. When I was a teenager, our idea of a party was to have a bunch of guys standing on one side of a room egging each other on to ask someone’s cousin and her friend standing on the other side of the room to dance. Well, it was not always that bad, but cable TV has changed Bombay quite a bit. With MTV, CNN, ESPN etc., the west comes to us in a platter and we gobble it down. The youth in Bombay live fast, drink hard and party till the wee hours. And in the west, I meet more and more people who are interested in yoga and eastern spirituality. So, the good thing is that the exchange between east and west is a two way street. The east is hungry for the easy to open, easy to munch, junk food of the west, and the west is interested in trying to find a more wholesome approach to life from the teachings of the east.
I did enjoy the disco – dancing in a big group, people-watching, enjoying the good company and sharing it all with my mom.

Squash Showdown
My father, champion sportsman at the Bombay Gymkhana, winner of the Pentathalon (tennis, badminton, squash, running, soccer goal kicks) for three years and runner-up for one, challenged me to a game of squash. I had not been to the Gymkhana squash courts since my days in school more than a decade ago, but the marker (pro) there recognized me. That is one thing about Bombay I love. You go someplace you have not been in years and people remember you – it is uncanny. Well, the game was a well-fought battle and my father prevailed. My excuse was that I had not played squash in years. But, that takes away from how fit and healthy my dad is even when he is going to be 75 in April. Bravo Dad!

Swimming Showdown – Who’s the King
And then there was the swimming showdown with my brother Mimo. Both of us were accomplished swimmers years ago and the Gymkhana was having a swim meet for members. Our friend Rana was in town too. All three of us learned swimming from the same coach at Breach Candy Pool – Mrs. Bathena – who was a stickler for perfect technique, but not so much for heavy training and endurance. Rana is a bit older than us and he along with his friend Shatul use to bully the little kids – Who’s the King? If you said Rana, Shatul use to give us the what-for and vice versa. It was all in good fun, but there is no doubt that Rana is the King. He represented India three times in the Asian Games and had a very successful swimming career at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In preparation for the swim, Mimo and I tried to train up a bit and get those sluggish muscles to get a bit of a snap in them for the sprint. Before our event, the announcer gave this long flattering introduction about the three of us and all I could think about was – I hope we don’t disappoint. As I stood there at the start, my eyes and mind came to focus on the lane in front of me and all sounds became just an indistinct buzz. What a feeling this is – the taste of concentration is unlike any other – it replaces the fear with confidence.
Rana left us in the dust, or should I say spray. Mimo and I had to be content to pick up second and third, me, just a bit ahead of him.

Rudy – The Sequel
For those of you who remember Rudy, The Red Nosed Rude Dog from my travelogue last year, here is the sequel. Looks like Rudy has softened up a bit and does not terrorize cars or bikes as they go up the slope to our building. A few weeks ago, Mimo – his prime target for late night chases up the slope - was having a snack at the roadside and Rudy snuck up calmly and had a seat. Mimo offered him some tid-bits and Rudy chowed down. Not the Rude dog he remembers. I think it is because Rudy now has a wife – a white mutt with brown splotches that shares the slope with him. The slope is a happier place for it.

Little Bombay in Austin, Texas
I have found a new eating place in Austin called Little Bombay. It is a non-descript, bare bones place in a strip mall in North Austin that serves Indian snacks like Bhel Puri, Masala Dosa, Samosas and Dahi Wada. I went there with friends the other night and had a great meal, satisfying my craving for the taste and spice of Indian food that I have had since I came back. The Bhel almost as good as Guptaji’s Bhel by my dad’s office on Meadow Street and the Dosas were almost as crisp and delicious as the ones at Madras Café underneath my dad office. How nice to have a little piece of Bombay – my old home, in my new home – Austin.