Reza's Travel Blog

Travels to Bombay and beyond...

January 30, 2005

Mumbai Missives 1995-96

Mumbai Missives

Dec. 28th, 1995
Hello everyone,
I finally got off my butt and figured out how to use my brother's email. I am having a super time at home. I can't tell you how good it is to be back. Last night I went for a huge wedding. We are talking about a wedding reception with at least 2000 people. The jewelry and saris just dazzled my eyes. Weddings here are quite an event. Talking about weddings, I have met a lot of my friends since I have been back and most of them are married! There are a couple of us that are still hanging back peering over the edge of a cliff called "marriage". Just kidding. Time will fly and I will take that plunge. I can't see myself doing it for a few years yet though.
I am off to Panchgani with my brother and his friends in a couple hours. Panchgani is in the hills four hours east of Bombay (or Mumbai as it has now been officially renamed). We will be there for five days. Maybe I will get some reading and writing done. I have been so busy visiting friends, shopping with my Mom, going to parties and weddings and hanging out at some of my old spots. It will good to get away from the bustling city.
Bombay is crowded, loud and dirty as ever (I love it!). The economy is booming and I see cellular phones and new cars everywhere. I went for a party a couple nights ago and I saw some kids (yes, 18-19 year old kids), walking around with tiny Nokia cellular phones. Sheesh, that is a huge change from when I was here last. Bombay has always been a city of wealth, but in the past people never displayed it so ostentatiously. Conspicuous consumption is on the rise and the guilt of spending one's money is no longer there.
My visit here is just past the halfway point. Each day has been rich and full. I plan to leave on the 8th and spend two days in London before returning to Austin. That depends on whether Clinton and the Republicans make a budget compromise. The U.S. embassy has been shut since I have come back because of the budget deadlock and I have not been able to go in and get my visa to return. So, lets hope Bill, Bob and Newt strike some deal quickly.
I will sign off now. I wish you all a safe and successful '96.

Jan 4th, 1996
Hello everyone,
Yes, I am still here waiting for Bill, Newt and Bob to work things out so that I can get back. I was supposed to leave on Sunday (the 8th), but I don't expect the consulate to be open tomorrow (Friday). So, tomorrow I am going to go to the airlines and beg and plead to get my ticket changed so I can be here another week (it is non-changeable, non-refundable). Sooooo, here I am on the other side of the world watching CNN to see if the budget has been passed so that I can visit the consulate to get a mere formality taken care of.
Well then, let me wish all of you a happy new year. I had a wonderful time in Panchgani with my brother's friends. Panchgani is up in the mountains, southwest of Bombay (ooops Mumbai). Panchgani means five plateaus. Mimo's friend has a huge bungalow in this quiet little town. It is more than a hundred years old and has wonderful old furniture, 20 foot ceilings, stone floors, a huge garden with silver oak and eucalyptus trees and a wonderful view of the valley with the Krishna river flowing through it. It was good to get away from the hustle and bustle of Bombay. We slept late and got up late and took long naps interrupted by long meals, games (pool, ping pong, scrabble, chess) and aimless chilling out. I got a good deal of reading and writing done lying on the hammock in the garden and occasionally looking out over the valley to the mountains in the distance. Mimo and his friends are big partiers and drinking started in the afternoon with BeerPong - a corrupt variation of Ping Pong that involves a lot of beer and very little Ping Pong. I stuck to apple juice on the rocks (yes, I like it straight!). We brought in the New Year sitting around a fire with a half moon in the sky.
I just got back from a very close friend's wedding. Rana and I were taught swimming and coached by the same person - Mrs. Bathena at Breach Candy Pool. Breach Candy is down the road from my building and I grew up there. Mimo and I were there every evening. My mom realized that the two of us had too much mischievous energy, so she use to take us for swimming lessons. It worked because we use to come back home exhausted, eat dinner and go to sleep. So, that's the story of how I got started with swimming. Rana use to be there too and we went on to become big time swimmers. This evening Rana had his reception at Breach Candy on the huge lawn by the sea. It was wonderful because I saw the swimming crowd that I grew up with and had not seen in years. It was an evening of hugging, back slapping, chatting and laughing. It is one AM right now and I am still bubbling with energy from the reception. Swimming was my life and the memories and lessons will always be with me.
Well, it is 1996, another new year. The days slip by, pages turn and another chapter is over. 1995 was a wonderful year of many new experiences for me. I am looking forward to another wonderful year. I miss all of you and have you in my thoughts. I hope to see you all soon (if those chaps in Washington stop butting heads).
P.S. One of you asked what Mumbai meant. Mumbai is a shortened version of a goddess' name - Mumbadevi. Bombay was a tiny little fishing village before the Portuguese and British arrived in the 18th Century. Mumbadevi is the goddess that protects the fisher folk. These fisher folk are called Koli and they still fish off the coast. The British saw the natural harbor that Bombay had and developed it to become the trade capital of India. They anglicized the original name of Mumbai to Bombay. The current government in our state is far right nationalist and they want to restore Bombay its original name. (It will still be Bombay for me.) Bombay is India's most cosmopolitan city - the financial capital (the main stock exchange and the big banks), the entertainment capital (Bollywood), cultural capital, art capital, .... :-) I am beginning to boast now, so I will stop. Even though Bombay is overcrowded and over polluted, I am overwhelmingly in love with it.

Jan 8th, 1996
Hello everyone,
Well, I went to the consulate this morning and joined the long long line that went all the way down the road. People got in the line beginning at 8 last night. I was number 173 in line (it went till 400 or so). They
only let in the first 150 people so I am going to go there tomorrow morning and get it over with. At least tomorrow I will be number 23 and get in.
My ticket back is still for the 19th. It was the earliest I could get. All flights are booked and waiting lists full. My next adventure after the consulate is to go to the airlines each day to try and fly out earlier. Hopefully someone will cancel and I will get on. Or else I am here for another week and a half. What an ordeal: all because of mule-headed politicians.
Over the weekend I went to Matheran with my mother. Matheran is a tiny town on top of a mountain that is only accessible by a tiny train that winds up the Ghats at a snails pace. The other way to get there is to take
a cab or auto-rickshaw to the halfway point and walk or ride on a horse the rest of the way. No cars are allowed in this town so as to preserve its charm. On the way up mom and I took the train and on the way down we walked and took a cab. Matheran was a popular hill station when the British were still here and their influence remains. All the scenic overlooks have British names - Alexander Point, Luisa Point, King George Point, Charlotte Lake. We got there on Saturday afternoon, took a nap first and then went to a few of the points and to the market to buy Chikki (sort of like peanut brittle but not as sweet). The next morning we got up early and walked to Alexander point for the sunrise. We left after breakfast and got back to Bombay in the afternoon. It was a wonderful short trip - beautiful views, an old town, good conversations with my mom and long walks. The other thing I enjoyed were the monkeys that were all over the town. They are quite use to townsfolk and are found gallivanting all over the place. It is so much fun to see them cavorting about, jumping from tree to roof, bounding across the trail and generally having a good time.
I spent this evening looking through old photographs. It brought back a flood of memories.
That's all for now.

Jan 10th, 1996
Hello everyone,
Looks like I am going to be flying out on the 19th. Yesterday's Emirates Airlines flight did not leave so all the passengers from that flight are going to be on the other flights this and next week. So there is no chance
of leaving any earlier. I am going to be back in Austin on the 21st night (Sunday). I will spend the 19th and 20th in London.
So with time to spare my mom and I are going to go traveling again this weekend. We are going to go south to Cochin, a small town on the southern coast in the state of Kerala. It was a small fishing village before being settled by the Portuguese 500 years ago and made into a port. Subsequently the Dutch ruled there and then finally the British. So the town has a lot of outside influences as well as a very strong indigenous culture. To top it off Cochin has a small Jewish population dating from 1000 AD. We will spend a couple days in Cochin and then a couple days at a small town in the backwaters of Kerala. The backwaters is a series of small lakes, canals and rivers that run parallel to the coast of Kerala. Boats ply up and down the palm lined backwaters. The backwaters are one of the little known beauties in India and I have always wanted to go. We are leaving on Friday and will be back on Tuesday.
On Tuesday night one of my best friends from school – Jimmy – is getting married in a typical Parsi wedding ceremony. The Parsi's were the original inhabitants of Iran. Their religion was Zoroastrianism - the earliest monotheistic religion in the world. In the 16th century Iran (or Persia as it was called) was invaded from the east the Muslims. The Parsi's had to either convert or practice their religion in secret. A large number of them got on boats and landed on the western coast of India in what is now the state of Gujarat (which is a few hours north of Bombay). The ruler in Gujarat was benevolent and let them settle there. In the 17th and 18th century when the British colonized India, a lot of the Parsi's came to Bombay. They got along with the British much better than the locals and went on to become very successful businessmen. A lot of what Bombay is today is because of the enterprising Parsi community. After the British left and India gained independence in 1947 the Parsi influence has declined. The legacy of their heyday is still around. Tata Industries started by a Parsi and still headed by one, is one of India's largest and most successful companies. In a distant way Parsi's are of the same blood as me. We are from the same place. They chose to leave, my ancestors decided to stay.
Yesterday evening I went to Otters Club - my swim team. After learning swimming at Breach Candy I moved to the Otters Club team. It was the foremost team in the country with a super coach - Sandeep - or sir as we all call him. We had National champions, Asian champions and even the record holder for the fastest English Channel crossing (since surpassed). We were truly an elite team and no one could come close to us. I spent many many hours swimming up and down the pool. I went there yesterday and played water polo and swam with the new crop of champions Sandeep has produced. It was so familiar to get back into the groove and feel totally at home at Otters.
I hope all of you are doing well. You are in my thoughts.

Jan 16th, 1996
Hello everyone,
I just got back from my trip to Kerala this evening. What a wonderful time my mother and I had. We flew into Cochin and spent a day and night there. Among the many things we saw there, we went for a Kathakali dance performance. Katha - story, Kali - play. Kathakali is an ancient theatre of Kerala (the state that Cochin is in) that relates stories from the Hindu mythologies - Mahabharata and Ramayana. It is a little like the Kabuki theatre of Japan. The performers are elaborately made up and have colorful costumes. The story is related through the movements of the performer - a beautiful dance that is a feast for the eyes.
From Cochin we took a train to Kottayam. We traveled 2nd class - always an adventure. We did not have reserved seats, so we did what all Indians know how to do - ghusao - push, squeeze, get a seat by hook or crook. We spent a sleepless night in Kottayam, kept awake by the chanting Hindu priests in the temple opposite our hotel.
In the morning we caught a ferry to take us along the backwaters to Aleppy. It was the most beautiful and scenic 2 1/2 hour boat ride. The backwaters had patches of water hyacinths and lilies, and on each side were tall coconut trees, banana trees and rice fields. Alleppy is a large town on the backwaters and is criss-crossed by canals. It is called the Venice of the East :-)
We took another boat from Alleppy to a small resort a half hour away. We spent two very relaxing days at this tiny resort, living in a traditional Kerala house, eating tasty Kerala food, drinking fresh coconuts plucked from the trees, watching the fishermen throw out their nets, going for walks to the villages and farms nearby and reading/writing/drawing/thinking.
To return to Cochin, we took a bus from Alleppy - another adventure. These buses are the most dilapidated looking vehicles. They are packed to the brim with people and travel the potholed two lane highways between towns. When I say packed in, I mean like sardines. You have to give up your sense of personal space because on the bus you are no longer an individual, but part of an organic mass of travelers and commuters. We could make the 40-mile, 2-hour trip in a cab. But that is no fun. In a bus you get the
authentic experience. You really feel like you are traveling in India.
It was funny that wherever we went the locals asked us "Where are you from" and I would say Bombay. They always walked away disappointed. My mom and I look like foreign tourists and they probably expected that my answer would be more interesting. My mom said that we are disappointing so many of them; maybe we should say we are from Spain or something like that.
It is good to be back in Bombay. In a way, Bombay is a foreign country in India. Bombay is a truly unique city and Bombayites have a chip on their shoulder about it (if you have not noticed mine already). Bombay is the city of dreams much like what America was (and still is) to immigrants. People from all over India come to Bombay to make their fortune (or be swallowed whole by the fast clip of life). My great-grandfather was a trader from Shiraz in the south of Iran who use to come to Bombay to buy dyes for carpet making - indigo and lemon yellow. He eventually settled in Bombay and to continue his business. And that folks, is the short version of my immigration story and how I came to be a Bombayite.
A couple more days here and I will be off to London and then back to Austin. Time to do last minute shopping, final goodbyes and eleventh hour packing. Soon I will be back in the west - a whole different world.
Three years ago I wrote this poem when I came back from my trip to Bombay:

Once on the plane
I discard my voice
for an accent of swallowed
consonants and slippery slang.
Snakes take longer
to shed their skin.

The city recedes below
and memory slips into the jet stream.
The sewer smell
of Bombay hodge-podge
is swallowed by the antiseptic
crispness of the cabin air.
I smell the pages of my journal.

Three of us sit on a dark beach
staring at the yawning waves;
the teeming city glows behind us.
The moon is a question mark
on the thin horizon in the west.
Only refuse comes ashore here:
bleached canvas shoes,
discolored plastic bags.

I trip into intermittent sleep
and wrestle with my dreams
awash in saffron and blue.

The seatbelt sigh chimes;
the reel snaps
and whirs.
I stare blankly at
the white page in front of me.

Jan 22nd, 1996
Hi everyone,
I'm back and going through serious withdrawal and homesickness. 5 weeks away in a whole different world. (5 weeks thanks to Bill, Bob and Newt's budget head butting.) I got back last night at 11, back to good ol' Austin. It seems so small and quiet compared to Bombay.
I'm back at work wading through 123 e-mails in my in-box. My desk is still here, so I suppose I still have a job :-) I think I have forgotten how to work though ;-) I may need some special retraining. My mind has got accustomed to thinking about - who will I have lunch with, which friend will I visit tonight, should I go to the bookstore or an art gallery, which club will we go to tonight, where should I go for the weekend, should I have pomegranate or papaya for breakfast, what day is it today, is it time for food yet etc. etc.
My body feels completely disoriented. I am not sleepy yet, but jet lag is going to hit me like a sledgehammer sometime today. Too bad I do not have a pillow at work to cushion the blow.