Asia/India

Splendid things

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Great excitement today: the sherwani I had ordered on Saturday arrived. These are quite amazing traditional Indian jackets (worn mostly for weddings), bedecked with needlework, embroidery and jewels (though not always are the latter real). I had been looking for one for a few weeks before stumbling on the very thing to fit the bill.

On a slightly less pleasant note, as I was waiting for the ferry on my return from Manori yesterday morning and as I stood in the heat and dazzling sun and as I stood surrounded by heaps of the detritus of past fishing trips and as I stood being assaulted by the smell of rotting fish and crustacean flesh, I suddenly noticed that it was if the very concrete of the quay was moving. I looked down to examine a veneer of maggots, wriggling, writhing, pulsating and crawling across the surface. Splendid.

Asia/India

Hiranandani: the mix of old and new, poor and rich

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Across the way from my flat there is a hill. Sprawling up the hill is Hiranandani’s shantytown: a labyrinth of houses, shops, steps and alleys.

Hiranandani is really rather sui generis for Bombay. As you drive north from the heart of the city you pass the old low colonial buildings. Then you begin to meet the inner city areas: outside the central town but still well within the city limits. Here the buildings take on that 1960s look: they are grey, concrete and box like. Jagged edges cutting the sky; obviously modern and yet already with the air of age and fatigue. After passing these districts you at last come to Hiranandani, stretched out around Lake Powai. Here you will find a different Mumbai: a modern, moneyed, moving Mumbai. The stray dogs still lie on the street but they share them with prim poodles being taken for their constitutional. The auto-rickshaws are as numerous here as anywhere, but the give way here to the monster four by fours so demanded by Hiranandani’s smooth, wide roads. There are payphone shops here too, but you have to look for them and most do not, content to use their mobile ‘phones instead. Here the shops sell designer clothes and everything is at prices that most further south would never dream of charging. It is the yuppies centre full of the fit, healthy, moneyed, salaried young.

But there is another Hiranandani too and it is just the other side of the hill I see across the way. This is the same Bombay you will find dotted across the city. Little shops selling the necessities (plus sugar loaded sweets, of course) for necessary prices. Houses jammed in, one atop another. Open sewers and open gutters, channelling the waste away. Crowded alleys, busy streets, narrow winding paths. Brick walls, corrugated roofs; plastic patches.

As these two Hiranandanis sit side by side they sit at war and one will be vanquished. The shanty towns are shrinking, their houses ploughed away. In their place rise the terrifying concrete blocks of flats that make walking through Hiranandani like a visit to a mad museum of quasi-classical architecture (never have I come across a place with such a fetish for the composite column).

Of course, this is probably a good thing. Many complain that the shantytowns are neither safe nor clean to live in. The flats being built are supposedly both. But they are not affordable to those in the shanties and when their houses are flattened what happens next? And if the shanties are neither safe nor clean, they are certainly not filthy and they are alive with character, with laughter, generosity, energy and spirit.

I went for a walk this evening up the hill that I can see from my flat just across the way. To gain its summit I passed through the shanty town. The houses were clean and maintained, the shops well stocked and busy. The paths were winding and the way far from obvious but I never lost my way. Seeing a visitor unsure of his direction, a young boy just returned from school took it upon himself to guide me to the summit. He picked up his father on the way and together we walked through town, up the steps and past the houses until we were up and above the highest of the houses. There we three stood and looked around. What a clash there was to see. If I stood facing south I saw the rough roofs of the houses I had just walked through. If I turned about and looked to the north, there were sky scrapers, manicured parks and endless traffic. However close they were, they were worlds apart for my little guide who had seen precious few Europeans before and never a digital camera.

Asia/India

Goa

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An afternoon in Panjim

The Victoria Terminus: this is what railway stations ought to be like. The outside is a riot of gargoyles, the inside a riot of human energy. The constant chaos of an Indian city is recreated in perfect miniature in this microcosm. Outside the taxis hurtle round corners to discharge their passengers and pick up unwary stragglers. Porters stand like dogs straining on leashes at the pavement edge, ready to battle with each other to be the first to pick up someone’s luggage. Through the door and onto the concourse mills a crowd as if in limbo: a moment’s pause between two worlds. Then through and on to the platforms, past lines of offices, each with their own attendants, ledgers and clerks. The over-sized luggage counter; the post-office; the parcel-office; the cargo handling office; there are even police and customs-esque counters. In the middle of the platform lie piles of boxes and mountains of bags, codes are markers roughly stamped on their surface, consigning them to some destination deep in the interior. There are the sellers of drinks and of sweets and, of course, the passengers themselves. There they stand in groups dotted up and down the platform. There they sit or squat. There they stretch out, lying on a bench or on a pillar’s foundation stone or on the platform itself. And running between them with luggage and parcels and barrows and energy are the various wallahs that make the place hum. Indeed, there is so much going on that one almost fails to notice the other side of Indian life. The piles of rubbish and the stray animals eeking out an existence bereft of hearth and fire. A dog with both eyes quite red and inflamed; another, snuffling around and pouncing on the crumbs of poppadoms, with a gigantic wound in its bottom revealing square inch after square inch of pink muscle where its haunch had been ripped away.

The train is late and it looks like my Goan adventure is off to a shaky start. My plan to go as basic as possible transport-wise also receives a blow when I am thrown off my bunk on the grounds that I have been upgraded to an air-conditioned carriage. I am not happy about this: the windows in the air-conditioned carriages are so discoloured that the outside world, when visible at all, looks as though seen through a tank of sea water; the other problem is that the air-conditioning units keep one up at night, breathing freezing air from which there is no escape. A further knock to my plans is received at Karmali Railway Station (not train station as guide book after guide book insists in calling it): I had hoped to take a bus into Panjim but can find nothing of a sort. I must swallow my ‘roughing-it’ pride and get into an auto-rickshaw (which, interestingly enough, are all equipped with doors in Goa).

I am dumped at the footsteps of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. It is shut. The sun is getting up and the clouds, though keeping their rain to themselves for now, are keeping the humidity high. I have no idea where I am and my bag is proving heavier than I would like. Still, an Englishman should never appear to be at a loss when abroad, so I set off with purpose in my stride hoping to find a respectable looking hotel. I soon found my bearings and strode down a road towards a hotel recommended in the guide book to find myself standing outside a completely different one. It was also in the guide book but it is funny how bearings can be found and lost and found again.

The owner of the hotel proves a friendly enough woman who bustles towards me and obliges me when asked if there is a spare room. The friendliness is just an act of course, there to disguise an utterly ruthless streak as she sets about asking for a most unlady-like sum of money. I point out to her that it is the off-season in Goa now: the rains are hard, haphazard and appear to have been successful in keeping tourists at bay (there really are remarkably few Europeans about). She shudders at the mention of the ‘off-season’ phrase and implores me not to be so misled. It is the holidays in France after all. Perhaps this is true, and I am half inclined to concede the point, but I am at a loss to understand the relevance. Seeing my hesitation she cleaves to the point: they all come to Goa. She is right off course. The place is absolutely swarming with the French and I am amazed that I could have been so blind up until now. Indeed, one’s tongue becomes quite sore from being dragged along the ground the place is so replete with young mademoiselles of the joli variety. I surrender after she backs down thirty rupees, the room is at least clean and I really don’t want to have to carry my bag all over the place. Next stop lunch.

This is where I begin to doubt the veracity of my guide book. It particularly recommends this particular restaurant and off the things on the menu it picks out one dish above all others to mention as being delicious. Well, delicious it may have been, but probably only to people who enjoy eating tasteless and tough lumps of chicken well marbled with fat. Still, the lime soda pepped me up and I left ready for the afternoons walk. And so that is what I did: through colour lanes of rickety looking houses, up steep and slippery staircases, past peculiar front gardens and round the back of massive temples. I visited the Archbishop’s residence and would have stayed longer at the Chief Minister’s house had not the pointlessly paranoid soldiers on guard began playing with their guns and motioning me (through hand gestures and surprisingly unpleasant throat sounds) to leave. I hurry on and find myself back in front of the main church again. It looks shutter than ever.

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It is time to venture further afield. I clamber aboard a boat which takes me across the river and onto a bus which takes me to Candolim where I can change to another bus to get me to Fort Aguada, which the guide book recommends as worth seeing. After I shoot past Candolim I alight from my bus and trudge back to try and get a bus to take me on to the next leg. I am soon being bounced along in another bus that hurtles along narrow lanes all the while sounding as if it is about to rip itself apart. Then, all of a sudden it stops. I alight and find myself in the middle of nowhere. I must walk the rest of the way: just under two miles along a pleasant enough road that meanders up the hill affording me quite lovely views of the hills, beaches and sea. I arrive at the top and at the fort quite invigorated by the walk just in time to discover that the fort shut ten minutes earlier. I potter around the outside and then decide to find the hill path that the guide book mentions as a quicker way to reach the bus stop. I had rather thought I had found but as I neared the bottom of the hill it disappeared into dense thicket. I ploughed on and soon sent a family of wild pigs scrambling for all their worth up the hill. One squealing piglet found himself to be trapped on the wrong side of me but being a pig of pluck soon dashed after his brothers. My entrance into the village (not on the map of course) was not, therefore, without due style. As I leave the village I spot a rather good looking beach nearby and so head off to visit it in the knowledge that I will be expected to visit at least one whilst in Goa. I reach it swiftly and indeed it is impressive. There is a splendid rusting hulk of a (very large) ship a little out to see and the beach looks clean and deserted. Deserted, of course, because there are red flags up preventing people from taking to it, what with the wind, the rough seas and the general wild feeling of the weather. I still have not been rained on. I take in the views and return by bus to Panjim (once again overshooting my staging posts and needing to back track to find the right bus). To make amends for my poor beach attendance I decide to go to Panjim’s town beach on my return to the city. It is dark by the time I get there, which is just as well for I am told that the beach is filthy. I quite liked it and, after I walked back to the hotel along a promenade and serenaded by the sea in the balmy night I had a quiet sense of well-being about me. My first day had been I bit of a triumph I thought: a lot of ground covered quickly and much taken in. I was enjoying my Goan adventure.

It rained very heavily during the night.

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The churches of Old Goa

Sunday morning came and I was up and out before the sun rose too high in the sky. But a service was already in full swing at the chapel near the hotel and also at the Church of the Immaculate Conception when I made it there. At least it was open, though, and I had a good look as I queued for communion. I waited until the end of the service to see if I could take a picture. Such things were not to be allowed though. So off it was to the bus stop and finally I managed to take a bus to my intended destination and no further.

Old Goa is a peculiar town. It is empty of people and of houses, but filled with large churches. Some were impressive and some, frankly, were not terribly nice at all. Some held the remains of St. Francis Xavier and some were but shells themselves. But wandering around the town one could for a moment forget that one was in India. The palm trees and the heat did their best to remind you. So too did the cars on the road and the buses with their melodious horns. So too did the rickshaw-wallahs and the sellers of cut-price tat. But the churches, with their massy stone walls and simple (and obviously European) architecture and the wide and empty streets that ran between them seemed a far cry from the rabbit warren of lanes with their temples and mosques that living in Bombay has brought me to know. It is silly my trying to write something for each church when pictures can do it so much better.

Leaving the church town behind I went to two nearby villages. The first, Carambolim, housed a temple to Lord Shiva. Important though the temple was supposed to be, I could not help but feel that Lord Shiva was getting a bit of a rum deal when his temple was compared to but the simplest of churches down the road. The temple certainly lost ground to the magnificent Santana church. When I first arrived and walked around it I thought it a ruined relic of a past age. Certainly the guide book suggested such was the case. The walls were obviously built to last, but neglect can wear away at the strongest of edifices and in places the church had begun to crumble. The windows were smashed; the elegance of some of the carving lost to the weather. Trees grew from the roof and from the tops, while verdant creepers sashayed their way across the stonework. It looked quite at peace with itself, settling into its slow decay. I was slightly surprised then, when I completed my circum-perambulation of the building to find a side door open. I peered in and found not an empty, dank and decaying interior, but a church: a living and breathing church with alter and pews and pictures and pulpit. It even had microphones and plastic chairs.

I wandered outside again, away from the last of the churches of my trip to Goa and, as the final minutes afforded to me before my train arrived, I watched the local villages working in their rice paddies. Oxen (or water-buffalo) pulled a plough; women stand calf deep in mud planting out the rice; children scampered about carrying this and carrying that; young macho men gunned the engines of their motorbikes as they rode up down the narrow paths between the fields. The women in the fields looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back and said namaste. Giggles filled the air. My taxi driver honked his horn: a single doleful cry. I picked myself up and walked away from a scene of utter bucolic serenity. A train was waiting and so was Bombay.

Asia/India

My local, fantastic temple

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My attempts to learn Hindi have begun to suffer. Having been asked to write on the importance of Indians learning English I find to my embarrassment that even what little Hindi I had mastered is now slipping away from me. I must make amends and have begun learning by rote a few new sentences. The thing that always worries me about learning how to ask certain questions in Hindi is what I would do with the answer. It is all very well knowing the question but it is the answer that is the more interesting.

This barrier of communication was borne in on me as I went to visit the local temple that is visible from my bedroom window. Situated on the other side of a shanty town I fancied a guide of some sort would be useful: I would both be assured of gaining my destination and of avoiding any untoward adventure on the way. My guide ended up being a very amiable young man who knew all the little tracks and paths necessary but the process of explaining my quest to him quite exhausted my Hindustani and his English. We walked in silence to recover ourselves and when at last we entered the temple his sole word was fantastic and mine, achcha (good). It is an odd thing, I felt, to walk with a man and say nothing, not for the want of things to say but for the want of words to say them with.

The temple was fantastic, though: a riot of little shrines and idols and a ragout of religions too. Painted on the ceiling was a mighty serpent. On the floor there was the statue of a turtle and behind it one a little stool quite the oddest piece of taxidermy I have ever seen. A tiger crouched, staring at the main shrine. It was no ordinary tiger though. The giant of the jungle took on quite a different aspect for the Hindu devotees. Here he was presented almost as a teddy bear, with shrunken legs and a pudgy face. As I said, it was quite the weirdest tiger. Weirder still? The sacred terrapins that scurried across the floor.

Asia/India

Haggling

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Worlds apart: old Bombay...

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... and new Mumbai

As an expat, one has to be aware that virtually any price quoted is at least double or triple or even ten fold the true price that would be charged to the locals. Haggling is the order of the day but the trouble comes in working out what the proper price should actually be. This all makes shopping a sometimes rather drawn out enterprise. First, find out what is on offer and ask for the price. Second, retreat to the office and ask for the true price. Third, return to battle armed with righteous indignation at the breathtaking premium the seller has slapped on the price. Fourth, slowly wear him down to a more reasonable price, accepting in advance that you are unlikely ever to get him down to the price quoted in the office. Note well, though, that the fourth step can take some time.

In fact, I spent some seven weeks haggling over the price of one trivial little thing trying to get him down from his opening gambit of Rs 350 to the more proper price of Rs 30. All was going well as I was able to play the trump card of not actually wanting the thing that much and so could walk away. Prices plummet when you do that. And so, gradually, as the weeks wore on and I returned to his stall each time I visited that area of town, the price crept down. Sticking to my guns and demanding nothing less than Rs 30 price we reached Rs 100. Time had run out, so once again I left him to his wares. Then last weekend I returned to finish him off. I had also decided that this time around I would actually buy it. But whereas before he would always begin at the same price where we had left off before, this time he started at Rs 200. I admit I was taken aback. Before I new what I was doing I had complained that he had said Rs 100 the previous week so I was not going to pay more than that. Oh the folly. I had backed myself into a corner and now had to buy and buy at his inflated price. In one simple, swift manoeuvre he had beaten me utterly. I must gather my strength and return to the front. He may have won the battle but the war is not over yet.

Asia/India

What is cheap?

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With bus tickets costing only 5p, why spend 40p and more on an autorickshaw? Once on the bus you'll find a real touch of not-so-old England, with bus conductors and the old string operated bell.

There seems not to have been a lot to write about recently. I returned to England for the wedding of a school friend and in those few days tried to see as many friends and family as I could. Yet on the whole it was a strangely melancholic few days. Time was short and so I saw people in groups. The result? Not really seeing anyone and realising that time so far away is time that has no shared experiences. I could not join in the jokes and stories of others, for I simply did not know what they were about. I too, though, have gathered about me experiences that will be alien to them. This is what experiences are, of course: personal, and, whether shared or not, I hope make the person wiser for them. If the inability to join in a few jokes about a few missed parties is all there is to make one melancholic, life is not too bad I suppose. Do they really compare to living in Mumbai for six months? To watching the level of Lake Powai, visible from my bedroom window, climb so dramatically and so quickly with a few weeks of rain? To finding tailors capable of producing amazing clothes at laudable prices?

I say laudable because one thing I have begun to notice about Indian prices is that they cannot be uniformly described as cheap. Trousers can cost less in Primark than in many a Mumbai shop. A single bottle of beer (at about Rupees 80 to 100) is a real luxury for the many many people who earn the average wage (of about Rupees 80 to 120 a day). Some things are undeniably cheap: amazing silk jackets for £150; jackets which would surely cost over £500 in London. Some things cannot get cheaper, such as when I found myself shunning the auto-rickshaws this afternoon as I made my way back from the coast, opting instead for the bus. The bus costs Rs 4 (about 5p); taxis Rs 30 (37p) for the same journey.

Asia/India

A meat market

The rain did not end with Saturday but kept on coming through the night. By Sunday morning, although the clouds had cleard (sort of), there was a lot of water under foot. I set off in the morning to visit the Chor Bazaar but found it ankle deep in water.

Quite how much of a bad thing this was I was not sure. I had my wellington boots on to wade through the flooded aisles but there floating in the shit-laden water were the remnants of many a past sale: chicken wings, feathers, bits of vegetables, whole chickens, dead rats, plastic bags. All the detritus of a busy food market bobbing around at your feet.

But the interesting things lay not in the water but in the stalls all around. They were piled high with food and things to buy. Spices and vegetables and goats and bicycles. Owners were asleep on racks above them; the cats of owners asleep on even higher racks. There was activity all around with barrows being pushed hither and thither, shoppers browsing and boys scampering. In the meat halls there was a different sort of activity too. As the shoppers came to buy there chickens (handed over still alive) or their goat heads and brains, the rats, cats and crows were out searching for pickings too. And there were plenty to find.

Outside the food stalls were other sellers. Whole streets were given over to the sale of spare parts for cars and various motors. It was gripping to watch broken machine taken apart piece by piece, each bit salvageable and re-sellable in its own right. Such a far cry from the throw away attitude back at home. Everything is carefully repaired to be reused if possible.

After the Chor Bazaar I visited another market with another exciting meat section: the Crawford Market. Here, though, a porter attached himself to me and refused to leave me alone, preventing me from wandering aimlessly and taking in the sights. So soon I was driven out again to seek entertainment elsewhere in Bombay.

Mumbai really is a fascinating place. I have only been here a couple of months, but I find the city can captivate my attention. There is so much to see that is quite different from what is found at home.

In the evening I headed off to a party in town. Once again I found myself the only expat in the place. Once again everyone was friendly and welcoming.

Asia/India

The Western Ghats

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I went for a drive through the western ghats this morning and through the monsoon in the afternoon.

My guide book suggested a trip to Alibaug to see a couple of forts. Alas, the first was beyond the shore. The tide was in and there were no boats to take me across. So that idea had to be scotched. The second was supposed to be somewhere in the town. I tried to find it but could and could find no one with enough English to give directions. Finally I stumbled across and English ‘medium’ school. I went in to ask for help there. The headmaster welcomed me into his office but refused to answer my question until I had sat down. Then he told me to speak slowly because only then could he understand my language. He summoned an assistant to take me to the other fort but refused to let me look around the school on the grounds that Indians are ‘sensitive’ and ‘suspicious’. His assistant led me outside and then disappeared. He came back with his motor-bicycle and motioned me to get on. So off we speed. No helmets, no protective clothes, just motorcycling Indian style. The second fort turned out to be the town prison. It also looked just a little bit more recent than I had been expecting.

A little disappointed we set off to a second town with another fort. It too turned out to be at the wrong end of a high tide with no boats to ply a trade. Worse rain was threatening and the sole restaurant in the town refused to let me have what I ordered from the menu. I had to order again until I had picked the one thing they were willing to serve. The disagreeable nature of the lunch was only affected slightly when the rain started. They had made me sit outside. I began to feel a little soggy.

So we set off again, this time to a third village called Chaul. The rain had stopped but things were distinctly damp underfoot. The village had two things of note: a very pretty and tranquil temple and some amazing Portuguese ruins. The rains did not stay away for long, though, and I was soon chased back to the car.

The rain seemed light enough so we set off for the last site of the day: a Hindoo temple at the top of a hill. It had obviously been raining harder than I thought because the road was soon utterly flooded and where there had been fields, there were now lagoons. The climb to the temple itself was up a long winding stone path which now resembled a river’s rapids. In fact, the guide book might have rather over-sold the temple. It was not that magnificent even if the walk was. The walk would have been decidedly better had I not got utterly soaked in the course of it. The rain was phenomenal. On the drive back we went at little over 30miles an hour, the windscreen wipers were on maximum, the headlights were on as were the hazard lights and still we could barely see in front of our noses.

Asia/India

Death on the road

I did get a little upset today.

As I drove into town I saw lying on the side of the road the body of a dog. Its mouth was open in an eternal bark. Blood covered its face and flies its body. Its hair was gone; its skin bared to the world. Just another life withered away amongst the rubbish of the road side.

Asia/India

Learning Hindustani

Two little vignettes for today.

Yesterday, whilst we were stuck in Mumbai’s terrible traffic, I watched a man sleep on the side of the pavement. Lots of people sleep on the pavement, so there was nothing special in that. Running along the edge of the pavement was a low wall that must have been three foot wide. The man had picked it for his bed but was lying in a most awkward manner. His legs dangled off one edge, his head over the other. He seemed dead to the world, oblivious to the noise of the traffic and the passers-by. In fact he seemed very dead to the world. Perhaps he was drunk but I was not the only one who appeared interest. A passer-by on the street had stopped and was looking at him, concerned by the sleeping man’s posture. He tried prodding him to wake him. When that did not work he tried stamping on the man’s foot. Finally, giving up he simply grabbed the man’s arm and hauled him round so that his head rested on the wall instead of hanging into the abyss at an awkward angle. As the traffic moved on I did begin to wonder just how dead to the world one can be before one starts being dead.

Today I decided to buy an English to Hindustani phrase book. My attempt to learn Hindi (or at least to learn enough to scrap through the day) had begun to stall and I still had not learnt basic information gathering phrases. I found an book that seemed to fit the bill. It was re-published in 2007, was easy enough to read and had phonetic spellings for the Hindi words. It looked just the thing. I was amused to read what sort of phrases the Indian publishers thought might be useful. “No hair oil” might seem useful enough and “Can I get crocodile?” when talking to the shoemaker could probably be squeezed into conversation now and then but others seemed less modern. “Carry my gun”; “I would like to bag a cock” (a Jungle Cock, that is); “I won’t stand for this”; “I need quinine”. All this to prevent those “innumerable occasions” when one could be embarrassed: easy Hindi for the Tourist.