Asia/India

Caves under the city

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A morning's sights

I visited some cave temples this morning but unlike the ones I had been to before, these were deep within the city. The Jogeshwari caves are the oldest Hindu caves in India and are still active temples. The city crowds in on them from all sides, even from above, but inside there remains a cool, damp, calm.

I watched my first proper Bollywood film today. There was an office trip to the cinema so I thought I ought to go along and see for myself what all the hype surrounding the new release Jhoom Baraba Jhoom was about. Of course I understood virtually nothing that was said but I was still able to follow what was happening. I was helped by the film’s total shunning of a sensible plot or decent story. It was set mostly in London with a little in Paris, but the film revolved around two characters that bump into each other at Waterloo Railway Station. For some reason the girl is waiting for the train from Birmingham. Quite rightly the film shows her having to wait for quite a while, but I felt someone could have told her that the Birmingham trains leave from Euston. Still, being in the wrong terminus did not dampen her spirits at all and she was still able to fall in love with an obscenely over-the-top character dripping with bling and trailing the tag line “I’ve got class”. (Weirdly, her wait was not in vain. SouthWest Trains’ famous Birmingham milk-train via Southampton did finally arrive into Waterloo.)To make the film last the requisite two and a half hours, both characters had to pretend they were already engaged. Cunning twists in the plot aside, the film was largely about singing and dancing. There were five different songs, one of which was repeated several times. It was a good thing I liked the tune. Jhoom Baraba Jhoom.

Leaving the cinema I decided to get a haircut. I had needed one the week I arrived and not knowing my way around had stumbled into the first place I found. It had been a very slow affair, costing just under two pounds for a wash and cut. Today’s was a very different matter. A quicker cut followed by a rather unexpected and fairly vigorous head massage (or pounding, depending on your point of view) for a mighty 25pence. I think I will have to use them again.

Asia/India

Pills

I managed to contract some sort of fever on Monday evening after returning from the picture house. On the insistence of my office I went to see a Doctor yesterday. Refusing to give an explicit diagnosis but assuring me that it was nothing serious (of which I was already convinced), he then prescribed me four courses of pills to be taken simultaneously.

They do love their antibiotics out here.

Asia/India

The Regal

I took myself off to the picture house this evening. The Regal: a grand old 1930s cinema with a single screen and a huge auditorium. It was what cinemas ought to be like. The film was less inspiring. Pirates of the Caribbean III: utter garbage.

Asia/India

The Hill Station at Matheran

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The sights of Matheran

After work on Friday I went to Matheran, a hill station not too far from Mumbai. It was discovered by the British Collector for the area, Hugh Malet, in 1850 and soon became a popular retreat from the chaos of the city. Not that it does not have its own sort of chaos. Cars are not allowed in the hill station itself, but that just leaves the mud roads to become choked with people, horses and pedestrians. Cars can be used to climb the mountain but must be left in totally congested car park outside the station itself. The alternative to driving up the mountain is to take the narrow-gauge train. It was fully booked when I went to try and get a ticket, but the sight of it chugging into Matheran railway station (or what my guide book insists on calling a train station) was impressive enough. The track seems unbelievable narrow as it disappears under the on-coming engine. Once into the station, the engine disengaged itself from the carriages and moved round to take up position at the back so that it would be ready for the return leg. Except that no sooner had it done that, it disengaged again, disappeared for a moment and returned with an extra carriage which it then loosed from its couplings and left to free wheel to the far end of the station where it was connected to the end of the train.

No train for me, so I left the car at the car park and set on up the path to the hotel. I was soon offered a horse for the trip and after haggling the man down to a reasonable sum I mounted the lame donkey. The light was failing fast as my donkey quite stoically climbed the hill, one step at a time and delivered me safe and sound at my hotel, all the while ignoring the hoots of laughter from those we passed who were unable to cope with the idea of a man in a linen jacket and Panama riding a donkey that was simple far too small. I, on the other hand, enjoyed the trip immensely. I rode three times during the weekend, and that first trip was beaten only by the last. That was on Sunday as I was on my way back from yet another stunning view-point. A man galloped up to me and offered me his horse. For the first time I was presented with a horse in good condition, a horse that was properly horse sized, and a very reasonable price. I mounted my new stead at once and we set off in grand style.

On the Saturday I played my first game of cricket in India. I was walking to get to one of the marked out view-points when I saw a group of boys playing in a clearing. I wandered over and joined in the fielding. I was soon invited to bat, but after that display the politely forgot to ask me to bowl. Still, one team won and another lost and all enjoyed themselves, me included. They then crowded round to wish me good-bye and set me on my way with cheers and smiles and waves. The welcome one gets out here really does take some beating.

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The hills of Matheran

The hill station is perched on a flat mountain top, 2400 feet up. All around the sides of the mountain are steep indeed, so that one can walk to the edge and look out at fantastic landscapes and see no part of the slope you are standing on. The ground just disappears beyond your feet and you are left with amazing vistas, the scale of which is often so hard to judge that your eyes have difficulty focusing. Photographs do not really do the views justice but I took two short panoramic films. If you want to watch them, please mute your volume: my camera picked up a lot of background noise.

One point I stopped at was called sunset point. As it fell, the sun did peak out through the cloud and I watched the sky darken. As I left I looked back down into the valley. How odd it was to see it still bathed in light while the top of the mountain where I stood was shrouded in darkness.

As I left Matheran I decided to take a rickshaw down to the car park. I am not sure whether it was surprisingly comfortable or surprisingly uncomfortable. It was definitely very good fun and the team of three who pushed and pulled my down the hillside were so friendly and jovial. They ran past the horses and jumped over puddles, chatting and laughing all the way. When we reached the end I asked if I could try pulling the rickshaw. I asked the boy who had pulled me to climb on board and then I took up the reins of the rickshaw and pulled him back up the track for a while. The group could not believe their eyes and were almost convulsed with laughter. Indeed, all the Indians thought it hilarious and I was suddenly the star of several video cameras as they filmed me pulling the rickshaw in a hat they seem unable ever to tire of.

Asia/India

Opening hours

I tried paying-in a cheque today. I left the office early and wandered up the road in the noon-day heat. The night before a friend had told me that it had been thirty-nine degrees Celsius that day and would be a mere thirty-three today. As my skin prickled in the heat I rather fancied he had got it the wrong way around. I reached the branch at just gone 3:30pm. I opened the door and stepped into the cool inside. A very worried security guard shot up as I did so and asked me to leave. Apparently the bank was shut. Banks close at 3pm in India, he told me. I was cast back from the cool dark interior, into the oven world outside where I was left to explain to the man my displeasure at the ridiculous opening hours. It seems I was not alone in my view that the bank should be open longer for before long the manager had reopened his bank and ushered me inside his officer where I was even offered tea and coffee. If we still had bank managers in England, as opposed to the meaningless and useless relationship managers the banks try to foist on us instead, I would ask them to take note.

Asia/India

Retreat to Manori

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The Manori ferry was cancelled, and this was the replacement.

I was invited to spend the weekend at a house just outside Bombay and so yesterday evening I set off for a weekend away from the noise and bustle of Mumbai, to a place of quiet solitude. It was wonderful to get away from everything for a short while. Away from Betjeman’s air-conditioned bright canteens. Away from the crowds. Away from the heat. Away from the hotel I have spent five weeks in.

It was pleasant too to spend the weekend in a place where I could sleep without air conditioning, on a hard mattress with a mosquito net about me. To stay in a place where I could see the surf crashing on the beach. I could walk down from the house and walk along the beach, peering at the scuttling crabs that darted between rock pools. I even watched someone’s prize Labrador bitch get inseminated by one of the endless roving mongrels India seems full of. Even the torrential rain that drove me from the beach and soaked me to the skin within moments could not completely dampen the spirit of tranquility.

Manori is a small island just outside Mumbai, except that it is not really an island at all. The quickest way there, though, is by a tremendously slow ferry. There is no sign post to the ferry, nor a berth or quayside. The boat simply lumbers up to the beach and puts down a ramp. As would be passengers board in a rush, so motorcycles and passengers already on board try to disembark. Once across the house is but a short auto-rickshaw drive from the Manori quay-side (a journey costing 5 rupees to the locals but a bargain 30 rupees for visitors).

At least that is what it is supposed to be like getting there and it certainly was on the way there. Getting back was a little different. First, there were no autorickshaws. After waiting for twenty minutes for an empty one a bus came along. The island only had one road so I guessed it might take me in the right direction. Once on board it was soon borne in on me that endearing though being able to say good morning in Hindi was, it was going to get no where with a bus conductor who spoke even less English. Still it took me to the end of the road and even stopped to let me get off (it had barely stopped at all when I and others had tried to board it). Then I discovered that the ferry had been cancelled. Instead three fishing boats were plying a merry trade take people across the water. Three small fishing boats that got very crowded. When I finally got to board one it soon filled up and then almost sank when four young men decided that the obvious lack of space was hardly an impediment to them joining the cruise. They were pushed back off when the boat almost capsized.

Asia/India

A visit to the Sassoon docks

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More Indian signs

I visited the Sassoon docks this morning. It is the main fishing port for Mumbai and is heaving with people, boats and the catch of the day. Baskets of fish and prawns are thrown from man to man. Ice is poured down chutes into the holds of the chunky wooden trawlers. I was even invited to join a boat as it went out to begin its next fishing trip. I refused and regretted it immediately. Instead I wandered about savouring the aroma of fishing rotting in the high noon sun.

Asia/India

The rains arrive

It started raining this evening.

There has been no weather at all since I arrived and none for six months before that. It is hot and sunny all day long everyday. In fact, there aren’t any evenings either. It is bright and sunny and then the sun goes down leaving everything dark. The temperature barely changes so it is almost as if a light is merely switched on and off. Today there was weather. First the wind picked up, then the lightning came and soon thunder could be heard. Forty minutes later and the rain arrived. Not hard at first (though certainly not light) but it built in power quickly. I don’t know why I got so excited but I was. I dashed out to stand and catch the first drops of rain of my first Indian monsoon.

It is not as if I have never experienced rain before. I have seen it rain and seen it rain very very hard. I have seen rain in India too (though it was a pathetic and short shower). This evening was different. It was the start of something. The rain tonight was the herald of rain and more rain over the next few months.

It was funny too. For weeks I have been told that the rain would come at the end of June. It broke today and in magnificent style. How could it not have been forecast?

Asia/India

Cycling

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I went for a cycle today.

On Friday I managed to pick up a second hand bicycle. Not a good one by any means, a large child’s bicycle with no gears, but it had handle bars, brakes, a seat, two wheels and mud guards. It would get me to work and back.

It was also very cheap: I had to pay only for the repairs which came to about £5. It made a horrendous rattling noise this morning when I took it out for my first ride. I could not work out what was making it but dotted along the roadside are little cycle repair huts. I stopped at one and the man set to work with simple tools and an air of concentration. He worked out the problem and fixed it, simply and efficiently. All for 50p.

The hotel were rather non-plussed when I first turned up on the bicycle and gave it to them to valet park. But they have taken it in their stride now.

Asia/India

An earthier life

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At the end of The Aeneid, Aeneus finally stands triumphant over his adversary, Turnus. Turnus knew he would die at Aeneus’ hands and went to fight him in that knowledge, but knowing too in his honour and courage. In his final moments, though, Turnus still begs for life. Life clings to itself above all else. In Nature, mothers will defend their offspring, but not to the point where it would involve sacrificing themselves, when sacrificing the offspring would leave life still with the mother and time yet for another batch of offspring. Turnus begs but it is no use and, in the words of the Penguin translation, ‘the limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades’.

I have written before that life in India seems to me much earthier. Perhaps as adjectives go this one lacks clarity. Three vignettes from my day might let you cleave to the idea I am trying to put across.

After lunch I went for a walk through south Bombay to look once again at the buildings and the bustle. As I walked down the wide, shady and empty road that runs along the side of the docks a lorry rushed past me and it did so with a surprising thumping noise. Looking round I saw a cat lying on the road. But it wasn’t lying normally. It was staring frantically about it and standing up on its front legs. Its back half lay dangling behind it. The lorry had driven over its back, crushing its back half and hind legs. The lorry had gone on without a pause to wonder what the noise or bump was. It had stopped but only because there were traffic lights and the driver was oblivious to what had happened. The cat was not oblivious to its plight, not yet. It tried to run away but could not and as it tried to run from the site and from the pain it managed somehow to twist itself round and over, the dead weight of its back half holding it back and making any purposeful movement impossible. In its frantic movement though, flipping its back over must have severed the spine and spinal cord completely for the cat soon lay down, moving only its head. Then it lay lifeless, dissolved in cold. It never even mewed: it acted out its death scene in silence. A young boy across the road moved over to it, flipped it over to see if it was dead and then dragged it across the road by is hind leg to leave it in the gutter.

Cats die all over the world and are run over by cars all over the world too. I put my stamp of interpretation on what those wild, staring, frantic eyes signified, but I have no real idea. It was not that the death was callous or intended. It was not just that I find watching an animal die slowly rather upsetting. I noticed too the, perhaps not indifference, but certainly the matter of fact manner in which the boy and others in the street took in the scene. Life is much harder out here, for everyone, man and beast, and death a far more real thing. But it is not just the attitude to death which makes me call things earthy; the attitude to life does the same.

In the morning I headed out of Bombay to see the Sanjay Ghandi National Park with its safari. This is a drab affair, even for Mumbai. The safari is a bus ride through two enclosures, the first with some tigers and the second with a couple of lions. The bus is terrifically noisy, so we will hardly be able to catch the great cats unaware. It is encased in metal grills too, but rather pointlessly so since the side door does not shut fast. The cats, though, seem no danger and take no notice of the bus and its noise and fanfare. They just lie there, in the dust, or in a shallow pool of water in a massive concrete saucer. They appear drained of life, of energy and even (literally and metaphorically) of colour. They just lie, weighed down with ennui.

Back in Mumbai, after the big cats and before the little one, I passed a monument to Bombay’s heroic past. It commemorated the part played by the Docks in the Great War. Captain Eric Douglas was singled out for special mention. He, an engineer, had refused to abandon his gun emplacement even when the infantry were routed. Going beyond what the corporatists of today would call his remit, he rallied the infantry and reformed the line, delaying the Germans in their advance. In the face of withering fire he walked along the line of his men and guns restoring resolve to their hearts. He was killed in a skirmish in 1918.

Death is commonplace and life often drab and too often harsh. But India and Bombay are also full of energy and their history full of heroes and excitement and colour and life and death that makes the faded shades of current life for so many in Mumbai today so much the starker.