Asia/India

Bombay vs Mumbai

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A very good turn of phrase

I have been using two names the city here: Mumbai and the older Bombay. I have been unsure which I should use. The city was renamed Mumbai not by popular demand but by political machination. While the guide books have all switched over to writing of Mumbai (and Kolkotta for Calcutta) not all Indians have.

Still, just because the politically correct do and some Indians do not, it was not immediately obviously which name would be more acceptable to the majority of people that I would talk to out here. Any such doubts were put aside last night. I had been chatting with a group of Indians I met after work. After about forty minutes I suddenly noticed that not one of them had said Mumbai: all had been talking of Bombay. I asked them why this was, given that I had been told off in the office for not saying Mumbai. The room went quiet and all eyes turned to me. Then one man spoke up saying “Why shouldn’t we call it Bombay? It is Bombay. I was born in Bombay, I’ve lived all my life in Bombay and I’ll die in Bombay. @#&! the politicians.”

No more needed to be said. The case was closed. I was to speak of Bombay and Bombay alone. Or at least I thought the case was closed. But no, more followed, nothing here repeatable, as it was explained to me just what they felt about all the politically motivated name changes going on.

Strong passions were aroused. Names remain fraught.

Asia/India

Into Bombay

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I spent almost all last week in the office. When I was not in the office I was in my hotel. On Tuesday night I went to a local restaurant for supper but all in all I have not been having a very adventurous time. With the weekend I decided it was time to explore again.

I headed into town this morning, to the heart of Mumbai proper. South Bombay is over an hour’s drive from the hotel but it is always interesting to watch the traffic go past. There are endless taxis and auto-rickshaws; scores of motorbikes whose riders may or may not wear a helmet but certainly don’t wear any Kevlar; rusting lorries, packed buses and a few private cars. The roads are all dusty and unfinished looking (and many of them really are unfinished) and pavements do not really exist, but the main roads are well maintained and very wide. But the Indian style of driving pays no regard for lanes, so the traffic actually moves quite slowly as cars constantly weave about one another.

I decided to walk around and see as many of the old colonial buildings as I could. There are loads. Spires, neo-classical columns, plinths, gargoyles and arches abound. There are high ceilings and whirring fans and marble statues. There are constant contrasts: cool interiors against a baking street; street stalls selling pirated films and software outside mega-expensive (by anyone’s standards) designer shops; imposing facades next to crumbling hovels. The Victoria Terminus railway station is a great example. It is an amazing building. The architecture is just stunning, sort of St. Pancras writ large. Across the road there are other amazing buildings: palaces to the past and cathedrals to their industry. But all around there are ramshackle stalls, and with the terminus itself, what goes on inside doesn’t really fit with the exterior anymore.

Asia/India

Daylight robbery

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At least the monkeys did not go thirsty. That was my water bottle.

I was robbed today, twice. The first time was just a silly bit of shanghai-ing which I fell for in a moment of distraction. Even as it happened I knew it was wrong. But it was the second episode that was much the more interesting.

Just across the bay from Bombay is the island of Elephanta. You can take a boat there from the Gateway to India. This I did and by the time I arrived on the island the heat was absolutely baking. The island is home to some quite remarkable shrines carved directly into the rock. Much has now been damaged and eroded away, but the air (inside them at least) had a certain quality and one could well imagine why people would choose to come here to pray. It was the air outside the relative cool of the shrines that was the problem. Looking around at the other visitors it was rare not to see a short drenched with sweat. The state of my own shirt only escaped detection because I was wearing a jacket over, though I was rather defeated as the afternoon wore on. It was the sort of heat that demanded constant drinking and so I had bought a fresh bottle of cold water when stepping off the boat and onto the island. But it was obviously not just the tourists who felt that the temperature demanded a drink. As I walked up the hill towards the shrine, taking in the sights and the colours and holding my water-bottle not a little lackadaisically, the second thief of the day prepared his ambush. Quickly he stole up on me and with one deft swipe of his arm knocked the bottle from my grasp. Grabbing it himself he shot up into a tree, removed the lid with his mouth and slaked his own thirst off as the water ran from the bottle. I really was very impressed. An hour or so later I was also very thirsty.

Asia/India

The superfastestest connection in the superfastestest city?

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It has taken me a few days to sort myself out. Things do slowly come together, though. On Tuesday I did a spot of sight-seeing. I visited the rather magnificent Gateway to India. Built in honour of their Imperial Majesties it certainly was awe inspiring. I could not help but be wistful at the fact that none had been built for my arrival. Surely just as momentous?

Obviously not.

Bombay appears to be a massive city. Packed full of people, cars and towering buildings. A thirty-odd story block of flats is nothing to be remarked at, even if it stands next to the shantiest of bungalows. The roads are a constant swarm of human and motorised traffic but, like so much else in this city, it is not quite like what I have seen elsewhere in India. Busy the roads maybe, but chaotic (at least by the standards I saw further north back in 2002) they are not.