Mumbai is an amazing city, and I'm ashamed I haven't known it better. For 15 years, I stayed not 200 kilometres away, and over the 29 years of my life I must have visited it 20-30 times. But this trip was the first time I felt the pulse of the city. A pulse that races along at double-speed, threatening to leave behind anyone who can't keep up with its pace.
So many interesting experiences this time.
Mumbai suffered the brunt of the devastating floods that hit Maharashtra
state in July this year. Over 3 to 4 days, hundreds of people died, there was millions of rupees worth of damage to property, and people's lives and livelihoods were affected. And all this happened 3 weeks prior to my trip there (and inspired much 'mirth' in the office).
But stepping into Mumbai in August 2005 is like stepping into Mumbai in August 2004. There is no evidence of the floods: the same sights, the same smells, the same sounds and the same feeling of being back in the most exciting city in the world. Streets were crowded, road side vendors selling 'paan
' (betel leaf based mouth freshener) and pav vadas (something like a potato burger) and ganna (sugar cane juice), kids playing cricket, the innumerable cars and buses and people filling the streets and coalescing into one being.
This time around I managed to re-connect with a few people I knew, and I got from each of them their stories of how they coped in the floods.
Stories like how families on upper floors of buildings graciously welcomed strangers into their homes, fed them and cared for them for 2 nights, or how young poverty-ridden boys took it upon themselves to help the rich car owners back home by stopping them in the middle of the road to give them directions on the best (least flooded) route home, or how random people walked around giving food packets (prepared at home) to the cold, wet and stranded.
I heard how my cousin (and countless others), stranded miles away from home, had to walk through chest high water for hours on end to reach home. Water that literally had unmentionable things floating in them. And how my grandma, stranded alone at home with no running water and no electricity, decided to spend that evening and the next day gossiping with the neighbours, trying not to worry about her daughter, grand-daughter, grand-daughter-in-law and great grandson.
Mumbai 2005 gave us no shortage of stories to bandy about, each of them simultaneously heart warming, enthralling and inspiring. I raise my hat to all of you.
This time in Mumbai, we finished our work fairly quickly - what was originally planned to be 3 days got reduced to a day and a half. Not due to any efficiency on our part - it was more due to us getting to exasperated with the proceedings that we strangled all the decisions we needed out of our bosses there. That's a pretty good way to work I think.
So on Tuesday afternoon, I returned to the hotel at 2 pm, and after a quick visit to my airline office to change my ticket, found myself back on the mean streets, armed with a small amount of cash I had had the presence of mind to change, and a shopping list from the wife.
The shopping list:
1. Real Paan
2. Dry Bhel Puri
and other snacks
3. Amitabh Bachchan
DVDs (3 in 1)
Having already made discreet enquiries, I knew where to get the DVDs. Well roughly where. Walking around the Fountain area, I came across tens of vendors selling brand new bestsellers (and not so new potboilers) on the pavement. With prices ranging from Rs. 10 (S$ 0.40) to Rs. 200 (S$ 8.00), it was a fraction of the prices back here. However, my objective was still the DVDs. I asked around, and was finally directed to a by lane at the back, where there were a couple of vendors selling "Visual Basic 5" and "1001 Free Fonts". With not much hope left, I asked one of these guys (whom I will call Ram), and he looked around discreetly and pulled me along to a tiny shop about 20m further down. Ram then pulled down a black plastic bag and showed me at least 100 DVDs, each loaded with between 2 and 4 bollywood films. 10 minutes of browsing yielded good results (4 DVDs with 12 movies), and after a spot of bargaining (I reduced the total price from Rs. 720 to Rs. 600) I was done.
It was then that Ram pulled me towards him and whispered in my ear, "Aapko triple chahiye?". I gently disengaged myself from his clutch, smiled back at him, said "Nahi!", and walked back with a slightly more than gentle pace.
A safe distance away, and clutching my own tiny black plastic bag, I chanced upon an ancient looking man sitting on the pavement with his magic 'paan' kit arrayed before him. I have this theory that for good 'paan', one must always buy from old Muslims, and this gentleman (Iqbal) met both criteria. The only problem in communicating with him was that he was hard of hearing (and a little senile), he only spoke Urdu, and my realisation that there is a lot of 'paan' jargon. Still, with the help of one of his side kicks, I managed to convey that I wanted 10 sweet paans to take overseas. I chose Banarasi 'paans' over Calcutta 'paans' after some careful consideration. My only reason for that was that B comes before C.
Watching him make the paans was an exercise in patience, and watching him gave me a strange sense of peace. It was obvious that this old man enjoyed his art and the amount of care and love (yes, love) that he put into it was charming. Ten minutes later, and Rs 50 lighter, I carried a small bag of 10 'paans' back to the hotel and straight into the fridge.
Part 2 soon.