29 October 2012

Mumbai Madness & Magic

I am an Australian who lives now in the ordered life of Singapore. It is uber ordered. Singapore runs like a well oiled machine. It hums with efficiency. Although nothing is broken much needs to be fixed. My working life takes me to many places in Asia. I often flit through countries and when I wake up in hotel rooms I sometimes forget where I am. Occasionally though I have the opportunity to stay for a while. 

Amongst my very favourite cities in the world is Mumbai in India. 

It was once Bombay. The name changed but the place didn't. The magic of Mumbai always gets my heart racing. It is almost mindboggling how this city of nearly 20 million people (a shade under the population of my entire home country) manages to function. Despite the chaos that prevails at almost every single turn the city functions. It throbs. 

It Pulsates. 

There is a vibrancy and potency in Bombay that is unique to Asia.

The sounds of Mumbai are overwhelming. It seems no driver can resist honking his horn. I'm not sure if the honking is to warn of an advance or it is just to announce the driver’s presence. Each morning I cross the main road adjacent to my office in the Worli district to buy myself a cold drink. I drink a freshly squeezed lime juice. Hold the ice. There is no pedestrian crossing – such luxuries do not exist in the city of Mumbai.

A very large, imposing, and heavily-mustached policeman seems to delight in assisting me. He boldly marches through the teeming traffic, both hands raised with great authority - all the time blowing on a large brass whistle. Upon reaching the centre of the road he holds up his enormous mitts. Each wrapped in snow white gloves. 

He commands the traffic to halt. 

He then gestures to me to cross the road. He does this brazenly and with authority. Every step I take is accompanied by a loud toot of his whistle as he keeps rhythm with each pace. I've tried the brisk walk, the quick step and the slow crawl. 

Miraculously and musically his whistles match each of my treads. This morning I paused mid-stride. I was hoping to catch him out - just to see how he would handle it. A momentary look of puzzlement crossed his face before he broke into a broad grin. He quickly become attuned to the game that I was playing. 

I’m not sure who was the more delighted.

My drive to and from the office each day is an experience for all the senses. It certainly wakes me up. I have quickly learned that red lights mean much the same as green ones here in Mumbai. One just blows their horn with a little more urgency when dashing through the reds. Amber does not exist. It is pointless.

The line markings on the roads are simply wasted paint as every driver tries to create six or seven lines of traffic even when only two technically exist. Signaling for turns is achieved by flapping one’s arms wildly out the window. 

Sometimes legs as well. 

Rickshaw drivers in particular sometimes appear to be doing the splits as first one sandaled leg shoots out the right side of the vehicle and then, almost simultaneously - when U-turns are undertaken - the left leg shoots out the left side. It is like a body disconnected. It is not uncommon to see a family of three or four perched on a rickety old motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic. 

Yesterday I saw a little boy sitting on the rear of his father's motorcycle with a plastic whistle in his mouth. His father nudged him gently with his elbow to blow on the whistle whenever they turned corners. I assumed that their horn was not functioning.

The surviving chrome on the banged up old yellow and black Ambassador taxis is polished to a high sheen by the drivers. Their taxis are obviously a source of great pride for these men who drive them for up to 16 hours a day.

At 4 pm sharp each day Bolah the Nut Boy sets up shop on the curb at the front of my office in Worli. Bolah is one of tens of thousands of such child merchants in this city. He is no more than 12 years of age. Bolah squats on the dusty ground and he perches a rusty old oil can atop some burning embers. He then gently roasts a pan of mixed dried nuts that he sells to passersby. 

I have watched him ever so carefully fold roughly cut pieces of newspaper into long cylindrical cones which he then fills to the brim with his product. He sells these cones for five rupees each. I find it impossible to resist his business endeavour and buy two cones each afternoon and I give him 50 rupees. This is a little over one US dollar. Such extravagance has apparently endeared me to him and last night, before I even realized it - and before his business got busy, he took out a dirty rag and began wiping my dusty shoes. 

I tried to stop him but such a look of hurt and disappointment appeared on his face that I felt obliged to let him continue. An old beggar then appeared with a somewhat crazed look on his face and he was muttering something incomprehensible. Bolah promptly leapt to his feet, yelling and chasing him away. 

The guys in my office have told me that the name Bolah means the "innocent one.” 

While he has the body of a frail and undernourished child, Bolah has eyes that shine with the wisdom and guile of an old man.

Indian men love their uniforms. They are kept immaculately clean and are worn with great pride. The streets of Mumbai are filled with policemen, postmen and other government workers who wear elaborate khaki or green jackets and trousers emblazoned with bright badges and huge brass buttons that are polished to a high sheen. My office has dozens of security guards and is serviced by four lifts. In each lift a uniformed operator is seated. Their sole responsibility is to press the floor buttons to where you need to go. 

On my first day I made the dreadful mistake of actually pushing the button myself. 

I received such a look of hurt and devastation that I haven’t dared to press one since. 

The women of Mumbai wear brightly coloured and beautiful saris. Most have traditional Hindi nose piercings – many of which are ornamented with tiny silver bells. If the road traffic wasn’t so loud, I am sure passersby could hear tiny tinkles as these women go about their business.

No visit to Mumbai would be complete without a trip to a ghat. These are the laundries of Mumbai and they have been around for more than a thousand years. 

Hundreds of these ghats can be found in the back streets of Mumbai where whole families are engaged in a ritual of hand washing, drying and ironing clothes and linen. 

A dhobi is a laundry man or woman. One is typically born into the occupation. Multiple generations live in tight-knit communities. When visiting such establishments, I would  recommend that you first of all ask to meet with the Head Dhobi.

The gentleman I visited at the Saat Rasta ghat – Mr. Dhavala Singh - was a most obliging fellow and he was extremely proud in showing me how the place functions. More than 300 dhobis, ranging in age from 8 to 75 years of age, work and live in his establishment. Labor is divided in teams of workers who first diligently sort the whites from the colours in large piles. Groups of washers then rinse the items while standing ankle deep in long rows of narrow concrete baths. 

When appropriately soaked, both men and women “thwack” the clothing against large “flogging stones.” Looking closely one can see that these are worn smooth from centuries of use. I heard the “thwumping” of the flogging even above the noise of the Mumbai traffic and long before I entered the ghat. The noise was hypnotic and magnetic. It was alluring.

Female dhobis sang as they went about their washing duties, adding an almost poetic beauty to the rigorous tasks they were undertaking. They were most graceful in their labour.

From the washing baths young boys carried the soaked bundles of clothes to massive vats of boiling water mixed with diluted starch. I guess that this is the equivalent of the rinse cycle of modern washing machines. Then the shirts, trousers and saris were hung on long lines to dry in the sun and wind. The sight of colorful saris and pure white sheets flapping in the breeze provided a stark contrast to the drab grey concrete of the washing baths. They were like a rainbow radiating across an arctic snow land. 

Mr. Singh told me that his name meant “pure white” - which was how he demanded that all his linen be washed. Mr. Singh told me that he was most honoured to be washing all of the linen and towels for some of India’s finest hotel establishments.

The final part of the laundering process was undertaken by the ironing ladies. These women went about their jobs using huge metal plate irons. The heat source for these irons is hot coals and charcoals that are carefully layered on the upper plates. Chatting endlessly amongst themselves, the ironing dhobis work tirelessly from before dawn until well after dusk, pressing perfect seams and creases before folding each item and sorting them into bundles for delivery. Small teams of delivery ghats somehow manage to make sense of what to the naked eye is chaos – and deliver the items to their owners. 

Charging them the correct per item fee. 

They hustle. 

They bustle. 

It is a delight to behold. 

“Never an item is lost,” Mr. Singh told me. 

It would be to the shame of the ghat if such an event were to occur.” 

He seemed aghast at the thought. Traumatized. When I asked whether his business is jeopardized by modern washing machines and dryers, his response seemed both angry and concerned. 

He muttered, “Those accursed contraptions will be the end of us all.” 

For all of our sakes I truly hope not. 

I’m taking my washing there tomorrow.

I went to a bookstore this morning to find something to read. Upon seeing Aravind Adiga’s novels "The White Tiger", "Between the Assassinations" and “Last Man in Tower” displayed prominently on the main display shelf. 

I told the proprietor that Adiga was among my favourite authors and enquired whether he had written any other works. 

I received a polite "No," 

I then asked the proprietor whether he had in fact read either book. The Proprietor nodded and wobbled his head in the negative but he asked me what the books were about. 

I informed him that they were beautiful works of literature about the life of the common man in India and the hardships of surviving. 

He chuckled softly and nodded knowingly and said, "I don't need to read them then as this is something that most Indians are living every day in Mumbai." 

My response was that he should be very proud to be an Indian. I told him that for me there was so much beautiful art and talent and life in his city and country that he should in fact be bursting with pride. He told me, almost blushing, that my words made his heart sing.

This is Mumbai. 

This is India. 

It makes my heart sing too.

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