Bright Lights, Pink City (Part IV)

Earlier this year, a young family friend left for India for the first time. In talking with him prior to his departure, I was inspired to dig up the emails I sent to friends and family while studying Hindi in India back in the summer of 2004. Blogging had just started to catch on at the time and it didn’t occur to me to start one then, but I thought it might be entertaining to post these now. Excerpts are mostly unedited, except to remove boring pleasantries and preserve the privacy of those involved; also, links to relevant sites have been inserted for your enjoyment/edification/distraction.

(Continued from Part III)

Date: July 12, 2004
Subject: “the corner of Bollywood and Grime”

Last time I promised details of the previous week’s trip to Bombay (or Mumbai as it is now officially known). I hope you have some time, ’cause this is gonna be a long one…

First of all, I learned an important lesson: some things are worth paying extra for, such as air conditioning on an 18-hour train through the Rajasthani desert in June. Unfortunately, we could not get three seats in the 3rd class A/C on the way there. I was traveling with my friends S. and E., both of whom assured me that 3rd class non A/C sleeper was the way to get the true Indian train experience (in reality of course, the most authentic way to go is to sit in the baggage car. No, really, you can do
this). Naturally, the engine broke down several hours from Bombay and we sat in the sweltering heat for four hours before they could get it repaired, and we rolled into Bombay a full 23 hours after we left Jaipur. My favorite part of the trip was the graffiti spray-painted in the Bombay railyards by some anti-
globalization/naxalite/anarchist/what-have-you group called the Bombay Revolution or something like that that said “No Pepsi / No Coke / We Want Lassi”… written, of course, in English.

Anyway, the wretched train journey was absolutely worth it, because Bombay is a great city. Once we peeled ourselves off of our sweat soaked berths (another traveler in our compartment, an Israeli, described our state rather accurately as “smelling like a yeti’s ass”), we headed down to our hotel in Colaba to wash off the filth, and then out to see some sights. S. lived in Bombay for 6 months a few years back, working in one of the much-maligned call centers which are getting so much attention these days, so she knows the city quite well and was able to show us around. Colaba is the tourist center of Bombay, so it’s rather unpleasant — touts and scam artists everywhere, and those are just the tourists — but once we got out of there, it was amazing. Suddenly, for the first time in a month, no one gave a damn that we existed. You have to understand, that in Jaipur, we are constantly a spectacle. In the old city, where all the tourists go, we are marks, dollar signs with legs (and even more so now that there are hardly any tourists here); out in the burbs, where we live and go to school, we are just bizarre. People stop and stare at us, little kids follow us around, men driving large vehicles nearly snap their own necks turning to gawk, crowds gather while we haggle with shopkeepers — I half expect to see someone walk through a plate glass window like in a Buster Keaton movie before I leave. But in Bombay — blissful anonymity. I’ve never been so happy to be ignored.

Anyway, we walked over to the Gateway of India (being repaired after a terrorist bomb attack last year), went to the oldest British building in the city (a church with lots of colonial memorials saying things like “loved by all, especially by the natives whom he forever sought to uplift” etc.) and then over to Marine Drive (Bombay’s answer to Lake Shore Drive) and up to Chowpatty Beach for some kulfi (a kind of ice cream made with condensed milk – much better than it sounds), then pizza for dinner (we took full advantage of the fact that non-Indian food was readily available).

Amazingly, Bombay has actual taxis, with actual meters, that actually work… in Jaipur we have the option of cycle rickshaws or auto rickshaws (basically three-wheelers), both of which require haggling down to a price that only narrowly evades definition as extortion. But in Bombay we could take real taxis for LESS money than a comparable drive in a rickshaw would have cost in Jaipur.

Anyway, on Thursday (day 2) we decided to head to the ancient Shiva-temple complex on Elephanta Island. Unfortunately for E. and S.’s stomachs, this required an hour-long boat ride on choppy surf… and apparently five or six of these boats go under every year. I’m glad I didn’t know this until after we had made it back through the giant storm that overtook us fifteen minutes after leaving the island. That evening we went to a place called Tea Center for a light dinner; this place had some of the weirdest tea drinks I have ever heard of. I wrote some of ’em down in case you’d like to try them at home:

  • The Lady Marmalade: Tea liqour, orange marmalade, brown sugar, lemon juice, orange juice (presumably you can also spread it on toast)
  • Hot Buttered Apple Tea: Tea liquor, brown sugar, lemon rind, apple juice, honey, nutmeg (sounds pretty good so far, right?)… and a pat of BUTTER.
  • The Fire N Tea: Darjeeling Tea Liquor, orange lemon and pineapple juice, ginger juice, green chiles and (gulp) Worcestershire sauce

That night we hit a club called “Not Just Jazz By The Bay” on Marine Drive to hear some live music… instead what we got was a “band” called Ringo Star Romantic, which consisted of three rather hip looking young Bombayites essentially doing karaoke over keyboard beats to the likes of Wille Nelson and John Denver (“West Virginia country roads take me home,” indeed). It was weird. But I see a niche here — Indian country music. If you want to get in on the ground floor of what is sure to be a growth industry — an Indian country-singer named Bobby Cash is already on the Australian charts — just let me know…

On Friday we went up to Malabar Hill (now that’s a name that needs to be in a country song). We couldn’t see the Towers of Silence (where Bombay’s large Parsi Zoroastrian community leaves its dead to be eaten by vultures, in order to avoid polluting the earth or fire) but we went to the so-called hanging garden, which features topiaries in the shapes of animals (my favorite was the one of Hanuman the monkey-god) and, even, more bizarrely, dozens of trashcans SHAPED LIKE GIANT PENGUINS. Now, I don’t know where they got these things (zoo clearance sale?) but when I think “Bombay,” penguins are not the first animal that comes to mind… E. described it as similar to having trashcans shaped like grizzly bears at Sea World. But really, the truly weird part was the sheer number of trashcans. You can go days, weeks, in a major city in India without seeing a trashcan, and in this park there was one every ten feet. Literally. It was like some kind of Elysian Field of trash disposal opportunities. If only I’d had some garbage to feed the penguins…

Anyway, after that we walked down the hill to a place called Banganga tank, which is kind of a holy swimming pool surrounded by temples (this is supposedly where Ram stopped to build a lingam of sand to worship Shiva on his way to Lanka to rescue Sita), where people bathe and wash their clothes in water that probably could give the East River a run for its money. But it was very peaceful, and hard to believe we were still in a major metropolis. We were accompanied to the tank by a nice old man whom I have come to think of as the Indian Obi-Wan — when crossing busy intersections, he would simply give a wave of the hand, as if to say “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” and the  normally bat-out-of-hell Indian drivers would stop (or at least slow down) and allow us to pass. I’ve tried this Jedi mind trick myself, but as of yet to no avail.

That evening we took a local train out to Juhu Beach, one of the more glamourous suburbs. We took in a play, and made a special trip to see Shah Rukh Khan (the biggest star in Bollywood at the moment)’s house. Unfortunately, I was unable to work any Bollywood magic and finagle a tour of Film City studios (the PR director, whose number I got from a fellow student, told me I needed a letter from my embassy). We were approached on the street in Colaba and asked if we wanted to be extras in some sort of production (not an uncommon occurrence, as we fair-skinned folk are always in demand as extras for commercials, tv serials, etc.) but we were leaving the next day, so our dreams of Bollywood stardom were destroyed… while by herself at one point, S. also got asked to provide “entertainment” — “just eat, drink, mingle” — at a “very rich Indian man’s party.” She declined, though I can’t imagine why…

Finally, after having to fight off the advances of not one but three ear cleaners on the street (they use these giant sharp metal rods to dig all the wax — and, I’m guessing, some gray matter — out of your ears) it was time to leave. The trip home was far more pleasant than the one there; in the a/c section they actually give you sheets, pillows, and blankets! And naturally, this trip went off without a hitch.

Arriving in Jaipur, it was back to business as normal — a pack of rickshaw-wallas descended upon us like a pack of starving dingoes the moment we stepped out of the station. One of them asked me in barely-accented English, “You are from the States?” When I replied affirmatively, he smiled grimly and said, “Welcome to the Hotel California.” This song, by the way, has been following me everywhere. I swear that they put it on specifically for me every time I walk into one of the coffee shops here. So apparently I can check out, but I guess I can never leave.

Anyway, lets’ see, what else has been going on… apparently last week was a festival called Samppujana, which means “cobra worship.” And in fact, they brought two snake-charmers to the institute along with two not-very-happy cobras, to perform for us and explain the point of the festival, which as far as I can tell is to scare the crap out of pansy foreigners. So yes, they really do have snake-charmers in India — if only there had been scantily-clad nautch girls and an effeminate yet rapacious maharaja, all of our Orientalist dreams could have been fulfilled in one fell swoop.

On a completely different subject, yesterday, after a field trip to a local temple complex called Galta (which is home to, oh, I don’t know, seven million monkeys), I made my first pilgrimage to that great American Temple of the Golden Arch. Except for the fries and the milkshakes, you wouldn’t recognize much of the menu. There are about seven or eight vegetarian things on the menu, and the rest is chicken or Filet-a-Fish (I’m not sure whether or not most Indians realize that McDonalds makes the vast bulk of its money from the slaughter of their favorite animal). I had the Pizza McPuff, which S. recommended… it was like a samosa made from McDonalds apple pie crust filled with peas and carrots, and tomato sauce that was essentially ketchup. Next up will be the McAloo Tikka, which I think is basically a potato-burger. Ah, the joys of exotic cuisine…

Anyway, sorry for being “a sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by my own verbosity,” and I will let you go back to your bustling American productivity.

(to be continued…)

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