Most non Indians will know Mumbai from the film Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar winning movie that depicts Mumbai as a colourful yet dangerous and poverty stricken city, or from the glossy slick adverts from the Indian tourist board
Incredible India shout the glossy brochures and commercials whilst showing pictures of beautiful landscapes, sunsets and colonial buildings. Of course what they don’t show you is the poverty, the children begging, the pollution, the heat, the people pissing in the street. Yes, of course it reminded me of London, apart from the heat and the fact there are more Indians in London. Also in London its a little unusual to find cows walking down the street. Well at least not the bovine, milk able kind anyway. The London cows are usually in Matalan buying clothes for their next trip to exotic Benidorm
Of course when in India for the first time the very first thing you must do is go for an Indian. Its the rule, written in law. Now everyone in England will tell you that the Indian food in India tastes very different from your local Star of Bengal. Bollocks, it tasted exactly the same, the only big difference is it costs three times less. And get this, for fuck sake, the famous Indian Cobra beer you drink in Bombay curry houses is brewed in England. Exporting Indian beer to the Indians, it like selling sand to the Thieving wankers (Egyptians, in case you don’t know)
Tania and I proceeded to the Gateway to India, no that’s not the name of an Indian Restaurant, its kind of the Bombay equivalent of Marble Arch. Built at the height of the British Raj, its an imposing edifice overlooking the Persian Sea. Its also, on a Friday night, the meeting place for hawkers, beggers, pimps and Bollywood talent scouts. I kid you not, three times near the arch, Tania and I were approached to be extras in a Bollywood movie. Now normally, being a cynical, world weary traveller I would dismiss this and add it to my list of 1001 international scams (to be published soon), but this is actually genuine. Many Bollywood movies need western looking extras in the background and they approach tourists in the Gateway to India area to do this. I would have done it, too, if we had had time but it takes pretty much a whole day at the studio we didn’t have that to spare. Oh well, back to mundane obscurity.
The next day we spent exploring the city. Of course ten minutes after we left the ship, we are completely fucking lost and wandering through a shanty town. I thought I had seen poverty but nothing prepares you for the sight of shack after shack lining both sides of one of the busiest roads in Bombay, malnourished children, toothless grandmothers and Danny Boyle with a movie camera. The air is black with pollution from the thousands of cars, many built in the 1950’s, the noise is incredible yet the people just exist. I was surprised by the fact that very few asked us for anything, they have a dignity and pride despite their conditions. I talked at length with Tania about this, for me, these people given a chance would make something of their lives, they are just victims of a circumstance that sees them on the periphery of a society that has a class system that is unlike any other, they are the true and original outcasts unlike the unemployed, homeless people begging on the streets of London, who if they had an ounce of fight in them would be able to pull them up out of their situation, these people no matter what they did, will propably die in the same shack that they were born.
Ok, lets lighten the mood slightly, cows on the street. Yes its true, Tania and I were returning to the port area when I noticed on the pavement about 100m in front, two cows walking. At first I thought there was somebody leading them but no, they were just out for an afternoon stroll, wandering where they liked. We gave chase and followed them to a street market where one stuck his head in bucket of leftover oranges and had a light afternoon tea. Tania had a couple of apples in her bag so we decided to feed them. They were docile, domestic and friendly, wandering the streets of this chaotic, frenetic metropolis without a care in the world. They bought a sense of calm to the city streets. This was no one off occurrence either, all over the city cows wander the streets like cats do in England. The cow is a sacred animal in India and no-one mistreats them, street traders feed them, children pet them, car drivers give them space. In England of course we just milk them and eat them.
I spent our third day alone, it was a hot and humid day so I decided to return to the ship early, but on the way back, a little cafe caught my eye. Small, and air conditioned, breakfast beckoned me and so with an appetite and a few rupees, I went inside. The waiter, a youngish guy in a shirt and tie, bade me good morning and presented me with a menu. I ordered an omelette, a fresh orange juice and a hot tea as I had been in India for three days now but had yet to sample the national drink in its home country. Now if this waiter has any ambition to remain in the catering industry, he better start to work on his act. Think back, can you remember the three items I ordered. Good, you remember, and its not even your job. This guy arrived with the omelette after 25 minutes, I expected the other two items as well but no. I reminded him the next time I saw him.
“Oh yes, sorry” he offered, disappeared for another 10 minutes having poured my orange juice “freshly” from a carton.
“My tea” I asked.
“One moment please” He returned to the bar, where to my horror, he put a tea cup under a machine and pressed a button. So there you are, my first India tea came from machine that had automatically added powdered milk and sugar (I never take sugar in tea) and was served by a waiter who only remembered one of the three items I asked for. Maybe he was stressed because he was so busy, after all there was at least two other people there, one of whom had also made a large complicated order of three items.
At the bottom of the menu, it said Service Not Included. It was right, it wasn’t.