Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Bombay comes alive in Aravind Adiga's Last Man In Tower

Book Review: Last Man In Tower by Aravind Adiga

It was a curious sensation, reading this novel.  Had it been specifically written, I wondered, for me to read? It was one of those novels, I felt, that must have been written with me specifically in mind. Who else could it have been written for, otherwise? 

For… the book is set in one of those lower middle-class, small collective apartment blocks known in Bombay as ‘Societies’ – I too lived in a Society
The movement of the book criss-crosses the city like an inexhaustible flaneur, touching upon nearly every famous landmark in the city (from its cricket stadia to its open sewers) – I too zigzagged across Bombay’s lanes and psychic routes, and knew each site. 
The writer observes closely the ordinary habits of this outlandish place – and so did I! 
Written as it was between 2007-2009, Aravind and I must have passed each other numerous times – along Falkland Road, on Juhu Beach, drinking juice in Café Ideal.
Who else could this book have been written for but me?

You’ll note that I haven’t touched on the book’s plot yet.  But, in an odd way, the plot is virtually redundant. Though the plot drives this large book (over 400 pages – and 100 pages too long…), the story barely develops over its course. 
What is the plot?  Okay. One man in this Society refuses to accept a developer’s massive sweetener to the block’s inhabitants to leave their flats; without his agreement, the deal must collapse; his neighbours in the Society are furious with him. Behind that, there is a swirl of thoughts revealing how the city and its people are changing. And that’s it.
The sub-plots have virtually no role except as character illumination.

A book about Mumbai

Oh, forget the plot. It’s best seen as a vehicle for this exploration of Mumbai, (which Adiga sees as a vital, living personality in itself - not just a backdrop for the book), and the daily events therein. It is what you and I could see if we kept our eyes open, and our notepads at the ready.
One can smell Bombay in this book. At one point, one of the characters is on the Churchgate-line local train, and is woken up by the sudden odour of the Bandra sewer. If you don’t know Bombay, this detail will mean nothing; but to me, it awoke a flood of sensations.  It was talismanic. Proust’s madeleine, indeed!

Some day, some graduate student will spend a stupid amount of time plotting the points on Adiga’s map of Bombay. There are easily two hundred locations mentioned in the book – maybe more. None are dropped in in any heavy, clanging way: they do have a reason to be there, just as each scene in a multi-packed Breughel painting seems to slot in properly. The book acts as a large spider-web over the face of the city – with one’s finger one can trace the routes.

And his descriptions are conscious and honed, never over-boiled.  Very, very occasionally, he will wax poetic – the sodden, static pillars of traffic fumes at rush-hour rise in Gothic fashion like “flying buttresses of nitrous oxide”, and a suddenly-heard bird sounds “sharp like a needled thread, as if it were darning some torn corner of the world” – but this is comparatively rare. He likes it simple, and up-front.
The book is as readable as you’d expect from a best-seller modern novelist: some of the chapters are no longer than five pages.

Yet, it’s almost like one is at a mirror theatre – where some magnificent and detail-stuffed scenery becomes so much more interesting than the action of the play.

And the thread of lives. I lived in a Society; the gossip-corner common to Societies is faithfully reproduced (did he too sit in one of those white plastic chairs at a block’s back, at sunset, listening?).  There are Mumbai’s slightly-confused belief systems (if a Christian saint will answer one’s prayers, does it matter that one is officially Hindu?).  And the incredibly strong bonds that parent feels toward child, and neighbour to neighbour (in ways undreamt of in England), emerge fully-grown. The casual consuming of street-vendor’s bhelpuri; the chaotic multiple cricket matches on dusty maidans; the greasy way married men are attracted to young women; a woman washing her long hair from a basin outside a slum hut. Pure Bombay.

Don’t worry about the two-dimensions

Adiga’s characters are two-dimensional; his plots baroque.  Yes, ‘fraid so.
I guess his fans will scream at me – what about the slow unravelling of the main character, Masterji, they’ll cry. Hmm.
I’ll say this: Adiga is going to be a major voice. But he isn’t yet. There’s something pre-prepared about his characters, as though he picked them off the shelf. The cynical and Machiavellian developer; the internalised widower; the grasping, feckless neighbour; the hollow ‘left-hand’ man – they all emerge out of Bollywood’s shadow, too two-dimensional.  (Amitabh Bachan as Masterji, anyone?)

And I guess too that Adiga’s writing style is part of this. These same concise, simple sentences are well-made, but they seem to lack total confidence. In order to be readable he has foregone denseness and complexity. Adiga is no Rohinton Mistry.
But – Aravind (I hope he is reading this) will be great one day. Let him make his cash; then let him alone – and he will produce.

Bombay love

For now… if you are a lover of Bombay, you must take this book to your bosom. It is the most real book of real Bombay I have read.

Bombay is like that slightly smelling, badly dressed uncle that hangs around families. He likes to drink in cheap bars, and reminisce, and tell stories; and his like is disappearing.  Yet, who would not have soft spot for him? Of all the pompous, stuck-up, go-getting, educated, wimpish members of one’s family, he is the only one to spend a greasy, comfortable, useless afternoon with.

Telling little lines…

Masterji (the, er, hero of the novel) says of Bombay: “Listen: Dhirubhai Ambani said he would salaam anyone to become the richest man in India. I’ve never salammed anyone. This has been a city where a free man could keep his dignity.”
Is this Adiga’s swipe at Tata and Ambani and the rest, who are taking over Bombay?  I know one mustn’t confuse what a character says with what the writer thinks, but Ambani is the only leading Indian figure mentioned by name in the book (except Gandhi – of course Gandhi!).

One character, Ajwani, sees “... representatives of every race of the city around him: burqa-clad Sunni Muslims with their protective men; Bohra women in their Mother Hubbard bonnets chaperoning each other; petite, sari-clad Marathi women, jasmine garlands in their braided hair, nuggets of vertebrae in their faultless backs…; two thick-shouldered sadhus, saffron robes streaming, chanting Sanskrit to the waves; shrieking clumps of college students from Elphinstone; the baseball-cap-wearing sellers of small fried things and chilled water.”
‘Nuff said. Brilliant observation.

Mrs Rego sees a woman in Bandra. It is “…her sister, and the foreign thing with her was her American journalist husband, Frank.”
Ha-ha. Yes.

But the most curious thing of all is the ending of this book. I won’t spoil the plot (though the outcome won’t be unexpected). No, what is curious are the last few words of the book, eleven italicised words that have the delivery and portentousness of a Moral Message.
Does Adiga intend this last line as a message? I wonder. If so, it is a surprising and quite sudden twist, and almost an exoneration of the moral outrages that have gone before. It could fit the story… I suppose.
But is it indeed exculpation? Or is it Adiga’s own dispassionate view of Bombay – and thus of the people that make up the city? It’s – like I say – curious.

Here it is. The book’s last paragraph describes an old banyan tree. It appears hemmed in by a wall, but its “aerial roots, squirming through barbed wire and broken glass, dripped down over the wall, nearly touching the pavement… Nothing can stop a living thing that wants to be free.
If you have read the book, do tell me what you think – in the context of the book’s final terrible act - the significance of this last line is.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Rat flashbacks

Let me introduce you to a phenomenon that afflicts people from Mumbai when they travel elsewhere – it’s particularly related to ex-pats (like me, when we go back to Britain).
It’s called ‘rat-flashback’.

Just like the person who takes an hallucinogenic drug one day, only to find s/he has ‘flashbacks’ weeks, even months later, so the ex-pat will continue to ‘see’ the rats that are so common in Mumbai - even after the ex-pat has travelled back to a rat-free village in a sleepy English market-town.
It’s creepy.

Rats love Mumbai
The thing is: rats are everywhere in Bombay. Mostly I experience them on the walk from Colaba centre late at night back home.  Rats are nocturnal.
(I know, you’re asking: why does he walk???  Because I like to, that’s why. The streets are strangely quiet at 1am, and even the traders sleeping on the pavement by their stalls seem profoundly unconscious). 
As I walk silently, a rat will suddenly emerge, like an indistinct speeding shadow, and, just as immediately, disappear into a hole - on their way to their own kind of work.
They are the parallel population of Bombay, doing their own thing, slipping along walls, sometimes looking like leaves blowing along, sometimes looking as highly-motivated as a missile.

The most common place to see rats is... er.... as they scurry along a greasy back-wall in a restaurant. They move amazingly purposefully, keeping in the groove of the right-angle of wall and floor, hoping to be ignored – and most of the time they are of course.
I remember three of us, staring (as each of us caught the other looking open-mouthed), at one rat in a restaurant, which ran in a swift and business-like fashion across the back-wall before disappearing again. The waiters (who are used to it perhaps?) did not notice. 
You may think we all got up and left.  Of course we did not.  The fact is that rats are in all restaurants (bar the five-star hotels, I suppose), so… where else would one go?
My theory about the food in such restaurants is this: as the cooked food is generally served so hot, most germs are killed, so it’s – generally – safe to eat. The corollary is: never touch the uncooked food.
Living with rats

I myself am not too bothered about rodents. The visceral fear that some people have – of, say, a rat nipping at one’s bare toes under a café table, or even wandering across your bedsheets one night – doesn’t really affect me.

Wandering in the slums one day, I came across some spilt milk in the corner of a dank alleyway. There, an elderly grey bruiser was lapping at it. We looked at each other. In disgust, he turned away, to hide and wait until I had gone. I was sorry to have disturbed him.
(Incidentally, I am wondering if the milk had been left out deliberately, as an offering. This is what happens in temples in north India for example. And, rats don’t have such a bad press in India as in England or the US, where there are constantly tabloid horror stories about them eating the noses off unprotected babies etc! But, by contrast, as you probably know, in India they are often seen as a sacred animal).

However, even though I’m relatively unbothered about rats, I did draw the line at one which had clambered a tree outside an upper-floor apartment and made its way in to our living quarters. (When the maid heard about this, she said, almost with satisfaction: “Indian rat – very clever.” She then added, darkly: “Indian men – not clever” though that was clearly her rehearsing some internal, private issue of her own...). The maid and I worked together all day to try to find it and drive it out, but of course it was hopeless. What she suggested then I found vaguely laughable – but it worked.
Secure all the food in the house on upper shelving, then leave some loose food out, overnight, she suggested, because then it will take what it wants and depart.
Hmm. I said I thought poison might be better, but she found this unpalatable (see my previous posting on ‘Stray Dogs’, a post about why some Indians find killing pests problematic).
Strangely, it worked. Er, I think. How would one know?


But… to my point, about ‘rat-flashback’.

Even though I’m not as bothered as some about the sight of rats, I did become mildly jittery. A quick passing shadow in an unlit corner, a small object brushing across my path at night, an unexpected movement in a dark room – all can still give me a start, as though it were really a rat, and I even get a shiver of fear.
But I honestly thought this shivery apprehension was a Mumbai-only phenomenon, and was due to – frankly – the huge amount of rats one is likely to encounter in the city. Surely, the reaction would fade once I was away from Mumbai - after, say, six months?

Hmm. But, back in England, it continues. 
In the corner of my eye, at a theatre during the play, a man a few rows ahead suddenly moved his foot (which happened to be in a black shoe): and I jumped!
As I walked home one night, a passing car threw a light on to a hedge, just as a leaf at its base trembled in a breeze…
The weirdest is when my glasses catch a small quick dark reflection in the peripheral vision. Of course, it’s an illusion.
Each time though, I react…

There’s even the parallel audio phenomenon. I can wake in my bed in a friend’s house (in a nice English residential area) and, yes, hear that skittering sound that rats make in the walls. Mostly, it's another illusion, being really a curtain flapping at the window, but it can be a small shock.

It’s a not a debilitating state of course, and I’m not going crazy (I hope), but it is an interesting phenomenon – and quite long-lived apparently. I am told by other ex-pats that these ‘rat-flashbacks’ can go on for years...

Monday, 25 July 2011

Prakash spins Mumbai Fables

Books about the ‘real’ Mumbai/Bombay are less available than one might think for such a major and interesting city.

I thought Gillian Tindall’s one (City Of Gold) was fascinating as an introduction to the area’s history (and full of quirky anecdotes that make trudging through history a little more bearable!).
Maximum City is of course the fashionable book about Bombay at the moment, but in essence it bears down on the salaciousness of the city as seen through one man’s eyes. At least that man is a very good journalist.
And the coffee-table book ‘Bombay The Cities Within’ (Dwivedi/Mehrotra) – the story of the building and continuous rebuilding of Bombay – is basically a book of fabulous photos.

New book

So Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash is welcome, simply because it’s nice to have a very authoritative voice talking about the story of modern Mumbai, and because his book does add something – a very well researched socio-political & cultural account of the history of the city over the last 200 years (and more).
Incidentally, ‘socio-political’ as a term sounds dry, but Prakash cleverly uses certain incidents in the life and times of Bombay/Mumbai to make his accounts all sound rather more gossipy – and thus entertaining… He even alludes to the popular films that describe the experience of the city’s underbelly.

But… it all doesn’t feel engaged enough.
Prakash himself appears to live now in the US, though he tells us he spent some of his childhood in Bombay. And it does feel like an expatriate’s book, as though he’s peering through a lens at the city, not actually experiencing it as part of it.

He prefers to stick to a procession of references to original documents, rather than do what we really want – tell us what it all means!
Okay, that would have to be only his opinion, but I for one would like to hear his opinion! Instead his author’s ‘vision’ is blurred, as he prefers to have his thoughts refracted through lumbering accounts of the city’s literature, art, and popular-journalism.


Trouble is – as well – that he seems so frightened of going out on a limb with original personal interpretations that, when he can’t refer to any archive documentation, the book starts to limp. For example, his reflections on the city’s vast flea market, Chor Bazaar, are, well, blindingly obvious.

His attachment to quoting original documents is frankly one he resorts to as though it were a crutch. The endless (ENDLESS!!) account of the famous Nanavati ‘society’ trial of the late 1950s is way over the top. It’s as though a PhD history thesis (and we know how those doctorates are all about nosing through piles of dusty original references) had been inserted into the book.

The myths of Mumbai – the story of its gangster underworld for instance – are faithfully recounted from the sources… but does Prakash want to winkle out the deep truth that may be in the sources? Doesn’t seem to. You almost feel that his scholarly nature disallows him – he prefers to allude to the “tapestry of different, overlapping and contradictory experiences”.
Fair enough, but a historian needs to help us stand back and see the bigger pictures that form in the ‘tapestry’.

I wanted desperately to know the answers to certain questions – for instance, why (exactly, please!!) did Shiv Sena arise? Prakash gives us dates, times, serendipities, but, no, not deep interpretations.
Now and again, there are (you can sense them as a sub-text!) scholarly disputes over what he thinks someone meant by such-and-such, but, goodness!, such hair-splitting! Give me big, bold statements any day.


Oh… and by the way – an irritation. There’s not a decent map of the city in the whole book (outlines, yes - detailed map, no) which is a bit odd, don’t you think? We read of the city’s districts, and yet are left to imagine how the city’s districts and suburbs form a geography. Grrrrr!
I shall not mention the low-resolution, badly-printed photos, which are… a disgrace.

Okay, Mumbai Fables is scholarly, and, thankfully, gossipy enough to make it readable. I’m glad I’ve read it; and glad it exists.
In it the skeleton of the city is accounted for; but Mumbai’s living flesh is untouched by this book.

Good for Prakash for spending so much time studying in library archives; but he could have some more of his time just simply walking the city’s streets.

Links: Mumbai Fables (Princeton Press); Mumbai Fables - review on Middle Stage ; Mumbai Fables review on The Oxonian

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

The trick (for me) in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was to spot the join in the fusion of author Vikas Swarup’s idea of India and director Danny Boyle’s idea of India. You’d think, wouldn’t you?, that the gap between the two would have been pretty wide. After all, how could Danny Boyle (a guy from Manchester) know India in the way that Swarup does?

Fact is, though, it’s amazing how Indian the film feels. It’s not just that the boys speak in Hindi (with sub-titles) in the movie, or that there is a funny, imaginary Bollywood-style dance sequence at the end (the first real reference to Bollywood), but that Danny Boyle seems to have picked up, somehow, an empathy for the country he is depicting.

Maybe I’m over-stating it, but think how Slumdog echoes the attitudes in films in the present Indian film industry. Plots in films like say, Chak De, or Black, are sophisticated without being deep, and also build through setbacks to the ultimate feel-good catharsis. So does Slumdog.

Also, Boyle doesn’t make the big mistake that most Westerners do, about Mumbai, and Dharavi especially, of seeing poverty as meaning degradation. Most Mumbaikers I know (outside those in Government service, who just seem depressed most of the time!) are too busy trying to come up with the next Great Idea To Make Money to be wallowing in despair.

And Boyle also gets beauty right; there is so much beauty in children, in women, and even in men. This is not being patronising – this is a fact of Mumbai. Yep, the place has decay in its bones, but life is vigorous.
The train sequences are genius too. Somehow Danny Boyle seems to have instinctively realised that trains are a centre-point of existence in Mumbai… he just gets it! They are a public arena, where everything human takes place; they are sort-of like mobile public squares into which we all wander, and sit, and chat, an d eat, and sleep.

So, is it a film I recommend? Yes, I do, wholeheartedly.
Okay, it’s not very profound, there are no life-changing moral insights, and there are some scenes which are lack truthfulness even for fiction (I just don’t believe any Americans are as stupid as the ones in the Taj Mahal sequences, which makes the scenes an easy pop at America – it’s just for very cheap laughs I think) – but… for the fact that it will make the real India accessible to western audiences, I applaud it.


So, off-line, were there are any other aspects which just caught my eye?

Yes (bet you guessed there would be, huh?).

* Muslim Mumbai. What a lot of Western audiences won’t get is that Jamal and Salim, the two brothers, are Muslim in what is a predominantly Hindu city. Muslims make up a sizeable minority In Mumbai, and do well on many business and career levels, but, the bottom–line is that they are very often the poorest and most discriminated against in the city. In fact, one of the first scenes in the movie shows the tiny brothers’ parents being slaughtered in anti-Muslim riots – I would guess (I haven’t read Swarup’s book) that this is the pogrom of 1992, in which nearly a thousand Muslims died.
But this theme – a Muslim in Mumbai – fades away as the film progresses (though Salim’s last words are those a Muslim should say - ‘God is great’). I guess Boyle/Swarup does that deliberately… but I did wonder why it became under-played.

* The Taj Mahal. The two tiny brothers wander India on trains before ending up at the end of the tourist trail in Agra.
I just want to say as the two beggar boys cry out in wonder on seeing the TM for the first time there in front of them – is this Heaven?!! – that I identified with them completely at that moment. The Taj is a staggering, staggering place; and I feel sorry for Indians who get so used to it.
As a foreigner I have never become used to it. It is … Heaven.

* The actors. Well Dev Patel is fine, but I kinda forgot how good Anil Kapoor is. I have gotten used to seeing him in rather B-grade stuff, but as the quiz-show host he is great, and even outshines the always exemplary Irfan Khan.
Indians can never quite believe me when I tell them that the Indian film industry is almost totally ignored by Westerners – you’re more likely to see a Mexican or Japanese film at your local cinema/film-theatre in the US or France than an Indian one.

Now, I know a lot of this is to do with the length. A Western audience is not going to sit through three hours; they just won’t. But it’s a source of great frustration to me. How can I explain the fact that a fine and moving film like, say, Maqbool/Macbeth, is just not going to get exposure, even in an arthouse theatre, in the UK?
Trouble is, the English non-Asian audience still thinks Bollywood is wet saris in Switzerland, and won't take it seriously.
Slumdog is the nearest they are going to get to an 'Indian' movie – which is both heartening and depressing at the same time.

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Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A take on Aravind Adiga's White Tiger

This is the story of a boy from the village, who becomes a driver, is sickened by India's rich class, murders his master, and yet then ‘graduates’ to become one of the "India Shining", an entrepreneur.  That’s it in a nutshell, and it won the Man Booker Prize 2008.

Actually, it's not that good a book, being a little glib and very speedy (I read it in a day), but it is NOT just a pot-boiler; and for someone like me it was both evocative and provocative.

It addresses the question: why do India's servant classes accept the contempt and the oppression and even the hatred they daily receive from their employers? 


I've often been astounded with the nastiness in the ways that otherwise quite reasonable people (familiar acquaintances of mine in fact) treat their servants. It's quite eye-popping to observe a cultivated man suddenly act in a peremptory and outrageously angry with another human being - whom they obviously regard as little better than an insect (check out servants' living areas if you don't believe me - family pets are better treated). It's doubly shocking to think that these servants are paid a pittance. But, in fact, the most shocking thing is that happens everywhere in this - a democracy.
Now, I hear the objections from the India patriots: what about, they will say, the shocking record of America, where true equality came belatedly to black people - and less than fifty years ago?  What about the horrors of Victorian London, only some one hundred & fifty years ago?
You (dear reader!) are right to object, of course... in a general sense.  But I am talking about those Indian rich who profess total urbane sophistication but who yet seem to have TWO contrary belief systems in their heads, one expressing full egalitarianism and support for meritocracies, the other an extreme and almost totalitarian disregard for the masses.

(This weird mind-split can be very corrupting, and affects even visitors to India.  I went round to an American's house in central Colaba, and there I found him talking in the most cruel and dismissive way about his maid, who as far as I could work out had been nothing but hard-working and loyal.  He found my doubts and problems about the problems of employing such poor people laughable.  Yet I have absolutely no doubt that, once he returns to America, he will return to being utterly classless and adopt a respectful attitude to all his fellow citizens).

Karma. Whatever.

In one of the 'Introduction To India'-type books that I bought on entering Mumbai, the writer put this attitude down to the legacy of caste and karma. 
The theory in the book was that the rich believe (in their hearts, if not their minds) that they have been chosen by the Universe to be what they are - i.e. rich, and, having been chosen, are therefore provably better than the rest. The corollary is also true: that the poor are poor because the Universe gives them very little value. Poor and rich, so the Introduction claimed, then take on the valuation they appear to have divinely received.
I honestly cannot believe this.  Yet... and the reason this book makes the claim I suppose ... there isn't a better theory around!  It is quite a puzzle.

Sadly, while I felt Aravind Adiga got close to understanding both the driver's world and the rich man's world (quite a feat when you think what light years they are apart), and to explaining the main puzzle of 'why don't India's servants rebel?', it didn't help me with my own question - "why do the rich behave so badly?"
Now, I guess inherent beliefs about caste and karma do come into play with older people - but what about the new rich, those who have travelled extensively, those who are aware that people like me shudder at the blatantly inegalitarian relations they exhibit with their servants?

Strangely enough Adiga does play on one aspect of the rich, and makes it a metaphor for their outlook - their sleek, fat glossiness. (The rich in Britain and America are also well-rounded of course, but the nature of the extra pounds almost seems different somehow.  The corpulence of the rich Anglo-Saxons seems an aberration, a failure to deal with prosperity properly, whereas the Indian rich wear fat as a badge of office. I've been continually surprised at how Indian aunties see the obesity of the new family toddler with pride (!) and not dismay.)  This glossy fat is another way that the ostentatious rich mark themselves firmly off from the poor.


I seem to have wandered off the subject of reviewing White Tiger. Hmm.  Back to the book.

The 'White Tiger' introduces us to a character who begins to realise and be sickened by the enormity of this social divide. The main character, Balram, takes matters into his own hands - despite the huge power of the system which seeks to confine him. (Interestingly, his main weapon is not his own courage or his righteous anger, but his ability to abandon his sense of family responsibility. In India, this is almost unthinkable, and makes him, like the amoral Richard III of Shakespeare, ‘himself alone’).

Actually though, I can’t think of much good about it as ‘literature’. Yes, the narrative sweeps one along (like so many best-sellers), and I can think of many plane-journeys on which I would have longed for this work. But – aren’t the characters just a little too wooden, and the scenes too predictable?

But… why doesn’t one just throw this book in the remainder pile with so many others?
Because: something nags at me.
The world Adiga talks of is, yes, the real world. It’s one I recognise and know from experience – I can fill in the gaps he leaves in his descriptions – it is the world of the dusty Mumbai street-corner, the stink of the drivers’ room, the shabby call-centre, the darkly-lit taxi office, and even the kitsch classical-style (sooooo ridiculous!), gated houses of the really rich Rich.
And into this real world comes a tiny whiff of gunshot, from Balram. He would never describe himself as a revolutionary, but his view is almost unique – because he decides to ignore The Universe. That’s pretty radical for India; and that is why this book nags at one.

Link:  Review of White Tiger on ‘Middle Stage’

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Dog Killing

There are many stray dogs in Mumbai, most of which have a proprietorial air despite their starved and down-at-hell looks. They compete for the same food and resources (I suppose) as the poor street children.

Looking as though they have completely the right to be there, they will lie down in the middle of a busy pavement (or street sometimes) sunning themselves, or even settle in the corner of a stairwell in a public building having just wandered in.

The weird thing is that everybody will just walk round them, almost pretending that they are not there. Not a “shoo” or a kick to disturb them.

In fact, there is a tan dog that just seems to think it is a good idea to lie in the highway near Flora Fountain. And the taxi drivers – who care for nobody else - just drive round him...!

This is nothing similar to the British love of domestic pets. No one pets these animals, or feeds them, attends to them, or wants to care for them.
In my (admittedly limited) experience of households in Mumbai, it is mostly the upper classes that share the insane idea that it is good to keep a dog in the house; or indeed keep a dog at all.

So how to account for this apparent consideration given to those dogs who… well, frankly… are in the way…and not a little frightening?

I was about to put this down to the Mumbaiker’s great sense of insouciance until I learned one day that the black dog that lies around outside our building had bitten one of the drivers late one night. We all fussed around, bought some medicine, and bandaged the wound.

To my amazement however, the next morning I saw the black dog lounging in the lane as usual – completely undisturbed.

Rabies is still prevalent in India, and I couldn’t help but think of all the children who play in the lane. Presumably the dog would get them too – so we should DO something. You have to care, I thought.

The staff was amused by the thought that I could “contact the authorities”. What authorities?, they asked.

In frustration more than seriousness, I suggested: “Shall we organise a humane shooting of the dog if the authorities will not pick it up?” I asked this question of the security guards as I thought they might be a little more thoughtful – after all, after the children, they were next at risk.

They looked horrified. “Shoot it? No one can shoot it”.
“We would in England” I replied. The guards looked at me. I could see they were thinking what an unpleasant and dreadful place England must be.

And so, the dog is still there.
I take a very wide circle around it when I walk down that way.


What I had forgotten was the visceral, cultural, Hindu repulsion for wanton killing. The dog survives, because killing something is simply repulsive.
To commit such an act would be more damaging to someone than being bitten by the dog.

This aspect of India took its most manifest form was I was in the ‘slum’ one day, and a large bristly cockroach made an appearance in one of the homes. They’re quite quick, so I determined to stamp on it before it disappeared – but this was plainly not to be allowed. The lady of the house shook her head, and chased it out with a brush instead.
Afterwards I said to her – don’t you even lay traps for the rats that so often come in? No, she did not. Surely, you must slap the mosquitoes that settle on your skin? No, never, one drives them away with smoke. Surely, you spray fly-killer at least? No.
I was stunned. The disease brought into the slum by mosquitoes in particular causes havoc.

Later she confessed to me that she had once, years ago, killed a snake in a fit of fear, but that her culpability for its death haunted her even now.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Miserable Matheran - Mumbai's weekend break

In the fairy-tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone pretended that the king was fully clothed when in fact he was naked. It was a sort of mass delusion. Something similar it seems is occurring with the little hamlet of Matheran, a hill-station just a hundred kilometres from Mumbai. Everyone says how delightful it is. But, I come to tell you the truth. It is not. It is dull. Very dull.
Cool... in one way only
The main point about Matheran is that sited high up on a ridge in the Sahyadris. This makes it cool and tree-lined and leafy, and from certain exposed lookouts at its edges you have a good view of the valleys below. But, that’s it. That really is it.
Now, some folk talked to me about the Toy Train there, which circles higher and higher up the mountain taking you from the foothills up to the plateau on which the town rests. Okay, I said, I’m a grown-up, but I’ll try it.
And when we got to Nerul, the town on the plain below, just after midday, I did enquire about a ticket. But the man said: Ah, the next train is not for five hours sir. (Five hours? I thought this was the main attraction? What craziness is that?).
But, afterwards, I considered it a blessing that we did not take it; we found out that the little train takes two long hours to crawl up to the top. I mean, I like scenery – but not that much!
We took a taxi, and got there in fifteen minutes.

The second thing 'everyone' talks about is the “quaint” fact that only horses and hand-pulled rickshaws are allowed on Matheran’s lanes. I am not sure why there is this prejudice against motors. In fact, I thought a few putt-putts might be a boon, but maybe, because the roads are so dusty and badly maintained, no motorised rickshaw would last long on them anyway.
We duly mounted the horses that the hotel had sent for us. We were aching for an hour afterward.
A sunset... is just a sunset
When she was fit again, we set off to walk to a lookout point. You see, there is pretty much nothing else to do in Matheran but walk along lots and lots of meandering forest paths - as the centre basically consists of nothing a tiny “commercial” area, a couple of small lanes, hotels, and, well, that’s it.
I like walking, so this should have suited me. However, the maps are hardly exact, even the one in the excellent guidebook by Mr Utekar (much recommended), so getting lost is obviously meant to be part of the fun. If that is indeed the case, we had lots of fun.
Finally, we ended up with lots of other people at Sunset Point. Now, sunsets are rarely spectacular; mostly they are just sunsets. The one we attended was just that - an ordinary sunset. And I thought: if this were a Marine Drive sunset, I could now go for a drink at, say, Not Just Jazz.
On Sunset Point however, there is nothing left to do but the two-mile trudge back to the centre - in the dark.
I could go on with the misery that is Matheran. If you are British, imagine being at Rhyl in March, or Calais.
Its soil is so red and dusty, that soon your face and clothes are caked with it. The kids are so bored they tease the horses. The food is abysmal; I had my worst-ever meal in Matheran (tip: never ask for a sizzler). The “historic” British-era bungalows are ugly, crumbling and on private land.
One shopkeeper confessed to me that even the chappals (for which Matheran is supposedly famous) are actually nearly all made in Mumbai, and shipped up. (Okay, the chikki is pretty good – but you can get that anywhere these days.)
Did I enjoy anything about Matheran?
Okay, one thing – Tukaram’s horses. Most of the horse-drivers hold the reins of the horses as they ride you along, for safety reasons I suppose. But Tukarram is a bit of an anarchist – to your complete surprise, he just lets you go, and, what’s more, then shouts at your horse if it shows like flagging, and urges it to gallop. To a born city slicker like me, the experience was pretty frightening – and exhilarating!
So, if you have the misfortune to find yourself in Matheran, seek out Tukaram. With his help, Matheran might turn out slightly less than Deadly Dull.

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Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Mumbai's sexiest

I know this is entirely predictable, but sometimes that traditional heterosexual male in me just WON’T be suppressed…. so it came to me that there just seems to be no contest over who the sexiest looking women in Mumbai are.
Yep, it’s those airline lasses.

You turn up to the airport to take an internal flight, and the sight of the Kingfisher girls just slaps you in the face (metaphorically of course). Mostly because they are wearing a uniform/outfit that is such a dramatic slash of total red, top to very bottom, that they seem to be tearing slits across one’s eyeballs. See the photo on the right.
Now, I admit their pant-suits do at first have an unfortunate resemblance to the garb of a cheesy Las Vegas magician or circus performer with their glue-like fits, but if you’re willing to keep looking (and some of us are), you can overcome that hurdle.

These representatives of Mr Vijay Mallya (the multi-millionaire whose face is ever in the finance pages) may only represent a low-cost internal airline - but they glide around supremely confident, knowing that they are The Business. Their uniforms look freshly laundered and well-fitted, the short tight sleeves leave their arms bare from just above the elbow, and the matador-style thin jacket somehow doesn’t look as stupid as it usually does on most people; I suppose because they are nearly all incredibly slender. Yes indeed, here’s a shock: they may well be chosen for their looks…
They even walk like models around the concourse, as though they own it, with a leisurely luxurious lasciviousness, their two-inch heels (on otherwise strangely ‘sensible’ shoes) clacking on the terminal’s shiny floor. With the way that a confident woman does, they look right through their admirers. It’s crushing.
(The shoes incidentally are an odd match against all this bright red, being the colour of an orange-red sun. I do not howvere blame the girls themselves for this faux-pas. Of course not).

Poor Deccan

The Deccan Airline girls unfortunately come second to that Kingfisher vision. Whilst they too wear a red outfit, actually almost the same red to be frank (it’s even a little confusing), they have a more traditional look – sensible knee-length skirts and blazer. Somehow, although as good-looking, they contrast porlly with the more modern-looking Kingfisher army which manages to render them just dumpy-looking. It’s sad.

But I do have a soft spot for the Jet Airways ladies.
Their designer has been presented with a difficult colour code - a mournful blue as its defining hue, with a splash of mud-yellow only. But – it must be the fit surely? – the ladies do carry it off.
The cut and shape seem to be long, loose and tight all at the same time (how is that done?), and the crisp white shirt, with the long white collars, makes a statement peeping from underneath.
Again, they walk with extreme insouciance and grace, aware that they are the object of gazing all around … and a glimpse of white shirt as a trim on the short sleeves of their tunics plays it off beautifully.
Not as dramatic as Kingfisher, and duller in plumage, but they have subtlety for sure.

It certainly makes the long wait at the airport gates a little more enjoyable. You can watch the little dramas at the exits with a little more interest.

I like the airlines

By the way, don’t listen to the bad-mouths about the Indian internal airlines.
Of course they have problems. India is a huge country, and dealing with sizzling hot temperatures, lashing monsoon storms, and the mountain wastes up by the Himalayas would test any airline.
But I seem to get by using them; and was only let down badly once. If you want to fly cheaply, you have to take the downside of it (ie - read the small print!)
Of course, getting your money back after a cancellation can be a nightmare, but then… oh let’s not go on about that.
Back to the ladies.

What puzzles me is that in such a conservative country, it’s thought that their uniforms are acceptable.
Let’s face it – every other woman in officialdom is wearing saris or variations on salwar kameezes (does the national carrier’s stewardesses still wear saris? I can’t remember), so why are these attendants not? Instead they, the Kingfisher girls, are wearing very sexy tight pants. It’s a puzzle and in some parts of India would be regarded as, well, offensive.
Perhaps it’s seen as Western, Western being a term which is synonymous with ‘modern’. All airlines want to be modern, don’t they? Perhaps that’s it.

Incidentally, am I the only blogger to have written a hymn to these ladies?
I hope not. They deserve more fame than that.


By the way, what’s happened to the boys at Mumbai airport who used to seize your suitcases out of your hand, carry them to your car, and demand one-pound-sterling for their services (yes I know it’s a 1000% mark-up!)?
They seem no longer to be there. Have they been chased off?
It seems amazing if they have been. They were a nuisance, but somehow part of the whole welcome-to-Mumbai chaotic experience. Gone huh?

Modernity indeed. Who needs it?

Friday, 14 September 2007

Bombay Sweat

It’s said that the Eskimos of the Arctic regions live and work so much with snow that they have over fifty-two words with which to describe it.
If this is true, then visitors to Mumbai, especially now in the summer months, must have a similar amount of words to describe the various types of sweat that this city grants to us.

Coming from England, where even on the hottest days, you might want to carry a jacket with you, and sweating is something you do only in a sauna, I have been amazed by how many ways a man can perspire.


There is the little tickly drop that starts at your neck, and slowly passes down the back of your spine, before dripping tantalizingly off the very end of your backbone. When it disappears, a new one starts again…
The frizzy ends of hair on the back of one’s head are usually the starting point for this little journey, so you can attempt to beat it by toweling the back of your head. And then you realise your neck is sweating too.

There is the middle-of-the-day sweat when the sun thumps down on your head while you are out walking. As it does so, your hair seems to thicken, and then it seems suddenly as if a thousand small moist creatures are conspiring to oil each strand, separate them out, and make them stand on end.
Funnily enough, this is not an unpleasant feeling, as you feel like a cake bubbling in an oven. It’s a sort of prickling sensation. I am sure that to feel like a cake cannot be a bad thing.

Then there is the embarrassing line or series of small dots that appears on your tee-shirt front (even though you have only walked a few yards from your taxi). This often occurs when you are about to bump into a smart friend (who travels everywhere by a/c of course).
It is pretty tiresome for men because the line forms just below one’s breasts, and seems to insinuate (to someone who might not know) the beginning of a sex-change process. I guess though it must be worse for women.
You can try to fold your arms and hide it – but everyone seems to know it’s there.
A variation on this is to get into a taxi for a long ride, and then realise that the seat covers have that familiar smooth consistency of arctic-flock material, and are double packed with nylon foam (why such unsuitable material?... I really don't know). This would be fine in Norway; but in Mumbai, it is a trap. Lean back on this seat for long, and the back of your shirt will have to wrung out and hung out to dry after twenty minutes; but, even if you sit forward, away from the back-rest, (but sit in that one position for too long), well, take it from me, the backside of your trousers will be soggy. Ugghh.

Nights can be bad. We all can guess how sticky it can be at 3am in Bombay in May, but imagine being English too – the sensation of being glued to one’s sheets by one’s own sweat is a new experience.

But the worst is the slow burn. In a non-AC restaurant, or a room without a fan, one’s forehead takes on a second, clammy layer, one’s face begins to turn scarlet, one’s eyelids even get heavy with damp…. until, finally, when the sides of one’s ears have become tiny rivulets of moisture, one has to run outside and seek the breezes of the Arabian Sea.

Prevention and Cure

There are many more variations.
But it is axiomatic that if I walk this city now – day or night – sooner or later the little pricks of liquid heat will come.

I bet you’re wondering about underarm sweat patches.
It’s an interesting question, because, for some reason – perhaps it’s the quality of the anti-perspirant sold here (is it super-strong to match local requirements?) – I don’t know anyone affected too much by them, which is odd isn’t it? Maybe it is also the type of humidity in Mumbai? Perhaps. I should research it.

Some of my Northern friends are clever enough now to make sure they prepare themselves for the Possibility of Sweat. They do this by reducing effort almost to nothing.
If they are going somewhere, they get ready slowly and easily, and never rush. They travel by a/c car; they do not walk even 200 yards. They arrive early at the smart hotel, just in case they need to cool off in the (usually freezing) bar. They never walk up the stairs.

But I must admit that, generally, this is not a solution for me. I refuse to allow the heat to curtail my desire to wander. This city is wonderful to meander around, and so much would be lost if strolling were denied to its visitors.

So I wear thin tee-shirts, I wear cotton shorts, I wear chappals, and I wear a Vietnamese jungle hat. I ignore the stares when I cool off at smart coffee shops. I look like someone from Lost (except for the muscles): it’s not pretty. But it makes me free.

Anyway, isn’t there something ridiculous about being in a tropical city and yet retreating constantly into the kind of temperature-controlled rooms that take igloos as standard for imitation?
Excessive AC is normal in posh environments here- but it’s just plain unnatural, surely?

So, as I’m in Mumbai, I have determined not to run away from Sweat – but to learn to embrace it. (Er, metaphorically).
Yes – and crazy as it sounds, it works. In England, the way to defeat the Cold of Winter is to see it as a companion, a stern and distant one, yes, but a companion. If you fear Cold, it will get into your bones and eat you.
Same with Sweat. If you can interpret the invasive discomfort as a welcome gesture from the city (no, I am not crazy!), actually, you can get along fine.

And – one advantage.

This morning I played tennis with Deepak. After half an hour, my T-shirt was drenched and I could barely see through the cascade of sweat-drops descending from my brow.
(He, on the other hand, was still tucked up in his tracksuit, and almost looking as though he could do with an extra warm-up. Amazing.)

But I felt great. I wasn’t just pretending to have a sweaty workout, this WAS a sweaty work out. The more the sweat flooded my brow, the more I felt virtuous. I must be doing something right, I thought.
And I didn’t have to go on no treadmill to do it with some personal trainer yelling at me.

However, the downside to extreme running about in the Bombay summer is the shower afterwards. The combination of exercise and highly humid heat has driven up one’s body temperature by a few degrees, at least temporarily… and no matter if you have a cold shower, you’ll still be sweating ten minutes later. In fact the very stupidity of putting on (warming) clothes immediately after your shower will make you torridly sweaty and hot all over again, thus negating the shower completely.
You have no choice but to sit in the dressing room, and wait for the body’s own cooling controls gradually to sort out the issue.

The trouble is that Deepak just thinks it’s all pretty funny. He’s already in the bar with a cold beer (which he doesn’t need).
And, because he is always unflappable, and never overheated, I guess my situation does look pretty funny to him at that.


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Monday, 10 September 2007

Bombay Railway

I’ve been living here over a year now, but sometimes it takes another person’s view to make you see properly what’s been in front of your own eyes all this time.

By a weirdly long route, a DVD recording of Gerry Troyna’s recent BBC TV documentary about the railways in Bombay, called, er, “Bombay Railway” fell into my hands, and I just had to watch it – mostly cos I get a kick of watching something related to a city I know and then saying – “yes, I’ve been there!”
(I don’t know why I like doing this. This habit sounds a bit childish as I write it down… But if you live in Mumbai as I do, it happens a lot when you watch Bollywood. I spent most of the movie “Lage Raho Munnabhai” just identifying the backgrounds. Very irritating for the person watching it with me as it turned out later).

Information, Education, Entertainment

Anyway, the documentary, which is in two halves, Part One being called “Pressure” and Part Two being called "Dreams", is really a revelation, even for a resident like me. I should have known it would be because the film’s maker, Gerry Troyna, has been coming to the city on and off for twenty years, so he knows much about what the city is.

Actually, It’s a kind of old fashioned documentary in that it simply follows the lives of a dozen or so ordinary people whose livelihood is somehow entwined with the railways – from the train driver near retirement to a hawker who works the women’s carriages.
It’s also “old-fashioned” in that there is no hidden agenda or thesis to push, there is no interrogating of the participants, and, on the positive side, there is also a desire to capture just how happy ordinary people can be as well as how crushed they can get.
And all the time, there is a gentle drip-feed of facts and figures about the enormous industry that is the railways of Bombay (Did you know: that six million passengers daily use the city’s system, over just 300km of track? Stunning).
The documentary ends up giving you that famous combination of Information, Education and Entertainment. Which is just what I appreciate.

Railway essential

For Mumbaikers, the railway system is just plain essential. The shape of the city is like a long water-drop, and this makes the roads hugely congested. To drive from one end of the city to the other (which is about 30 kilometers) will easily take two hours. On a train it takes twenty minutes.
And in a city where fifty per cent of the inhabitants are so poor they live in slum conditions, it has the added advantage of being incredibly cheap.

The system is also just part of the landscape. Unlike London, where the railways are often hidden behind embankments or high concrete fences, these rail lines often run quite visibly alongside the main highways in the city. You can often be walking along, looking at the pavement (if there is one!) and look up, and there’s a train running parallel to you. Because the carriages are basically glorified cattle-transporters, without doors as such, many of the passengers will also be leaning out into the slipstream enjoying the cooling breeze. It looks a crazy thing to do, and, actually, there are lots of accidents.

(Somehow people don’t seem to get too worked up about the rate of accidents, strangely. Over three thousand people are knocked over and killed or fall off trains every year in Bombay, a statistic that would close down the national network in Britain, but there seems to be a belief here that it’s usually the victims’ own fault anyway. And that could be true. Because railway land is so open, and because Mumbaikers love a bit of risk, you’ll see people wandering all over the lines at all times of day, with some families even bedding down in small shelters by the lines. It’s a Health & Safety Inspector’s nightmare!)

In fact, the driver, whose story we follow in the film, admits, almost in passing and without self-pity, that he has driven his train into nearly seventy people during his career (many accidents are at night, in poor light). It is also his gruesome and statutory job to ensure that the body is removed form the line before the train can continue. But he shrugs his shoulders, albeit a little quietly, at the fact.
This rather blasé attitude can work to the city’ s advantage though, because it means it would take something huge to close down the network. Even the terrible floods of 26/7/2005, in which 500 people died, only saw the schedules suspended for … twenty-four hours!

If you do get a chance, this film has got to be worth seeing - whether you’re interested in railways, urban infrastructure, or simply how Mumbai keeps going.
The end of the documentary is brilliantly conceived as a Bollywood–style fantasy song and dance sequence on a fictional Bombay station, as dreamed up by the railway officer who is another of the figures in the film. Somehow the whole concept just gets the spirit of the Mumbai ‘thing’, whatever that is, and gets it just right.

Finally, the other great thing about this film is that it’s about the range of unnoticed people, whose efforts keep the railways so vital. There’s such a temptation in Bombay to concentrate on the pretty people, or the billionaires, or the politicians, but Gerry Troyna has just quietly selected the right people in his profile.
There’s the magistrate who holds his court for railway offenders on a station platform; there’s the guy who just wants to create a successful business selling food on the trains; there’s the street-kid who sleeps by the tracks – and more.
It’s his genius I think to have spotted these people, to have helped them relax enough to be filmed acting so naturally, and then woven them into being integral features of the bigger story – that of the railway system itself.

I know your chances of getting to see it are slim now (though it might turn up on Discovery – who knows), but honestly I should try to get to see it.
If anyone hears of where and when it’s playing in Mumbai, just let me know, or stick what you know in Comments.


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Links: BBC's webpage about 'Bombay Railway', and The film's Bollywood sequence "Chali Chali" -on YouTube

Eating with Fingers

If there’s one thing I have not got used to while living here it’s eating with my fingers. None of my Indian friends makes a big deal of my choice, and I think they even prefer I stick to cutlery, as then I don’t look so awkward or inept, which is just embarrassing for everyone.

(I should say that in Mumbai, among the professional and middle classes, nobody seems to care much anyway. If you go to someone’s house to eat dinner, half the folks will eat with their fingers, half will not, and nobody cares either way. Mumbai is a city that grants some freedom of action to its citizens.
If anything, in Mumbai, the overt prejudice can be against those who eat with their fingers. At four and five star restaurants or a very sophisticated dinner party, it would have to be a very confident person who would follow his or her inclination and eat with fingers).

Some ex-pat friends that I have, particularly those with NGOs, tell me however how liberating it is, how it brings us closer to the food that we eat, how sensual it is, and indeed how environmentally conscious it is – no nasty washing up liquid to have to use to wash cutlery (and if you use banana leaves instead of plates you get double green points!).
I do wonder however how they square up their washing of pots and pans – do they scour them with sand as some roadside food stalls do? Perhaps. I must ask them.

Anyway, I’ve tried it, but I don’t like it.
The biggest issue for me is probably the most trivial for others – and that is the thought of all that food getting squeezed up under my fingernails. Sad? Hmm, I guess you may be right, but we all have our issues.
The second thing is that, in most ordinary Mumbai restaurants, the water for washing one’s hands in is usually cold. Now, actually, the germ removal from a thorough scrubbing in cold water and soap is said to be around 90% - which is not bad. …What worries me is the other ten per cent of germs.
And after the meal, I can’t hack the greasy residue left on one’s fingers. Again, cold water and soap can eliminate most of that – but not all of it, and all I want to do is to find a hot water source and clean my hand thoroughly.
Are my feelings part of the slightly crazy Western obsession with hygiene? Or a perfectly permissible personal choice? I’m still considering.

It is one of those peculiar cultural impasses.

Indian friends say that it just seems prissy and affected to use cutlery – it just makes them uncomfortable.

I like to point out to them that cutlery washed in boiling hot water and detergent has a much higher rate of cleanliness than fingers ever can attain (apparently, it’s not just down to the temperature that things are washed in, but it's also due to the fact that steel cutlery is totally smooth, unlike human skin which has minute crevices) – but even those “facts” don’t convince them to change their minds at all.
Indeed, I suppose the upside of living here, vis a vis eating habits, is that it reinforces the need to wash one’s hands each and every time before eating, whether you’re having a quick bite or a meal. Since I started doing that, I’ve rarely been sick.

Of course at this point, someone wisely points out that Westerners in fact do often eat with their fingers – when they eat biscuits or pastries or sandwiches or potato chips.
Does it make sense if I say that such items, which are by nature non-sticky (well, mostly) do not fall into the same gluey category as say, a biryani? (The one exception to this rule that I can think of is those Americans who eat cheesy pizza slices with their fingers. I don’t understand that at all).
But, as the same person, again wisely, points out – you still have to deal with issue of unclean fingers touching the food you eat…
Er…yes. He’s quite right. Caught up in the web of my own logic there!

I think I should halt my ramblings at this point, while I consider the fact that there is nothing like seeing another culture to make you realise how weird and inconsistent your own is…


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Friday, 31 August 2007

Fading Glory of the Parsis

Though Bombay is a city that is all-inclusive, that does not mean that there are not quite firm divisions between communities. These different communities may meet and barter on the street without differences, but back inside their homes they will pursue markedly distinct ways of life.

One of the most intriguing communities (to me) is the Parsi one. Parsis, aka Zoroastrians, are a religious group, originally from the area covered by the ancient Persian Empire, who started coming to India around 900 CE. In the nineteenth century their fortunes, in Bombay in particular, seemed to have taken a huge lift-off, and some of their members became very powerful.
The fact is that South Mumbai (the old part) is absolutely riddled with statues, and most of them seem to be of the great Parsi merchants and entrepreneurs who, alongside the British, virtually ran the city in the 1800s and early 1900s. Frozen in their monuments, they sit on stone thrones, and stare out at the city that seems to have been moulded by them.

However, what’s odd is that the Parsis’ status, influence, and even numbers, seem to have dwindled at an amazing speed over the last half-century. Their population in Bombay has almost halved since the Second World War. Certain individuals shine out, but mostly the Parsi tone in Bombay now appears to be one of faded glories.

The previous paragraph is of course a generalisation, but, if you want to see just how faded the glories can become, check out Mumbai’s painfully wilting Parsi History museum….

Museum unregarded
The Time Out Guide to Mumbai doesn’t even mention the FD Alpaiwalla Museum (though, oddly, it does mention the Khareghat housing estate, aka “colony”, in which the museum is located).
At first this would seem a strange omission – after all, the museum has some ancient artefacts, which it claims are nearly 4000 years old, and a beautiful sixteenth century carved gate from Gujarat, which alone would give it high prestige. And then there are also antiques from the Persia area, including stone tablets with cuneiform writing inscribed on them, which are fascinating. (Well, they are to me).
Despite its small size, just that of four large rooms, the museum has got some nice pieces.
Parsi Museum exterior,Mumbai
But, the full story is that… it’s dingy, dilapidated and under-serviced.
The visitor’s book, speckled with age, told its own story – twenty entries in the last six months. And, certainly, I never saw another soul in the hour was there.

You begin to wonder who’s running it – and why they do so little to promote it…
It’s almost as though the committee/trustees/whatever prefer it that no one comes there!

For example –
There are no directions to the place inside or outside the housing colony.
There’s no sign on the front that outlines opening times, admission details, or contact information.
No photos are allowed (not even for a fee, as at most Indian museums).
There were no souvenirs on sale, nor information leaflets to be had.
There is no website (This really gets my goat. C’mon guys, this is the 21st century, and a webpage can cost you nothing. Just do it!)

The sweet lady who occupies the office next door reinforced that no photos were possible. Why?, I asked. Because the committee does not allow it. Why does the committee not allow it? She then completely confused me by saying that the exhibits were rotated from the main collection, as if that explained the policy somehow.
However, I was now intrigued and asked – so, what other exhibits are there that you have that I might want to see next time, and when does the next rotation cycle kick in?
She seemed nonplussed, as though the idea of my wanting to return was completely crazy, and then she said – ah, sorry, I don’t know, and there is no catalogue of artefacts anyway…
I was stunned.
She said apologetically: “There is no money. The government does not give grants”.
I thought: I’m not surprised – you do your very best neither to attract visitors nor to entertain them…

Whoever is on the committee should be awoken from their coma and get responsible. Now!

It actually could be rather good…

Because, the fact of the matter is that this could be a decent small museum with a unique selling point in that it is dedicated to a surprisingly influential but tiny community. And it has some interesting (ok, ok, they are a bit dry – but I liked them) displays.
One top attraction is the Mother goddess terracotta figurine dating back to 1800BCE – who has one hand cupped around one of her breasts in an oddly modern pose – and which is from Iran itself.

The great Parsi businessmen whose photos are on the wall – such as Nariman, Mehta (whom Zubin Mehta is a descendant of), Jamshedjee Jejeebhoy, Dadabhai Naoroji (who was elected as a British MP in 1892, believe it or not), Godrej, Tata, Modi, and Petit – must surely be staring down in huge disapproval. The priceless collection of porcelain, the furniture and the antiques are all just gathering dust, as far as I can see, and all those Parsi business instincts are being turned on their head.

(Just a side-note here. Parsis aren’t universally liked in Bombay even if they are respected. They got very pally with the British during the Raj, and became almost more British in their mannerisms and outlook than the British themselves. The well-off Parsi homes that I’ve seen do look as though they could be in Surrey! As a result, some Mumbaikers look askance at them, feeling they made a devil’s pact with the “oppressors” during the 1800s.)

There is also a practical need for this museum to be successful.
Parsis won’t need reminding that the Battle of Nehavand in 641 was nearly fatal for their religion and culture. The Muslim Arabs were in the ascendancy at that time and their blitzkrieg across the Middle East meant that it took just thirty years for them to overrun the old Assyrian Empire. Zoroastrianism has survived in that part of the world of course, but only in tiny clumps and under duress, and of the 120,000 Parsi/Zoroastrians left in the world, just under half are in Bombay, having originally come there as part of the Parsi diaspora. (A lot of them also went to China, which I only learnt thanks to the museum).

And now there is a similar crisis. As I said, their numbers are in big decline. You see, you can’t convert into the faith, and if a Parsi’s child is born of a mixed religion marriage then they are not allowed to be of the faith either. In a mobile and free-choice world, such rules spell possible disaster for the community. (There is dispute about who can become a Parsi - check the link below to the Wikipedia page).

See – another reason to get this museum up and properly running.

Donate the lot

Poor old Alpaiwalla. He put most of this collection together and then died in 1952 just before the museum opened, and now look at what’s happening.
Somehow, I think he’d be just as happy if the whole collection were handed over to Bombay’s main museum, the CSMS, which is doing a fine job under difficult circumstances. Surely, the trustees there would make a decent job of looking after it.
It just needs some courage from the apparently sleeping committee to go ahead and donate the lot asap.


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'Yahoo Travel' entry on the Alpaiwalla Museum
Wikpedia's Section on Parsis
UNESCO Project to preserve Parsi Heritage

(Addendum -- Bet you never thought an Englishman could write a piece about Parsis without mentioning vultures, or the rite of The Tower of Silence, or Freddie Mercury…! )