Mumbai; To Siddhivinayak Temple to say hello to Ganesh; In which Sheryl scares the hell out of me

We’d slept at our new friend Vineeta’s place last night, and woke up hungover with no toothbrushes or clean clothes. It’s been a while since either of us has had to remember the protocols for waking up in the house of someone you’ve only just met, but luckily Vineeta is a late riser so we had lots of time to clear the cobwebs out of our brains. Her housekeeper, in fact, had come, cleaned, made breakfast, lunch and dinner, and left before Vineeta was awake.

Vineeta asked us to come and stay with her, and we had to think hard about it. On the one hand we had a depressed party-girl and a rambunctious young dog; and on the other we had the fact that it really wasn’t going to work out staying at Hitesh’s place, and Vineeta’s apartment was a lot closer to the train line. In the end we decided to stay. I’m glad we did. Sometimes a lot turns on a spur-of-the-moment decision like that, and Vineeta turned into a good friend. She stood by us and was a lot of help when everything went to hell, later.

Of course that meant we had to go and get our things from Hitesh’s place a few suburbs away. It took ages to get there and when we did, in the mid-afternoon, we had to pound on the door and wake him up. All of that made it clear that we were doing the right thing. Don’t get me wrong - Hitesh was perfectly civil, especially considering that us moving hosts so quickly could be taken as insulting. But it was obvious that our schedules were never going to mesh well. 250 rupees worth of autorickshaw later, our dusty, battered packs were dumped beside Vineeta’s equally dusty and battered table and Angie was nearly having hysterics trying to sniff everything at the same time.

That was it for that day, though. Sheryl was feeling sick again and didn’t feel up to anything more than going on an expedition down the street to get a feel for the neighbourhood. God, Mumbai is huge. We’re way out in the suburbs here, and it feels like the centre of any other city. I should feel like a country bumpkin, I guess, but I don’t. I like big cities. The code of behaviour is universal, and I’m instantly comfortable here.

An hour’s exploring did Sheryl in, and she went to bed feeling miserable. What with overnight trains and late nights, my body clock is a mess, so I wasn’t tired. I sat up awhile and helped Vineeta with a self-evaluation questionnaire for a job interview, and then we got drunk again and talked into the night. Sheryl and I have been drinking next to nothing while we’ve been in India. In fact, because we haven’t been drinking or eating meat or sweets, we’ve been treating the country as a kind of detox retreat. All that is completely shot now.

Sheryl was still feeling nauseous in the morning, and her stomach was hurting a lot. She’s hardly eaten for days, and she hasn’t had much water either. This is very strange for Sheryl, who usually drinks three or four litres a day. I’m getting worried, and I really want her to go to a doctor. I’ve wanted her to go since Jodhpur more than a week ago. She’s set against it, for reasons I don’t understand, but I’m getting closer to forcing her to go.

Vineeta has a car, but no driver’s license. She used to have a full-time driver, but she let him go when she lost her job and had nowhere to go. It seems very strange to me to have a driver, but it’s the way things are done here. Middle-class Indians take pride in having people to do things for them. Nobody with any money does anything for themselves - and doing anything for yourself obviously shows that you have no money. The mindset has its roots deep in the caste system. Having a driver, at least, makes sense when you consider that Indian traffic is nothing short of hellish and requires a skilled expert to negotiate, and also that said skilled experts can be had for a couple of thousand rupees a month - about CAD$50, if that. For the sake of contrast, Sheryl and I, out of curiosity, tried to estimate what it would cost to have a full-time driver at home and came up with a minimum figure of about CAD$2000.

In any case, Vineeta had some things to do that morning, and decided it would be worthwhile to hire a driver for the day. Now me, if I were recently unemployed, I’d be trying to save money. She claimed it was cost-effective to hire a driver for Rs250 for the day (about CAD$6.25) versus the autorickshaw fares, and I’m sure it was. I’d be spending Rs16 to take the train, myself, but I’m not a young Mumbaikar professional with a reputation to keep.

Vineeta follows Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhism, a very strange celebrity-driven version of Buddhism in which devotees chant the name of the Lotus Sutra over and over in Japanese in a droning tone (”nam-myoho-renge-kyo“) in order to get what they want. It seems like a perversion of Buddhist thought to me - the idea of speaking magic words a specific number of times for, say, a happy marriage, or money, or a new job is… a bit repugnant, frankly. In my unlearned recollection, the Buddha taught that enlightenment can only be attained by releasing worldly desires - not by encouraging them. The thing bears all the hallmarks of a cult, as well. But I’ve learned from experience that the best thing to do when friends get involved in cultish groups is to nod and murmur politely, exercise passive resistance to refuse to be drawn into it yourself, and wait for them to get tired of it or become disillusioned. I’m not especially worried about it in Vineeta’s case - we’re not going to be around long enough for it to affect us, and besides, the chanting is nice to listen to. It’s done with eyes open, focussing on the wall, and the sound is quavering, rhythmic and tonal. I kept thinking of Yannick, the Frenchman we’d met in Jaipur, and how he was always recording sounds for his films. He’d have loved to have a recording of this.

Sheryl and I hung around at Vineeta’s place while she went to her SGI mentor’s house to chant. We’d met her mentor the previous day, and she’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Her name, appropriately, is Preeti. Vineeta spent a couple of hours at her place and sent the driver to pick us up when she was done.

Sheryl and I are recent followers of the Hindu deity Ganesh. There was an empty spot in our pantheons beside Saint Jude and Sheryl’s personal Goddess Frigg, and Ganesh, with his elephant head, big belly and sense of humour, fit right in. He’s a god who knows how to enjoy himself and has a legendary appetite for sweets. He’s both the Creator and the Remover of Obstacles, and he rides a rat named Muushika. We’d been blessed by one of his priests at the Vinayaka Temple in Trichy, and when Vineeta invited us to come along to his temple in Mumbai we didn’t have to think twice.

The Siddhivinayak Temple is huge, and sees thousands of devotees pass through its gates every day. It doesn’t look like much from outside at street level - just a run-of-the-mill temple surrounded by stalls selling flowers and sweets, and with a big fence and a queue for the metal-detectors and the security frisking. Cameras aren’t allowed and Sheryl had to go back to the car to leave hers in her bag. It was a Saturday afternoon and there were a lot of people there. Since it was the afternoon, Vineeta said, the crowds were smaller than they would have been in the morning. If so, I can’t imagine it.

People were pestering us the whole time to leave our shoes with them, but Vineeta ignored them and we left ours at the stall where she bought an offering for Ganesh - a shoebox-sized container of flowers and things. We joined the queue for the gate to the inside of the temple proper and inched forward with the rest of the devotees, watching the big video screen that showed what was happening inside the inner sanctum. It looked like utter chaos on the screen, and the reality didn’t disappoint. People were crushing forward in a huge shouting mob, trying to reach the front (this is the way that Indian people queue for everything, though, so it didn’t surprise me at all). Everyone was crushed into the sanctum, holding their offerings above their heads, trying to catch the attention of the priests. The priests, safe behind their railing, picked and chose the ones they liked, blessed the giver, and placed the offering at the feet of the giant pink and white idol of Ganesh.

Ganesh, sadly, didn’t want either of the girls’ offerings. In the exiting crush we got separated, and once I was outside I leaned against the wall in a sheltered spot away from the current of human flesh and waited for them. The designated pusher-of-people saw me standing there and began pointing out every foreign-looking woman in the crowd to me. There was only one other group of foreigners, all Asian, and I shook my head for each one until, finally, he found Sheryl. He was much annoyed when we didn’t immediately move along and waited for Vineeta instead.

The line leaving the sanctum passed by a big silver statue of Ganesh’s mount, the rat Muushika. Each devotee, as they passed, bent down, covered one of Muushika’s ears and whispered into the other. Vineeta told us that they were whispering messages for Muushika to carry to Ganesh, and covered his other ear so that Muushika would remember them. I didn’t have anything special I wanted Ganesh to know, so I just asked Muushika to say hi for me.

On the way out, Vineeta bought us a tiny Ganesh idol to carry with us. He’s small and orange and very cute. I’m much happier now that we have Ganesh to travel with us, and our mascots Spidey the plush spider and Mister Raisin the mummified baby sea turtle don’t have to worry since he won’t be encroaching on their territory. On the box Vineeta wrote “May Lord Ganesh fill your life with a belly-full of joy and happiness”. What a sweetheart.

My father had suggested I call on a friend of his while we were in Mumbai. He’d given us the address, which was in the aristocratic Breach Candy area. I’d made the introductory call a few days earlier, and I called again now, since we were driving very near the area. I’d anticipated just a quick courtesy-call, but Stan invited us out to dinner that night. Backpacking around the world doesn’t allow you to pack much in the way of clothing suitable for expensive restaurants, so I was a little concerned that my combat pants and t-shirt wouldn’t go over well. I also felt guilty at ditching Vineeta. I mentioned the wardrobe issue and the fact that there were three of us today, but he repeated his invitation. We made arrangements to meet later in the evening, and the three of us (sans driver) found a restaurant for lunch.

I needn’t have worried about dinner. Sheryl took one bite of her lunch and ran hell-bent for the washroom where she vomited violently. I’d had quite enough at this point, put my foot down, and told Sheryl we were taking her to a doctor. It’s been way too long that she’s been sick, now. Not wanting to eat is one thing, but not being able to eat is another. I had to call Stan to cancel dinner that night, and when I gave our reasons he passed us on to his wife Zarin, who’s a doctor herself. She diagnosed a stomach infection and told us to find a doctor immediately. We were en route to Vineeta’s doctor in the Juhu suburb at that very moment, but if we hadn’t been I would have asked her to recommend someone.

Vineeta’s doctor works out of a two-room office in Juhu. He’s an abrupt, gruff man with no beside manner - like most doctors of my acquaintance. He confirmed that Sheryl had a bad stomach infection that was wildly out of control, and that she was badly dehydrated. He started talking about hospitalization and intravenous rehydration, and Sheryl started to cry. She’s scared of hospitals at the best of times and was terrified at the thought of going to an Indian hospital. Given the filth and crowding we’d seen everywhere in the country I couldn’t really blame her for being scared. Mumbai is flashy, wealthy and modern enough that I thought there was a greater chance of it being okay, but I couldn’t force her to go and she decided to try and stay out of the hospital as long as she could, and try to deal with the dehydration with electrolyte powders and drinking lots of water.

It was far too late for that, though. Later in the evening she began vomiting violently and uncontrollably any time she tried to eat or drink. She was still terrified of going to the hospital but this time I didn’t give her any choice. Vineeta’s doctor, now Sheryl’s doctor, booked us a bed at a private hospital. Vineeta racked her brains for someone to drive us there. Everyone was either busy or not home, and she worked her way down the list of people with drivers’ licences until she came to Siddharth (”call me Sid”), an acquaintance she’d only met a few times. He came through and said he’d be there in fifteen minutes.

While we waited I packed bags for the two of us and called Sheryl’s mother and then the insurance company. There had been only one bed available in the hospital, their most expensive private room. Our insurance policy doesn’t cover private rooms, but there’s no way in hell that I was putting Sheryl in a sixteen-person ward in an Indian hospital that even the doctors call the “jungle ward” - not to mention that Mumbai is dealing with a simmering tuberculosis problem this year.

It was so strange, checking her into the hospital. I’ve never checked anyone into a hospital before, so it was completely new to me, and I was beside myself with worry over Sheryl. She was terrified and so sick she could barely walk, not to mention suffering from a blinding headache. So it was confusing and annoying to walk into the hospital at midnight and be presented with a laminated sheet listing the room charges, and to have the staff show Sheryl and Vineeta up to look at the rooms, just as if it was a hotel. These were all hazy peripheral concerns to me at the time. I was on the phone with our insurance company and talking to the night administration staff of the hospital, trying to figure out if the hospital could work directly with the insurance company for payment without involving us. The night staff said that they could - probably - but that the billing department opened at 8:30 the next morning and I should talk to them. I was beyond caring, by that point. I just wanted Sheryl in a bed, being treated.

It took half an hour for it to happen, but eventually she was in bed getting injections and an initial examination from an intern. She panicked when the IV drip was inserted - I think she has nightmares about needles at the best of times and an IV drip is a big thick needle. I tried my best to keep her calm, despite the fact that I was anything but calm myself. Sid was fantastic. He was level-headed, relaxed and humorous, and he kept me grounded so that I could keep Sheryl grounded. Sheryl was more reluctant to act up in front of a stranger, too, so that kept her from losing it completely. My assistance mostly took the form of making revolting medical jokes, hoping that if she was nauseous and annoyed with me it would keep her mind off the needles. I’m just glad the nurses waited and took their blood samples from the IV after it was inserted, or all hell would have broken loose.

Vineeta, too, was excellent. She ran interference and translated. She’s very familiar with hospital procedures here. First thing after Sheryl’s initial examination we had to go down to the basement to the pharmacy (I was to become very familiar with the basement in the days to come, since the billing department was beside the pharmacy). We gave them the list that the nurse had given us, and went back upstairs with a big bag of drugs and medical supplies - saline, IV tubes and hardware. It was very strange for me to have to arrange all this ourselves. At home you just check into the hospital and everything is taken out of your hands. At least we didn’t have to actually decide for ourselves what to get. Normally I would have had to pay for the supplies immediately, since it seems that the pharmacy and supply-house is an independent business from the hospital, but I was still hoping that the insurance company would pay all the expenses directly and I was able to put them off until morning.

Our fears about the hospital were unfounded, at least. It was a perfectly modern hospital with excellent and professional care. I’m very glad we’re in Mumbai, though - I can’t imagine for a second doing this in some little temple town, or even in a city like Jaipur. It would be a nightmare. The room itself is amazing. It’s huge, with a comfy armchair and a glass table, and an extra bed for me. We have controls for the fan and air-conditioning, a fridge and a flat-screen TV of all things. There’s an attached bathroom and shower (with hot water!) and free newspapers in the morning. It’s far nicer than any hotel we’ve ever stayed in in India. At Rs5000 a night it had better be. That’s about CAD$125, which would be peanuts for either a hotel or a hospital at home, but our expectations are calibrated to Indian hotel prices now and we usually pay Rs300 or so a night.

Sheryl spent the whole night (and the next three days) on the IV, but the first night was by far the worst. She was suffering from uncontrollable, violent and awful diarrhoea and vomiting. Since she was attached to the IV and the IV was attached to the bed, we had to buzz the floor nurse every time she needed to use the toilet. They had to measure her output to track the rehydration, too - an exercise that was unpleasant in the extreme for everyone involved. The night nurses and staff quickly began to hate us for the mess, disruption and constant buzzing, but there was no choice. Sheryl was in torment. She was in terrible pain and scared out of her mind, but was very brave despite being so humiliated and upset. She was finally given something to control the diarrhoea and the vomiting long enough for her to fall asleep, but that was nearly at the end of a long, sleepless night. Each of us only managed to snatch a couple of hours of sleep before the whole circus started again at 6 o’clock in the morning.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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