Mumbai; Sanjay Gandhi Park; In which we finally venture downtown; Sheryl's Bollywood career is off to a slow start

It took a few days for Sheryl to recover enough from her stomach infection so that she could go out and explore Mumbai a little. We’d hardly seen any of the city so far, except for the part of Juhu around the hospital and the parts of Malad around Vineeta’s apartment. Sheryl didn’t really feel up to venturing all the way downtown, though, and so we decided to head in the other direction.

We still weren’t sure exactly where we were, and getting directions out of Vineeta was proving impossible. Like most Mumbaikars of her age and income, she never walks or - god forbid - takes public transit, so I decided it was entirely possible that, having been driven everywhere all the time, she had no idea where she lived either. She certainly had no idea how to get to the nearest train station. That didn’t stop her from exhibiting the attitude I’ve seen so many times from so many people and become so very tired of - where they make the double assumption that their home is so dangerous, scary and impenetrably complex that you, brain-damaged foreigner that you are, could never possibly have a hope of negotiating its complications. It’s an example of a reverse superiority complex, I think. They’re aware on some level that you’ve travelled more or less successfully for a year and halfway around the world (and the best of them will actually acknowledge this) but that doesn’t matter because anywhere out there is some sort of vague and misty dream-world with no bearing on or relation to their reality. Couple that with the usual middle-class horror of public transportation and it’s clear why we usually have a frustrating experience trying to get ourselves around when we’re being hosted.

Anyway, I digress. Vineeta’s only advice on how to get to the train station was to take an auto rickshaw. Walking’s free, though, so we set out on foot. After wandering for awhile we were forced to admit defeat and hail a rickshaw, but the side benefit was that I could watch the route and afterward I knew how to reach the station on foot. It was three or four kilometres so it’s unlikely that we’d walk it more than once, but I feel very uncomfortable not knowing where I am on the city map and I was a lot happier once I knew.

The closest station to Vineeta’s apartment was Goregaon station, and it was a twenty-minute ride north on the train to Borivali station. Our destination was Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a big green space on the northern edge of the city. It’s huge, but only a small section of it is open to the public. Supposedly there are leopards and other wild animals that live there, but unsurprisingly they choose to avoid the human-frequented areas of the park.

The park was a bit dried out in the heat, but the green was still a balm to our souls after weeks of the noise and traffic fumes of India. We followed a sluggish, shallow river past a huge flock of bathing ravens - the squawking, croaking and splashing had to be seen to be believed. At the far end of the part was the booking office for the loudly-trumpeted “Lion and Tiger Safari”. We knew it would be laughable but we bought tickets anyway - with expectations as low as ours it’s hard to be disappointed. It’s a good thing we weren’t expecting much - what we got was a whirlwind bus tour past two tired-looking Siberian tigers and three moth-eaten Bengals with nothing but the tops of their ears sticking out of their little pond. I’m not really sure why the bus was so ostentatiously equipped with grilles over every window, since the tigers were all caged. A an afterthought, there were a couple of exhausted lions panting in the heat under tree. It was all a bit funny and sad, especially o since I imagine tat this is the closest the average Indian gets to any wild animal. Judging by the excitement on board the bus, it was the high point of the week for most of the passengers.

On the way out of the park, by the side of the river on a stone bench, we passed a young couple kissing - and because this is India and nobody has any privacy and no one has any problem expressing a loud opinion about somebody else, there was an old man walking down the path and yelling at them. Of course I don’t know what he was saying, but I can make a good guess that he was telling them to observe propriety. No wonder there’s so much anger here.

The following day Sheryl felt strong enough to go and see some of Mumbai. I was desperately happy because I needed to get out. There were all kinds of delays with the wire transfer from the insurance company to the hospital - I’ve never heard of a country with so many bank holidays as India. Besides that I was beginning to feel very claustrophobic at Vineeta’s place. I’m hugely grateful to her for putting us up, but I wa going crazy. There was dog hair everywhere, and the dog uses the kitchen as a toilet because Vineeta doesn’t take her out. I’ve started doing it out of self-defense, just o that I don’t have to clean up after her. She still throws up all the time, though - and no wonder, given that she has leftovers, rice and milk to eat. Who gives a dog milk? By afternoon in the Mumbai heat the food has gone bad, and so the dog gets sick. I asked about actual dog food, but apparently it’s expensive and hard to get in India.

It should give some idea of the size of Mumbai that from Goregaon station in the northern suburbs to Churchgate station in South Mumbai is a distance of 27km. It still only cost us Rs8 each for the fare, though - about twenty Canadian cents. Mumbai’s commuter trains are either fast trains, which skip about half the stations (chosen on some basis the logic of which is completely mysterious to me) and slow trains, which stop at every station. From Goregaon to Churchgate the fast trains take about 40 minutes and the slow trains over an hour. Today was Sunday, so Mumbai’s legendarily crowded trains weren’t so bad. The down-side, though, was that every thing was closed - damn post-colonial cities.

From Churchgate we walked east through the linked belt of green parks called “maidans”, crowded with thousands of boys and young men - every single one playing cricket. Mumbai is nothing like any other Indian city I’ve seen. For a city of sixteen million people or more, it’s surprisingly green. The roads are all lined with ancient banyan and fig trees, most of them adorned with some token of Hindu devotion - smears of ochre or sandalwood paste, or strings or rags tied around branches and trunks. Sometimes it seems as though the trees themselves are being venerated - a nice thought. The streets are straighter and the buildings are taller, grander and in an entirely different architectural style of Victorian monumental grandeur. There are no auto rickshaws, only taxis. And it’s so much quieter. There is no honking in Mumbai. I hadn’t realized just how much the constant insane blaring of horns had become a part of my aural landscape until it was gone. Everything is much cleaner too. There are no stray cows, and their attendant filth is gone, and there is actual municipal trash collection, so the rivers and mountains of rotting garbage that characterize other Indian cities are absent as well. I could have fallen in love with Mumbai for those reasons alone.

We walked all around the Fort area of town (so-called for the old British for, long torn down for building materials), up the busy MG Road, lined with shuttered shops, to Mumbai CST (Chhatrapatri Shiraji Terminus, Victoria Terminus that was). It’s the busiest train station in Asia, and it looks it. I did expect more than the 30 or so platforms, thronging with people though they were. Hanging around train stations isn’t normally my idea of a good time - I’ve done more than enough of it during our travels. We had two reasons for being there. The first was to find the foreign tourists’ reservation counter for later reference, which we did, and the second was to see the stonework of the station’s exterior. It’s a baroque monstrosity covered with gargoyles and carvings of plants and animals. I certainly wouldn’t call it beautiful, but it was definitely a fun building.

From the train station we walked south to the Colaba area of town to see the Gateway of India. Colaba is the most heavily-touristed part of Mumbai. It’s full of foreign backpackers, annoying vendors and hash-whisperers. Despite this, it somehow manages to be a bit charming. The harbour was sparkling with light and crowded with little boats. The water was still filthy though. The main embankment by the harbour is lined with truly ugly and stupidly ornate silver horse-carts, covered from top to bottom in beaten panels with pictures and patterns of flowers. I was so shocked actually to see people hiring them that I nearly tripped. As we walked down the embankment refusing one giant-balloon seller after another, a sudden stream of vendors swarmed past us, running hell-bent away from the square. Every one of them was carrying his wares on his head as he ran flat out - even the roasted-nut wallahs were carrying their charcoal-burning stoves and trailing plumes of smoke behind them. We decided that a cop had shown up in the square to round up the unlicensed vendors (ie. all of them).

The Gateway itself is a not-especially-interesting triumphal arch in yellow sandstone - and covered in bamboo scaffolding as well - and normally we wouldn’t have made extra effort to see it. Sheryl was desperate to be in a Bollywood movie, though, and we knew at least three or four couples who had been picked up by Bollywood talent scouts around the Gateway. We hung around the square for at least twenty minutes, fending off vendors and trying to look photogenic, but no luck - the talent scouts never showed themselves. Sheryl was sad and said it was because her hospital stay had left her looking old and haggard, but I told her it was because - like everybody else in Mumbai, apparently - talent scouts don’t work on Sundays.

Sheryl was completely exhausted by this time and even a slice of chocolate cake couldn’t cheer her up, so we walked back to the Fort area. We tried to see the only synagogue in Mumbai, but the blue and white building was being locked up as we arrived. We did see a movie set being assembled at Horniman Circle’s botanical garden, but watching the lighting guys got boring quickly and there were still no talent scouts. Dusk was falling by then, and so we cut back through Oval Maidan - wondering if I was going to get a cricket ball to he head any second - and went and sat on the breakwater to watch the ocean. The concrete was warm under us and the flying foxes flapped their slow way through the damp air. We watched all the lights come on along the western embankment - Mumbaikars call the sparkling jewel-like string the “Queen’s Necklace”.


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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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