3pm. Strand Hotel, Colaba.
Don’t know how I slept – because I was unconscious from intoxication most of the night. I had got to bed around 4am, which approximated to my usual bedtime at home, but knew five and a half hours difference was going to take some getting used to.
After rehydrating with a mineral water, I indulged in a hot shower and a long period on the throne – I wanted my time in India to be as odour-free as possible! I brushed my teeth and had a shave. It was the first time I had been without shaving foam and instead was relying on a brush and shave-stick – white crayon-like thing that you rub onto your face and then work into a foam with the brush. Fuck me if I could get a foam going – but I managed to get rid of my facial hair, which was the important thing.
Called room-service for a couple of Pepsi’s – I was still parched. It was then that I began to suffer from severe stomach ache and I realised that brushing my teeth with tap-water had not been a good idea. The Pepsi arrived, I groaned and paid the man.
Another knock at the door: a woman saying “We need to put up a shelf okay?” she pointed to the bathroom.
“No, it’s okay – later”
I groaned and she left. The uneasiness continued. Another knock at the door: the cleaner. He quickly busied about and left. Realised I had left wads of cash strewn about the room. He didn’t take any luckily. I sat down and drank some of my soft-drink supply.
Another knock at the door: the room maid; well, it was a chap but I don’t know what you call male room maids – room studs? Still had wads of cash lying around. He changed the sheets and left.
I was feeling decidedly better so began getting my things together for a stroll about town. I got the holster wallet out and put all my vitals in it. The money I shared between my wallet, my travel wallet (which also held travellers cheques, drivers license and credit card for emergencies and other valuable items) my sneaky money belt (which looks like an ordinary belt) and well, my rucksack – where I hid the mega-wad of hundred Rupee notes.
Another knock at the door: the woman.
“We need to put up shelf now.” a couple of men accompanied her and they immediately began about the bathroom. I was glad I didn’t need another shit. I gave the woman my key and left.
Now, having flicked through my Rough Guide to India I knew that I was approximately 200 yards from a famous sight called The Gateway of India. Built originally to celebrate the visit of some King or other but remembered by the Indians for the most part as the place where the British Troops finaly disembarked for Britain. So I headed in that direction along Apollo Bunda, which is also the sea-front.
That day I decided that my first mistake had been: leaving the hotel. Inside it was clean, quiet and reasonably solitary – great for reading books. Everything that outside wasn’t. I strolled up the road towards the Gate where the Taj Mahal Intercontinental Hotel also stood, and also where you can catch boats to the island of Elephanta – which has a temple to Shiva on it, the Hindu God.
It gradually began to hit me the more I said “No, sorry” or “No, thank you” to the hoards of beggars and touts that suddenly appeared from nowhere – that being white-skinned here was not inherently a good idea. They were like dung flies to a piece of shit – and that is probably the closest analogy I can come up with. The closer I got to the Gate, the worse it got.
When I finally got within picture-taking distance I was practically assaulted by a man selling postcards. He thrust them into my hand shouting “Thirty Rupees Sir, very good price! You go over there they are sixty Rupees! Thirty Rupees Sir good price” I succumbed to his sales technique and handed him a fifty Rupee note – he went to find some change.
I stood still for long.
A man ‘at prayer’ whilst chanting painted a red dot on my forehead – put some sugar balls in my hand and tied a yellow and red string around my right wrist. The postcard man returned and explained that I was receiving a blessing – it was good luck.
“You must eat the sugar and give him some money” he demonstrated.
“One hundred Rupees” said the Holy Man.
Now, what would you do? This looked remarkably like a scam. I tried to barter:
“Er, forty Rupees?” He looked upset.
“One hundred Rupees.”
“Fifty Rupees?” I said.
Then I realised my fuck up when a local intervened: “He said one hundred Rupees!”
I paid up. My mistake was not paying enough respect to the man at prayer. The Rough Guide said I should take all things religiously-related very seriously – as do the Indians. I didn’t however realise that it would cost me one hundred Rupees a go. I pledged on my next encounter to be more open-minded and, if I didn’t want to pay, say “No thank you” before I got into the situation.
Referring to my exceedingly poor map of Colaba, that I had ripped from the Rough Guide, I made my way north as fast as I could, in order to avoid beggars and the like. It was exceedingly busy. I skirted around the outside of the Prince of Wales museum which looked like a palace from the outside – the scaffold surrounding it too looked gorgeous. I decided to return here later in the week.
I needed a break and risked my neck getting across the street to a little café – where I decided I could read my guide book a little more thoroughly. Crossing the road too is like a game of chicken. Ha!
Why did the Chicken cross the road? Coz he was no chicken!
I ordered a Tea and sat near the entrance with my back to the door. This way I hoped for a reasonably peaceful few minutes. Next to the door, behind a counter, sat a man. Behind him was a huge rack of switches each corresponding to a ceiling fan above each of the tables – which he switched on if there were people at the table. A great way to save electricity.
My ‘Tea’ arrived. It was dark brown and looked as though there were lumps of cheese floating in it. I wasn’t going to drink it so I asked for a Coke.
“We don’t have Coke.”
“Yes you do.” I replied and indicated the display fridges at the back.
“Ah you want Pepsi sir?”
Obviously the two are not the same, I mean, they’re spelled differently for a start. It seems that there is a Pepsi-Coke war on in India – and Pepsi seem to be winning. Pretty sad really; every street is lined with ads for American Coke: tied to lampposts, painted on walls, on the front of every shop. The only Indian soft-drink that seems to have a high profile is Thums Up, indicated in a unique piece of marketing. Most posters look like this:
Their tag-line being I WANT MY THUNDER. Perhaps it makes you flatulent? So I settled for a Pepsi, palak paneer and a nan bread. Very tasty, cost about forty-five Rupees (ninety pence).
Decided to head for St Thomas’s Cathedral in Churchgate, the area where the British used to live. So off I set up Mahatma Ghandi Street, the main street that connects Colaba and Churchgate.
It began to rain. Well, in the British sense of the word. There was water falling from the sky. In monsoon terms it just VERY humid – 87% in fact. Which is hotter than the unisex sauna I went to in Austria last year – and that’s saying something. I was walking quickly – in order to avoid conversation with the street people, which wasn’t doing my pinkies any good. My sandals were rubbing something rotten.
Now my mistake here, was walking on the pavement. Sounds a little bizarre perhaps, but at this point I hadn’t noticed that all the well-to-do people strolled down the road. This way they could avoid the low-life’s who inhabited the gutters and pavements. Also there was a tendency for every market seller to build his stall on the edge of each pavement facing inwards – that way for any punter using the pavement there could be no escape.
A man with a brolly approached me from behind, he was young and well dressed and he sheltered me from the rain with his umbrella. We got talking, small talk to begin with, then a little more conversational – though we didn’t exchange names, it didn’t seem necessary.
He was a student of Medical Science and wanted to be a vet. In an amusing fashion his umbrella kept coming apart every time he took it down as we passed under various awnings. Now, as the guidebook said – don’t be surprised by people suddenly wanting to make conversation with you, usually all they want to do is test their English.
“I have had this umbrella for two years – it has been good to me. My English is good yes? he said.
“Very good” I replied.
“What religion you? I am Cat-o-lick, but I believe in reincarnation like the Hindus. Do you believe in reincarnations?”
“Er, yes, yes I do.”
“I am on my way to holy festival, you want to come?”
“This festival once only every ten years – very special.”
Now there;s religion again – treat it with respect. I hadn’t read about any festival in the guide – but I guess they can’t cover everything.
“Okay.” Am I going to regret this?
We veered off the main street down a side road to Marine Drive – the dual carriage-way that connects the north beaches of Bombay and Churchgate. We caught taxi and nattered some more – about cricket mainly. Some way past Churchgate Station we pulled up and I paid the river sixteen Rupees (cheapest Taxi ride I’ve ever had).
“Where can you buy new umbrellas from?” I asked – thinking of something to reward him for his hospitality. He looked confused. “Anywhere.” This made sense considering there was a market on every street selling everything. “Oh.” I said stupidly.
He led me across the street to a large enclosure. “Behind this wall are many temples of many Religions: Hindu, Muslim, Cat-o-lick.” I was, I must admit, fascinated. Inside the compound there were many people milling about – all very festive. He led me immeditly to the right to an enclosure that ran parallel to the Churchgate road. A man greeted us.
He and the man bantered on in Gujurati, or whatever they speak in Bombay, the only phrase I understood was “from England” as he gestured to me. Where we were seemed a little desolate. I assumed this was a little aside before we went to the real festival. To our left and right there were a number of small shines, all Hindu dedicated and a tree with string tied around it.
He led me into one of the shrines and pointed at a number of icons hanging from the wall. He explained which gods they were and what they represented. Very interesting as my knowledge of Hinduism was practically noting. “You want to take picture?”
“No” I said assuming that if I did I would have to pay – and anyway I thought it a little disrespectful.
He led me further down the compound to a large open section. All down the left hand side of which some mangers were positioned every twenty or so yards. The manger at the far end had a fire burning in it. Nearby a group of people sat watching it.
“This is where they come to send their family into the next life” he said.
It suddenly hit me – we were in a crematorium – fuck! I didn’t know what to think: exceedingly privileged or insulted? I played it indifferently privileged. I pointed to the fire “So they are burning a body now?” “Yes.” Oh joy of joys! “Come – we look further down.” As we walked past the raging fire and its family, who apparently have to watch for three hours, he explained to me the procedure of the cremation.
The family buys wood with which to burn their departed loved one. The bettr the wood they buy – the better the transition to the afterlife. “Cheap wood cost them two thousand Rupees, the nicerm better, wood four thousand Rupees and for baby nine hundred rupees.” The closest relative then sets fire to the body. Uh-oh he’s talking thousands. I shall say “Awfully sorry – didn’t bring my wallet!” He showed me down to where they measure the wood.
“You want to take picture of fire?”
“When we find dead beggars on the street, we bring them here and burn them with wood paid for by donations to the poor.”
This is getting awkward.
As he led me further down towards a shrine at the end of the enclosure two gentlemen appeared behind me. The first hap that we met at the gate and a well-built friend. I could see I was in trouble. After an abstract description of the shrine he turned to me. “Would you like to make a donation to help them burn the poor people?” He stood very close to me, the other two men stood by and watched, I was cornered. “Er, yes!”
“It costs two thousand Rupees per person – show him” he waved at the proprietor who come towards me and produced a notebook.
“Write your name” – I did. He began to flick back though the pages of the notebook it revealed the names of various other tourists who had also gotten themselves into the same stupid situation as myself – where they were from: Canada, Scotland, Australia, and how much they had been forced into paying. Four thousand Rupees, three thousand Rupees plus thirty Dollars. I was dumbstruck.
“Er, I don’t have much money” I produced my wallet and handed over 500 Rupees. He got angry. Another 500 Rupees. “It costs two thousand Rupees for each one!”
“English money okay” interjected the proprietor.
“I am not a rich man” I protested.
“You have come here to holy place – I let you take pictures – we have been very kind.” He gestured to the mysterious third man “Do you want him to get angry?” I had two choices – hand over the remaining thousand Rupees in my wallet or have it beaten out of me. I chose the easy route.
Back out on the Chruchgate road he had the cheek to ask me, as we departed, for some money for a new umbrella. “I have been a good guide.” I should have broken his nose. Mamma taught me to be kind and never to hurt people – bless her. Feeling exceedingly stupid, naive, gullible, yellow… I set off at hot-foot pac back towards Churchgate station, pausing briefly to give five Rupees to a beggar with no hands or feet – I bet he never sees a penny of the two thousand Rupees that I had just deposited at the crematorium.
I spent the rest of the afternoon getting my bearings of Churchgate. I found the Post Office – a building of similar gradeu to that of the Natural History Museum in London; and the glorious Victoria Terminus railway Station – rather like St Pancras only five times the size. Back at the hotel I spent a quiet night in. Wrote a letter to Squeeze and enjoyed a Room Service meal – washed down with a couple of Pepsi’s.
I vowed to leave Bombay as soon as I could.