A series of memories from my time in Mumbai in the late 1990s.
Midnight. Our SAA flight is flying over India. We notice the lights, tiny pin pricks flickering and golden in the blackness. There are millions of them, like stars upside down. This city, lit underneath us, goes on for hours. Someone in front of us whispers, “That’s Mumbai”.
Mumbai is a city of smells. I have a sensitive nose. I smelled Mumbai from the airplane. We were still flying when I noticed the smell. Something burning. Something huge, and foreign, and people filled. It was the smell of Mumbai reaching up to us as we made our way towards her.
3am. A miserable customs official indicates that our vaccine ‘paper’ is incomplete. My best friend and I are bleary eyed and tearful. “No, look, here is the stamp.” The official starts telling us how many US$ he will need to make the problem go away. I tell him that my friends in Malabar Hill (a suburb I have only read about in Wallpaper magazine) will hear of this. He lifts an eyebrow, shakes his head in what I will come to learn as the ‘yes’ of India, and waves us through.
3.15am. A woman on hands and knees sweeps the floor with a grass broom as we wait for our backpacks. Our absolutely smashed purser (a screaming, Afrikaans koffie moffie) takes a shine to us and invites us to spend the night with him in his hotel room, as well as getting a ride with the crew on their special bus.
On the bus. The crew are horrified that we are there, but they don’t question the purser. We start the drive to the fancy hotel. I look out the window of the air-conditioned bus and see bodies lining the road; row upon row of bodies, covered in thin fabric; it is muggy and hot. It is almost 4am and there is a total traffic jam; cars, busses, tuktuks and people. I don’t know if the bodies lining the road are alive or dead. I don’t know how this world works.
The fancy hotel foyer is quiet and empty. There is a man on his hands and knees, sweeping the floor with a grass broom. Upstairs the purser gives us half a sleeping pill each (Rohypnols, I discover the next day) and the three of us pass out in the massive bed, overlooking the Bay of Bombay.
The purser offers to show us around. It is a ‘quiet’ Sunday morning in Mumbai. We take a cab to Leopold’s. We order a Western type meal, and sit with other foreign travellers. Years later I recognise the place when I read Shantaram.
At the Gateway of India there are giant lights, thousands of dancers and speakers on trucks. We have stumbled on a shoot for a music video.
We stroll through a massive inner city park. There are at least 30 different cricket games going on, all at the same time. Hundreds of Indian men, dressed in white, scoreboards randomly set up, red cricket balls whizzing by.
We get lost on our walk and end up in a squatter camp. The shacks are three, four stories high. Tin shacks with rope ladders and wooden stairs.
We read a menu. Sizzlers. Cauliflower oh groutin. Soda lime. Mango lassis. We need to decide if we will stay in the city and look for other accommodation or whether we will leave and start our travels, south to Goa and then beyond. I am terrified. We have one more night of unreality in the fancy 5 star hotel on the strip. We go and sit at the pool overlooking the orange Indian Ocean.
In the evening a square parking lot fills up with bodies getting ready for bed. Row upon row of people sleep in a parking lot.
We pour through our Lonely Planet Guide. Nothing makes sense.
We are on the street. Shopping malls, sari shops, incense, marigolds, busses, scooters, beggars, music, shells of high rise buildings, covered in bamboo scaffolding. Traffic. People. Human waste. Dead crows. Live crows. Fresh bananas. A blind man. Children in rags. A dog covered in sores. A man pushes a cart of tiffin boxes. A man rides past on a bicycle. A woman in a blue sari stands behind the glass of a second story window. A family drive past on a scooter. A man glues a poster of a Bollywood movie onto a wall. A mountain of plastic bottles moves slowly down the pavement. School boys in full English school uniform run past.
Sparks from a welding machine cascade into the road. A sign for Lakshmi’s Shirtings and Suitings. A billboard for Thumps Up Soda. A roadside stall selling betel nut; the pavement alongside covered in blood coloured spit.
If it weren’t for my friend who witnesses me, I would disappear. I am entirely alien and invisible here.
I blink in the sunlight. I drink water from a plastic bottle. Slowly I recognise the song from a movie soundtrack, playing on a speaker at the entrance to a shop. I sing along, knowing the sounds but not the meaning. I am in Mumbai.
This post is one of nine tandem blog posts, all with the same topic, Mumbai, and all released at the same time. Please check out the other offerings by these amazing writers.