We got up and had a dhosa at Sai Samrat, creatures of habit that we are. We walked to the nearby Mumbai Central Railway Station, and bought a ticket to Churchgate – the final, most southerly stop on the line. The journey cost us five rupees – or five pence – each. From Churchgate Station we walked through a very grand, Victorian-looking part of Mumbai. On our left the gothic High Court of Mumbai building towered over us, and to our right a long strip of park. We peered through the railings to watch overs of various cricket matches that were going off. It was a saturday morning and I suppose what we were watching was an equivalent of pub football in England. There must have been a dozen cricket matches going off at once, each on a full sized pitch. As we walked further along, two bare-footed young boys stood beneath a tree with open carrier bags. In the branches of a tree overhanging the road, their mate was picking mangoes and dropping them into the bags. They looked to have already bagged themselves a good haul, and we wondered whether they might take them to the nearby Crawford market and flog them to a shopkeeper.
Eventually we made it to the southernmost part of Mumbai, where the land meets the sea and a huge ornamental stone arch, known as the “Gateway to India” is situated. The gateway was built by the British Empire to commemorate Queen Victoria’s visit to Bombay. When India gained it’s independence in 1947, the last British soldiers to leave Indian soil marched under the arch and onto their troopships – an iconic moment in this country’s history. Needless to say, we were bombarded with the usual requests to pose for photographs by some Indian lads. They were friendly and polite, and got very excited when I said that I wanted to take a selfie with all of them – they chanted the word “Selfie, selfie, selfie” over and over like some kind of primitive tribe.
We boarded a boat to Elephanta Island. A mile or two out from Mumbai’s busy harbour, a small mound of land juts out of the water, where ancient Hindus carved a network of caves into the rock. Boat journeys are quite cool and novel for the first ten minutes, but in my experience they tend to make time feel as if it’s passing by very slowly. I can’t imagine how I’d have got on in the olden days when it took months by sailing ship to get anywhere – I think I’d have ended up walking the plank out of boredom. Luckily, the tedium of this particular voyage was loudly and spectacuarly interupted by a man throwing up over the side. His wife patted him on the back as he jettisoned his breakfast in several gut-wenching heaves onto the side of the boat, whilst the seagulls provided a mocking chorus of laughter. We passed menacing looking ships belonging to the Indian Navy and an oil tanker the size of a stadium, before eventually arriving at a stone jetty that jutted out a few hundred feet from the island.
We walked along this causeway, passing up the opportunity to take the miniature train that runs along it’s length because it looked dreadful and had to pause for several minutes whilst a cow was shoed off the line. As we walked along the causeway the waves lapped gently in to shore, bearing upon them all kinds of household junk that had been thrown into the sea. A layer of rubbish about two metres wide seperates open sea from solid ground, like mouldy cornflakes bobbing around in a sea of curdled milk. Elephanta Island itself is beautiful – a rocky outcrop covered in jungle vegetation and patrolled by monkeys – more on these treacherous rogues later. We climbed a set of steps which seemed to wind on into the heavens, though climbing them felt as hot as hell. At the top we posed for more photos with a random Indian family – they told us to say “Cheese!” but Luke substituted this for the word “Paneer”, which apparently provided the family with the most hilarious joke they’d ever heard. We paid our “Foreigner’s Entrance Fee” and explored the impressive cave complex.
The most impressive thing when studying the length and depth of these caves, is to acknowledge that they were carved out of solid rock. Many hands and many years came together to create something as special as this, and in our age of instant communication and internet, where a million distractions are available at the touch of a button, it’s hard to imagine any civilization having the time and inclination to create something like this ever again. Perhaps in another thousand years we’ll marvel at ancient wall carvings of selfie-stick wielding tourists, but I doubt it.
Statues of Shiva as destroyer and creator stand at the rear of the main cave, holding various ceremonial items in multiple sets of arms. Multiple limbs are a feature of most Hindu Gods, and often if a child is born here with some kind of birth defect which provides it with an extra arm or leg or something, it is seen to be an incarnation of a God. We walked around the other caves that form the Elephanta network. Some of these caves contain large blocks of stone with a kind of trough around them – altars upon which living things were sacrificed to the Gods. There are an alarming number of these blocks scattered around various ancient Hindu buildings we’ve visited, and I wonder just how many animals (or even humans!?) were sacrificed on a daily basis in ancient times.
We sat resting in the sun for a while after completing our tour of the caves. An Indian man came up to us and said: “I am curious, why do you sit in the sun? the shade is much cooler.” We explained that in our own country, we didn’t get much chance to sit in the sun. However, after standing up and looking at the sweaty patches of where we’d been seated, I concede that the man probably had a point. As we walked back we pointed and laughed at a group of monkeys that had surrounded a lady and snatched her water bottle. When I was young my Grandma had a saying: “Don’t laugh at others, because you may be struck comical yourself one day.” How right she was, as instant karma came to bite me in the arse, almost literally. A monkey came sprinting out of the undergrowth and blocked our path. I greeted it with a cheerful “Hello!” the way I would any other sentient being. It hissed and raised it’s chin – a sign of masculine challenge, as I learned in Cambodia – then went for my bottle. At this point I metaphorically (and almost literally) shat myself, and ran as fast as I could away from the creature in question. The word “RABIES, RABIES, RABIES!” screamed an indelible mark into my consciousness like a World War Two air raid siren. After setting a personal best time for the hundred metres, I allowed myself to look over my shoulder. No monkeys were in view – just Luke, doubled up in hysterical fits of laughter. I took a long swig from the coveted water bottle to replace the fluid I’d lost in the sprint, and we continued down the hill to the boat.
The journey back was unremarkable until we reached the jetty at Mumbai. Owing to the short length of the platform, our boat was forced to moor up against another boat, which was in turn moored up to two identical boats. This meant that in order to reach dry land, we had to hop the gap over to the next boat, and so on until we reached the safety of the jetty. As I have alluded to before in this blog, Indians have a very different attitude to queueing – ie: they don’t do it. Luke and I stepped back and allowed fifty to a hundred odd people to cram onto the starboard side of the boat, pushing and shoving as one person at a time hopped onto the next boat in the sequence. There are times in this country when you can picture yourself being the subject of a rolling news headline passing along the bottom of the screen on BBC News 24 – something along the lines of “Twelve people crushed in boating accident in Mumbai Harbour” – this was one of those times. Fortunately, the entire party was safely transferred to shore and we returned to dry land to continue our adventures.
There is a legendary book called Shanteram, which is set almost entirely in Mumbai. It’s the true story of an Australian man who escaped from prison where he was serving a sentence for armed robbery, came to Mumbai to hide out and ended up falling in love, becoming a kind of doctor for people in the slums, and generally living an extraordinary life. Luke has read it and I’m now in the process of doing the same, so our next stop was a bar called Leopolds, which features heavily in the book. Leopolds was established in 1871 and became a hangout for the seedier characters of Mumbai. These days, due to the popularity of Shanteram the place is a lot more touristy, but it still made for a really atmospheric place to have a beer and some food. In a break from curry, I had a buffalo burger (no beef on the menu in India, remember) and it went down a treat.
Our final destination for the day was the Chhatraparti Shivarti Terminal (formerly known as the Victoria Terminal) – another example of respledent Victorian architecture, with turrets, towers and stained-glass windows in abundance. It is still the main railway station in Mumbai, and officially the busiest railway station in Asia – which is some claim to fame, I can tell you. Anybody who’s seen the film Slumdog Millionaire will be familiar with scenes that were shot in and around the station area. Sadly it might also ring a bell in people’s minds because of the terrorist attacks that occurred here and a few other sights in Mumbai in 2008, when 163 people were killed. There is a large armed presence in most of the places we have been to in India, as well as metal detectors in every railway station. This being my first trip I have no basis for comparison, but I imagine security has been tightened a lot since before 2008.
We returned to the hostel for a bit before going to a restaraunt round the corner for tea. Here we witnessed the most bizarre excesses of Indian hospitality yet. Our waiter was short and smartly dressed with a pencil moustache. Both in looks and latterly in mannerisms, he could well have played Manuel in a Bollywood version of Fawlty Towers, or if you’ll indulge me… Balti Towers. Firstly, I got as far as ordering my own food before he abruptly buggered off, having taken only half our order. He disappeared for five minutes and then returned. We attempted to explain that Luke wanted to order his food too, which was lost on him. In the end a bloke who spoke good English at the next table had to translate for us. Even at this point, Manuel suddenly walked off halfway through Luke’s order. When he returned, he had a jug of water, pouring a glass for each of us. Luke completed his order and eventually the food came out together, which was a minor miracle. Many Indian waiters have a tendency to spoon your curry out onto the plate for you, and Manuel was no exception. He also topped up our water and poured two fresh glasses for us, in spite of the fact that we hadn’t touched the first two. By now the table was getting quite crowded. He retreated to the end of the room and watched us like a hawk, returning at random intervals to spoon various bits of food onto our plates, in spite of our looks of bafflement. Towards the end of the meal, when I thought the coast was clear, I picked up the spoon to scoop the last of my Jaipuri onto my plate. From out of nowhere Manuel materialised, snatched the spoon out of my hand and proceeded to do what I could have done for myself. He was too wierd and whimsical to get annoyed with, and at the end of the meal he recieved a large tip for the entertainment value that he’d provided. As we were about to pay he poured us each a third glass of water, which needless to say remained untouched.
The deference shown by some waiters in India has made us somewhat uncomfortable – though amusing at times, I can’t help thinking that this excessive desire to please might be borne out of the Caste system, or even represents a hangover from the days of the British Empire. After Episode one of “Balti Towers”, we went back to the Central Guesthouse to sleep after another successful day.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey