So I’ve been in India since Saturday when I arrived in the seething chaos of Mumbai at a rather discombobulating (I love that word and will probably use it on here way too often) time of half past four in the morning. It was the first of eight Indian cities on this trip and is the largest in the country with some 12 million people helping it burst at the seams. This is my fourth time in India and so the magic which I felt first time round back in 2006 isn’t quite there, but I’m still loving the general hubbub and chaos of the place.
During the day the city streets of Mumbai are always alive with a million and one sights and sounds which you never get close to back in Western Europe. Within ten minutes of my leaving the hotel and walking to the malls in the northern district of Malad I counted dogs, chickens, cows, goats and cats, all in various states of decay and listlessness. At my first major road junction crossing (not a place for the faint-hearted in India) I had to negotiate myself through the onslaught of auto-rickshaws, beaten-up taxi cabs, ancient lorries belching fumes of the devil and…er…a couple of transvestites who stopped me in the middle of the road for some ‘spare rupees’. They were dressed up to the nines complete with colourful saris, bangles up to the elbows and a nice big bindi each to finish the look off. After a polite rebuttal I made it across the road and stepped into the welcoming air-conditioning of one of the many huge shopping malls that have cropped up in the city over the past few years. Compared with my first visit some six years ago, the choices for the consumer have grown parallel with the Indian economy as a whole as the burgeoning middle and upper classes demand more and more choice from the West. At the end of the day, though, a mall is a mall and I spend enough of my time strolling around them and, although the middle class kids love to hang out in them, for me the fun is outside amid the bedlam.
After a day spent in the northern suburbs of the city I headed in a cab for almost two hours (there’s still no underground network here!) some ten kilometres to the southern area called Colaba which is home to many of the city’s tourist sites – but I have no time for that though. I stayed at a small hotel which is right next to the resplendent Taj Palace Hotel, famed almost as much for the terrorist attacks in November 2008 which killed 164 people than as being renowned as THE place to stay in Mumbai – just a shame ECA’s budget doesn’t stretch that far! The doorman at my hotel was a wonderful cheeky chappy about four foot tall who reminded me of Norman Wisdom and bent over backwards to help, but not in that annoying insincere way which is all too common.
Within 24 hours of arriving in India I had succumbed to the syndrome often referred to as Delhi Belly but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I headed by cab to the brand spanking new Phoenix Mall, passing evocative crumbling colonial buildings shrouded by tenebrous banyan trees on all sides and having to turn a blind eye to the many beggars leaning in to the dusty cab; some armless, some diseased, but all destitute and hopeless – a very sorry sight to see anywhere in the world. Entering the mall put things into starker perspective as I passed the swanky facades of Armani and Hugo Boss, where a suit costs more than many Indians will earn in a lifetime.
After the weekend in Mumbai I then caught the train from the dramatically embellished Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, also known by its colonial name of Victoria Terminus, to the city of Pune (Poona) where I am now in my hotel room writing this with bats hovering outside the window. I had a very entertaining chat on the four-hour train journey with an old man who had served in the army for many years in Europe and was regaling me with all his tales and telling me how he has seen India change over his lifetime – and how there is still a long way to go and the huge problems the country faces. He was a wise man and very engaging, which made a nice change to many of the dullards I’ve had the misfortune to sit next to on a plane.
I only have a day and a half in Pune so must get cracking as the shopping environment has changed quite a bit since my last visit in 2008 and there are several new malls for me to explore. The city is quite a bit smaller than Mumbai but with a population of over three million it’s not exactly tiny, and with the IT and automotive industries here growing all the time it is only getting bigger and bigger. It’s also one of India’s major education centres with top class universities which help to attract talent from all over the country and has resulted in the city having India’s second highest income per capita. Now let’s see if I can find some nice French cheese in the small, but perfectly formed, expatriate favourite Dorabjee’s!
That’s all for now I think, and I hope to bring your further updates from my next locations of Bangalore and Chennai.