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Southern India & Teaching in the Himalayan Culture School

Book Six: Bombay/Mumbai

Arrived in Mumbai after an uneventful flight from Newark. This followed an aborted attempt to get to California for a wedding, when our flight was cancelled and others totally booked. Our friend Pramila, who has been so helpful in planning this entire trip, has kept us busy more or less non-stop, here in her home town. Nanette met her seven years ago on a monastery tour in Ladakh, the last time we were in India. On this trip, we decided to focus on the south, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, with a side trip to Sri Lanka.


After a night's sleep near the airport, we went on a tour of Mumbai's largest slum, Dharavi. It was led by a student who continues to live in the slum, while he attends college. The company he works for, Be the Local, was started and continues to be run by another student from the slum. So now, this company provides a part time income for students from Dharavi, as it attempts to create a different impression of slum life. They want to show that the slum is not just a place of lazy drug dealers, and that it is in fact, a relatively safe place of industrial and hard working people, who often work together to eek out a living, mostly by recycling plastic, cardboard, aluminum, and anything else that others throw away. We walked around for a couple of hours, and viewed the various recycling industries taking place in Dharavi. Indeed, it did not seem especially dangerous, though it was obviously ramshackle and dirty. Most everyone we saw seemed hard at work sorting plastic, grinding it up, and then packing it for shipping to be reused in some other capacity. Cardboard was also being recycled, and aluminum cans and scrap were being melted down into ingots, to be sold to others outside the slum. The tour certainly did create a different impression than I got from reading Katherine Boo's Book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, though it was about a different Mumbai slum. Of course, the tour provided a superficial view, but if the guide's intent was to get people to question their preconceived notions of slum life, he did a good job.

When Pramila suggested a slum tour, we were initially reluctant, because it seemed exploitive, and kind of weird, almost voyeuristic. But because of the nature of the company, it did not feel that way. Right now, one of the main issues that the residents of Dharavi are dealing with, is that the city wants the valuable land that houses the shacks and business of the slum dwellers. Much of it is located in what is now prime property, and Mumbai's prices are among the highest in the world. At any rate, the politicians are trying to arrange a land swap. They will provide tiny, but new apartments in a small section of the slum, in exchange for the residents to give up a significant percentage of the land they have been squatting on for generations. There is resistance to this, so it will be interesting to see how things play out. In the end, I suspect the residents will have no choice, and will have to strike a deal of some sort.

Overall Mumbai, despite its larger size, seems less crazy and harried than Delhi. Yes there are beggars, and clearly there are enormous slums, but somehow, despite the constant honking and the traffic, it is a less overwhelming place than Delhi. I'm sure, the fact that we had Pramila as a guide obviously had something to do with facilitating our transition, but even taking that into account, it feels easier here. Somehow there is a greater sense of personal space, and certainly less of the constant harassment that we felt in north India.

On another day, we took the boat out to Elephanta Island, about an hour's ride through the harbor of Bom Bay, so named by the Portuguese, because it was a good bay and a good port. Elephanta, according to our knowledgeable guide,a university professor, was first started as a cave temple by Buddhist monks some time around the 7th century. Not long after, Buddhism more or less died out, and and the caves on the island were taken up by Hindus, or Shivites, as they are called here, worshippers of Shiva. They proceeded to carve detailed, three dimensional images of various incarnations of Shiva, out of the hard, basalt rock. More than a 1000 years later, these statues continue to impress with their detail and sense of movement conveyed through the stone. The Portuguese did their damnedest to destroy many of the statues by using them for target practice, but large parts remain intact.



We learned that there is a division between north and south India. While both Hindus, the Dravidians were a different race than the northern Aryans, and Shiva apparently figures more prominently in their style of worship than he does in the north. There are other differences as well. The Dravidians consider themselves the true and original Indians, while northerners are seen as more recent interlopers. Not surprisingly, this is a a matter of some dispute. What is true, is that the Mughals never made it to far southern India (south of Mumbai), which was ruled by the Cholas for hundreds of years.

After returning from Elephanta we had a fabulous lunch of thali, the south Indian version of rijstaffel, consisting of numerous small plates of incredible tasty vegetables, rice, roti and paratha. After stuffing ourselves, we made our way to the Modern Art Museum, which, as in China, seemed to be more or less permanently closed. We did manage to find one of the largest art galleries in town, where I proceeded to make fun of much of the art, seemingly every other piece having been named best this or best that in the show. My favorite was a painting of a chair that won for best portrait, even though no portrait could be seen. Perhaps that was the point.

Walking on, we considered a stop at the British Museum, aka Prince of Wales Museum, aka, some long Indian name that I cannot spell or pronounce, but we were tired at this point. I suggested a drink at the Taj, one of the fanciest hotels in town, built by Papa Tata, (who I now know was actually a Parsi), later partly blown up by terrorists in 2006, and then more or less rebuilt to the original specifications to its previous magnificence, except that is, for a rather tacky, high rise, new wing. Anyway, we managed to get ourselves kicked out of several lounge areas after being asked for our room number, and not quite having the balls to lie about it. We ended up in the Sea Lounge, open to the public, and managed to get a booth overlooking the harbor. There we whiled away a couple of hours drinking gin and tonics, beer, and tea, respectively. Pramila, had the tea, but that did not prevent much laughter all around discussing family, politics, religion, etc.

The Taj

Nearby India Gate

Jewelry and Corn chips Sellers near Taj

The next day Pramila had some work to do, but once again arranged and insisted on paying for, the"Off Beat Tour," with the same company who ran the slum tour. This time they took us to various sites around the main parts of the city. We started out in the fishing center, more or less what the South Street Seaport used to be.


Then it was on to one of the largest outdoor laundries in the city, where we watched men doing the washing, partly by machine and much by hand. They took in laundry from hotels and various businesses and washed it under primitive conditions, but nonetheless on an industrial scale.


From there we went to the thieves market, more or less an entire neighborhood of flea markets and antique shops, probably mostly fakes. Pramila later told us that it is called the thieves market because in the early morning, much of the merchandise is in fact hot, and therefor dirt cheap. The story we got from our guide had something to do with a mispronunciation. Hmmm.


Next, we went to see the dabbah wallahs, where an entire industry is devoted to delivering lunches all around the city. The food is made by housewives for their working husbands. These guys pick it up, and then deliver it by train or bicycle. Neither rain, nor wind, nor storm, can stop them from their appointed rounds. Apparently they almost never make a mistake, and needless to say, they are not computerized.



Later we met up again with Pramila in a tea room, where in true British style, we summoned the waiter with a bell.
Following tea, she had arranged yet another tour for us, this a historical, architectural, walking tour, not far from our hotel. We viewed many of the old British buildings, many in high gothic style,and most still in use, in varying states of repair, or disrepair. As you can see, no rest for the weary, but we have seen much of what this enormous megalopolis has to offer. Tomorrow, we will meet Pramila at the airport and she will accompany us for a few more days to a beach in northern Kerala. There will be nothing to do but relax.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:14 Archived in India Tagged cities_postcards

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Great pictures, I like the lunchbox guys! Where's David Hasselhoff?

by Mia

Great hearing your account of Mumbai Jon, was waiting for this one, am surprised( should I be) of the level of detail with which you have remembered your visit .Loved having Nanette and you here , cant wait for the rest of the blogs on your India trip :)
PS: loved having my pic in there too !!!

by Pramila

PS : your sense of humor remains as good as ever :):):)

by Pramila

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