TWO BEERS AT THE LEOPOLD

The head waiter has a moustache with the tips waxed and curled up in twin hooks, giving him the look of a villain in a 1920s silent movie…

The Leopold Café is the go-to place for the white folks here in Colaba.¹ It is expensive, of course, but after a long day of walking the streets of Mumbai I felt that a cold beer would be a good reward for my efforts.

Bullet hole in the timberwork.

There is a bullet hole scored in the pillar beside my table: a relic of a terrorist attack that took place here in 2008.  Melissa, the flight attendant on the Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore told me about it. But she also recommended the Leopold as a good place to hang out so here I am. My ice cold bottle of Kingfisher beer came with a bowl of peanuts. The head waiter has a moustache with the tips waxed and curled up in twin hooks, giving him the look of a villain in a 1920s silent movie.

This place is also a hangout for hip young locals. Outside the traffic is stalled on the street. Young couples hold hands and whisper to each other; table groups of young men quaff cocktails from dispensers shaped like antique petrol pumps. The ceiling fans stir the torpid air. The  food looks good but it is expensive. Besides, I have my eye on a local joint serving Mowgli foods across the road. I think I’ll have another beer and enjoy the ambience.

The Leopold has, according to the t-shirts for sale, been here since 1871. Some Chinese tourists come in, some older Europeans wearing shorts (they look shell-shocked) and a couple of burly pseudo-hippies.  I can imagine Bollywood stars here, and professional cricketers. The people next to me are Russians. I heard one of them say “spasiba” as he left. At another table a young Indian couple share a plate of ice cream covered with a tracery of chocolate syrup. The boy lovingly feeds spoonfuls of it to his girlfriend.

THE LEOPOLD CAFE

The menu under the table’s glass top advertises “Indian, Continental, Chinese and Desserts.” There is CHILLY CHICKEN, MANGOLIAN CHICKEN, SINGAPORE NOOLDES and, my favourite, CHOCOLATE EXTACY.

I like it here. It’s crowded and noisy but this is the first time on my trip that I’ve simply sat and people-watched and written down some notes.  So much is thrown at you in a city like this: noise, crowds, the holy stench, the religious clamour, the commercial buzz. I like sitting here and not having to move. The people at the table beside me are eating toasted sandwiches, French fries and pizza. They sprinkled the pizza with bright red chilli flakes.

It is growing dark outside. My legs ache. Outside on the street, a man in a skull cap is shouting into his cell phone.  The door staff – a doorman and a doorwoman – check the bags of every customer as they enter. The doorwoman has perfect skin and gold jewellery. Her hair is done up in a bun.

I should go out and find something for dinner. But I like it here. Dinner can wait. I finish my beer and order another.   

¹ The Colaba District, adjacent to the Gateway of India, is one of the main tourist areas of Mumbai.

IN THE TEMPLES OF OUR FATHERS

The worshippers jostled and shoved me along, moving clockwise around the statue and its marble enclosure.

Outside the colourful chaos of the Crawford Market I plunged in deep, following the route set out for me on my phone by Google Maps: half lost and half found. In a densely packed street I came  across a Hindu temple crowded with worshippers. A monk blessed me in the middle of the street as cars, cows and crowds surged around us. He wound a sacred thread of orange and red around my wrist, incanting a prayer as he tied a complex knot to secure the turns and expertly sliced off the excess with a box cutter knife.

The votive offerings given to me by the priest in the temple.

Inside the temple courtyard, a salesman at a stall festooned with bright orange garlands of marigolds and overflowing with votive treats, gestured for me to remove my shoes and socks, sold me a plate of offerings, then bade join the jostling throng entering the temple’s inner sanctum.

A set of metal steps led up to a raised platform where a statue of some god or other sat in an alcove draped with flowers. The worshippers jostled and shoved me along, moving clockwise around the statue and its marble enclosure. I emerged still clutching my tray of offerings, unsure of what to do with them. A young woman told me that I should go around again and this time hand the offerings to the priest (I hadn’t even seen him!) who would “place them on God.”

“I will come with you,” she said and led me back up the steps. She pointed out the temple’s main god, which I’d missed the first time around, but when I asked which god it was she shrugged her shoulders and said that she had no idea.

I handed my offerings over a stainless steel counter slotted for monetary offerings and a sweating attendant took the flowers and sweets from the tray, replacing them with blessed offerings: some yellow sweets, half a coconut and a small square of red and gold cloth. The priest himself, fat, sweating and caked with white makeup, sat cross-legged beside the god statue. My little friend (she had the most beautiful dark eyes) guided me back out into the courtyard, said goodbye, rejoined her waiting mother and was gone, swallowed by the departing crowd of worshippers.

I retrieved my shoes from the stallholder who placed my blessed rewards into a white paper bag and stepped, somewhat dazed and confused but with my karma fully replenished, back out onto the street. I had no idea what I had just witnessed. I felt as though I had been inducted into some secret sect, the membership of which opened up previously unseen facets of the city.  I had become part of Mumbai and the clouds of chaos now seemed a little less opaque. I could hear the temple bells clanging sonorously above the roar of traffic and the cacophony of voices; I could smell the incense and the marigolds. The street lay before me. I plunged in deep. 

Outside the temple, exhausted and stunned by the experience.

SEVEN ISLAND SUITE

Seven islands on the high side of the bay as you’re looking west…
– Gordon Lightfoot

Dusk on the Arabian Sea. As the sun dips behind the distant skyline of the Deccan Traps, a warm breeze ripples the bay where the sea touches Mumbai. The ferry leaves its stone pier beside the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the arrival of George V and the Empress Queen Mary in 1911 and cuts its way out onto the darkening waters. Oil rigs and tramp steamers lie moored in the sunset light. Seabirds wheel and swoop alongside the ferry’s superstructure. The fare to Alibag, an hour away on the farther shore, the Indian shore, is 25 Rupees.

The modern city of Mumbai comprises what was, originally, seven separate islands: Colaba, Old Woman’s Island, Mahim, Mazagaan, Parel, Worli and the Isle of Bombay. The island’s first inhabitants were the Koli people, who migrated from Gujarat sometime in prehistory. The islands were incorporated into the Mauryan Empire under the Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka encouraged the islands to become a centre of Buddhist culture and they remained so until they came under the suzerainty of the Moghul Empire in the 14th century. The Gujarat Sultanate took over control in the 15th century and they, in turn were succeeded by the Portuguese, who acquired the islands as part of the Treaty of Bassein in 1535. 

The Gateway of India

By then, European powers were exerting an increased amount of control in the subcontinent. The British entered the picture in 1661 when the islands were ceded to them as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II. Strapped for cash, Charles rented the islands to the East India Company in 1668 for the sum of £10 per annum. By 1845, the islands had been merged by land reclamation into one landmass. 

For several decades, Mumbai – or Bombay, as the British called it – was the hub of the East India Company’s operations in India. Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, control of the subcontinent was wrested from the increasingly inept and dangerous East India Company and India became the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire and the heady days of The Raj, celebrated in novels and songs, began.

But nothing in India lasts forever. The endless cycle of death and rebirth are a natural part of life and, as the Buddah said, everything must pass. By the time King George and his wife arrived to inspect their Indian dominion, the glory days of the Empire were past. The grand sandstone arch of the Gateway of India would not be completed until 1924. A cardboard model was all that was there for the King and his missus to see in 1909. 

Everything must pass. Even empires. The ferry motors east into the night. The lights of Mumbai fade astern.

Lights and Sound

I dived headlong into the crowded, feculent, rubbish-strewn alleyways…

Evening on Marine Drive. Crowds of locals stroll along the concrete bund overlooking the choppy waters of Back Bay. Hawkers sell water, chai and snacks. A few hustlers try their luck with the occasional tourist…including me. Offshore, the sun is setting in a bright orange ball into the Arabian Sea.

Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is home to at least 20 million people. It could be as high as 26 million. No one knows for sure. Whatever its population, arriving in Mumbai from my small New Zealand town, population 2,600, was like being teleported onto the surface of another world. My hotel, in Colaba District, near the Gateway of India, was right in the heart of the market district. So, I dived headlong into the crowded, feculent, rubbish-strewn alleyways where vendors sold vegetables, flowers, meat, snacks, spice, shoes, garments of all shapes and sizes and, of course, chai. 

I walked for hours amongst the confusing, incomprehensible jumble of the city. I navigated with my phone: Google Maps keeping me grounded and in touch with my location in relation to the safe zone of my hotel room. I was occasionally hassled by scam-artists and hustles. One guy followed me around for two days until I told him to fuck off. But mostly, I was invisible: just another face in the crowds.

At sunset each evening, I tried to be near the water. Mumbai evenings are short and as the lower limb of the sun touches the sea, the sky glows momentarily with an incandescent orange then bleeds quickly from pink to mauve to indigo…and it is night.