It felt like I just entered the sauna room when I stepped out of the air conditioned Mumbai airport. I was sweating all over my favourite t-shirt within minutes. To make things worse, my bad luck with the taxi drivers of Mumbai continued, as I stepped into the taxi of a young Marathi boy in his early twenties, who will later confess that it was his first week on the job.
Colaba is quite far from the airport, and the fact that he was geographically challenged did not help matters either. He would stop the taxi every few minutes, and ask directions from the locals. Within minutes, he would forget the directions and stop the taxi again. And every time he stopped the taxi, he would ask me the name of the hotel and the road on which it was situated.
“Bentley’s Hotel. Oliver Road.” I would tell him from the backseat, half buried under my two bags.
“Ventaley Hotel, Boliva Road?”
Every time I told him the name, he found a new way of pronouncing it. It took us two and a half hours to reach Bentley’s.
My room at Bentley’s was a cosy, basic room. The spots on the towels looked a bit questionable but it was quite clean overall. The best thing about the hotel was the location. Gateway of India was about 5 minutes walk away. The whole area was filled with shops, restaurants and roadside stalls. The old colonial buildings around the area, like the Police Headquarters, the Municipal Corporation Building, the Victoria Terminus Railway Station, the Taj Hotel made me fall in love with Colaba within minutes.
(Even though, I have relocated to Navi Mumbai since then, I find myself catching the morning train to the Victoria Terminus every Sunday. I love it there!)
After a well deserved nap, I decided to head out and grab an early dinner. I walked along the sidewalk which was filled with roadside stalls, selling cheap jewellery, T shirts, and pirated books. There were a lot of foreigners around which made the whole place feel a lot like Khao San Road, but with an Indian flavour.
Just as I was wondering where to have my dinner, I passed the Leopold Cafe. Yes, the very same cafe which was attacked by Ajmal Kasab and his friends a few years back. Incidentally, I was given a seat right next to the wall that had a bullet hole, which acted as a reminder of that horrible evening.
All around, people chatted, laughed, ate and drank. Things seemed to have gone back to normal at the Leopald’s. The only difference was that the guests were now subjected to a thorough security check before they entered the cafe.
After a healthy dose of Chicken Biryani and Carlsberg, I decided to walk to the Gateway of India. It had gone dark by then, the lights of Colaba Causebay area were on and the weather had cooled down. This was how I wanted Mumbai to be like, all the time.
I decided to take a walk.
I walked past stray dogs, entered weird back alleys and stepped on mud and dirt every now and then. But all along, I was looking at the buildings. These colonial buildings gave you an idea of what Mumbai must have been like back in the day when the Brits were here. Today, these buildings and the flashy new cars that graced the roads beneath produce a stark contrast.
I had always been an admirer of Gateway of India but this was the first time I saw it at night. It was pretty. I sat there for about an hour, with music plugged to my ears, and let it finally sink in.
“I have arrived in Mumbai. The childhood dream has finally come true.”
Under the mystical glow of Taj Hotel that night, I decided that before I get consumed in the tiring process of finding an apartment, I ought to take a good look around the city.
So, I woke up early next morning, and decided to grab breakfast at the Lebanese/Iranian restaurant called Piccadilly. I had seen it the night before and it was packed. So, I knew it had to be good. I multitasked between having big spoonfuls of this Iranian meat dish which, though a bit hearty for breakfast, was delicious and finding a place to visit.
Elephanta Caves was about an hour’s boat ride away and is an UNESCO Heritage site. And most importantly, the pier was located near Gateway of India, which was less than 500 meters away from my breakfast table!
Boats to the caves leave every 15 minutes and I managed to get on the first boat. Turns out, it was quite an auspicious day to visit the caves. Throngs of local villagers and tourists were coming in to offer their prayers. It was Shiv Ratri.
(I cursed myself for having meat and then cursed again for cursing on this holy day.)
To reach the caves, first you have to climb about a hundred steps, which isn’t easy. Especially in the heat.
There was a big Chinese tour group ahead of me and they were laughing and chatting, up the steps. I was following them, sweating and panting like an idiot.
“If the 80 year old Chinese lady can do it, I can do it..”
I visited three caves, but the main cave, popularly known as Cave #1, was the biggest and the nicest.
(Rest of the two had a lot of monkeys)
There are tour guides available at the entrance, but I decided to avail their services for free. I would tag along with some tour group, listen to the guide, and then very casually walk away. It might seem wrong, but I have saved a lot of money this way, all over Asia.
This is what I understood by snooping around. Elephanta Caves are really really old. 5th century. Wonder if that’s before the birth of dinosaurs…
Anyway, there are caves dedicated to Shiva and Buddhism. Apparently, not all of them are open for the public. And, no one knows who built these sculptures and why..
Cave #1 was really nice and was totally worth the hour long boat ride. I decided that I wanted to see more of the island and decided to climb the Cannon Hill.
I shouldn’t have.
The hills got its name from two cannons that are kept on top. Incredibly ugly cannons. Also, the view was horrible thanks to the smog. I couldn’t see anything. My camera couldn’t either.
Soon, I was back on the boat and sailing back to Mumbai. That afternoon, I decided to treat myself to a nice lunch at Cafe Mondegar and a nice long nap.
I believe I deserved that after a climbing a hill to see a bunch of kids taking pictures in front of a stupid cannon.
Sorry, two stupid cannons.
In the evening I had a nice long walk again. This time to Nariman Point and Marine Drive.
I don’t know what to write about these two places. Do I write about the fancy hotels that are close by. Or do I write about the people who come there, to sit on the big rocks, near the sea, overlooking the great Mumbai skyline. Or do I write about the view that is mostly obstructed due to the heavy smog.
No. I will do none of those things.
I will write about this man that I met while I was waiting for a taxi to take me back to my hotel. He had come from a small village in Jharkhand, with Rs.1000/- that he borrowed from his brother, to become an actor. He was in his mid thirties, wearing a shirt that probably used to be white. His teeth testified to the fact that he consumed a lot of guthkas. He looked, to put it honestly, malnourished.
Over the next half an hour, he told me the stories of how he visited the houses of Amitabh Bachchan, Govinda, Kajol, and a few others, looking for work. He could not make it past the security.
He even tried to bribe the guards of Big B.
The guard declined the money, but noted down his name on a piece of paper. He firmly believed that the guard will talk to Amitabh Bachchan and get him a job.
He told me about how, in his village, people will click pictures with him whenever they saw him. They would follow him around and talk to him. This had motivated him to come to Mumbai to try his luck.
Taxis passed by, as I stood there, talking to him. It had been thirty long days since he came here and he was running short of cash. He asked me if I knew someone who could get him a part time job.
I shook my head, guiltily.
He smiled and sat back down on the pavement. I noticed that there was a big plastic bag, placed next to him. It had all his belongings. He was homeless.
What I loved about him was that despite all the hardships, he didn’t beg. He held his self respect. He was confident that he will make it here.
Part of me wanted to tell him what I really thought. I wanted him to take a good look at himself, and then at the famous actors. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t stand a chance and that he was putting himself through hell for nothing. I wanted him to go back to his village, and be with the people who cared for him.
But, I decided not to. For some reason, I wanted him to keep on trying. We have all heard stories of people from the streets going on to become big movie stars. Who was I to tell him what he can and can’t do? What did I know?
All I know is that when I hailed a taxi that evening, and zoomed off, I felt bad. I felt bad because in all probabilities he would be sleeping on that dirty pavement that night, possibly with an empty stomach, while I was in a cab, because I didn’t feel like walking back to my hotel.
I realised that deep down, I wanted to ask the driver to turn the taxi around, preferably dangerously with a loud screech, and take me back to the man. I imagined how it would start raining heavily, but without a second thought, I would step out of the taxi, and run around the pavement looking for him. I would eventually find him sitting under a tree, drenched to the bone, sad as hell. I would help him stand up, give him some money, and wrap a jacket around him. He would look at me and crack a precious little smile. And then, we would
He would then go on to become a big star and make a movie about all this. My part will be played by Brad Pitt. He would play himself. The film would go on to break all the box office records and win a couple of Filmfares. But curiously, it will not win any Oscars. We would then live the rest of our lives, wondering why our movie did not win an Oscar.
Then I realised, this is way too filmy….even for Mumbai!