The last cow

Trip Start Jan 22, 2010
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Trip End Feb 14, 2010


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Where I stayed
Hotel Moti International

Flag of India  , Maharashtra,
Saturday, February 13, 2010

I'm up before sunrise my last day in India. Unlike the inpenetrable fog of Delhi at the start of the trip, morning in Mumbai dawns clear. Despite the haze evident yesterday from the boat trip, up close Mumbai appears clear with blue skies. We could see stars last night on our walk.

Other things become clear up close as well. A block down Colaba Causeway from our hotel, whole families sleep on the sidewalk. Tiny children cradle around their siblings, their naked bottoms exposed to the air where blankets have slid off in the night. Despite this, they all sleep like..., well, like babies.

The street quickly deteriorates as I walk south. The sidewalk bricks convulse, buildings fall into impoverishment, and still I walk on. I'm passing beggars and the homeless propped up against the walkway, but no one tries to beg from me. No one says a word; they just look tired.

In the night shine of Mumbai, with its jazz pianists and marble fountains, you can become inured to this. With the advice not to perpetuate the cycle of poverty, you can numb yourself to the immense want all around.

The Bollywood industry commits perhaps the greatest crime in this respect. I've seen scenes where streets I've walked through are rendered almost unrecognizable in the gloss created in their productions. Poverty, even any sense of need, is totally absent.

I remember the hooha that erupted when Spike Lee cleaned up a block of New York to film "Do the Right Thing"; but that minor nod to visual panache is laughable compared to the wholesale destruction of Indian reality perpretrated by the film industry. Hollywood does it as well, obviously, but it seems so much more grotesque here, where rot and decay are just around the corner.

I've been reading William Dalrymple's hypnotic "City of Djinns" about his time in Delhi. He sumarizes the divide vividly in one entry.

"On New Year's night the poor huddle in primeval groups under the flyovers. You could see them squatting on their hams silhouetted around bonfires; sometimes one of the figures would throw a clump of dried buffalo-dung on the flames. Nearby in Golf Links and Chanakyapuri, the rich were celebrating. As midnight drew near, they burst balloons, popped champagne corks and tore around Delhi honking the horns of their new Marutis. At the traffic lights, as outstretched palms were thrust through open car windows, the two worlds briefly met."

***
At the Sassoon Docks, a few blocks further south, the day's catch waits in small fish boats. Inumerable lines are slung out to the throngs waiting on the pier, and the bundled fish get pulled by rope to land.

Five thousand, maybe 10,000 people converge here daily to barter over eels and red snapper, to buy then sell baskets filled with clams and mussells. The unmistakable smell of fresh fish fills the air, along with the myriad cries of the mongers, the gurney operators, the fishermen themselves. The place is a colourful riot of activity. I take it all in until my brain and my camera's memory card are full.
 
I'm in the way here, so pick a careful retreat down the thin lines between rapidly evolving improvised fish stalls. Past the chaos, a secondary confusion of trucks and taxis all compete to transport the produce to restaurants and markets around the city while it is still fresh. Dried fish merchants set up their tertiary areas still further out, and as the baskets are stuffed into the trunks of taxis, a chai wallah hands the driver a small plastic cup of masala tea for the road.

My 15-minute walk back to the hotel reveals a city wider awake. Merchants arrive to set up their stalls along Colaba. Bicycles balanced precariously with single-stemmed roses careen past to some other vendor. I meet my first cow in Mumbai, a lovely cream-coloured two-year-old, haltered to a post.

How could I have forgotten cows? And what is this one doing tied up? Both the absence of cattle in the city and the tethering of this one attest to the rather un-Indian quality of Mumbai. But that is too easy a summary; despite its London-ish architecture and cosmopolitan feel, this is still very much an Indian city.

**

On a now-legendary tour of Britain with my family when I was 13, we were driving through the hills of Cornwall when we came across a sheep on the road. My mother, master of the polite exchange, enthused this encounter to a policeman we met minutes later. He looked at her as one might pityingly regard the mentally deficient, and sent us on our way.

We turned the next corner to see hundreds of sheep on the road. In the next 15 minutes, we passed thousands of them, all crowded onto the road, stopping us in our tracks.

My mother's state-the-obvious gene forms part of the structure of who I am. I can't help looking back at my surprise at that cow in Delhi emerging from the mist my first morning, and how I announced it excitedly in my journal. I remember Emma's amused reaction.

Is this whole trip journal, all my so-called moments of insight, as superficial and obvious to anyone remotely familiar with India? Am I just repeating, in unending improvisations, the mesage "There's a sheep on the road back there!"?

I always encounter this moment on a trip where I feel myself woefully inadequate to describing what I find, but I've never felt as flumoxed by a country. India defies my pat generalities and categorizations. Thank you, India, for the humbling experience.

***

The street families are awake. I "Namaste" with the father of one and he smiles, returning it.
 
Thirty years ago while touring the East after their second album, the Police encountered all the crazy collisions of wealth and poverty, of West and East, that is this city. "Driven to Tears" and "Bombs Away" from Zenyata Mondata speak to the ludicrous and hopeless situation "Too many cameras and not enough food, this is what we see."

I walk the length of Colaba, past the turn to our hotel and all the vendors selling tourist bric-a-brac, until I find a fruit vendor. I know enough about India to realize he overcharges me for the bananas, but 20 rupees just doesn't matter. I've also learned enough to realize that the families will finish off the kilo I walk back and give them; they will go back to being hungry on the streets.

My actions are basically meaningless in this huge subcontinent, but I carry them out and record my thoughts. I suspect another William Dalrymple half a century from now could offer my travel blog as a classic example of the prejudices and unfortunate attitudes of my colonial background and time. So be it.
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Comments

Dan Jardine on

Of course we are all prisoners of our cultural and historical legacies, and while this might sometimes narrow our vision, it can also give us the tolerance to see things with an unjaundiced eye and ponder the world with an open mind. I thank you for these travel blog entries, Mike, because you have shared your India with us, and I have really enjoyed seeing this world through your eyes. Save travels to all of you.

therin
therin on

I think the ability to be surprised, charmed, awed, appreciative, disturbed or even just made aware by differences in culture and place is something to be cherished. Who cares whether a Salt Springer is amused by a tourist who sights a deer? Just because we are more likely to swear at deer, or complain about the 15 we drove past last night on the way home, doesn't make their experience less valid. Maybe we can learn to mentally step back and take a fresh look at something in our environment that we take for granted. Maybe outside eyes can help us distinguish what needs to be changed in our area, or maybe the newcomers need to adjust. Either way, everybody is learning something. Isn't that what travel is all about?

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