In Mumbai’s shocking gridlock, your definition for words like “close,” “quick” and “convenient” must, by necessity, be adjusted. But so must your definition of “house” and “home.” Lots of words in India take on new meanings.
Soo and I had some free time Friday and wanted to pop out to see the sites, so we jumped in the car for the “quick” trek through Mumbai traffic to Colaba on the south side of town, and from there to Elephanta Island.
“Quick” by Mumbai standards means a mere two hours in traffic.
Colaba is the sea-side Mumbai district home to such landmarks as the Gateway to India and Taj Hotel, next to which lie the docks from which you set sail for the one-hour trip across Mumbai Harbor’s brown waters to the island.
Three hours of travel time to reach something described quite sincerely as “close” by the concierge at the Westin.
The reason people go to Elephanta Island, aside from the euphoria of breathable air outside the smog and noise of the city, is to see the Elephanta Caves, a series of magnificently carved Hindu and Buddhist caves dating back to the 5th century. The caves are an endless gallery of grand religious statuary, much sculpted directly from the living rock by followers of the Shaiva Hindu sect, in celebration of the god Shiva. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, their cultural significance to India’s history cannot be overstated. I was shocked and embarrassed that I’d never even heard of them.
Elephanta Island is also home to lots of stray dogs, a few goats, the obligatory wandering cows and jillions of aggressive, angry little monkeys, a monkey mafia that earns its living by shaking down visitors.
No sooner had I set foot on the island than I began the typical tourist routine of snapping pictures while saying stupid things like “Oh, look, a monkey!”
The monkeys saw me, too, said “Oh, look, a stupid tourist,” and launched their attack. A large male made a bee line for my bottle of water, growling menacingly as he tried to snatch it from my hands. When I didn’t immediately let go he bared his teeth, took a swipe at my leg, and kept tugging. The monkey wasn’t much interested in a prolonged tug-of-war, so instead focused on trying to bite me.
At one point two of the little simian Mafiosi came at me together, growling and snapping at my exposed legs and feet. Not overly keen on the idea of a diseased monkey bite I let him have the water bottle, caught between amusement and mortification at the ludicrous scene.
Soo was so shocked she failed to get many pictures until after the monkey was busily slurping my water, which in my estimation is totally unacceptable. If I’m going to risk my life in a dramatic tussle with fearsome attack monkeys on an island in Mumbai Harbor, I want a record of it dammit!
In truth it wasn’t much of a tussle, and my life was in no danger what-so-ever, but I can assure you that with each time I retell this story over the years the size of both the monkeys in question and my imminent peril will grow exponentially.
After a couple of hours in the hot sun sparring with monkeys and exploring Elephanta’s impressive caves we returned to Mumbai, a city I believe very much in search of an identity.
We exited the ferry at the Gateway to India, Mumbai’s famous old landmark erected to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary during British colonial times. The Gateway is right next to the Taj Hotel, more recently recognized around the world as the building set ablaze during the 2007 terrorist attacks that killed 160 people, but originally famous as a symbol of Indian defiance against British rule.
During the colonial period the Brits, at their racist worst, had whites-only clubs which featured signs saying “British Only — No Indians or Dogs Allowed!” Jamshedji Tata, patriarch of India’s now-global Tata Corporation, found this a tad offensive, so he built the grand hotel and posted a sign out front saying “Indians Only – No British or Dogs Allowed!”
I suspect I would have liked Jamshedji Tata.
Perhaps this same spirit of pride and independence can guide Mumbai’s ascension into a modern, global metropolis. Mumbai is India’s financial capital and has grandiose plans for the future. But huge obstacles remain. India seems so often at odds with itself, a country eager to embrace its economic potential but struggling to shed the shackles of poverty, corruption and third-world dysfunction. Nowhere is this more on evidence than in Mumbai, a city of eye-popping wealth and unimaginable deprivation.
Mumbai is home to the world’s most expensive private residence, the world’s first billion-dollar home, built by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and the fourth richest person on earth, for him, his family and their 600 servants. Yeah, six hundred. His ghastly 27-storey squarish bungalow towers imposingly over the Mumbai skyline, and serves as a sort of perverse symbol for all that India might become.
It’s estimated that within a decade Mumbai will have some of the world’s highest property values, taking her place alongside cities like New York, London, Tokyo and Moscow.
That’s hard to envision when you stroll the filthy dirt alleys of the Dharavi slum, a few miles from Mr. Amban’s monstrosity. Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia, famously featured in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and is misery incarnate.
More than one million people live in the cramped, loosely strung-together shanties and shacks, ever at the mercy of the elements. It’s blisteringly hot, and fire is a constant danger. Just last month a blaze swept through the slum, eradicating 4,000 homes, including that of the young girl featured in the Oscar-winning film.
There’s a remarkable plan on the books to redevelop the slums into a gleaming center of high-rises and parks, but my friend Joy tells me it’s unlikely to happen.
Though the plan calls for giving condos in the new buildings to many of the current slum-dwellers, many others would have to be moved, robbing local politicians of the “vote bank” the slums have become. So the misery continues, and the blight on the city remains, just so politicians can cling to power.
At dinner the other night my friend Nithin Belle, a well-known and respected Indian journalist, told me that he sees progress, and that he believes attitudes are changing. Just last week the nation’s first major anti-corruption legislation began being drafted by India’s political leaders, after a much-publicized hunger strike by a prominent minister. Nithin believes real change will take a generation, but that progress is certain. If he’s right, perhaps the promise of India will finally be available to all her people, and Mumbai’s ultimate display of wealth will be not just billion-dollar homes, but a better life for all her residents.
Except the attack monkeys. They can take care of themselves.