Monday, 27 February 2012

Shootingwalla's Cadie!

Last week I was on the dusty road to the Maharashtran interior. My friend (and best fixer!) Diti was on commission photographing the use of solar powered lights made by Greenlight Planet by villagers. The setting is the village of Chikanpada, 4-6 hours-depending on the driver-of a rough drive outside of Mumbai.

There are no more that 60 mud-brick houses, decorated with colourful doors and stencils, hay drying on makeshift huts and cows roaming around. The kids had finished school by the time we got there and were on overdrive to play and pose for the aliens. Most men were away working the fields and the remaining adult population equally bemused and curious. They were extremely accommodating and polite, despite the language problems. They only speak Marathi here you see. And my half hour chat with the three old men, kick-started by the exchange of tobacco for leaves ciggies, was enjoyable if wholly incomprehensible.
The simplicity of life in Chikanpada, the silence and endless vistas, the sharing of everything and the star-clad darkness of the night were such a contrast of the bustling mega-city we returned to. Still processing it.

Towers of Silence.

Mumbai has a strong (albeit declining) Parsee community, Zoroastrians that moved to India centuries back fleeing persecution in Persia. They have integrated extensively to the Indian society but have maintained their religious and some cultural distinctions.
One of them is the traditional way of treating the deceased. On Malabar Hill, Mumbai lie the Towers of Silence. Since in Zoroastrianism the sacred elements (fire, water and earth) cannot be defiled by the dead,burial or cremation are out of the question. The dead are brought to the Towers where they are lined in a cyclical fashion on top of the tower to be eaten by vultures. Soon after the bones would be collected and stored in an ossuary.
The fast declining population of vultures in the city during the last decades, mostly due to poisoning by the use of anti-infammatories drugs by humans and cattle, has left the Towers congested and unable to deal with non consumed bodies. And the community facing calls to allow burial for the first time in centuries.
* Disclaimer: Understandably, entry to the Towers of Silence is restricted for non-Parsees. For further info on the community and the Towers, try here and here.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Queen's Necklace.

The southern tip of the peninsula housing the metropolis is flanked on the west by a magnificent bay. Starting with Chaupati beach on the north edge, a few thousand sandy footsteps will take you to Nariman Point and the end of what the locals call the Queen's Necklace.
Of course this refers to the lights at night along Marine Drive, the fast-paced, seafront highway. I reckon you can visualize it somehow. I also bet you guessed it, I have no photos of the lights, the necklace or any queen. I was busy strolling aimlessly and people watching.

Monday, 20 February 2012

My Stool.

This morning I was waiting for a pick up by SV Road, a super bustling central traffic artery of Mumbai. And being early for once, I sat on the edge of a side-walk flower bed. Two puffs into my morning cigarette and the security guard of the construction plot behind me taps me on the shoulder and nods his disapproval. And I'm baffled! Everybody sits anywhere here, you can practically find everything you imagine on the streets, and then some more. What's wrong with my cozy spot?
Before I could answer my naive question though, another tap on the shoulder and the same guard wearing his brightest smile has fetched me a stool. A stool to sit on the pavement while I wait! Now I'm confused. And humbled and blushing. The surreal and the kind in the length of a cigarette.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Washing Day.

Looking over the bridge at Mahalaxmi Station and facing west early in the morning, the hazy horizon punctured by newly built highrise residential buildings among slums and disused colonial textile factories, is Dhobi Ghat. Rooftops lined with clothes, labyrinthine networks of stings and poles and consecutive cubicles dotted with people slamming fabrics against the concrete. These are the dhobis at work. The men and women doing most of the city's laundry in the municipal washing neighborhood.

They each rent their little concrete vats for a few hundred rupees and are the collectors of the washing brought from houses, hotels and even freshly sewn garments from the clothing factories. They'll wash, dry and iron everything before sending it back like new. They also live here, generation after generation in the trade. And so early in the day they'll be cooking or getting ready for school, stop for a chat or because you're in their way, wash tirelessly or buy you a chai. It's just another way of doing things.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


A northwestern suburb of Bombay and and flanked by a marvelous beach, Juhu is the place to park your bungalow if you're some Bollywood film star or big name cricketer. There's a throng of fancy hotels too. And then there's the weekend destination of many a Mumbaikar family. With kids going berserk, a minefield of food stalls and the omnipresent photographers, sadly decorated with rubbish and stray dogs this is obviously my kind of place for a Saturday stroll.
The little square arrangement of food stalls in flashy pop colours, dubious quality and aggressively animated customer hunters (menu in hand) complete the crazy cornucopia of the suburban family day out. Immensely enjoyable place.

Street Food.

I'm a sucker when it comes to street food. Can't help it. When I spot a stall, burning gas lamp, fruit loaded cart or anything I have to stop. And try. And put everything inside, my mother and father.
This is how street food paradise must look like, India. Sandwiches and curries, impromptu smoothies and minty lime drinks, spicy puffed rice with I-don't-know-what-else-in-there and names I haven't managed to decipher yet. You name it, it's here. Might start compiling a street food compendium these days if I clean that grease off my busy fingers.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Cricket's the Word.

I don't need to say much about this. You know how it goes, you can imagine.

Hunting For Silk.

India being famous for its fabrics and me having a commission to find some silk led me to Crawford market and the flyway-shaded Mohamed Ali Road. They say you can find everything here and I found my silk alright.
In busy alleys and frantic traffic, indoors and on the streets, thousands of people trading, carrying and shopping for housewares, clothes and food or anything imaginable. The nearby bazaar has second hand safes, cannibalized cars and antiques. And the occasional goat or cow roaming around. A slide of the Apollo 11 crew and old Bollywood posters for example rub shoulders with star-shaped pineapple slices and sugarcane juice. One needs to mind his toes from the ever present mopeds and train his ears for the cacophony of beeping but you new that already didn't you?

Monday, 13 February 2012

Time Travel.

The Traffic!

The traffic is out of this world in this city. The amount of cars, taxis, buses and motorized rickshaws is overwhelming. There are bicycles too and some of the worst offenders are pedestrians. Cross anywhere and anytime. At least the latter ones don't keep beeping their way through the ocean of steel ahead. Ah, the beeping...
All round there's a thick gravy of urgency in the air. It's a huge city of course, a frenetic pace is part of the ecology and from a practical point of view there are all too many obstacles to get in your way. But here is a rush to move like there's no tomorrow. As if standing still or waiting for the traffic lights will turn someone into stone.

Alas, it all works somehow. After all I've only seen a car hitting a precariously-crossing-over pedestrian once and he was dazed but standing.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Gateway.

Mumbai, the Gateway of the British rule and a huge metropolis of today. I cannot remember a place more dense, busy and vibrant as this. It's a modern city with with a spicy twist. The diversity astounding and the pace breathtaking. At the Gateway of India, the seafront monument behind the Taj hotel people gather for a photo-op, a chat and a snack. Families, tourists and everybody else. I somehow feel like all the above at the same time.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

I See A Light!

And we're nearly off now. See you at the other end people, with super technicolor panoramic vision! The beam at the end of the tunnel is approaching fast!