Category Archives: history

Good-bye Mumbai!

I’m getting ready to leave Mumbai – I might even be at the airport or on the plane home before I manage to publish this post. It seemed right that I make my last Indian post about this city which has been the source and location of nearly all of my experience of India.

Seven weeks is way too short a time to get to know any place beyond the level of slight acquaintance, but Mumbai must be one of the most challenging in this regard. If she were a human, I’d have to say that I caught a glimpse of her brilliant form once for about five seconds, during which moment I heard her singing a few words I couldn’t understand.

In physical size alone, Mumbai takes up most of Salsette Island, and you would have to drive in three hours of crazy traffic to get from the north end to the south. There is a whole national park within its boundaries. I spent 90% of my time in one neighborhood, in a city of 22 million people, twice the population of Belgium.

Mumbai is the financial and fashion capital of India, and the city where 7-10 people die every day in train related accidents. The most expensive house in the world is in Mumbai, and the most educated slum. A million people live in this slum, Dharavi, which dates from the 1840’s, and 80% of them are employed. They live in 84 settlements taking up less than a square mile, which makes the population density of Dharavi 20 times that of Mumbai as a whole. (Nearly half the population of the Mumbai lives in slums, if you count Dharavi as a slum, which according to some definitions it isn’t any longer.)

Dharavi recycles 80% of the plastic trash of Mumbai, and produces 3.5 tonnes (Tonnes are bigger than tons) of food every day. One of its many other businesses and “hutment industries” is the large pottery business at Kumbharwada:

I took a tour of Dharavi this week but didn’t take pictures, so that one above I found online. Our group walked around through the industrial and residential areas for two hours, which gave me exposure to thousands of visual images and other sensations to process, accompanied by the excellent narrative by our guide who was from the slum. I took notes on both; but I am a really slow writer, which is why here at the end of my India stay, when I’m counting down the hours, I don’t have time to convey my direct experience.

The subject and reality of Dharavi is huge and complex, and you can read much about it elsewhere if you are interested, and watch YouTube tours. It’s another one of the many Things Mumbai that I will leave here knowing just superficially, but it was a wonderful tour and did expand my understanding quite a bit.

Tiffin wallahs

The lunchbox delivery service by tiffin wallahs or dabbawalas originated in Mumbai. Maybe some of my readers have seen the movie “The Lunchbox” that tells a story centered around this local phenomenon. I saw this charming movie years ago but didn’t pay attention to its setting in Mumbai.

Tiffin wallahs have been providing their services in Bombay since 1890, and are known for their high degree of accuracy in delivering lunches from home or restaurant, and the boxes back to the source the same day. This blog does a good job of describing how it works and why it is such a regular part of so many Mumbaikars’ lives: Dabba Dabba Do! And from another article:

“Some 5,000 men dole out over 200,000 meals a day, picking up the tiffins in the morning from women, typically, who have packed steaming, spicy dishes into each compartment: a curry, vegetables, dal (lentils), and flatbread (with some variations).

“For many Mumbai residents, this is the only way to lunch — on a feast, made with the love of a mother or wife.

“‘It’s expensive to eat outside every day, besides it’s not healthy,’ said 36-year-old Naina Bhonsle in Mumbai’s Versova neighborhood. ‘I know what my husband likes eating, and so I prefer to send him a tiffin every day.’”

The boxes are transported and distributed by train and on bicycles; on my first day here Tom pointed out this bicycle belonging to a tiffin wallah and since then I’ve seen many of the wallahs, the typically semi-literate men who do the carrying, as they pedal around. It’s another case like Dhobi Ghat of a very organized low-tech, high efficiency system serving basic human needs, and that sort of thing makes me admire all the parties who keep the thing running.

“The Lunchbox” is not a film made according to the Bollywood formula in the style of “Lagaan,” which I mentioned before. But Bollywood style movies are worth mentioning here as a phenomenon because Mumbai is the center of Bollywood. In Reimagining India, Jerry Pinto wrote: “Bollywood is not just a film industry. It is all-pervasive: a home-grown, film-a-day dream machine that maintains a pleasant stranglehold on our imaginations. It determines — or at least shapes — how we see ourselves, how we think, how we talk, dream, speak, love, fight.”

In the same article he describes the Bollywood formula as requiring: “…a fight for the young men, a romantic story for the women, a devotional song for the elderly. Films made for the entire Hindi-speaking market would have to be patriarchal, right wing, jingoistic, and patronizing in their attitudes to anything non-Indian and nonmajoritarian.”

I didn’t know much about Bollywood until the last year or two. I saw a laughably sentimental Bollywood movie first, and then last month, “Lagaan,” a much more enjoyable example. The music of Bollywood films is often the kind that is happy and makes you want to dance, even if — or especially if? — it is separated from the dance routines of the movie. I am not much of a movie watcher in the first place, so I won’t be exploring the genre more, but as a cultural phenomenon, I wouldn’t want to miss it completely. And I have added Bollywood music to my iTunes playlist to listen to on road trips.

Art Deco City

I heard that Mumbai is “the most Art Deco city in the world after Miami,” and though I hadn’t given the style or history of Art Deco one concentrated thought ever before in my life, having Tom on my first day show me some design features in their neighborhood made me focus my eyes in a new way.

From what I have read, it seems that Art Deco and India were made for each other. The Indian Institute of Architects was founded in 1929, the middle class was growing in the 30’s, and many of the buildings in the city from this period featured Art Deco elements in their design. I’ve seen structures from this century include some retro aspects from the style that Mumbai now feels is part of its tradition and heritage.

There is a whole Wikipedia article on Art Deco in Mumbai, which helped me to grasp enough of the concepts to be able to occasionally recognize the Art Deco influence on our outings. If I were going to be here longer, I’d like to go on a tour given by this organization: Art Deco Mumbai . I’ve already seen quite a few examples that would be on the tour, mostly driving past too fast to get a good picture — and some in our neighborhood.

I always love to take pictures of buildings that catch my attention for some reason. Mumbai has been fun that way, because there is such a range of ages and styles — and colors. Sometimes it is just the names of apartment buildings that strike the American ear as funny. I didn’t take a picture of Flushel Apartments, but Tom joked about what was behind that name… Were they advertising that all the toilets worked, or that the walls were straight and plumb? Haha. It was right down the street from the Executive Enclave.

Mostly for my own convenience I am posting below some images of this city that I want to have in this handy Glad collection. Maybe you will like some of them, too!

During my last days here, the air cleared a lot, and I was quite pleased to see that one of my photos revealed blue skies with cottony white clouds!

Every walk through the neighborhood, I’m realizing, might be my last down this street or that…

And when I ate one of Nancy’s chapatis fresh from the griddle, it was the most special ever because it was likely the last one that fresh.

I could never take enough pictures of women in colorful clothes to satisfy me, or enough videos of Kareena cooking. I can’t buy all of the lovely dresses in the shops, or learn the names of every surprising Indian dessert. My time of glorious Too-Muchness has come to an end, and I’m going home to Great Lent, which is the perfect way to transition from the superabundance of everything here to… what?

Lent is a journey to Pascha. It’s not the kind of journey where you are bombarded from outside by exciting and even dangerous forces and sensations ranging from air travel to chapatis and people on the street, but a quiet path on which all the struggles come from trying to tune one’s own heart. Considering my starting point, it will surely take all of my effort to accomplish anything in only 40 days.

The hardest part of leaving is, of course, that Raj and his parents are staying here! It has been the sweetest day-after-day to live in the same house as Kate and Tom and their new baby, and to love and be loved in person on a daily basis. The comforting thing is, that except for not being in the same house, we will go on loving and being loved, and be together at the throne of God, as long as He gives us grace. I’m not saying any kind of final good-bye to them.

But I do have to say, “Good-bye, Mumbai!”

a few churches

The Apostle Thomas first brought the Gospel of Christ to India, so the history of the faith here dates from way back. But in this area around Mumbai it’s the Portuguese influence that began in the 16th century that has resulted in many Catholic churches, schools, and convents. The history of Christianity in India is too vast a subject for me to delve into, much less write about, but I don’t want to leave Mumbai without mentioning a few churches I saw and my quite personal and random impressions.

I didn’t visit any of the churches in the uninterrupted line of the Apostle Thomas, because they are not as convenient to get to, and my contact with Catholic churches was also minimal. Tom and I did see the Afghan Church briefly. Many times the old church buildings themselves are a blessing to me, when I consider all the generations of worshipers who have sung and prayed there.

On my first morning, when Tom took me on that two-hour walking tour, we visited St. Andrew’s Church, which was locked. The caretaker was glad to let us in, and we found that we were not the only visitors. A woman was sitting in a pew facing the altar. We sat in silence for a few minutes also, and then went out to see the graveyard.

The most architecturally impressive church I’ve seen was The Basilica of our Lady of the Mount at Land’s End in Bandra, Mumbai. The current church was built in the 18th century, though a chapel in this spot had been built by the Portuguese in the 1500’s.

We made the trip in one of those black-and-yellow rickshaws such as you can see in front in this picture, and we came expecting that we might have to stand outside, because services are known to be crowded. But we were able to sit in the nave on bench pews, and when we came in there was singing already filling the church, very melodic and light.

People were indeed standing outside around the tall side doors that were open wide, and maybe that’s how birds would fly in and out. For a while only rock doves swooped silently across the altar and back, but soon they were joined by a very noisy crow who made it hard to hear the scripture readings. One dove changed course and flew up and down the length of the nave many times, and the crow eventually either flew out or merely fell silent just before the homily, which was a relief.

I enjoyed the outdoorsy feeling, though, and appreciated the simple and uncushioned, beautiful wooden pews. Just outside afterward we met an acquaintance whose photo with his cute niece I’ve been waiting weeks for a chance to post.

One church we attended in the neighborhood was new to Tom and Kate, as was the Basilica. We walked about ten minutes to get to St. Anne’s, including a walk down a very long driveway to accommodate the cars that weren’t planned for. Tom liked that the church was so old that it had been built before streets were needed, and later on they were not laid out so that they passed very near.

I liked the way the windows were open to the evening (We were at 6 o’clock mass.) and to the courtyard. After the service people hung around in the balmy air (winter is still warm!) to chat.

The atmosphere and the open windows reminded me of church summer camp, especially singing the sort of choruses that hearken back to an earlier period of Christian music in the U.S. at least, such as the ones I’ve copied here, sung out of a book or projected on a screen overhead.

Kate and Tom’s usual parish down the street is newer, and even more accommodating to the weather, the extremes of which I know nothing about. The sides of the nave to a height of eight feet or so consist of louvered, unscreened windows. The louvers were completely open, and large oscillating fans set close blew the pleasantest breeze through the pews. Baby Raj was in the sling and seemed completely asleep through the whole service, but it could be he was listening with his spirit. He was blessed also by the hand of the priest.

I’ve been missing my Orthodox parish, no doubt about it. But it has been a joy to see the lasting effect of faithful witnesses down through the ages in this one community, and to receive through them gifts of grace such as I knew when I saw the sign on St. Peter’s Church here, shortly after Christmas:

JESUS THE FACE OF THE MERCIFUL GOD

The high and the low.

Kate took me to South Mumbai last week to visit some Must See sites, which I’m sure I could write a book about if I only had enough lives to live. I tell you truly, this exciting life with its realms of experience and knowledge that I can only manage to dip my little toe into is wearing me out. My understanding of many things I present here is slight, and my photos are not as good as you can find other places online. But they are what I’ve seen with my own eyes, and we had good reason for going to these spots, and I was so glad we did.

I’ll start my report with one of the High things, the Gateway of India, which is hard for someone as unskilled as I to photograph, looming as it does so huge at the edge of the sea. The British built this monument to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911, and it was completed in 1924. When the last British troops departed India, they passed through the arch, ceremoniously relinquishing power.

Kate and I walked all around, and she took my picture in front of this icon of Mumbai, under which one is no longer permitted to walk. We also had our picture taken with various groups of Indian tourists. But then we sped away, because there was so much to see…

The next High thing on our agenda, which often appears in photos with the Gateway, was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This five-star hotel opened twenty years before the Gateway was completed, having been commissioned by the Tata group, a conglomerate founded in 1868 by the man considered “The Father of Indian Industry,” Jamsetji Tata. A staircase leads up to a bust of this patriarchal figure.

I didn’t notice when I took my picture of the exterior that I was including a row of men posing for someone else, but I was happy to have them come along! That picture shows the original building and the tall addition, which between them have more than 600 rooms and suites. “The Taj” is the place where John Lennon, Oprah, and Queen Elizabeth stay when they are in town.

In 2008 a terrorist attack on Mumbai focused on the Taj, where the attackers holed up for days, and where many staff were killed. This garden, which has a waterfall not in the picture, memorializes those who lost their lives:

We wandered around for a little while, appreciating the artful opulence. In the restroom each patron has a clean and folded cloth napkin with which to dry her hands. Everything was elegant and serene and orderly.

I could imagine the lovely dresses in the clothing shop, but I was concerned that Kate not get worn out, so we left The Taj pretty soon and went to lunch at a famous Parsi café called Britannia & Company. “Parsi” refers to the Zoroastrian Persians who emigrated to India centuries ago to escape persecution. There is a large Parsi community in the Mumbai area, from which the Tatas are descended, by the way, and much good Parsi food available. Pilau is probably the center of a good Parsi lunch:

In the rankings of high to low, our lunch was not high cuisine, but it was a high point of the day, and Parsi food ranks high on my list. The next places I’ll tell you about, though, are both low in different ways, which I dare not begin to muse on philosophically. It’s another book to be written.

I have to mention that it was in this busiest part of the city that I saw the most cows, three strolling through one intersection alone.

Dhobi Ghat… In Hindi, ghat means “steps leading down to a body of water.” (It also means “mountain,” as in my last post.) Dhobi is the name of a caste of washermen. Dhobi ghat can refer to any laundromat, but in Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the giant open-air laundry that Kate and I visited. My first picture above was part of the view as seen from the road on one side; after, we walked down into the area of washing pens and flogging stones, where drying laundry hung in close rows above us.

Our tour was very informal: we entered what in essence is a little village, started looking around, and a young man asked if we wanted a tour for 200 rupees, about $3, each. We said okay, and paid, and then he walked us through very fast and told us some things about the laundry. I missed much of what he said because I was hanging behind taking pictures, and just generally being overwhelmed and spacey from barely believing that I was in this place. I love doing laundry, but it seems ludicrous for me to say that in the context of Dhobi Ghat. These people take the task of washing clothes to a level that is outer space. But the whole affair lies so low as to be hardly noticeable as your gaze is carried upward by the skyscrapers all around.

Our guide told us that 400-500 people live here, and that he had been born at the “laundromat” himself. Internet articles say that their clients are “neighborhood laundries, wedding decorators, garment dealers, mid-sized hotels, clubs, and caterers.” I believe those things. But so much else that you can read, or even hear residents of Dhobi Ghat say in YouTube interviews, is contradictory or contrary to recorded history, so my questions only multiply and are unlikely to be answered to my satisfaction.

Some of my pictures are dark, because it was dark, especially in a passageway under tarps or some kind of roof, where in the space of five yards motorcycles and a bicycle were parked, a young man was cooking a big pan of potatoes, and an old man was pressing jeans with a vintage iron.

I came upon a man flogging a large wet item on a stone, his back to me, and when he lifted it each time to slap it down again, washwater fell in a shower behind him and on my path. So I timed my crossing, and managed to scoot past between slaps. In places there were little puddles or ditches to hop over, but we got through the busy laundry without getting wet.

It was noon, a clock in my photos tells me, and this man with one hand on the door of a big washer has a small glass of masala chai in the other hand. As we walked the lanes and streets we saw little apartments where the workers and their families live; some of them had a curtain pulled across, but in one doorway a woman was sitting on the floor preparing a salad. In the work area we walked past the occasional man stretched out sleeping on a wide shelf.

Dhobi Ghat was built by the British in 1890. Washermen own their wash pens and hand them down through the generations; some of them have installed modern washing machines and dryers. How they manage to keep track of the 10,000 items they collectively process every day is completely beyond me.

I thought the little girls I saw headed to school must be going off-site, but I learned in my research that the residents started their own school after one of their children was in an accident traveling to school elsewhere, and now they also have families from neighboring areas sending their children to the Dhobi Ghat school.

I count it a privilege to have had fifteen minutes in the presence of these hard-working people. When I am home again where I can hang my garments on the clothesline after letting my machines do almost all of the hard work, I will continue to think of them with admiration.

The last stop on our touristy outing was the lowest of all relative to sea level, because it was sea level, Girgaum Chowpatty or Chaupati Beach, a famous beach in Mumbai, but not for swimming. Festivities surrounding the favorite Hindu god Ganesh are held here, and at the end of the yearly celebrations effigies of Ganesh are plunged into the Arabian Sea, unfortunately adding to the trash problem. I found this photo online showing the event:

If I didn’t have a growing sand collection, I would not have taken the time to go to a beach in Mumbai, because a beach where the water is toxic is so disheartening. It’s not just trash, but sewage that pollutes these waters. And did I even want to collect sand from it? We had been trying to fit in a trip to an Indian beach ever since I arrived, and I was grateful to Kate that she insisted I not miss the opportunity.

We didn’t go on to the wet area of the wide beach. I theorized that the dry sand far away from the shore would have been washed by the last monsoons and not be the dirtiest. Nonetheless, when I got a sample home I washed and disinfected the sand with bleach, and then baked and dried it in the oven before filling my little bottle. 🙂

When you read here or elsewhere about all of the air pollution, water pollution, trash, you might think, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” The problems are complex, but sometimes simple baby steps can improve the situation.

We were only on the beach for a few minutes, during which time we were surprised to see big coppery urns — what could they be for? Kate asked a young man nearby, and he said they were waste bins! Many of the trash cans that have been installed all over the city are bright blue plastic barrels, but these elegant receptacles were both functional and beautiful. I did think of how a child would not be able to use them — oops! I guess that’s a design flaw.

While the government and environmentalists keep working on the source of the problems that humiliate the water and the sand, it makes me happy that someone has honored the beach with these trash urns. When I showed Tom my picture of Kate below he said, “Cute wife looking into the greatest trash can in India!”

An afternoon in South Mumbai.

I’m staying with Kate and Tom in the Suburban District of Mumbai, which is the larger part of the city and brimming with things to see and do. After spending my first ten days here, I had my first brief experience of the downtown hub of South Mumbai one afternoon when Tom and I made the trip with a few small goals in mind. The excursion was fun for me even though it was somewhat unsuccessful in the first stages.

We thought we’d visit the tip of the island, where in 1858 the British consecrated the Church of St. John the Evangelist as a memorial to soldiers slain in the First Afghan War of 1838. I had seen it on a list of The Ten Most Architecturally Interesting Churches in Mumbai. It is known as The Afghan Church

The church sits in the middle of an area of military buildings, a little remote from the busiest part of the city. Tom hadn’t yet been this far south. In this photo I found online, you can see the two towers of the Mumbai World Trade Centre in the background with the church spire in front. As we approached, a couple of British hippies were leaving, and they told us that it was locked, and “spooky.”

We walked around the building and noticed the wall stones stained black, unkempt landscape, and old signs lying randomly around, and could well believe that it was locked and never used. How sad, that no one, or at least no one who had the means to do anything about it, cared about this church that had a beautiful design and holy purpose. I took a picture of the detail on the base of a large stone cross in front of the church, which is my favorite image from my visit.

As we were walking out the gate again a small boy wandered over to us from a little house nearby and told Tom that he had the key to the church. I at least was not interested enough to take him seriously; I had given up on the Afghan Church at that point. We read online later that “Visitors may obtain access to view the historic church interior from the [lax] on-site custodian.” The website also said that a small congregation there holds services.

We stopped by another venerable building, the General Post Office, because we’d heard that they sold postcards, but no. Whether they normally sell them or not we never learned. We visited a room where several people seemed to be at work, but they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell us anything but that they were closed. I haven’t given up hope that I will find some postcards in time to mail them before I go home — maybe when I visit a more touristy spot?

Our last stop was exciting and satisfying, the iconic Victoria Terminus of Bombay, known simply as CST now, for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus of Mumbai. Over 1,000 trains come and go every day from 18 platforms in this huge building, and for a watching companion I had my son-in-law who is the best guide possible, fascinated as he is — and knowledgeable about — railways all over the world. We enjoyed taking videos in both slow-motion and time-lapse modes, of the swarms of people flowing into and hopping out of the cars. Two million passengers pass through daily! I could have stared at that scene for hours.

 
This station was planned as a commemoration the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and took ten years to build from the beginning of the project in 1848. It is said to be “a fusion of influences from Victorian Italianate Gothic Revival architecture and classical Indian architecture.” It is so grand, it is often mistaken for a palace or a cathedral.
 
The lights that have been installed on the exterior seem to me to contribute to an ongoing fusion of style. 16 million lights in different colors are available to create an ever-changing display according to the different festivals throughout the calendar. As we were driving away at dusk, I was surprised to see lavender hues that hadn’t been there in my first photos, and the next day I read about the lights and found examples of the most brilliant displays to show Kate.

Since our visit I’ve also seen unbelievable and scary train scenes from Tom’s phone, that he recorded previously and of the sort I’ll never have the opportunity to witness firsthand. My acquaintance with Indian railways and trains is certainly minuscule at this point; I hope to actually ride a train before I’m done, and afterward I should have more to tell.

Here’s a car with the picture on the side showing that it is reserved for women. I won’t be riding in one of those, because if I go, it won’t be without my competent male guide along. For now, if any of you has a tale to tell of Indian train rides, I’d love to hear!