Friday, October 8, 2010

Mumbai: Mondegars, Wifi, Beggars and Morality, the usual

Boats in the harbor.

I stayed at the Sea Palace hotel, again. It's on Apollo Bunder, about two blocks down from the Taj, and has the great advantage of being located right along the sea and near enough to Colaba, but not near enough that the tourists-and-hooker contagion of Colaba actually carries over. It's 3000 rupees a night which is very profligate by 22 year old punk standards *but* Mumbai budget lodging is not exactly what you'd call salubrious. Nightmarish actually. Bed bugs are the least of your problems - hookers and horny guys attempting to beat down the door are apparently the other occupational hazards. Can't say I'm thrilled. First time I came to Mumbai, I was going to stay at a hotel very near the Sea Palace, which turned out to be the kind of scuzzy-ass accommodation so deeply beloved by European backpackers with creative piercings and Saudi sex-slave traders the world over.

I was prepared to make the best of it, but as soon as my friends came to collect me, they demanded that I move out immediately. "That place is horrible! It was all over the paper last year - some Saudi drug dealers were running it - you have to get out of there"! So I decamped to the Sea Palace. The primary attribute of the Palace is that it is sort of quiet and no one knocks on my door at night wondering if I would like a date. There's a mossy scent in the air and insofar as I can determine no one ever cleans the rooms, but the AC (importantly) is Arctic-level chilly. The entire facility is done up in 1973 pastels, which I always found a bit comforting.

Cafe Mondegar's art, as done by the beloved Goan cartoonist Mario Miranda. He is fabulous.

Colaba, is of course, the tourist-backpacker central of Mumbai. However, having been in backpacker ghettos in places other then India - it's not such a bad offender. There's plenty of 100% legitimate Mumbaikers prowling around here, and the cafes and restaurants are usually packed with young Indians with similar hipster ambitions as their Western counterparts. The Leopold Cafe is of course Ground Zero for that kind of shit (as was perhaps previously mentioned). The food and the booze are overpriced. For my money, I prefer the Mondegar a little further down. The cartoon art on the walls is fantastic, and the staff seem a bit more friendly.

More of Miranda's work, as seen on the Mondegar walls. Good, good stuff.

I spent that first day walking around Mumbai and feeling inordinately pleased to be there. I love Mumbai, down to its filthy and slightly disreputable heart, and I derive great pleasure from wandering the streets and dodging the taxi-cabs that want to pick me up, for to the Indian mass-pysche, apparently, no white person walks on the street *by choice*.

A friend of mine described Mumbai as London on acid: this is a bit approximate, but gets at the spirit of the thing. I think of it more as, say, the demented love child of London and Miami with a bit of a stimulant problem. The architecture is glorious here, England as viewed through an aspirant and highly Indian filter - everything has pillars and spires and soaring granite and has a patina of age and mold on it. Everything in Mumbai is slightly moldy and slightly damp, everything that is older then a couple of months is growing or has grown a considerable covering of lichen, everything is sliding or sinking into the sea. If the British intended to be here for a long time, they picked the wrong place. Mumbai is capable of regenerating itself, but I doubt anything can last *that* long in this climate - this is not the dry museum-air of Dehi, this is organic, the swamp.

I ended up spending that first evening lurking at the Woodsides, lured there by the promise of free Wifi. There were a lot of attractive and fit young Mumbaikers standing around the bar and talking about their scintillating and culturally signifigant jobs in IT or whatever all around me. The bar was atmospherically lit, and as the name promised, decked out entirely in wood. I ordered a Royal Challenge and set up shop. The wifi, to my great pleasure, actually worked. (To find functioning wifi overseas is miraculous, albeit a miraculous event that has become more and more common in this day and age. It is almost a pity that wifi has become so vastly easy to access, even in the strangest of places, to say nothing of phone network based internet connectivity.

Hellaciously Raj statue as seen in downtown Mumbai, near the museum.

I have of late sat in a bumping and body-odor filled share jeep heading out from Sikkim to Darjeeling, passing through the misty tea plantations of the Raj: I briefly called my mother to let her know I was alive, and also had my Gmail account updated. From 17,000 feet in a jeep, looking over the edge of a precipice, thinking I might die: someone wanted to ask me where was good to eat in New Orleans because they liked my blog and Slow Food was having an event in Sacramento and did I want to purchase a ticket, and Tulane wants my goddamn library book back, and I am going to plummet over the edge of a Sikkimese precipice and die in a horrendous inferno of twisted metal and screaming children and Dutch tourists, my Iphone melted to a hockey puck beneath me.

I made a friend at the bar, which is what often happens when you're alone in an Indian city and run into another foreigner. Charles Assaf from Canada, now working in something involving computers in Mumbai and really, really liking it. He had, many years ago, begun a site called The Steak Guys devoted to reviewing good places to consume cow the world over. The irony of his move to Mumbai is noted. It is always deeply refreshing to me to meet other foreigners who actually like India and find it both pleasurable and interesting (albeit in the manner of "challenging" movies in languages you don't understand starring unattractive people, or food products that involve minor feats of hand-eye-coordination to consume, or well, you get the point, India requires some *effort* to parse out...) We spent some time discussing Mumbai and the impending world domination of the Internet, which is what I always seem to discuss with people when I say I have got a blog. Especially people who have got a blog themselves. Give his a look, it's rather good.

The weather was good that night, with only a few bursts of warm rain to keep the gutters running and the taxi drivers predatory. (The rain in Mumbai is always extremely warm and a bit odiferous - to make the piss reference is a bit uncouth, but it is there). The shop keepers who line the street all the way down had put the plastic wrap up over their wares of knock off purses and t-shirts with offensive phrases on them. They cried out HELLO MADAME to me when I walked by but in a half assed fashion. It was getting late and I had not trained them yet, they were not familar with me.

A few nights later, coming back from Woodsides around 1:00 AM or so, I would be confronted with one of The Mumbai Scams as discussed in detail on India Me padding down the dripping column of shops quickly and intently, for it was later then I liked to be out in Mumbai alone - I was remembering the time when an incoherently drunk and thankfully extremely clumsy man had followed me down the street for a good 15 minutes, plaintively asking me to cross over to *his* side of the road so I could Get To Know Him Better. Something like that. A young guy around my age is lounging in an alleyway with a woman and a baby. I walk by and the woman lazily nods to him: he shrugs, stretches a bit cat-like and shoulders the baby, and begins to follow me. He tugs at my sleeve. "Milk for baby! Baby hungry, madame, you buy milk for baby."

It's a scam. Apparently they take you into a shop that's in on the fix, and you are instructed to buy a large carton of instant milk for a ridiculously inflated price - something around 5000 rupees. Once the earmarked sentimental mook pays up, the conman and the shopkeeper merrily split the profits. The kid gets nothing other then a chapati and a slightly less forceful daily smack across the face then usual - the lot of Indian beggar children. It's a hard life.

It was dark, the street was quiet and slimy and rather profoundly creepy, and the man followed me, wouldn't give up. I ignore all beggars, just look right through them - that's what my Indian friends have taught me to do. It generally works pretty well, but this guy was insistent, and I was the only person on the street so why the hell not? I got enraged, really enraged, which is unusual for me. I wanted desperately, really desperately, to punch the man in the face, to go at him with the nearest bamboo stick, to pulverize him into jelly.

The kid irritated me even more because it was the only thing standing the way of this fantastic and delicious fantasy of violence. I couldn't even roar FUCK OFF YOU FUCKING CUNT YOU DOG FUCKING CUNT - usually effective - because of the kid, the damn kid, he had put a cultural veil of protection over himself, he had outsmarted me. I hated both of them utterly.

(Here is where nobility and idealism about poverty in the third world in relation to my own (relative) ostentatious wealth falls apart, on a smelly street in Colaba at two in the morning, right exactly here.)

I admit right here that I hate kids.

India is a terrible place in one sense for those who hate kids, because India will make you hate them twelve times more then you already did. It's the way in which beggars and the poor use kids around here, especially in tourist areas, as cute, insistent, and un-punchable avatars. Street kids in India are almost always under the sway of some sort of begging master or pimp, who deftly extracts every rupee from their grubby little hands and thumps them if they don't cough up. Even the really little kids, as in this case -this particular child was covered in dirt and, apparently totally used to the routine, was limp, inert, and seemed blissfully asleep in a bean-bag like fashion in the guy's arms. Pissed me off all the more that some innocent little squirt was being carted about on a trash-strewn Mumbai street in the service of a renowned scam, a scam that has been going on for twenty years - possibly the man himself was once this limp and smelly child, and had grown up to take part in the glorious and eternal cycle.

"These people want to be poor," some of my Indian friends have said, in reference to the career beggars. "They can't be bothered to do anything else."

I don't know.

I didn't buy any milk.

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