Mumbai Encounters

by Joe Morris

The day after I visited Nirav, I meandered about south Mumbai; I made a first failed attempt at getting a train ticket, and then ate at the Leopold Cafe, the best place in town to get clean, cheap food, and stopped by American Express to change money, but arrived ten minutes after closing. I was walking across the street -- making sure to take the side away from a particular beggar woman with her children, one of whom she had flung at my leg earlier, and I had to limp for several steps before it let go -- when I heard a meek voice say, "It's very crowded here, isn't it?"

The voice came from a man who couldn't have been more than five foot four inches; he had slightly graying hair, wore a battered but well-kept blue coat, and was carrying a shopping bag and a water bottle. I had, in just two days in Mumbai, become inured to the pleas of merchants, and I routinely stonewalled aggressive calls of "Hello, coming from?" (which is the Indian way of asking "Where are you from?") and similar questions that stall owners and merchants use to get your attention. But this question was so humbly put, and its asker didn't have anything obvious to sell right away, so I actually answered: yes, Mumbai is crowded, but not at much as I thought it would be. The trees make it seem more open. He asked where I was from -- I told him San Francisco -- and my name, and I asked his.

"My name is Amar, A-M-A-R. Are New York and San Francisco close together?"

"No, no, very far apart; they are like Kokata and Mumbai."

"And Hillary Clinton, is she still mayor of New York?"

I explained that New York was both a city and a state, that Hillary Clinton was a Senator for New York State, and then what the Senate and House of Representatives were. I asked Amar what he did; I was still vetting him, trying to figure out if he was trying to sell me something.

"I'm a gardener at Saint Mary's, it's a private school in a part of Mumbai to the north. They have gardens there, and I take care of them. But today is my day off, and right now I am going to temple, if you would like to join me."

I had been offered by another seemingly innocent, well educated fellow to go to temple two days earlier; that one had claimed that it was a festival that occurred once every twelve years, in honor of one of Vishnu's incarnations; he pointed to some well-decorated people, with painted faces and garlanded in flowers, and said that they were out trying to get people to go to temple for the festival. I had followed him for about two miles on foot before giving up when he asked to get in a taxi; I had been famished, he had caught me on the way to lunch, and it seemed unwise to get in a motor vehicle with someone I had met less than half an hour previous. But I was curious to see what a temple would look like; if the inhabitants of Mumbai were really so willing to share their religion and culture, I didn't want to shun them on the off chance it might be a scam. If it started to look suspicious, I'd walk the other way.

We walked for almost an hour at Amar's ambling pace, north towards Victoria Terminus. I asked him about his family.

"I have a wife and one daughter, she is seven now. If you don't mind if I ask, how old are you, Joe?"

I told him: twenty-six. I reciprocated the question.

"Forty six."

What was in his bag?

"It's my uniform for the school, I was having it cleaned."

He hadn't gotten married until he was alomst forty. He had a high school education -- it was hard to guess, since his questions were ingenuous and yet his English was very good. He explained that on this day of the Diwali festival, sisters are supposed to visit and honor their brothers. Much of the time we just walked in silence.

At one point he wanted to stop for a beer, which seemed a little suspicious; I thought maybe he was going to try to get me to pay for it. I protested that I was in something of a rush, that I had a friend to meet -- this wasn't entirely false, since I was planning to meet Nirav later that evening. So we went past the bar he wanted to go to, but one block later he stopped at a building, about the size of a one-car garage. I thought it was the temple for a moment until I realized that Amar was filling a battered bottle with water; this was a public bathroom, or at the very least a public water tap. A toothless hag who had been sitting inside waved for me to come in as well, but I demurred. I'll stick with my filtered stuff, thank you ma'am.

We did eventually make it to the temple, which was near Crawford market, north of the train station. It was a small edifice, fifteen feet square or so, but made of white marble with inlaid writing in gold. A man with one white eye and a long stick in his hand sat out front, and as we took off our sandals he poked and prodded them into position next to the rest of the sandals.

Inside there was a room about twenty feet on a side, with an altar at the far side, flanked with two more slabs of white marble with gold inlay writing. Two elderly men sat midway forward and off to the left; they were dressed all in white, with close cropped hair and red smears on their foreheads. Each held a book in their lap, and they were chanting quietly with their eyes partly closed. The one closest to the center of the room wore glasses and was rocking back and forth slightly. Both seemed to be chanting mostly or entirely from memory: their eyes were glazed in reverie. The altar had an orange statue about three feet high -- calling it a statue is somewhat misleading, since it was more of just a blob, with some smaller blobbish features around the middle and a blob on top that might have been a head, which wore a necklace of marigolds. It looked like it belonged in the Guggenheim.

Amar walked to the right of the statue and bowed with his hands pressed together in prayer, and sat down. I mimicked his actions and seated myself. Another man, tall and lean with one deformed hand, dressed in a striped shirt and brown pants, walked around the altar many times, touching it in various places. He finished this, bowed and walked out. Amar and I sat for about five minutes and walked out; the one eyed man pushed our sandals out from the bunch.

"Give him a few rupees," said Amar.

Why don't you give him a few rupees your own damn self, I thought. I strongly suspected at this point that Amar was in this primarily for the cash, and I was losing interest in his company.

"Here come, down the street, there is a Parsee fire temple right down the street that you can see," said Amar.

"I need to be back to meet my friend soon."

"Right down the street, come on."

So long as I was already on the tour bus, I might as well stay on for a few more minutes. I followed him down the street.

"Why are you taking no pictures? You have your camera there, you should take pictures."

"Because I'm just not interested in taking pictures at this point, Amar," I replied. Not to mention I didn't want to offend any of the people who actually belong at that temple; the chanting men did not look like they would savor the interruption. "Which god was that back in the temple?"

"That was the monkey god," replied Amar. The god of monkeys, Hanuman; the guidebook says that he "is capable of taking on any form he chooses". Perhaps the blob shape is meant to imply that.

Amar then crossed the street suddenly to a white marble building; it was an appropriate size for storing a lawn mower and a few shovels. There was a iron grate on the front. I had seen several other streetside mini-temples like this, but the thing that was different about this one was that there was a man inside. He was probably about sixty, with gray hair clipped close to his skull, and he lay on the floor of the temple. Behind him was an altar; I couldn't make out what was on it, but it involved more marigolds and flickering candles. Although he appeared to be elderly, and perhaps lame from the way his legs were turned, he had amazingly childlike gray eyes that exuded earnestness and innocence. I raised my camera inquiringly; he shook his head. Amar spoke to him briefly in another language ("this guy is from America, he'll give you money," I imagined), and he replied briefly, again shaking his head. I thought about giving him money anyway, but that would have been too much like bribing him for his picture; I will pay people occasionally for their picture -- a snake chamer, for example -- but I didn't want to corrupt the devotion that I saw in his eyes. We walked on.

The Parsee fire temple was banal, and moreover it had a locked gate in front and with a sign that said "Parsee fire temple. Admittance to Parsees only" on it. I was no longer amused; I was hungry and starting to feel a sore throat coming on. Amar was telling me about a man from Michigan who had given him two dollars for showing him around to some other places in Mumbai for a day. Although I initially was interested in talking to him, Amar's presence now felt like having a leech. I considered lecturing him on how it was rude to pretend to offer a friendly cultural exchange and then ask for money for it; I didn't want to encourage this sort of behavior for future tourists. But I wanted to be rid of him -- I gave him two dollar bills and asked for the best way back to Victoria Terminus. He started leading me towards a major north-south street.

"Today is Sunday, tomorrow is a holiday; I will not be able to change this for some time. You will give me rupees."

You will give me rupees. Pretty demanding for a guy who just wanted to show me his temple. I gave him two dollars worth of rupees, and walked off at a brisk pace back to my hotel, making it back from the temple in a third of the time it had taken to get there at Amar's slow pace. I had caught a sore throat illness from Nirav, which he said had turned kind of nasty and for which his doctor had prescribed antibiotics. It seemed impracticable to hunt down a doctor at that hour of night, and I actually had some antibiotics -- doxycycline -- for use against mefloquine-resistant malaria in Thailand. I weighed the pros and cons of taking it: I was feeling pretty miserable, I knew it was almost a bacterial illness, but I didn't want to contribute to antibiotic resistant strains of nasty sore throats. After a few moments of deliberation, I gulped one down.

The next morning I woke up feeling better, and visited a restaurant called Chetana that was right outside of my hotel. Nirav had recommended it: "it's a pain to drive down that far and find a place to park, but I was just down there a week ago with friends. Since you're right there you've got to try it." I had actually eaten tea there the day before -- tea is a meal in India, as in Britain, and one had a choice of "Princely Tea" or "Royal High Tea" on Chetana's menu -- and there had only been two other people in the restaurant. But this was Sunday of Diwali at eleven in the morning, and it was packed with what looked like the Hindu equivalent of the after-Mass crowd. The waiter reluctantly seated me in the only remaining booth (which could have held familty of four), and five minutes later seated another man across from me, with close croppped hair and a simple white shirt, tailored Western-style. We introduced ourselves; his name was Sharek al-Khan, a Muslim name. I asked him about his job.

"I am the High Commisioner of Customs in Mumbai, so I work in taking care of inspecting what comes in to the city and what goes out. When you were at the airport, all of the baggage screening, that is something I supervise."

Such a big title. "So are you in charge of all of customs in Mumbai?" I asked.

"No, there are other High Commissioners, and there is a Grand Commissioner, and he is in charge of all of Mumbai. How long are you travelling in India?"

I told him eight months.

"And what are you doing as a profession?"

"I was a computer programmer, but when I return I will be going to law school."

"And what do you want to do as a final profession?"

"As a what?"

"A final profession, a job you will do for a long time, until you are no longer working." His tone seemed somewhat disapproving.

I've known very intelligent and wise people who retired without really ever answering that question, I thought. Law school is just a step in what seems like the most interesting direction. I was still feeling a little light-headed from being sick and wasn't thinking very clearly, so my response to his question was rambling and vacuous, involving many lengthy pauses. He asked me how long it takes to complete law school: three years was the answer.

Sharek seemed to take pity on my confusion. "You should get into a line of work as early as possible, no more of this travelling and changing in school, so you can eventually make it to the top."

Was he suggesting that I should have stayed with my old job? I explained that software engineering really didn't have a "top", unless you combined it with something else like management or perhaps, you know, law. If he was talking about money the pay scale in programming didn't really rocket up to a "top".

"No, I'm not talking about money, but being on top, having the satisfaction of working to higher levels. You see, no matter what you are doing, the sooner you get in, at a younger age, the longer you have in that organization to have promotions and able to make it to higher levels. In three years you take for school you will have less time to rise."

"Maybe in India, I said, but in the United States the average person nowadays works for their employer for an average of four years," I said.

This gave Sharek pause. "Ah, well, in India there is very much unemployment, so there is not much of a chance for that."

We talked further and he was further surprised that I had studied biology and computer science as an undergraduate and yet was able to return to school to study law; in India you get an undergraduate degree in law and then, after working for a while perhaps, would go back for an L.L.M. (which, incidentally, was a degree tht he himself held). The juris doctor, the doctorate with no prerequisites that lawyers get in the United States, did not exist here. Liberal arts education was a foreign concept, getting a secure job was everything. I had read in Guchuran Das's India Unbound about how many Indians were bound up in the idea of huge socialist government, where "service" jobs were the most coveted. Mr. al-Khan was the first incarnation of those attitudes that I met. His idea of success and security was to get into a government agency or perhaps a large corporation as soon as practicable and get as many promotions as possible, jockeying to knock out the competition for higher posts. Travelling the world or going back to school because you were interested in the subject was unheard of; it was risky American cowboy-style stuff.

After lunch, I didn't do much else for the rest of the day, and the following day I walked up to Marine Drive to see Diwali fireworks. Nirav had told me that there was no fireworks sponsored by the city of Mumbai; wealthy people retired to their clubs, which put on sizable displays, and most other people just lit their own fireworks in the street. The guidebook listed Marine Drive as the place to see Diwali, with no explanation. So I walked there; it was a street parallel to the western railway track, lined with sari shops and other upscale businesses, and the shop owners and their families were setting off "crackers" (as fireworks are called in India) in the street. I turned in pretty early on that day as well; the next day, Tuesday, I needed to change money, pack my bags, and head out to Kerala by train, if I could get a ticket.

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