Saturday, April 23, 2005

Bombay

Bombay airport meant oven-heat, a push through the ragged crowds, and a drive by battered taxi, past endless slums, to a room in a tall block of flats, near Vile Parle.

The room was full of giant cockroaches but there was air-conditioning.

Going out for a meal I passed a heavily-pregnant woman living under a plastic sheet on the pavement. Her ten year old son looked starved and I suggested he join me for a meal in one of the restaurants across the road. The boy agreed. I ate heartily but the boy refused the food offered. It was a Moslem restaurant and the hungry boy was a Hindu. The lad returned to his plastic sheet home.

On my first morning I took a red city bus, past Bombay's sooty blocks and gaudy markets, to the Haji Ali Mosque. This wonderfully exotic building is reached by a long causeway. And this was where I met 15-year-old Muna and 17-year-old Marshall, two of Bombay's many abandoned, or run-away children. They both looked about thirteen years of age and they had both left behind their families in Karnataka State in the South. They earned their living by cleaning taxis for a few rupees. Muna, a Hindu, slept in Mahalaxmi station and Marshall, a Catholic, slept in Bombay Central station.

Muna and Marshall showed me Chowpatty beach, which can be used as a bathroom, the Prince of Wales Museum, the Zoo, the huge Taj Mahal Hotel and the New-York-style skyscrapers around Nariman Point. There, beside immense wealth, we watched ragged children wait beside the foodstalls for the chance to eat the left-over scrapings from plates. Then the sky turned totally black and the monsoon rains burst upon us. My pockets and shoes were filled with water. The streets were flooded up to knee level.

Muna and Marshall took me to a cinema in tumbledown Falkland Road. I did not like the look of the people in the cinema queue. The men had bull-heads and snake-eyes and I imagined they were all pickpockets or racketeers.

After the film, we waded along Falkland Road, trying to avoid the floating human excrement, a humpbacked cow and the muscular arms of the hundreds of girls crowded together in almost every doorway and caged-window. Some of the caged girls looked like sad little primary schoolchildren. Following the example of an Arab, I dodged into a restaurant for a warming cup of tea. In the restaurant's spacious lavatory there was child who had made this dry haven his home.

The following morning I decided I wanted to avoid having a guide. But a young lad called Suresh disagreed. Suresh followed me through the markets and parks. When I hopped on a bus, he followed. When I hopped on a train, he followed. When I took photos of lingams and statues of elephants, Suresh was around there somewhere. When I returned to my flat, Suresh was still trailing me, and the muscular guard at the entrance to the block then threatened him with violence.

When I went out for supper, Suresh was waiting round the corner. I relented and decided to speak to him. He lived with his father in Victoria Terminus Railway station; his father drank too much; tourists were Suresh's only source of income. I gave him a little money and off he sped.

The sun shone next day, and on Juhu Beach I met Sunil, aged thirteen. He lived with other ragamuffins at Vile Parle Sation, but on sunny days he liked to wander along the beach talking to the horses and digging for sea shells.

That evening a middle class Hindu family invited me to a vegetarian dinner in their flat in a tall block.

"How about a trip to Poona?" asked Ramesh, the head of the household. "I've got some business with Poona's Rajneesh Ashram."

"Do you support the Ashram?" I asked.

"No," said Ramesh. "The Ashram is all about sex. It's full of men who've left their wives back in Europe."

Next day I was in Ramesh's car, similar to a Morris Minor, being driven past slums apparently made of mud.

"Filthy devils," said Ramesh, pointing to the shanty town.

Our journey to Poona took us past scores of crashed lorries, bleeding lorry drivers, pot-holes the size of dustbin lids, and battalions of workers out on strike.

The Rajneesh Ashram contained hundreds of beautiful, upper-class, western girls and boys, enjoying a sort of 'Club Mediterranee' existence.

The grinning master, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, was talking on the subject of 'boredom', so I wandered off to look at the bookshop.

Two of the books by the fantastically rich master were entitled 'Blessed are the Ignorant' and 'The Great Nothing.'

One class on yoga had been cancelled as the teacher had a bad case of hepatitis.

Back in Bombay I visited the wonderfully Victorian Bombay Central station. Here I encountered a host of Dickensian characters: a tiny hunchback with bare feet, pencil limbs, an umbrella, and such a sad face; tribal children whose limbs had allegedly been broken and twisted by their beggar masters; little barefoot rubbish collectors with jute sacks over their shoulders; a skin and bones boy too weak to stand up; the dead body of a young man being carried outside by his friends...

On a piece of pavement near Haji Ali I found a shivering and coughing Marshall sheltering under a plastic sheet. I bought him some egg masala and suggested he seek shelter at one of the 'Friendship Homes' run by the Catholic Church for abandoned children.

As we travelled by taxi to Holy Family Church, Marshall told me of his ambitions to become a car mechanic.

At 'Snehasadan :Friendship Home', we were greeted by Eloy Molines, a smiling, middle-aged Spaniard who helped run twelve homes.

Eloy, together with a female social worker, interviewed Marshall and found out his story. Marshall had worked up to his knees in water in the kitchen of a restaurant; he had found his legs growing so stiff that he could not walk; Marshall's father had beaten him because he had refused to continue working; Marshall had run away.

Eloy arranged for Marshall to stay with houseparents Richard, who worked for Metal Box, and his wife Celine. Eloy warned me that more than half of the boys who come to Snehasadan do not stay long, perhaps because they prefer the freedom of the railway station to the restricted life of the homes. Some boys drop into the homes temporarily, when they need a doctor, a new shirt, or shelter from the monsoon.

The boys at the home, from a mixture of religious backgrounds, seemed remarkably cheerful. They sang as they skipped down the corridors. The kids on the swings in the gardens looked tall and well fed.

I left Marshall at the home, but, when I phoned Eloy a few days later, I learnt that Marshall had decided not to stay.

Out at Vile Parle, in the suburbs, I met Michael, a middle-aged little tailor, originally from Kerala. Like so many Keralans he was Christian and highly educated. Michael decided I must visit an orphanage run by Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity.

The rooms at the orphanage seemed as big as aircraft hangers and were filled with babies in cots. The sister in charge, a beautiful and calm woman from Bangladesh, pointed out one sickly wrinkled baby suffering from boils. I doubted if it could have any chance of survival, but the sister assured me it would live. One toddler grabbed my hand and kissed it. Another put a razor blade in its mouth, only to have it calmly removed by the sister.

Back outside, Michael gave me a tour of Nehru Nagar, the slum where he lived. We waded through mud past rows of black hovels constructed from bits of wood and palm leaves. We chatted to naked children who scratched their heads as they played with skinny scurvy dogs. As we left, some urchins threw tiny stones in our direction. Michael immediately got them to apologise. (How unlike Britain!)

At Vile Parle station Sunil and his one-legged friend were having breakfast. I gave Sunil one rupee and both he and the one-legged boy danced up and down the stairs of the railway bridge in delight.

The train into the centre of the city was crowded and I discovered too late that some unknown person had slit open my money belt. Fortunately I kept my real valuables in a second money belt hidden by my shirt. However, I decided to transfer to another compartment. It turned out to be a women-only compartment and I was swiftly ejected.

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Hotels: Bombay attracts LOTS of Arab tourists, some of whom come for the girls, and boys. Bombay does not have a surfeit of hotels. So I would strongly advise booking your hotel in advance, if you don't want to end up homeless.

Shopping: Chor Bazaar, off Grant Road, is the place to buy Indian souvenirs.

Taxis : lots of them, except when it rains. Buses: excellent buses, but watch for pick pockets!!!! Trains: lots of trains to the suburbs from Bombay Central.

Health: watch out! Don't drink the water. Take advice before you go. AIDS is a very major problem.

Riots: if there are riots, stay indoors!!!

1 comment:

Benjamin Madison said...

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Best wishes,
BM