Indian Travel Diary
Chapter 13: Mumbai

April 4th, Mumbai

The train journey to Mumbai is like the other Indian train journeys, something to be endured for the sake of getting from one place to another and then best forgotten.

I arrive in Mumbai early in the morning, but it's already quite warm. This is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, since the city occupies a peninsula and has no room to expand, and living space is in short supply. Whole families sleep on their kitchen floors because they can't afford an apartment with bedrooms. Consequently hotels, even basic ones, are expensive.

I've decided that I want to get a hotel in Colaba, the peninsula at the southern end of Mumbai, though I'm only staying one night. I get a taxi from the station, which drops me off in a street where there's a hotel I'm looking for. The manager is not especially friendly and the only available room has been freshly painted, still smells of fresh paint, and I'm not sure I want to be breathing paint fumes for a day and a half. It's affordable but I decide to look elsewhere. I lug my rucksack and other gear over to the Salvation Army hostel, a few blocks away. It's popular with Westerners without much money to spend. I look at a room but I'm not impressed. I go back to the first hotel, but the room's been taken. What to do? I walk up the street and discover a mid-range hotel. The rooms are good but expensive, 900 rupees (US$19). I try to bargain this down, but without success. I'm feeling angry with myself for having missed the first room. The reception clerk begins to mutter a Ganesh mantra. I'm not sure if this is intended to remove my anger but it calms me. Since I don't have much choice, I take the room. Actually for my last day and a half in India it was a good thing to do.

Across the street is an internet place. The connection is good.

I wander along the main street of Colaba. It's crowded, full of shops and there are lots of street stalls selling all kinds of things, but I'm not looking to buy anything.

I don't have anything to do in Mumbai except to fly out, and although there are places I think might be interesting, such as the Crawford Market, I have seen enough of India for now. I simply wander over to the Gateway of India and the impressive Taj Mahal Hotel, supposedly built in 1903 by an Indian entrepreneur after he was refused admission to a hotel duing the British Raj because he was an Indian.

I'm flying out tomorrow. Westerners usually take a taxi to the international airport, but I decide to take the train. I go to Churchgate railway station and buy a ticket to Andheri, the nearest station, from where I'll have to get a tuk-tuk. Child beggars are trying to wheedle a few rupees from the passengers.

April 5th, Mumbai

Late in the afternoon I check out from my hotel. The manager wants to call a taxi for me to go to the airport, but I tell him I'm going by train. He thinks this is not a good idea. I get a taxi to Churchgate station. Local trains heading north leave about every quarter-hour. There is a display which tells passengers which trains are leaving soon and which stations they do not stop at. So if the station you want to go to is displayed then you should not board the train.

As usual I'm carrying my rucksack, my shoulder bag and my laptop. The train is crowded but I find a seat. I need to see out the window so that I know when we arrive at Andheri; it's the first stop after Santa Cruz.

The train departs. More people board. The carriage is packed. It's got dark. After about twenty minutes we arrive at Santa Cruz. Shortly after the train pulls out I get up to make my way through the crowd to be near the door. But the carriage is packed and, with all the stuff I'm carrying, I can hardly move. The train stops. Are we at Andheri yet? I'm starting to worry about not getting out, and yell "Getting out!" But no-one moves. An Indian next to me smiles at me, to reassure me that there's not a problem. After a bit the train starts again and soon we arrive at Andheri and I get off.

I find my way to the street. There are several tuk-tuks. I pick one and negotiate a fare for a ride to the airport. We set off and arrive at the airport about twenty minutes later. All's well so far.

I join the check-in line. Soon a young Indian man, apparently an airport employee, comes up to me and starts asking me questions. His job, apparently, is to decide whether or not I am a terrorist on a suicide mission intent on blowing up the plane after it has taken off. How long have I been in India? Where did I enter? What have I been doing? What is my profession? (Terrorist?) Where am I flying to? Do I have a hotel reservation at my destination? (If not then presumably it's because I don't expect to survive the flight.) I'm getting a bit pissed off by his questions. He retires to confer with a group of his colleagues. They decide, after some discussion, that I'm probably not a terrorist, so I shall be permitted to proceed with the check-in.

Before I get to the check-in counter I'm asked to put my luggage on a table for inspection. The man looks through the contents of my rucksack and my shoulder bag. No-one asks me to remove my shoes, take off my belt or lower my pants.

Finally I check in, and some time later go through immigration, with no fuss. As with all other people (including Indians) who are flying to countries not bordering India I have paid US$50 for the privilege of leaving India. This is a "foreign travel tax" which most Westerners don't know about because it is normally included in the cost of one's airticket in and out of India. Curious that one has to pay more to leave India (US$50) than one has to pay to enter it (about US$40 for the cost of a visa) and that returning to one's own country after visiting India is regarded by the Indian government as "foreign travel", for the privilege of which one has to pay.

While I'm waiting to board my flight I reflect on the last three months.

The "splendor that was India" is long gone. Only faded remnants remain in old palaces. Now in most places there is mostly decay, poverty, dirt and destitution.

Neither is there much to be seen of "the mystical East". Religion permeates Indian society, but to a non-Hindu much of it seems merely empty ritual combined with superstition on the part of believers and exploitation on the part of the brahmin priests. Supposedly holy places, such as the inner sanctum of the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati, are sullied by the priests' eagerness to extract money from supplicants. A greater air of mystery and sanctity pervades the octagonal chamber of the Navagraha Temple in Guwahati, lit only by ghee lamps and with its perpetual hum (or maybe it's an om) and complete absence of priests. Remnants of the archaic Great Mother religion linger in the North-East, with its Kali worship, but to one brought up in the West it is mostly impenetrable.

What redeems India is its people, or rather the majority of its people who are as yet uncorrupted by modernization, with its replacement of all values by one: what something or someone is worth as a commodity, in the marketplace. There is a degree of humanity present among Indians which in many Westerners has never developed, since those Westerners have been brought up in a culture of selfishness, ignorance and materialism, lacking any values other than personal benefit and gaining dominance over others by any means. In this respect India still has something which the West would do well to rediscover.

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