Avaes Mohammad

India: SALAAM BOMBAY 3 (250509)

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Salaam Bombay 3 

 

My first afternoon in Bombay.  After a wash and a change of clothes I’m ready for the city.  My first stop…Haji Ali.  A floating mausoleum of a Sufi Saint, built off the Bombay coast upon the Indian Ocean itself.  An elevated, crumbling path leads the way, which when the tide comes in is swallowed whole by the water, leaving only the mausoleum visible: an enchanted, floating palace.  As is the tradition with Sufi sites, it’s a sacred place for people of all castes and creed.  In 1990, when I was 12 years old, I made a wish here when I visited with my mother.  The wish came true.  I thought one of the first things I’d do on my first trip back is pop in.  Say hello, say thanks.  Maybe make another wish. 

 

I walk for two hours down the majestic city coast of Bombay, street kids competing to out-strut me as they walk past.  When I finally make it the place is heaving…like carnival.  The crowd pushes, dodges and swerves around itself in an effort to maintain forward progress on this narrow stretch.  The ocean glides itself all around us and we feel as though we’re gliding all over it.  The edges of this stretch hosts a whole industry maintained purely by the Saint’s mausloeum.  For visitors to adorn the tomb with, vendors sell flowers and elaborately decorated sheets of cloth with verses of the Qur’an sewn into them (Chadars). There’s also music, food, drinks and even a guy who’ll engrave your name onto a grain of rice.  I think it helps identify which grain goes where on the dinner table.  Where there are no vendors, there are beggars.  Of all age, affliction and gender they sit as manikins of meekness: filthy and with clothes torn in all the right places so as to show off amputated limbs and shocking skin conditions with full appropriateness.  It’s all part of the industry, feeding off the visitors desire to look good in front of the saint and God, they make good business. 

 

The tomb itself is mad crazy with a rush of people pushing, crashing and crushing against one another around the raised grave: desperate to approach and kiss one of the Chadars adorning it.  People arrive seeking blessings for newborn children, pleading for their deepest wishes and desires to be met, generally praying for a better life.  Directly outside the tomb, Qawwali singers sing songs of divine praises and after a private moment inside, I sit listening with five delicious samosas: my first Indian meal for 10 rupees only.   

 

As I walk back along the path on water there are less people…I see the beggars better.  One man sits topless and motionless displaying a shocking skin condition as though he were an exhibition piece (Turner Prize worthy?).  Five men, all rocking, lie on their sides, forming a well-structured circle: one singing praises to God, the rest providing a chorus, two of whom are frantically waving their handless arms in the air: a well choreographed piece all in all.  Just a little further on, one man simply sits alone, by the side of this path on the sea, gently waving his own handless arms.  My hand reaches into my pocket as I feel compelled to give a couple of coins, not entirely sure whether it’s charity or whether I’ve just paid for a freak show… Salaam Bombay.                     

 

The following Monday morning I run around all the banks I can find for some over the counter assistance.  None can help…none can give me money on either my bank card (the signature had faded) or my credit card (the signature didn’t match my passport).  One fella tells me there’s a Barclays in the Worli area of Bombay.  A one hour bus ride later and after frantic running around trying to find it, I finally spot the blue eagle. 

 

‘Sorry…we don’t have access to UK accounts…you’ll have to call your bank in England’

 

 

[Pause]

 

 

‘Can I at least use your phone…I’m not sure I have enough for the phonecall.’

 

‘Come with me.’

 

 

I’m brought sweet tea and cool water but after speaking to someone who confirmed my account had indeed been frozen, I was put on hold.  I remained on hold.  For fourty-five minutes.  It was Bank Holiday Monday in England.  Eventually I was asked to put down the phone.

 

 

‘Come back tomorrow though and I’ll help you out.’

 

 

At least I’d sorted free phonecalls to the bank.  So my 4 hundred and something rupees were all mine…to eat, drink and travel with.  I had a gorgeous and filling Indian Thali for 28 rupees only!  I bought a packet of cheap Indian beerees instead of cigarettes for eight rupees.  Tea for three rupees only.  I could live like a king!  My greatest expense was regular water for twelve rupees a bottle and one coca cola a day to ensure I didn’t feel like a complete tramp: twenty rupees.  I had everything I needed.

 

I bump into Raju the guide where I met him the first time.  He’s pleased to hear the cops helped out, said he was praying I’d be okay and took me for tea.  My half smoked beeree lies on the table for me later.  It rolls off…I’m about to pick it up.

 

 

[Following In Hindi]

 

‘Let it go manhey!look!…if you need anything…don’t be shy, just ask me!….money, food, charas, drink…if you wanna smoke a cigarette instead of these fuckin berees…if you wanna eat Non-Veg I’ll take you Bare Miya’s, the best Non-Veg place in Bombay…you just let me know…just make sure you don’t squash the heart my friend…you have to do what the heart says always …always do what the heart says!… here…have a cigarette.’

 

 

[Pause]

 

 

‘Thanks yaar…[I put my arm on his shoulder]

 

‘Mate, when I came to this city there were people who kept me upright.  I know what it’s like…I’ve seen those days and it’s not easy and I only came from the village…you’ve crossed waters to get here…no-one is anyone’s in this city…[Beat]  maybe if I have to go abroad one day, someone’ll help me out.’

 

 

As we walk, two men in their fifties sat on parked motorbikes call us over.  They’re friends of Raju and he tells my story.

 

 

‘The hotels here don’t want anything to do with Pakistan anymore.  The Taj has a fuckin sign at reception…’No Pakistanis!’.  It’s sister-fuckin right though…I’ll tell yer straight…if my nephews even came here from Karachi I’d tell ‘em fuck off…Mother’s Cunts!…they ain’t staying with me…fuck that!…Pakistanis…they’re the biggest fuckers on earth…I know coz I know them!

 

 

This is Musa.  A skinny, sweet looking guy.  ‘Man of the world!’  Nice smile, generally gentle, friendly and very funny.  He’s a Muslim with family in Pakistan.  Maybe that’s why he feels he has to make a show of condemnation.  Maybe he means it.

 

 

‘Oi brother in law! (i.e…I’m having your sister) Not all fingers on one hand are the same are they?…so not all Pakistani’s are like that lot either…some of ‘em are good….these were only a handful of  lads.’

 

 

This is Prem…’With love, people call me Prem Chopra’ (a famous Indian Film Villain of the 70s/80s)…a short, dark, funny fella with dark glasses…always smiling and always succeeds in making me laugh…He’s Hindu so maybe he feels like he has to make a show of understanding.  Maybe he means it. 

 

 

What the fuck you goin’ to Pakistan for anyway?’

 

‘Same reason I came to India.  I’m a writer.’

 

‘Oh…’

 

‘…He’s gonna write…’

 

‘…stories…’

 

 

[Beat]

 

 

‘You’re not going to meet with any terrorists are you?’

 

 

Paranoid that everyone in Colaba is listening for my response, and not unduly, I bow my head, put my palms together in front of Prem and shake my head from side to side.  We laugh.

 

 

‘So get your parents to send you some money man…through that Western Union there.  You got parents ain’t you?’

 

‘Yeah I got parents…but I’ve got my own money in the bank…I don’t wanna ask them if I’ve got my own money…if I can’t get it in a few days I might.’

 

‘Tension’s not to be taken!  This shit happens…you need anything…you let us know yeah…fuck tension though…don’t take that fucker!  Money, charas, drink, food…we’ll sort it for you…just say!  Pay us back later or don’t, makes no difference to us…we’ve seen it all man…every fucker in the world comes through Bombay…and when they do every fucker comes through Colaba…they got to…we stamp the passports nowadays Mothers Cunts!’

 

 

They all laugh like there’s an angle to the joke I’m missing.

 

 

‘There was this one white fella.  German I think.  Been robbed…took everything the bastards…didn’t have enough to eat even…I said come with me…took him Majestic…got him a thali…12 rupees back then…’Eat Thali!’ I said.  I gave him a whole tola of charas (1oz), cigarettes, papers, a few thousand rupees.  Got him a nice room too.  When that fucker’s money came in, you wouldn’t believe it…he gave me a thousand dollars sister fucker!  Thousand dollars!  Now…whenever he comes Bombay he looks us up…isn’t it Musa?’

 

 

Musa smiles and rocks his head agreeably from side to side.  They laugh.     

 

 

‘Then there was this other sister fucker…German I think…been robbed…I did the same yeah…sorted him proper…gave him a whole tola of charas, thousands of rupees…good room…looked after him…but this fucker legs it…he just did one…don’t even know where or how…never seen him again!…isn’t it Musa?’ 

 

 

Musa smiles and rocks his head agreeably from side to side.  They laugh.     

 

 

‘Makes no difference to us.  So…if you need anything, let us know yeah’

 

‘Thanks.  I will.  But I’ve got three, four hundred in my pocket still. I wanna make that last.  When it runs out and I need some, I’ll ask then.’

 

‘Yeah…Yeah…it’s important!  Look…for this day or two, eat thali’s, eat vada pau’s, instead of Marlboros for 100 rupees, buy beerees for eight.  Take buses…look…a person…a human…is that which can cope with any situation…who knows how to handle themselves with little money and also knows how to handle themselves with lots of money.  That’s a person!’

 

 

I got through to the fraud department the following afternoon and had access to my money within ten minutes of speaking to them.  Within the first half an hour of having my money back, I’d got a taxi back to Colaba, bought a glass of fresh pomegranate juice and a box of 20 Marlboro Lights.  Within half an hour I’d spent the equivalent of what I’d spent in the last two and a half days:  300 Rupees!  I sat laughing to myself, drinking juice and smoking a cigarette…Salaam Bombay, Salaam!                     

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  1. Yo, you certainly know how to make an impact when you arrive
    in a city!

  2. Sounds amazing Avaes. There seems to be lots of kind strangers in India, or maybe its just your natural way with people.

    Is it just me or do people get more generous the less they have?

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