Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Streets Of Mumbai (Continued…)

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Where am I?

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Buildings like this one fascinate me. I’d love to climb the stairwell and find out what’s going on inside.

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Mumbai’s mad on balconies.

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See…?

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Flower pots in a leafy suburb.

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Something hiding in the leaves…

posted by Kirk at 12:55 am  

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Inflight Update – Cheese Etiquette Explained

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In a previous blog, entitled Inflight Update, I posed the following question to Paul Kelly, Hemingway’s de facto Cheese Ambassador:

Question for Paul Kelly: what is the correct procedure if, when cutting into a sliver of Cambazola, one finds that a few crumbles of Double Gloucester have remained on the knife, surreptitiously stealing the opportunity to attach themselves to the krautkäse? Gently brush off the offending flakes? Or perhaps ignore them, and simply chug down the whole fromagesbord together?

His answer is so good, I thought I’d publish it:

“Whilst one may have lowliness thrust upon one, and in this case one has, as Cheese Ambassador, I feel that only a suitably diplomatic response to your enquiry can be proffered. As your dilemma pertains to social manners, may I direct you to the Ministry of Socially Acceptable Manners as this office of ambassadorial duties is already well versed in all such matters. For a more immediate and long term solution please refer to Emily Post’s 1922 book entitled ‘Etiquette’ for all you’ll need to know to avoid any future faux pas. To get you started on the right path, it is important to know that a soft cheese like cambazola and a semi hard cheese such as Double Gloucester should never, ever be cut with the same knife. That’s the sort of thing associated with people who have to buy their own silver.
[I think he means me – The Kaptain]

For Cambazola, or any soft cheese, a flat bladed knife is the best option, something resembling a butter knife would be passable and for semi or hard cheeses then a de facto cheese knife is the implement of choice (ivory handled preferably, although optional). This would at once make ‘chugging’ the fromage farrago a moot point and the world a more pleasant place. And, of course, having the cheese cut and served with white gloves on is an absolute necessity.

From the Office of Hemingway’s Cheese Ambassador.”

So now we know. All in all a damn fine explanation, what?

posted by Kirk at 3:51 am  

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Streets Of Mumbai

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“Pathare Prabhu Thakurdwar – Mahim – Re-Built 1929” reads the inscription.

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Bombay colours.

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Leaves and grilles.

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Moustachioed man hangs out his washing.

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Nestling within a circle of low-rise apartments, a hidden park…

posted by Kirk at 12:08 am  

Friday, September 19, 2008

People

“When it’s lit up at night, the bay looks like the Queen’s necklace,” my driver reliably informs me, as we journey north along Marine Drive. Velu is typical of the locals I meet: flashing smile, shake of the head – and, above all, an instinctive pride in his city. It would never occur to him to be otherwise: I wonder how true that is now of the people back where I grew up.

Stuck in traffic a little further along the road, we pull alongside a bus full of children. “Uncle! Uncle!” the bravest among them yells from a window, seeing the camera in my lap. “Take a picture!”

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(Click on the images to enlarge them.)

I point up and snap him, when another head pops out from behind, curious to find out what is going on. “Uncle! Please?” Another voice, from further up the bus. He gives me the thumbs up as I point the camera at him and press.

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As the traffic gets moving again, I hear his farewell: “Have a good day, sir!” Money can’t buy you love, and from what I’m seeing it’s not a prerequisite for happiness, either. The people of Mumbai are infinitely poorer, per capita, than their counterparts in Hong Kong, yet they possess a warmth and humanity that is nowhere to be found in the S.A.R.

And even the rich Bombayites are sociable and polite, as I find over cocktails in Henry Thams’ bar. Circulating easily among the largely expatriate clientele, they’re as self-effacing as any of us Brits, despite their wealth. I’m introduced to Ravi, forty-something owner of the jewellery store in Mumbai’s famous Taj Hotel. He tells a corny joke that falls flat, smiles wistfully and promptly buys a round.

Perhaps because I’m reluctant to leave so soon, and therefore not as positive as usual, the last evening I spend in Mumbai is the only one that disappoints, from a people perspective. After an enjoyable cocktail party where I meet, among others, a Bollywood film producer called Kiran V. Shantaram, the Spanish Ambassador (and his charming – read buxom – wife) as well as a Maharashtra State Minister, I am driven to the airport by Velu. Something I had quietly been dreading reveals itself, in all its dark horror. I have to return to 1987 to explain. When arriving in Bombay for the first time, back then, the initial thrill I felt was quickly tempered when, journeying towards the hotel, we passed row after row after row of what looked like sacks lying by the roadside. “What are they?” I still remember asking my boss, naively. “People,” was all he said in reply.

More than twenty years later, here they are again: the abandoned, the outcast – those for whom there is no social safety net. People whose ‘homes’ are shared patches of roadside dirt, whose lives are so transitory there is neither the opportunity nor point in erecting even temporary structures, to shield them from the rain. People the cocktail circuit would prefer were not there. I try to imagine what it must be like, living as they do, but I fail. The only consolation, I tell myself, is that there seems to be fewer of them. They’re competing less for space, if memory serves.

And finally, at the airport, I encounter the surly, disinterested military personnel who shove and bark as we are processed through security. The only soulless people I meet throughout my stay, and who leave a bitter taste as I leave.

But I’ll be back…

posted by Kirk at 6:20 am  

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Scoff

First meal and playing it very safe. Two bits of toast with marmalade and jam. The butter tastes somehow richer – more cowy – but the jam is from Tiptree: good old Essex produce. Two choices, too: the obvious strawberry but morello cherry as well. Unusual. They must’ve known that Tilbury’s finest son was coming and got it in for me especially.

Off topic, there’s something I have to mention. The staff in this hotel are incredibly well trained. I’ve travelled a lot over the years, but these Oberoi staffers are up there with the best. From my personal butler down to the lady that informs me, in perfect English, that my room service breakfast will arrive in exactly twelve minutes, they are faultless. Well done to whoever trained them, and well done to them, for sustaining their pride and dedication to duty.

I’m taken to lunch by colleagues, eagerly anticipating my first encounter with a genuine curry. Alas, we go to a Thai-Chinese fusion joint, which to say the least is a disappointment, having travelled nearly three thousand miles from noodle central. Ah well, the conversation is good, anyway.

It’s not until late evening that I’m at last to get what I’ve been savouring all day. I keep it simple: chicken tikka, yellow dhal and a selection of naan breads. In the words of My Fair Lady, it’s scrumptious. Truly, truly scrumptious. How is it possible to have that crunchy, charcoaly exterior and flesh of such succulence all in one irregular cube of tandoori magic? And how do you make dull old lentils taste this good? I fall asleep with a warm feeling inside…

Oh dear. It’s morning and I’m distinctly nervous. Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble, say my guts. I do hope it’s not what I think it is. But no, it isn’t, after all, although I do make a substantial contribution to greenhouse gases throughout the day. Must remember to send thirty dollars to someone I don’t know to get some carbon credits back.

posted by Kirk at 10:53 pm  

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Taxis, Trucks and Bajajs

I move surprisingly fast through a new part of the airport, which seems only half-completed. Greeted like some visiting celeb, the Oberoi representative escorts me to the waiting driver.

Last time I was here I was driven to the hotel in a 1950s model Austin Cambridge – known as an Ambassador here – which at the time were still being churned out by Hindustan Motors.

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(Click on the image to enlarge.)

This time, it’s a Ford Mondeo. I think I prefer the Austin, but that’s probably because of the name.

They say that the floorplate of a Jaguar S-Type is the same as that of the Mondeo: well not this Mondeo, I can tell you. Built in Chennai, they’ve shrunk this version of Britain’s most popular corporate car to fit Indians.

Leaving the airport, you’re straight into the bustling suburbs – there’s no trunk road, or expressway. The congestion provides plenty of time to study the various vehicles competing for space along roads narrowed by the ebb and flow of humanity.The taxis are ludicrously funny – so small that I expect to see Noddy driving one. Click here for a glimpse of what I mean:

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And when was the last time you saw white-walled tyres? Most of these black-and-yellow Fiats are covered in elaborate stickers, including those stuck across their rear windows, restricting vision. Horses, spoked wheels, Hindu idols, star shapes and words such as “Bandra” are displayed: I also see “Don”, “Happy Journey” and “Welcome”. One is even adorned with the Nike tickmark, for whatever reason.

The gaily-painted trucks we pass carry descriptions of what they do: “Goods Carrier” seems a favourite, generally plastered somewhere across the front of each vehicle. I see a flatbed truck carrying urns that has the words “Milk Wagon” painted on its sides. Across its tail-end, along with the now familiar “Horn OK Please”, I read the words “India Is Great.”

There seems to be a road safety campaign going on, targeting the “scooterists”. I get a crinkly mouth when reading the campaign slogan: “Helmet or Hell Met.”

An advert on a hoarding also catches my eye: “United Bank. The Bank That Starts With U.” I am beginning to recall the wit and wordplay of the Indians I associated with here when visiting on a regular basis, back in the late 1980s.

Unlike Jakarta, where I lived for a while, the Bajajs of Mumbai are all painted black and yellow:

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In the Indonesian capital they were a rusty orange colour. Here, they also seem to have fully-functioning meters, but no doors – further differences.

Meanwhile, the cacophony of hooters is incessant. Don’t these people realise that sound is a form of energy, and that energy consumes fuel?

posted by Kirk at 9:24 pm  

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Inflight Update

This is turning into a real adventure. They’re preparing us for arrival in the land of Delhi belly with a jhinga allepey curry – prawn madras, to you and me. A bit like the various stages of formula milk, I imagine. Slowly, slowly, avoidy dysentery. Served with basmati (“sh” sound for the “s”) rice and what looked like potato cubes (but turned out to be banana!), it’s one of the best inflight mains I’ve ever eaten. The alternative was the equally daring vegetable allepey curry (note the use of the English word for “vegetable” – perhaps it’s the same in Gujarati, or Urdu.) The only question mark was over the sauce: two choices of the same madras curry? Where was the vindaloo, or the phal, for us hard-core curry connoisseurs from Brick Lane, or Birmingham?

Next up, some top-drawer Double Gloucester: nice and crumbly, not overly tart – all in all a cheese of great balance. They must’ve thought we needed some sort of correction, after all that spice. A bringing back down to earth. But this West Country dairy sample was in fact a cheese made in heaven. Went down well with the Peter Lehmann Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia’s Barossa Valley – the crucible of antipodean winemaking. The German Cambazola was also good: it looked as if it was going to be overly blue, but it turned out mild and creamy – quite nice, if that’s a permitted description of cheese. From France, the brie was rubbery and bland, which I admit made me chuckle. Schadenfreude might be the only way to describe it, but Boris’s New Britain had won the Eurovision Cheese Contest.

[N.B. Question for Paul Kelly (Hemingway’s Cheese Ambassador): what is the correct procedure if, when cutting into a sliver of Cambazola, one finds that a few crumbles of Double Gloucester have remained on the knife, surreptitiously stealing the opportunity to attach themselves to the krautkäse? Gently brush off the offending flakes? Or perhaps ignore them, and simply chug down the whole fromagesbord together?]

The cabin crew are delightful. It’s like what meteorologists call a “one in three hundred year event”. For example, catching the chief stewardess snaffling a praline (it was either that, or she was going to a fancy dress party as a hamster), I detected no iota of embarrassment. Letting out a mischievous chuckle instead, the ample Indian crewmember made no attempt do disguise her chomping and – for all I know – probably had a second, a while later. And for my sins, I’ve once again become a victim of the in-flight-airline-customer-satisfaction-survey-syndrome. Hey, ho. Got a free pen, though.

Speed over ground, clock ticking down… 49 minutes to go. I can’t believe how fast this plane is travelling. 582 m.p.h.! Can’t they slow it down a bit? I’m not sure I want to get there yet… I’m enjoying this comfortable, Peter Lehmann-fuelled bizclass ride…

On the map I see that we just passed directly over Nagpur. Nagpur… great name for a city, but I wonder what it must be like living there, right in the heart of India… 43 minutes and confess to feeling some anxiety. Will the airport be as tawdry and chaotic as I recall? Christ! The cabin crew are spraying the plane’s interior with some kind of de-infestant!

posted by Kirk at 10:57 pm  

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Journey Begins

Well, this is it. I’m in the airport lounge waiting to board the flight to Mumbai. Is this really the precursor to a new chapter in my life? Or am I treating it more like a company-sponsored excursion? The last time I visited was over 15 years ago, when the place was still called Bombay. Sounds better to me, Bombay. I’m not sure if it’s going to feel like coming home, or whether changes in the interim will have rendered it unrecognisable. I’m not quite as excited as I thought I’d be, but neither am I feeling anxious.

posted by Kirk at 2:10 am  

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