Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

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  

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