Greetings from Hindustan
Part One: Mumbai
by Ben Laycock
My sister in law married an Indian so we now get invited to lots of Indian weddings. On this occasion we decided to take up the offer, although it would involve travelling to India and rubbing shoulders with all those poor people.
The whole family arrives in Mumbai, quite possibly the most populous city in all the world, but who is counting? Some of the more cramped areas of this vast metropolis manage to cram one million people into one square kilometre. l believe Australia has an average of about seventeen, but our houses do take up a lot of space, don’t they?
Fitting that many people into that small an area is actually do-able in the daytime, as most people are standing up. But at night it does get a bit difficult to find a spot to lie down as a human takes up four times as much room.
As soon as our Taxi leaves the airport we see whole families living on the sidewalk, with their children and babies and all their meagre possessions laid out for all the world to see. It turns out every inch of the pavement that is not being walked upon is rented out by slum landlords, such are the real estate opportunities in the world’s biggest city. Apparently the spots nearest the streetlights are the most sought after, taken up by university students studying into the wee hours. (And we wonder why our technology jobs are being outsourced.)
By the time we reach our hotel l am ready to go home.
Luckily we are just passing through the city on our way to Versai, a little village of no more than half a million people some sixty kays to the north. Versai is actually the place where Vasco de Gama first made landfall over 500 years ago, before going south to establish the alternative lifestyle centre of Goa.
Upon arrival the visitors set up an impregnable fortress, standard practice when dealing with heathen savages unversed in the niceties of Western Civilisation, although some historians claim that Eastern Civilisation was established long ago, when Europe was still being ruled by marauding bands of Neanderthal cave dwellers.
When Mahatma Gandhi visited London in 1950, he was asked what he thought of Western Civilisation. He replied: “I think it would be a very good idea”.
Ironically enough, the fortress is now occupied by the Koli People, the original inhabitants of the area, and the surrounding town is chock full of Catholics. The Koli are fisher folk and their walled enclave runs all along the foreshore. It is packed so tightly with humanity there is no room for cars or trees or anything else except buildings and their occupants. It is such a relief to escape from the claustrophobic little alleyways on to the wide expanse of the beach, dotted with beautiful hand crafted wooden fishing boats, all decorated with the most exquisite designs, replete with carved figureheads of the lord Jesus Christ himself – the locals having eventually succumbed to 500 years of Catholic proselytising.
This idyllic scene, straight out of the tourist brochure, was only marred by the persistent stench of human shit emanating from the countless little turds that dotted the sand as far as the eye could see – the beach also serving as unofficial public toilet for several thousand people. After 3,000 years of wear and tear, this particular branch of Eastern Civilisation is looking a bit frayed at the edges.
In the next exciting episode: Your intrepid wayfarer stays in a Maharaja’s Palace.