The bat mosque (Khirki Masjid) in Khirki Village, Delhi South.
The monumental mosque dates from 1380 and the domes in the ceiling are filled with bats. They make these funny noises, as they were humans quarreling with each other …
Last day in Bombay before taking the nighttrain to Ajmer. In the Taj Bookshop, I buy ‘ How to teach yourself Hindi’. I hope it will be usefull at Barefoot College. I can try to set up a basic conversation with the women. At 7pm I take a taxi to Bandra Terminal. The distance is 20 km, and it’s a 1 to 1:30 hour ride, due to rush hour. My polution-portion for today is certainly not less than 5 packs of sigarettes.
The style of the Bombay taxidrivers is hilarious. They share cabs and they work in shifts, delivering as many passengers as possible during the hours the cab is theirs. They never leave more than 2 inches spare space between 2 cars, this at the 4 sides! The roads are completely packed with vehicles of all kind, nobody pays attention to lanes or any other kind of order. They all want to be first. At a certain moment, an older man in a Mercedes tries to pass us and points a revolver -I don’t know if it’s a fake one or not- to my driver!
There are millions of black/yellow cabs on their way, others are parked in long long lines at the side of the road. The day these cabs disappear, Bombay streets will be empty and a good deal of the polution problem will be solved. This crazy hectic ride takes me 1 year of my health. Suddenly, the imam starts to call for the evening prayers. Allahu Akhbar — in stereo, from two sides of the road. 20 metres further, a brassband finds his way through the trafficjam. Following them closely is the groom, sitting on his speckled white horse. This is Bombay too.
We pass through slums, truckdepots and construction sites. It’s dirty, dusty and noisy. Dinnertime, and everywhere people are preparing lunch on the street. Waiting in the traffic jam, I have the time to deconstruct the setting up of a shack.
It starts by putting a clothesline on the wall, and they add some belongings. Than 1 bamboe-pole is added, the start of demarcation of the territory. After a while, they add a second pole, and eventually a third and a forth one. The construction is covered with a cloth, and the space is appropriated. The cloth cover gradually changes for cardboard, plastic or metal, and the shack takes the forms of a semi-permanent structure. Refinements can always be done: extension of an upper storey, electricity. A brick wall in front of the cardboard or plastic, doors and windows to assure some privacy. This evolves from mobile architecture towards a new form of fast-city-architecture. But it’s not the end: some territory can be won on the street. Cots, mobile kitchen and washing place are put outside in front of the shack, and the street gets appropriated.
Later someone tells me that the government is trying to clean up the slums by development-projects consisting of huge buildings on slumsites. But the slum-population doesn’t like them. They’re not used to live on upper floors, their kids cannot play on the streets, they cannot have any extensions. So they accept the appartment and resell it, keep the money and start to build a new shack at the bottom of the building.
I take the bus to Crawford market, but as it’s sunday everything is closed. I wander through the muslim quarters and the call for the midday prayers fills the streets. Children have fun on a merry-go-round, and ride wooden horses named Mumbai, Delhi. Culcata, and so-on. The maidans are filled with cricket players and families lingering around on the vaste green lawns. I walk back to Fort, the large avenues are rather empty compared to Bombay norms. A nescafe milkshake in the Yoko restaurant is a tasty refreshment. I keep it modest, while families gather here for the sunday brunch.
Walking by the Bombay store this seems to be one of the only open spots. The larger shops, american model, are all open on sunday. The new hype are ayurveda beauty products in a trendy package. It’s tempting. It’s a relief to be able to smell and watch and try without vendors on your back. The selection is good quality, the price is similar.
Walking towards Cinema Regal I have a tasty veg. toasted sandwich at a streetstall named Sanjay’s. It’s a discovery: grilled toasts filled with vegetables and topped with spices and ketchup. Yummie.
Under the arches of Dr. Naoroji Road streetstalls sell hairdryers and vibrators in all sizes. I thought Indians were puritans?
Dinner at Basilico Cafe, Apollo Bunder Road. This is the new hype: some kind of NY deli, filled with NRI (non resident Indians) coming from the States or the Emirates. Rich people, their cellphones on the tables and with an air of desinterest over their faces. Most of them, especially the young boys, are fat. The good american hamburger life. Boursin cheese is proudly presented in the cooler section.
The Hindustan Times wrote that a mob of eighty men attacked and nearly raped two twenty year old girls on new years’ night in the Juhu neighborhood. The girls came out of an expensive hotel, an exclusive party with Bollywood filmstars, and were apparently tipsy. They shouted back to the men teasing them. They got attacked. The police was not too fast to help.
When you see the behaviour of these NRI (the girls both lived in California), their arrogant way of acting and wandering around, and at the other side the tense situation of the nationalist Hindus fighting for ‘their Indian rights’, you’re not surprised that something like this can happen. No claim was made at the policestation, and the girls returned the next day to the States.
This made me think of the Moroccon emigrants/imigrants last summer in Marrakesh. There’s always this necessity for a show-off: ‘see how I made it abroad, and my big car and my foreign accent put me a step higher in the homeland hierarchy.’
Around the corner of Bentley’s I find an Internet Cafe where I can connect with my own computer. For the x-time in line, I try to contact Barefoot College, without result. After 10 minutes, a speaker tells me in broken english to contact Bunker Roy and gives me his direct number. Great! He’s got my mail, and there will be someone to help me when I arrive in Ajmer. I can stay at Tilonia, in the Barefoot Guest House, and he assures me that there will be enough people to help me with translation. He doesn’t want to be interviewed: it’s all done by the people at Tilonia, and I have to talk with them.
In Bombay it’s becoming hotter by the day.
At the corner of Henry street, I witness a peculiar scene: two men are cleaning the ears of two other men with a long crochet. The earcleaners. Any job is a job.
Speaking about jobs: never trust the middleman. These handy businessmen with their fancy shops all dressed in the same suit. They try to sell you anything. All is good: too small, too big, too cool, too hot. I went to a tailor for a custommade churida and kurta. Indians are said to be good tailors: beware! They cannot take any exact measurement. First time the pants were far too small, I coudn’t get my leg into the trousers. OK, I wanted it fitting, but anyway I should be able to wear it! Second time, he made me trousers for a 120kg lady! They literally fall of my legs, I stumble over it.
Again a good lesson. Never trust the taste of an Indian, compared to our Western standards. So I need to go back once more. I will not give up. Stop asking questions. Don’t accept the NO.
The neighborhood of the tailors’ shop is a tiny village in the city. The streets are so small that no car can pass, and that’s a relief. Quietness all over. Kids are playing in their pyjamas before going to bed, old grandma’s are sitting on the cots and watch over the kids. A man is practising his yoga in the middle of the street, not at all disturbed by the gently buzz around him. Some people have the luck to find a nice place to live in Bombay, even if it’s very humble. Others have to sleep on the foothpath and sort their food out of the heaps of garbage.
On my way home – strange how quickly someone adopts a hotelroom as his ‘home’ – I pass an Indian deli-shop. They make me try everything: little spicy samosa’s, big very spicy samosa’s, sweets made from cashew nuts and mango. It’s delicious and it looks great too. I buy some stuff for my trainride to Ajmer, but I can’t wait and eat it immediately when I got into my room. It surpasses by far the food from the Leopold cafe!
Noise. Narayan writes about noise:
‘ This age will probably be known as the noisiest in human history. Noise is the greatest bane of modern life. Every moment of our existence we are being distracted by it, necessary noise, unnecessary noise, purposeful noise, and the purposeless, enough to fray our nerves and madden us. The noise in and around us is wearing us out at a terrific pace. It seems impossible to concentrate on any study or writing, particularly if one’s window looks over a street. We are surrounded by a moving, vociferious market all the time.’
My hotelwindow looks over Colaba Causeway. Tomorrow I will record the noise for 1 hour and use it as the soundtrack for my images. Horn please!
Today is Maharaj’ birthday and I promised Radha to put some flowers on his samadi. It’s close to Banganga Tank, at Walkeshwar Mandir, in the neighborhood of Malabar Hills. I make it a full day out and will walk most of the traject, crossing Bombay.
I go up via Colaba Causeway towards Fort, and stop at the Jehangar Art Gallery. The exhibiting artist works with associations of words, silkscreened on canvas. Very neat art, close to advertising typography with a scent of popular philosophy.
I pass by restaurant Chetana. Already 3 days in Bombay, and I still didn’t savoure a good indian dish. Chetana is renowned for its delicious multi cuisine thali’s — mild and spicy, and I can admit that this reputation is rewarded. There’s the very friendly staff, they serve for a fixed price an abundancy of somosa, dhal, vegetables, papadam, naan, roti, rice, lentils cooked with byriani rice, raita, spices, salt lassi. They are really proud of their cuisine, and they have the right to be. The desert is hard long rice soaked in milk and sugar but not too sweet, and a great fresh juice cocktail.
At luchtime the place fills up quickly with office people; men and women sitting at separate tables. Nearly no tourists.
Octavio Paz, Mexican Ambassador in India for 6 years, muses on the link between food, a people and its culture. He describes the European cuisine as a diachronic cuisine (cfr. Claude Lévi-Strauss) in which the dishes follow the one after the other in a sort of parade: some kind of demonstration. In India, the various dishes come together on a single large plate. Neither a succession nor a parade, but a conglomeration and superimposition of things and tastes: a synchronic cuisine. A fusion of flavors, a fusion of times. (Octavio Paz – In light of India, 1997)
After lunch I walk up to the Khadi Village Emporium. It did not change at all since 2000 (and probably since 1950). It’s still Gandhi’s India, it still breaths the quiet freedom of the experiments with truth.
Strand Bookshop moved to a fixed spot, a good selection of books and active staff, but nobody knows Vandana Shiva. I address a young Indian woman and ask her if she knows this writer. She does. Women empowerment, development and ecology. The young woman I bumped into is Kavita Pai, an activist documentary maker and her daytime job is programmer at the JnanaPravaha-artspace. They organise lectures and presentations on contemporary art, Shaina presented here the launch of camputer.org. Kavita takes me to the People’s bookshop, filled with a selection of activist writers ranging from Chomsky over Che to Vandana Shiva. I buy Stolen Harvest. Still looking for Staying Alive.
I walk back with Kavita to her workplace. It’s a spacious room, completely renovated. You wonder how they deal with the space-topic in a Bombay where square meters are so scarce, a city with 19 million people where many of them sleep on the streets. The gallery on the same floor, Chemould, has even a bigger space and is a lookalike from the Soho and Chelsea galleries in New York. By the way, the Fort area reminds me more and more of downtown New York: busy, self-organising, hectic, money is the king and rules the world. New York also has this vague scent of delapidation and end-of-the-world-feel. Kavita and I exchange addresses; she might be a good contactperson for the Mahila Samiti-project, as she was filming recently a documentary on women empowerment in Kashmir.
I take a cab to the Banganga Tank, Walekshwar Mandir. The driver drops me at the Jain temple, from there it’s a 10 minutes walk to the Tank and the Samadi. Through very little streets, filled with activity: vegetable vendors, flower handlers, ironers, hairdressers: it all happens on the street. School’s out and college-kids in their uniforms spread all over the place.
Suddenly I’m lost and I find myself at the end of the world: the very last point of Bombay before is disappears in the Arabic Sea. The scenary is beautiful from far: rocks and water. But I gues you better don’t walk on these rocks, because probably they’re filled with shit from humans and animals. All houses without toilets make this their place-to-be if necessary.
The Samadi is a little further down, next to the holy Hindu burrial grounds. It’s build upon nice cool marble stones, and the 2 samadi’s (from Maharaj and his teacher Shri Siddharameshwar Maharaj) are filled with flowers. I add some, in the name of Radha. Slowly people drop in and I came on the right moment: they start the puja singing Bahjans and afterwards there is prasad: coconuts and chai. Everybody sings together, and it’s a very peaceful moment, far away from the hectic speed of the city. The people present are all Indians, a lot of older women in their most beautiful wedding sarees. I’m the only foreigner, but they accept me without any question.
On my way back, I wonder how come that older Indian women very seldom have grey hair. I cannot believe they color it. Or maybe they seem older than we think they are.
I walk down Malabar Hill, it’s rush hour. The 6 lane road is filled with traffic jams. The sun is setting over Chowpatti beach. I’m struck by the strange Bombay architecture, a mix of Victorian Mansions and delapidated sixties buildings, brotherly the one next to the other.
Chowpatty Beach is filled with young lovers. Might this be the wedding season? All over the city, from the Radio Club till Marine Drive, people are busy preparing and accomodating for wedding ceremonies. I go home, to my room in Bentley’s and make myself comfortable with a Kingfisher and spicy nuts.
Woken up by my alarm at 08.45am, did not have enough sleep. Got up quickly because I want to check at Bentley’s Hotel for a cheaper room. Insisted with the managers – normally it was all full booked till january 10th.
India is the country of the NO, says Suketu Mehta, and he’s damn right: that NO is your test and you have to insist to get past it. Finally some people checked out and I could visit the room: facing Colaba Causeway with a double window, it’s a very very noisy room but also very spacious, normally for 3 people. I decide to take the room (1220 Rs). It has a work-table and I can make sound recordings from the traffic -Horn Please!- and try out some specific settings with my camera.
When your hotel room is facing a busy street the air is really stinky and there ‘s a lot of smog. They say that one day walking through Bombay is equal to smoking two and a half packets of sigarettes a day!
Due to this hotel-change-commotion, I missed my appointment with Shumona. She needs to be at the office all day, and we send some emails back and forth to make later phonecalls. At the end it turns out that she has to leave for Delhi early next morning, so I won’t meet her. A pity, I would have liked to see her experimental movie, Ayertee.
Aniway, I think Shaina’s environment is much closer to mine, so probably she’s better placed to help me finding the right people for when I come back in march. I’ve met at her place this nice girl who was very concerned about NGO-filmtopics and seemed very handy, but she’s from Kerala and doesn’t speak Hindi.
This will be the most important task: find a collaborator, by preference a woman, speaking perfectly Hindi and English and interested in the subject of Mahila Samiti. She will have a key role in the production process of the project. Before I leave Bombay, I absolutely need to go to Bandra once more, to check information with Shaina.