Things can happen any time of the day or night in India. It’s not unusual, for example, to need to wake up at 2:00 AM to catch a 3:30 AM train. Not every stop can have an arrival time during most people’s waking hours. On this latest trip to Mumbai, though, I had a different reason to wake up early.
At 4:00 AM we leave our apartment in the suburbs of Mumbai. The chowkidar (watchman) stirs from under his blanket to get the door and tells me where I can find an autorickshaw: right outside. And indeed, he is correct. There are two autorickshaws sitting there. Both drivers are asleep, though. I don’t know if I’m supposed to wake them or if I am, how is an appropriate way to wake the without startling them too much. So instead, we watch the street. A few minutes later an autorickshaw rides by and I gesture before I see that he’s already got a passenger. But not to worry, for he lets us know he’ll be right back. And indeed, in 5 minutes, he is good on his word and we are speeding off to Vikroli station. Trains here start running at 3:00 AM because everyone’s got somewhere to go in Mumbai, and it isn’t always during normal waking hours.
At the station, we buy two second class tickets for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal (formerly “Victoria Station”). The ride of just over one hour costs us $0.20 each. Trains may be crowded here at times but the flip side is that it is affordable for many people. We head to the platform. There are a few early risers waiting for trains, shopkeepers are opening shops, while still others are sound asleep on the platform. Meawhile, trains are steadily coming and going. But we don’t board any of them. I’m waiting for someone.
In November I was lamenting my Hindi progress. How could I manage to learn more if I had nobody to practice with. My teacher only met with me a couple of hours a week but I needed more. Eventually I came across Conversation Exchange. This pairs up people who are trying to learn each other’s language and I eventually started practicing almost daily with Sangita from Maharashtra. When she heard I was coming to Mumbai she wanted to share her city with my son and I and I was so excited.
As a train arrived, my phone rang and I picked it up. It was Sangita. After a couple of sentences, a woman was beckoning us to get on the train that had just stopped. My sleep deprived brain takes a good 30 seconds to register. That’s Sangita – somehow I never got a photo. We rush onto the train before it can leave the platform and head south, with several stops on the agenda.
First we stop at Dadar station – one of the busiest in the city. Even at 5:00 AM there are a ton of people. Outside the station, people are still sleeping on the streets, footfalls coming within inches of their heads. As we walk across a walkway I pick up a smell that I don’t fully understand. It’s pleasant, maybe it’s basil? Some sort of herb? And then come to the edge of the elevated walkway. Down below we can see the reason for the smell. It’s a market full of all colours of the rainbow and it’s packed with people. This is the flower market and is one of the many things that wakes some Mumbaikars before the sun.
We pass through the market, luxuriating in the smell until we get to a taxi. The taxi takes us to the Ganpati (Ganesh) temple nearby. This is the third Ganesh temple we’ve been to on the trip and it is also one of the biggest and busiest. Entering the temple is like going inside an onion. First there’s the transport layer – taxis, autorickshaws and other modes are here dropping people off – even at 5:30 AM. The next layer has stalls. There are a number of things being sold but most are not for people, they’re for gods. Flowers, coconuts, and sweets are all available and people buy them and prepare to offer them to Ganesh. Once you’ve gone past this layer, you’ll need to pass through security. This varies in intensity from no security at all, to someone selling photo permits, to full metal detectors and people advising that you aren’t allowed to take photos under any circumstances. In this temple we aren’t just disallowed from taking photos, we can’t even bring Daegan’s camera in. And so Sangita talks one of the folks at a stall to holding his camera bag and we go inside.
In this temple we get another layer – more offering sellers and people offering poojas (ceremonies/offerings) for various purposes. We pass these folks and make our way in to the inner part of the temple. We stand with a number of people – a large crowd despite the early morning. We’re all facing Ganesh, drums are playing, and people are chanting. I’m not able to follow the words – I suspect they might be in Marathi – or just Hindi words that I don’t know. (I don’t know many words about religion). The drummer and many singers are inside a fenced in area – they seem to be special. On the one hand it feels completely new and different. The drumming has a really strong energy and we’re all clapping along with it. It’s infectious and easy to get sucked in to the spirit of things. My first inclination is to think “I’ve never been anywhere like this before.”
But then I think a bit more and look around. The outfits are different, but the spirit is the same. Just like in some Christian churches I’ve been in there have been some who are disinterested or seemed to be going through the motions. Other people are not unlike the person who you see in church who may not be able to sing or keep a beat but they’re belting out the songs with all of their heart and soul. And of course everyone is there for something. Some for fellowship, some to pray for help with something or a new undertaking. And then there’s Daegan and I in the back. We’re there to watch and try to begin to understand. The songs are different, the decor is different, and some of the rituals are different but the end goal is the same.
At the end we head back out and all get in a cab with some other strangers. Sangita speaks with the driver and I catch only a few words. I’m not sure entirely what has taken place but we’re now getting out of this cab and in to another cab with new strangers. This cab takes us back to the station. We pass back through the delightful flower market and back in to the station.
We stop at a stand and Sangita turns to us. “Would you like to try kokum juice?” On the one hand, this is everything the guide books in the west say you shouldn’t do: No fresh juices, no drinking from reusable glasses, avoid any sort of street food that isn’t deep fried. On the other hand, I trust Sangita. I’m sure we’ll be fine. And if we’re not, I’ve got antibiotics. If someone wants to live a sheltered, risk free life, they should probably stay home.
The dark purple juice comes to us not in paper cups or disposable bottles but in glasses. We taste it and it is really interesting – a delightful, fruity taste with a hint of cumin. We’re told it’s good for hot weather and I imagine an alternate version of myself living here, drinking glass upon glass of this to try to keep cool in the 35 degree heat.
We board the train and head to the station. Onward to our next stop. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal – where we catch a cab that takes us to the port. We’re on one of the biggest adventures of the trip. As we get closer to the destination we see a number of things: Truckloads of ice and other empty trucks, women walking with baskets on their heads. And now we see people with pedal-powered knife sharpeners sharpening large knives. And of course there’s the big give-away: the smell of fish. We are in the wholesale fish market.
The cab lets us off and we start walking, passing by a few vendors here and there preparing and selling fish, squid, and prawns. Fish of all sizes are here – from ones the size of my thumb up to ones that possibly outweigh even me. We turn a corner and walk in to the market proper when I feel a hand grab my backpack and pull me back. A uniformed security officer is asking what we’re doing there. Daegan has his camera out and the security officer is particularly interested in him. He and Sangita have a conversation in Marathi the gist of which is that he is not allowed to take any photos inside. They talk some more and come to an agreement. We can go in but no pictures can be taken. We will need to be content with what we have and the memories.
And oh what memories we have. In fact, no camera can capture them. In one place people are unloading boxes of fish. In another people are shouting back and forth at one another in a rhytmic fashion. Sangita tells us they’re bidding on fish in an auction style. We see this in several spots. In other places women are sitting next to the ground with baskets of fish while still other women push their way through the crowd with baskets of fish on their heads. Underneath every step is fishy water and fish guts. In some places we have to step gingerly between piles of shrimp and other fish just laying on the dock. Eventually we get used to the smell.
We make a round of the space and are overwhelmed in the best possibly way by the smell of fish, the sound of bidding, and the sight of boats being unloaded and fish being sold by the light of the rising sun. This is how a city is fed.
On the way out we find out what it takes to get a photo permit – 3-4 days are needed to process it. Too long for us. We’re also informed that we are incredibly lucky. Foreigners are not usually allowed to even look at the place.
As we walk out of the market, we follow more of these ubiquitous women carrying fish baskets on their heads. Sangita explains: They are going back to their neighbourhoods to sell the fish. They wake up early in the morning, come here and buy fish and then they walk to the train and take it home to their neighbourhoods. It is such a common practice that they have their own dedicated train cars for people carrying fish.
At the entrance to the market we saw several others who were not welcome in the market but were very interested in what was inside.
As strange as it might sound, after all of this we were quite hungry. We grabbed a city bus back from the port. Unlike in Toronto where people either pay electronically with a smart card or put money in a fare box monitored by the driver, there’s an actual conductor on the bus. Once you board, he seeks you out, asks where you’re going and then gives you tickets to where you’re going. The bus itself was quite different from back home. It’s a stick shift so you get the jerkiness of movement that comes with that and it’s also not air conditioned – so the windows are open to the world. You can see and hear the life of the city well as you pass. Another big difference: there are seats for women only – I find this out because I almost sat in one next to Sangita. To be fair, the sign saying it was reserved was in Marathi.
Once we got to our stop, Sangita found a neighbourhood restaurant for us to go to. There we had breakfast. I had a rava dosa – a crispy crepe made of fermented cream of wheat stuffed with spicy potatoes. Daegan had misal – a spicy gravy with pao – a white bread bun. It was really delicious.
After this we walked to the India Gate and Taj Hotel area. As peaceful as it was that day it was so hard to believe that there had been bomb blasts and terrorist attacks there only a few years back. From there we went to visit a few places near and dear to my heart: Libraries.
Libraries seem to be a different thing in Mumbai – or at least the ones we went to see are. The first one, the David Sassoon Library dated from the British times and was dark and cozy. I could imagine sitting in there and reading on a rainy day. Out the back door was a delightful garden. Here, in a tropical climate, more than anywhere else I’ve been, I realize the value of green space. In the direct sun, it is extremely hot and humid – so much so that it seems to suck the life force out of you. But a few minutes in the shade of palm trees in a garden and your energy is restored. Only the first floor of the library was available. Above that was reserved for members only.
Across the street was the Jehangir Museum. This space was free to enter and had some great exhibits. I am really enjoying seeing how another culture creates modern art. There are some similar themes but the subject matter can be hugely different and things as simple as colour combinations are completely different from what we see in the west.
We walked some more, taking in the sights of the city – massive parks, old buildings – many of which, thanks to British influence, looked very much like what our buildings look like in Toronto. This, along with the fast pace and diversity of the city makes Mumbai feel lots like home to me. We found our way to another library – the Asiatic Society Library. This one was under renovation so it took a moment for us to find our way in but once in it was worth the trip. It was truly a monument to books. Unfortunately, like many places we visited this day, photos were not allowed.
The space was also reminiscent of my childhood libraries with high ceilings, the smell of old books and people sitting quietly at tables reading or studying. Paper card catalogs still were in place and in use though I did get scolded for opening one and showing Daegan how we used to do things back when I first started using libraries. We took a moment to sit and relax there, enjoying the space. As I sat, I noticed that on the other side of the room, a tabby cat was enjoying the space under a table. It is at this point I begin to realize: while other cities in India might be populated by stray dogs, Maharashtra is a state of cats. I don’t know if it is the presence of the ocean and a surfeit of fish but the cats there are happy and healthy.
After that we were ready for lunch. Sangita took us to a place with Maharashtran food. We made our way by cab through the crowded streets – often at walking pace, until we reached a small restaurant. As I’d never had Maharashtran food before, Sangita ordered for us. It was a vegetarian feast – one we’d repeat several times over the next several days during our time there. Unlike many other Indian cuisines, I don’t know most of the names of the dishes – I only know how delicious they were. Yet again, we left a table in India absolutely stuffed.
After that it was time to make our way back to our apartment in the northern edge of the city. Despite having been traveling to visit us since the wee hours of the morning, Sangita kindly escorted us back to our part of town almost 90 minutes away by cab. We said our goodbyes and promised to meet again sometime soon.
At the end of the day I look at my phone. In the space of a day, we’ve covered a lot of ground.