Words have a way of forcing their way out of my brain, into spoken or written existence. This is especially likely to happen if I’ve had exceptional experiences, or made fabulous discoveries. I therefore find it striking that something similar has taken so long to happen with respect to my visit to Mumbai a few weeks ago.
It’s not that the visit wasn’t worthy of detailed mention; perhaps I was so awed by the experience that I didn’t want to trivialise the city with superficial comment. What I can say unequivocally is that nothing I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world even came close to preparing me for India.
I didn’t expect to be driven to my hotel in a ramshackle old taxi (it even had air conditioning!), and was a little alarmed to enter a slum almost immediately upon leaving the airport, which we did not exit until reaching the perimeter wall of the hotel. The Grand Hyatt is a big, posh hotel. The centre of a slum is the most unlikely location for such an establishment.
Before getting onto the rest of Mumbai, I do need to mention the excellence of the service at the Grand Hyatt (booked via Otel). The staff at the hotel is the most friendly and attentive I’ve experienced anywhere. One can find professional efficiency – perhaps even with a smile – in many places, but this was something else. The revelation to me was Praveen, the guy who cleaned my room. Usually such workers operate under the radar. They come, they do their work, and they go. If I walked past Praveen on my way to breakfast he’d greet me with apparently sincere friendliness, before establishing a time that would be convenient for him to clean my room. On the fourth day I returned to find that he had folded the dirty shirts at the bottom of the cupboard!
If it weren’t for the location I wouldn’t hesitate to return to the Grand Hyatt. During my stay I met an Italian who had been staying there for three months. If there’s any hotel in the world where one could feel at home, this is it.
I couldn’t help thinking of Hogwarts’ Room of Necessity while being driven on the Western Expressway, which was choc-a-block with trucks, taxis, motorbikes, rickshaws (tuk-tuk taxis) and assorted other vehicles. The taxi driver would hoot (OK, honk in American), then aim the vehicle at the narrow gap between designated lanes. As if by magic – the force of necessity – the gap would widen to accommodate a car.
The black and yellow city cabs – ancient Fiats of indeterminate model – weaved and hooted their way around the city. I even saw one with a Pierre Balmain badge, which appeared to denote that the couturier had styled that model, but I have not been able to find any information that could shed further light. It’s certainly one of the more incongruous things I’ve seen.
Sitting inside one of these ramshackle taxis, complete with holes in the floor, threadbare upholstery, one’s mouth and nose getting clogged with smelly dust, is not what one would call a comfortable experience, especially taking into account the goings on in the traffic, not to mention the surrounding slum. Once I’d told myself that I was in a theme park – perhaps one for Shantaram or Slumdog Millionaire – I became a relaxed spectator.
More than 250 million Indians live on less than $1 per day. Extreme poverty, potholed roads, refuse and slums are everywhere; yet all I could feel was awe for the ‘bigness’ of experiencing India.
I made two visits to the Colaba precinct, once for dinner at Indigo, and once for lunch at Leopold Café followed by some intensely bargained shopping. This is a part of Mumbai I’d certainly want to spend more time (especially if I was staying at the Taj).
The tiny slice of India I experienced is by no means representative of the whole, but it was enough to make me want to explore the rest of the country in more detail.
It was certainly enough of an experience to silence me for a few weeks!