We were supposed to meet up with Justine at that point, but she got stuck in a traffic jam for so long that she gave up and went back to her digs again.
We did finally meet up with Justine later on that same day. Miranda had done a weaving course down in Kerala and had met Justine – a young Frenchwoman living in London – such Cosmopolitan folk I know. Justine had been star pupil, Miranda told me. Justine had also applied for a job in India, coordinating the creative output of a factory where employees would be embroidering garments for Chanel. She had to be interviewed in London and Chennai (where she would be based). One half of the interview was in the bag but she still had to wait to hear from the European side. WE all met in a street where leather workers and bag makers proliferated so Justine could buy a couple of leather belts as Christmas presents. Then we went on to Bhandra for a meal in a make your own salad/wrap type place – after trying numerous places to see if we could use an old note for drinks – not one place was accepting them so we didn’t get a beer after all. Businesses must have been suffering as much as we were! The salad was delicious and made a change from all the heavier bread and meat type meals I’d been eating of late. Justine used her card to pay – and refused to be reimbursed so that’s another person I owe! We’re friends on Facebook so I hope to follow her adventures (she got the job!) and pay her back some day. We also shared our meal with a local Indian woman called Jewel that Justine had met on the train. She made glamorous sparkly ball gowns on commission – but wondered if we could find her a rich British man to marry? In her forties, she was determined not to go down the marriage/two and a half kids route that most of her compatriots had taken. She was feisty and an amusing conversationalist. After our meal, she took us around the corner to her shop – on the 7th floor of a high rise apartment block – I was more entertained by the view than most of the frocks – though I could see my Aunty Den loving them.
The next two weeks whizzed past:
Mon arrived for my birthday on the 10th, so Kevin and Miranda’s housekeeper summonsed his talented daughter Aparna to decorate us all with Mehndi – she was able to pipe a line of henna with no blotches, or skips, no hesitation or blips. I’ve tried my hand at mehndi myself, so I know this is no mean feat. I went first, as the birthday girl and had my palms and feet covered (as is traditional). Miranda had a pattern drawn on one arm (much to her father’s disapproving gaze on Skype) and also her feet. Mon didn’t want any, but ended up with a flower on her instep. One has to sit still until all the henna has dried – the longer you leave it dry, the better the orangey brown stain that’s left when the henna flakes off. My ‘tattoo’ has completely gone now but it was a lovely thing to do on one’s birthday. You can see Aparna’s work here on FB – do go ‘like’ her page!
Birthday evening meant cocktails (two for one in the ‘happy hour’) and a lovely meal at a restaurant round the corner that we visited several times – so I got to have several different cocktails – including one that had something that poured out clouds put on top of the liquid – dry ice? Don’t think it added much to the taste but it was very dramatic.
Mon had a list of ‘must-see’ places in and around Mumbai – she wanted to visit the Vipissana Pagoda, see the Gateway of India from the sea, visit Elephanta caves and have tea in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel as well as Leopold’s café (featured in the novel ‘Shantaram’). We managed to tick all of these, apart from horseriding on Chawpatty beach – we DID manage to WALK along the length of Marine Drive in the heat of a midday sun. We watched the swimmers getting filthy in the Arabian Sea. We also watched a couple guys perform acrobats on the beach too – one amazed me by performing a backwards loop from a standstill – landing on his feet perfectly.
Miranda had booked us in to see ‘Mame Khan and group’ – a Rajasthani sufi-music concert at the NCPO on November 11th, that was excellent and a fun night out – finishing at a formica topped table small restaurant which looked fairly basic and slightly shabby but served up reliably good and cheap Indian fare – especially the tandoori prawns. We visited there a couple times too.
I wanted to go on a train journey – and we chose Pune (what used to be Poona in British Raj days) as our destination for an overnight trip.
Then, of course, we shopped – in FabIndia and Artisans and a contemporary crafts outlet (where Mon bought lots of painted wooden balls and animals). And people watched: – colourful silk saris, bundles of sticks, luggage, baskets, bags all solidly balanced on a cloth turban on top of women’s heads.
Miranda arranged a driver to take us to the Pagoda in the countryside to the North of Mumbai. Built in 2008, it’s a golden replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar which Mon has visited previously. There are a large number of people employed painting gold on its façade. There is also an enormous painted Buddha carved from one slab of marble on display. We tried out the Vipissana meditation – just the three of us – and were encouraged to sign up for a 10 day ‘free’ course (make a donation at the end of the course to benefit future attendees). The course sounded like hard work for Westerners – being a ‘silent’ retreat, with meditation from 04.30hrs to dusk with breaks for veggie meals only. I’m sure Rubina Soorty of ‘Ruby rides on’ did this course in Australia – but I might be wrong. They take place all over the world – including London.
Next day we had another driver take us to Kalaheri caves in Sanjay Gandhi National Park – many, many caves carved out of the hillside with hundreds of Buddhas and stupas carved into their walls. These caves are set high and have a view over thickly wooded hills and valleys with the towers of Mumbai in the distance – you’re supposed to be able to see the Vipissana Pagoda but we couldn’t spot it. We did spot monkeys – down in the carpark, cavorting across the rooves of buildings and generally behaving like monkeys. There’s a shallow amphitheatre on the flat hill above the caves with steps leading up to it – I could imagine the saffron robed monks gathering in the peace and cool of the early hours of dawn to meditate together. Water had been diverted from a stream to irrigate the cell like caves by means of channels and troughs in the rock and eventually forming wells where frogs now lived happily. We got asked to pose with many Indian families. I’m sure they’ll look at those pictures in years to come and wonder who on earth the pale and smily strangers are.
The day after that, Mon and I went to Elephanta caves – just as old, and a similar set up, only Hindu – and the carvings are on an island about 25minutes sail out into the heat haze and pollution smog from the Gateway to India. Because of the money situation, Mon had hired an all in package with a guide – thus guaranteeing we could get there, even if we didn’t have any small change for the taxi. We ended up with two guides – one to take us in the taxi and on the boat across to the island, and a second one to show us around the caves. The first one was a cute young guy, newly married and earning cash to pay for studies/save for home etc. He lived with his new wife (also studying) at home with his parents, siblings, grandparents etc. He was very happy to point out landmarks and tell us the story of Lord Ganesh (after overhearing Mon’s truncated version). Parvita made Ganesh out of turmeric – which was why Lord Shiva didn’t recognise his son when Ganesh turned him away from his own home – and that’s why he chopped his head off! (Ok – that was an even more précised). We took a little train from the boat to the steps that rise up to the caves. Then we were greeted by the second guide who walked up the steps – past a gauntlet of tourist shops selling tourist tat. Not one of them had a tablecloth (which my sister wanted for Christmas). This latter guide gave us the hard sell – how the few residents on Elephanta island relied totally on the income from tourists to survive – and couldn’t even grow vegetables as the monkeys destroyed them and they only had four hours electricity a night and on and on. I felt so guilty I ended up buying a singing bowl for twice the price I’d seen it the day before in the antiques markets. I also felt sad when I saw the destruction wrought on the carvings, apparently by the Portugese using them as target practise a couple hundred years or so ago – although I’ve also heard it was the Brits – and maybe the Guide lied to protect our delicate sensibilities. There is one huge carving of the four heads of Shiva that has survived intact – because it was behind a wall and not discovered. It’s the one carving used on all the photographs advertising the place. It should be noted that there is no elephant on Elephanta caves as it was stolen and then dropped in the sea (I think).
Mon and I were amused by watching a monkey who took a bottle topped up with coca cola from us, and drank it ever so carefully, not spilling a drop – obviously a sugar addict.
Once again, on the boat we were asked to pose for photographs with complete strangers. I felt like offering my autograph too. I am perfecting my royal wave.
In keeping with this, Mon and I asked the guide to leave us in Colaba so we could go to the Taj for tea. We went to the Sea Lounge on the first floor where Mon asked to change the table we were given initially for a window seat. – Thus we got to watch seabirds and pigeons wheel past the window and watch the boats come and go by the Gateway to India while we luncheoned – all very, very “NAICE”! We took the train home – where Mon almost failed to disembark, as the crowds on the platform don’t wait for passengers to get off before pushing on to the train in a tidal wave. Mon’s face was a picture as she was washed backwards off her feet but just managed to stumble through the onslaught.
We got lost several times - but would eventually find our way after stumbling upon a familiar landmark like the Hindu temple, or the Catholic church or the statue of Ghandi in the centre of a roundabout. Streets are completely transformed by around 10am when all the small stalls that line them open up their shutters and the sellers put out their wares.
Mon, Miranda and I travelled first class on the train to Pune – but the air conditioning wasn’t working and the views of the hill stations were obscured by the dirty, smeary windows. We got a tuctuc (or an ‘auto-rickshaw’ as they’re called in India) to our accommodation and were asphyxiated by the atmosphere. At the end of our 24hours in Pune we all had sore throats, watery eyes and snotty noses and I’m sure it was due to pollution – despite the internet asserting that pollution was worse in Mumbai. Staying in the basic accommodation was like staying in a school dorm – Mon and I shared a bed whilst Miranda slept on a fold out sofabed. We visited Ghandi’s place of incarceration (a beautiful building now a museum dedicated to his life – but not updated since circa 1950 I suspect) and the Fort – which is mostly gardens. We saw the latter at night and in the daytime! Going home was more of an adventure as we travelled second class – getting on the wrong carriage initially, so getting turfed out of our seats. We turfed some other folk out of our seats when we found the right carriage – all very polite. I drew a daily draw of the two girls sitting opposite and we made friends. The view was better because there was no glass at all- just bars! One can also open the carriage doors and hang out if one wishes, because there is no safety mechanism to bring the entire train to a halt, as in England.
Back in Mumbai we ate in Brittania’s restaurant – where an old man of 92yrs of age would come over to chat about his love for Elizabeth the 2nd and how he’d build her a palace if only she’d return to India. He had photographs of himself with members of the Royal family and there were large pictures of Will and Kate on the walls. The food was OK too.
Mon went home early on the Friday and I left Miranda and Kevin’s on the following Sunday, after getting Rowenna put back together and all her nuts and bolts tightened up at a local bicycle shop. What a wonderful and gentle introduction to India!