Mumbai Medley

A Verbal Slideshow


These are a few assorted sketches from our two-month stay in Mumbai

Making Change: It was raining heavily when we first arrived in Mumbai. Early in the morning, the auto-rickshaw dropped us in front of the apartment complex. The fare was Rs. 22, but we only had 100 Rupee notes and he didn’t have any change. Rupal went from store to store, but no one was willing to give her the needed change. She then asked a street-side fruit vendor who was sitting in the rain. The bearded vendor, a Muslim, didn’t have change for a 100. He hadn’t done any business yet. “How much do you need?” he asked Rupal. And then, purely on trust, he simply handed her Rs 22 and told her to pay him back some other time.

The Pricing of Pickle: Very early in our Mumbai stay, Amritha Athai got us a packet of narthanga pickle from Ambika Stores. For several weeks, we enjoyed the addition to curd rice. One day, I noticed the price and had a reverse sticker shock. The MRP for 100 grams was Rs 8. Think of all the effort that went into making this: Growing the citrus fruit by planting and tending to it in some orchard, harvesting it, storing it, washing and cutting the fruit, marinating it in salt, curing it in sunlight over several days. Consumers get to buy and enjoy the very low price. However, even accounting for economies of scale, at this price I’m afraid someone somewhere isn’t breaking even.

Tomotoes: Tomatoes are 4 rupees a kg. At that price, the tomatoes today are cheaper than they were 20 years ago when I lived here in India. Either there has been a tremendous advance in agri-technology that has led to overproduction (possible) or else the vegetable farmers are falling prey to predatory pricing. Since tomatoes are perishable items, the farmer has to agree to sell them at dirt-cheap prices or else they will rot. When we walk past roadside vendors who are sitting behind huge piles of vegetables, they will shout out the prices at us. I find it difficult to ignore them and rudely keep walking. So I make eye contact and smile and shake my head no. They mistakenly think that I am bargaining. So they drop the quoted price even more. “Okay, take 3 kilos for 10 rupees,” they say.

ATMs: There are two things about ATM’s in India that I still can’t come to terms with. In Mumbai, each ATM has a watchman guarding it. That makes 2 or 3 full time employees just to sit by each ATM, 24 hours a day. In no other country do I recall seeing this unique use of manpower. Also, after years of withdrawing money from any nearby ATM in seconds, it is jarring to see a line of 10 people waiting in line patiently to withdraw their money.

Mall Hangouts: Right after lunch one Sunday in Bangalore, my cousin Madhavan suggested that we go to the Great Sigma Mall. We had come back to India just a few weeks earlier. “What do you wish to buy there?” I asked him naively. He had only suggested it as a place to visit, not to shop. Since then, we have been to a number of mega-malls in Mumbai, and now I know why Madhu made the suggestion. Malls are a great place to hang out with friends, away from the scrutiny of parents and nosy neighbors. On Sundays and holidays the malls are jam packed. But I see only two groups who seem to be making money – Movie multiplexes and the ever popular food courts.

The Green Dot: Someone should give an award to the designer who came up with the green-dot idea. All vegetarian items are marked with a green dot against a white square. Some restaurants even have the green dot right on their signs. Previously, we used to spend time carefully reading the ingredients list. Now if we see the green dot, we know we can pick it up. Nice and easy.

Bandra FOB: We got off a BEST bus and followed hundreds of people who crossed over from the east side to the Bandra West. A ticket collector spotted us and asked us for our tickets. We tried telling him that we hadn’t come by train, that we were just crossing over. You should have used the city foot over-bridge, not the Railway FOB, he told us. He took us to a room where his colleagues were waiting. He said we were ticketless, and that the fine was up to Rs. 1000 each but he would accept Rs 250 from each of us. No amount of arguing or pleading was accepted. After trying to get out of it for a long time, we paid 150 Rs in all and he gave us a receipt for “excess baggage.”

Just Give to One: I often break my own rule about not giving money to roadside beggars (I think that giving encourages even more begging.) But when someone is obviously needy and there is change in my pocket, it is difficult to say no for ideological reasons. In Coloba one evening as it was getting dark, a young boy of around 4 had his hand out to me. His parents didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. I gave him a coin. Seeing this, an even smaller girl, who was perhaps two years old came running towards me with her hand out. While I fished in my pockets for another coin, a lady who had been watching advised me in English, “They are brother-sister. Just give to one.”

Drivers vs. Drivers – My uncle is fond of saying that in Chennai, the fare meters on auto-rickshaws are purely decorative. (The drivers never ever turn it on.) In Bangalore, they will turn it on, but they have myriad other ways of conning the passengers – by taking circuitous routes and with tampered meters. In Mumbai, the auto drivers as a group are honest to a fault. Unfailingly, they take the direct route and they will return every rupee they owe us. I can usually explain away such differences, but in this case I can come up with no explanation whatsoever. If all drivers are basically the same people with the same needs, how can they be so different from one city to another?

Master: Talking of variations from city to city, I noticed that in Mumbai BEST bus passengers address the bus driver as ‘master.’ As in “Master, please stop the bus.” Though I have never heard this usage before I think this is oddly appropriate.

Geography Independent: Internet eliminates geography. Everyone knows that. There are stock traders who are based in California who trade on Wall Street. This means that they have to get up at around 4.30am, catch up on the news and start trading at 6am when the market opens in NYC. Here in Mumbai, I am able to follow the market at much more “civilized” times. The New York market opens at 6.30pm IST and closes at 1.30am. I am surprised that more active traders aren’t settling down in India. It is not for everyone, but I wouldn’t at all mind having those as my daily work hours.

Shuba Mudgal – We went to attend a live concert by singer Shuba Mudgal, who performs fusion music – she renders traditional Indian songs set to western beats and rhythm. She is a Padmashree recipient with a great stage presence and voice. She had a troupe of 6 other musicians who accompanied her – 2 guitarists, a harmonium player, a keyboardist, a tabla player and a drummer. Right from the first song I noticed that we could hear instruments that weren’t on the stage. By the third or the fourth song I knew that that Shuba was singing to pre-recorded tracks. All the other musicians were merely pretending to play. It was like listening to her on a Karaoke. As the concert progressed, some of the musicians stopped pretending altogether. The performance was for less than 2 hours, but we walked out because I couldn’t get over the feeling of being cheated.

ISKCON: We went to the Juhu ISKCON temple one evening, two days after Diwali. I walked in through the gate that cars were using. Two other men who looked to be local workers walked in behind me. A temple guard stopped us and asked where we were going. To the temple via the car park, I told him pointing to the sign. All three of us wanted the same thing – to spend a few minutes in the temple. “Aap jaayiye, Sir.” He allowed me to proceed, but stopped the other two and directed them towards another entrance. Even in temples there are class distinctions.

SeaLink: The Bandra-Worli SeaLink has cost the Indian taxpayers 1000s of crores, and apparently the daily toll collection hasn’t been what was expected. The thing about certain engineering marvels is that you can’t appreciate them when you are in them. They are better appreciated from a certain distance. When we got the chance, we went down to Worli and turned around just so that we could travel by the SeaLink. It is a stupendous achievement, having been built for over 4 kms right over the Arabian sea. 4 lanes were open and 4 more will open next year. From the bridge, one gets a panoramic view of the Mahim skyline. And only from Mahim, can one get a view of the impressive bridge which is rapidly attaining iconic status. I am looking forward to the open roof sightseeing buses that the city is planning for additional revenue. Meanwhile, our 50 rupees toll was a very tiny drop towards the shortfall.

The True Spirit of Diwali: Diwali seems to have grown a lot more commercial. Going by the newspaper ads, people spend an obscene amount of money buying jewelry and gifts. On Diwali night, we were wandering around the shops by Mulund station, watching the last-minute shoppers. I noticed one lone man in a clean white kurta-pajama walking with a white plastic bag. He’d take a small packet of sweets from it and hand them out to people who appeared to be poor. They accepted gratefully and he moved on wordlessly. Amidst all that buying frenzy, he was one person who seemed to have understood the true spirit of Diwali.

Ram Prasad
Novembert 2009

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