Cheap Travel in India, Foreign in India, India: the unexceptional, The poor in India, Travel in India, Uncategorized

The Jerk, Bombay

North From Carnac Bunder, Bombay, 2015

I met a jerk the other day.

I’d walked west across Carnac Bunder, the bridge over the many tracks just north of the ant-hill of Victoria Train Station (three million commuters pass through every day), and, with no clear intent, took the battered stairs down and wandered north and west in the crowded lanes that make up most of Bombay, remote from any tourist stop.

Along Tokaram Lane, the warehouses are fronted by bustees, the tiny slum huts made of tarpaulins and scrap wood, with cooking fires on the pavement in front, little children playing in the road, an occasional bone-thin day sleeper.

Dalit family, BombayDalit family, Bombay

I read that India’s GNP is rising, that the middle class is expanding, that prosperity is beckoning millions, but on Bombay’s flat narrow streets, little of substance has changed in the last 40 years: many more cars, the streets impassable now  with traffic, the air fouled, much more inedible trash (the cows and goats, the rats, the dogs, used to take care of every scrap of garbage), even bustee dwellers with a mobile, but the millions of ragged people are as thin now as then, and high prices, rising, rising, grind them down.

Just beside the hotel as breakfast plates were cleared from white tablecloths, an ancient woman, nearly naked, sat near a spreading pile of her own diarrhea, her head down, her hand out.

Worrisome. Throughout non-tourist Bombay clusters of young men sit with nothing to do, smoking, waiting, idle, unable to find work. They see now what they don’t have, on TV, and it dangles before them in the stores and restaurants they can’t enter, in the pretty women to whom they are invisible.

They have no clear resentment of Westerners, who are not their immediate oppressors, and unlike us they have no well-taught racial animosity.

Colaba cop, swaggering clears Colaba sidewalk of dalit riff-raffA swaggering policeman cIears a Colaba sidewalk of Dalit riff-raff

It’s a remorseless world, but for reasons unclear to me, I can pass through with impunity. Stares turn into smiles.

It’s not wise, but I interject myself occasionally.

At a littered phone stall/snack shop up in the Mahd District, a tiny boy beside me, a street boy, was fluttering a Rs 10 (about eight cents) note at the oblivious clerk. He wanted to buy candy.

The clerk, a swarthy Donald Trump in an unwashed shirt, was busy cheating me and had no time for the boy. I reached down and picked him up, slowly lifting him so that his head reached my waist, then my chest. He’d stiffened at first but quickly understood and giggled. Whoever, whatever I was, I saw that the clerk was a jerk. I was on his side.

I kept lifting him and began to hear chuckles from the people crowded at the front of the stall to watch my transaction, and then I began moving the boy in front of me like a two-legged pendulum. He giggled louder, holding out the bill. The clerk’s assistant took it, looking nervously at the boss, and handed over the candy. I lifted the boy as high as I could, tipped him forward in a bow and put him down. He scampered, grinning at me over his shoulder.

The little episode maybe contributed to the clerk’ decision not to return my money for the SIM card he had sold me that wouldn’t work in my phone. “Take that, Meddler,” he probably said to himself.

I muttered a few things myself.

 

 

 

 

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Indifferent Indian government, Pune, Sanitation in India, Travel in India, Uncategorized

Always an Alternative, Pune

Indu Yadav, 35, teaches yoga (IINM) (DYTT), sells paintings and is a photographer. Her business card is handsome, with a nice photo on one side of the Buddha, and, on the other, etchings of ancient masks and flowers. It says that she is the advertising manager for YES OSHO Magazine (meditation insights), which I haven’t seen and which, in any case, she acknowledges to be a gig mostly from the past.

She’s a solid woman, built like a shorter Williams sister and blessed with a wrestler’s temperament. Her boyfriend is a Bombay actor, successful, she says, on TV ads. They lived together for a time, but he stays now in Bombay, while she lives a clanking three train-hours away in Pune.

She scrambles for a living (she has applied for a job in Indonesia, to teach yoga to rich Indians there, though conditions, she hears, are far worse than in Pune; but she would live in a compound and have a high salary) or was curious and agreed to guide me a bit through interesting parts of Pune.

Indu, Bhule Mkt., PuneIndu Yadav

It was worth the Rs 1,000 ($15) I paid her on two excursions, just to hear her tone with the tuk-tuk drivers, with streetside vendors, waiters and shop-keepers. She didn’t ask, as I had been doing. She instructed.

Indian women from the poor side of society bear the children, wash the clothes, clean the streets, walking always behind, or, if they come from the Saudi-inspired villas of the criminally rich in Koregaon Park, simper and flutter cutely; but occasionally one comes across a woman like Indu.

“My arms are very strong,” she responded, as I commented on her fitness, trying to keep up with her fast stride.

She was kind, or kindly, to me, leading me across busy streets by grasping a little finger, “Come, come now….” and despite her background in advertising, she had no talent for equivocation.

Who are these people? I asked, gesturing to streetside vendors.

Traditional, she said.

I raised an eyebrow. I wanted more for my money. “Thik-hai,” she said, Okay.

No, she said, they are not licensed. They each have their place.

It seems the same woman, or same family, uses the same spot on the pavement week after week, year after year, sitting cross-legged on the pavement selling combs and brushes, tooth brushes and razors, ladies’ underwear, or vegetables, toys, bill-folds, flimsy child-sized shirts: “SUPER.”

Must they pay a fee?

“Yes, a tax.”

To whom?

She made a little face. “An illegal tax. Someone comes around, and they pay.”

“Ah,” I said. “That’s a job I could do.” I held out my hand toward the nearest vendor.

Indu wasn’t amused. “Once a week or in a month, he comes. They know who he is.”

The vendors, she said (mostly women that evening close to Bhule Market), pick up a little extra money, Rs 100 or 200 a night ($2 or $3). They pay their bribe, and they are unmolested in their space.

In India, Indu said, rules and regulations exist by the stack, but enforcement is capricious. “There’s always an alternative,” she told me, speaking as to a small child.

Motorists drive down the wrong side of the street, for example, for their side street, because it takes too long to make a U-turn properly at an intersection. They ignore stop lights. Merchants or manufacturers dump their garbage or toxins wherever. Vendors pay their bribes. Slum-dwellers build their tarp-roofed bustee. Anyone wanting a driver’s license or some other government form pays a gofer, who pays bribes to the proper clerks and returns with the proper forms properly stamped in far less time than it would take the applicant and probably more cheaply. “Always an alternative.”

“This scares you, I think,” she said on our first meeting, over her shoulder, driving me on her scooter down the wrong side of the busy street to the upscale Green House restaurant (where the counterman, greeting me as an old friend with genuine friendliness, volunteered he would return to New Jersey in January. “I love US,” he said. He buys perfumes and soaps wholesale somewhere in the city and sells them in a New Jersey flea market. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Money good, and what is your good name please?”).

Yes, it does scare me, particularly that bus that’s about to hit us head-on…

The next day, unscathed by the bus, we were up east somewhere, past the train station, in another markety area with Beijing-like pollution. I bought her a mango slurpy, bright green, and she ate it as we walked down the edge of the street through a steady flow of carts and rickshaws, matrons under umbrellas, raffish boys with unwashed shirts, piles of morning feces here and there (one walks here head down, eyes open; a manly, heads-up, John Wayne stride guarantees a squish, sooner or later, no matter the neighborhood).

She finished her slurpy (too mangoey for me), looked around, and neatly put the cup and small spoon in the little trash can (an old, cut-down cooking-oil container) in front of a street stall.

India provides, generally, no dust-bins, no trash cans, no curbs, no sidewalks, no sanitation. Most people drop their trash without a thought. I gave Indu a mental pat on the back. She had read the municipal corporation’s signs: Keep Streets Clean, Green!

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The old man in the stall, sitting behind a small, stainless-steel scale selling something unseen, was irritated.

She translated later, but the conversation was clear as it happened. Who’d she think she was, dropping her trash in his can?

It was better to do that, she said, than to just throw it in front of his shop. She was trying to be polite and trying to do her bit to keep trash out of the streets.

The conversation became loud. Passersby stopped. The other men in the stall leaned in, following first Indu then the grumpy old man avidly. The men in adjoining stalls took part. The old man’s glasses slipped, his voice rose, and he made an emphatic thump on the table with one hand.

Indu, dustbin argumentThe dispute

“I asked him what he did with the trash when his can is filled,” she told me later, her face still reddish with emotion. “He said that wasn’t my business. He just dumps it in the street. He said I should take it back where I bought it, not make it his responsibility.” She shook her head. “India will never change.”

They argued for several minutes, Indu with her head thrust into the stall, over the counter. He was obdurate.

After a time, she sighed, reached down into the can, retrieved her mango cup and spoon and threw it down on the street in front of his stall.

The old man nodded, vindicated.

We walked on.

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Cheap Travel in India, Travel in India, Uncategorized, Western tourists in India

Colorful Bombay

Up by Crawford Market in Bombay, I saw a brief cultural dance that would fit neatly in a Kipling story.

Crawford Market, Bombay

 

A white-haired couple from somewhere north of Pennsylvania, plump and pleasant looking, was walking tentatively, bravely alone. They walked through jumbles of porters with boxes stacked high on their head like  bearers in a Tarzan movie and in the slow flow of heavy wooden handcarts pushed and pulled by one or two or three men. The loaded carts are hard to start, hard to stop and hard to steer. And the streets there funnel the engine-roaring, horn blaring trucks of retailers loading up on fish and fruit and vegetables, and taxis swarm. Hovering, little roosts of thieves, crowlike, watch with sharp eyes.

The couple had passed me when I stopped to buy three bananas, and I noticed that the man had a large Canon camera swinging from a shoulder strap, its long lens swinging this way and that as he walked. He and his wife were both in khaiki shorts and bush shirts, as if looking for leopards, and the man was wearing a canvas expeditionary hat of the sort sold in New Yorker side-panels.

Just outside the market, they mistimed traffic on a side-street and nearly got hit by a truck. You can cross through the flow if the truck or bus or cycle, the tuk-tuks,  have time to swerve, but you must walk in a straight line, balletically, fending off speeders with a fluttering bull-fighter hand, and at a predictable speed.The traffic streams around you. It’s a lovely, enlivening system. Stopping suddenly or changing course screws it up.

They lost their nerve, understandably, and stopped. The truck driver slammed on his brakes, shouting Mumbaikar imprecations, and created an even bigger obstacle. Somehow, in the blare of horns, the oblivious couple, unimpressed by the virtuosity that left them unsquashed, staggered on to the other side. They neglected to thank the truck driver for his reckless virtue (though, of course, the paperwork for killing a pedestrian is formidable, and the required bribes would go on forever).

“Are you with them?”

A young professional man of some sort was speaking to me, tilting his head toward the old couple.

I wasn’t, I said.

“That camera,” he said. “I worry that thieves will take it. The market is full of thieves.”

Some thieves in India rob from scooters, whizzing by and snatching gold chains, shoulder bags and large-lensed Canon cameras swinging casually from the left shoulder on a broad strap that would move from the leopard-hunter’s shoulder to the thief’s in a trice, whoosh, never to be seen again; others are runners, or a hand from between vegetable stalls, or a team: one hits the opposite shoulder, and when the head turns, the partner grabs the chain, or bag; the camera. The market is crowded.

Crawford Market (2), Bombay

“I am trying to tell him,” the professional man said. “But he thinks I am selling him something.”

I told the man I’d do my best and followed the couple onto the vegetable wholesale floor, a busy place.

They were uneasy. The guidebook had said “busy” and “colorful,” but it hadn’t mentioned the porter suddenly blowing his nose between two fingers right in front of them, or the sidepusher on a loaded handcart shoving them aside with a quick arm—“He hit me! That man hit me!”—to save them from getting run over, again, and who is this little man now in front of them, appearing from nowhere, holding up a badge of some kind and chattering in Indian English about “veddydangerous.”

“No, no, no, my dear,” the little man said to the camera man, “I am not guiding. I am working with market. Your camera,” he motioned at it, “not so good here.”

The man understood. His lip curled. “He’s saying we can’t take pictures,” he said disgustedly to his wife. “We have to pay something.”

The small man fluttered unimpressively. He was not selling, he said too quickly now to be understood, but the camera could be stolen, “taken, you see. Not everyone here is so pleasant,” he said, more to me now, standing sympathetically beside him, than to them. They had figured him out and were ignoring him, unless he made them buy a ticket.

I tried. I had the advantage of looking familiar to them, though it might be like Midnight Express, with me working some fiendish scheme to steal their passports. I planned a suave intervention, but abandoned that and gave them both a mighty shove, “Jesus Christ!” grabbing the woman to keep her from falling. She nearly screamed. They hadn’t seen the heavy cart bearing down on them, nor had I until the last moment, and they were unsure even as it passed us by, a ton or two, inches away, that it was serious. Surely there were rules!

“This man works for the market,” I said. “He, and the man outside, were trying to warn you that your camera will be stolen if you carry it like that. You’ve made yourself a target.”

“A target!” the woman said.

The man snorted. “No problem so far,” he said in an executive voice, and turned away, toward the oranges and Kashmiri apples, stacked high in American-looking cartons (brought in on the long handcarts).

“He said ‘target,’ you’re a ‘target!’” the woman said to White Hunter.

I watched them walk on, their pale legs incongruously soft amid the hundreds of muscular worker legs around them. They walked against the flow, forcing the porters to dodge them. Behind them, wringing his hands and gesturing to other market workers, the little man followed at a distance, watching on their behalf.

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Travel in India

Bombay, Decayed

I came down to Pune by slow train after a dispiriting week in squalid, sad Bombay with its endless maze of tired lanes. The city has decayed noticeably in the last forty years, its resources sucked away by gleefully corrupt officialdom, spring cleaning forgotten.

India is eating itself, as many countries including the U.S. are, but on a grander scale, and shamelessly: no one in the city has clean, municipally-provided water, the sewage is untreated, the streets and bridges are crumbling and choked with blaring, blaring traffic. Every surface, even in the back corridors of the grand hotels, is filthy and coated, for the idea of cleanliness has not taken hold here; the listless sweeping that moves surface trash is performed to village standards by low-caste workers wielding brooms.

Rickshaw drivers still point tourists to the dhobi ghat, the massive thousand-tub laundry that boils sheets for Bombay hotels and shirts and saris and bright cloth from across town brought and returned by long-cart, and it is still guarded by a pimp of an attendant who demands Rs. 200 for entrance, to be distributed to the workers, he says, though the workers I spoke to there 20 years ago spit with contempt and called that claim a lie.

And the drivers still mention the famous Jehangir Art Gallery, a half-hour walk north in Rupee-rich Colaba from the Gateway, but the once-proud gallery, founded in 1952 by Sir Cowasji Jehangir, Second Baronet, has become a slum (as below), its managers’ offices littered with trash, with old signs to non-existent exhibits and nothing on the hand-smudged walls but mall art.

Jehangir Gallery

The tourists go to such places in air-conditioned buses and emerge into pools of professional beggars, whining, touching, holding out stumps for inspection and pinching babies to make them scream.

In the past I stayed at the $4 or $5 Salvation Army Hostel, the Red Shield, just behind the Taj Mahal hotel, where presidents and various satraps stay, but it reeks now, infected by Bombay sloth. In 1976, when I first encountered it, it was commanded by a beefy Salvation Army major from Bristol who inspected surfaces for dirt and dared anyone to disregard her commands to behave as 19th-century methodists. (It was created in the 19th century to lure merchant seamen from the lanes of prostitutes.)

Under the current regime it’s not been cleaned or painted in years, the price for a single has shot up to $30, and I concluded on my last trip that the shower rooms were too dirty to shower in.

More important than the current grime, routine in India, the charming Red Shield mix of stoners and bewildered middle class Indians and humorless Western seekers after religious truth has disappeared from the dining room, leaving just too-familiar, non-talking flick readers peering at their phone.

Bombay, though, for a long walker, is unchanged in essence. It is much dirtier than it was, terribly expensive for the poor, filled now with cars and trucks, the air thick, and morning in the lanes is enlivened less by roosters than by men loudly clearing their throat and spitting. And in the maze of poor streets north from Colaba’s Potemkin shine, where bustees lean against old warehouses and children play in sewage-filled gutters, the people who have nothing remain hospitable and tolerant of a curious visitor.

They were never visitors to Jehangir.

Bombay lane, Kamathipura

And in those lanes, one can still find a thumb-washed glass of hot milk chai for 10 rupees and sit on an abutment and watch the neighborhood come awake.

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Chief Minister (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa., Foreign in India, India and public health, Indian government incompetence, Madurai, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel, White in India

Rich, White and Foreign in India

Rich, White and Foreign in India.

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Chief Minister (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa., Foreign in India, Indan press incompetence, India and public health, Indian government incompetence, Madurai, Photos from South India, The Ordinary in India, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel, White in India

Rich, White and Foreign in India

March 21-22 2014, MADURAI

I plan my walks from Google Maps. I scrutinize satellite images for narrow lanes, rail lines, a river or sewage canal—the cramped streets where small houses touch.

The better-off in all Indian cities live invisibly behind high walls. In the crowded neighborhoods, doors are open in the morning from small rooms. Life spills into the streets. Roosters crow. Carts rumble. A woman hacks her throat clear. The milk man calls from his bicycle.

It’s a stumbling walk each morning into streets that touch ancestral memory,

Women make their trip to the neighborhood pump with 20-liter plastic jugs in red or purple or white or stripes, men sit on the ledge outside their door and read the newspaper and smoke. A man brushes his teeth on his top step and spits into the sewer gutter. A woman squats to pee by the tracks. Kids in blue/white or red/brown or grey/white school uniforms appear. It is respectable to come out pressed and shiny. In the poorest streets, they are barefoot, and the uniforms are hand-me-downs.

Ellis Nagar, Madurai

Ellis Nagar, Madurai

Raw sewage, moving slowly in dirt or concrete channels, is never far away. The air smells of it and of the urine on walls and smoke from wood grills and garbage fires and tea shops and incense a woman is wafting beneath the encrusted tail of a brown cow that has been painted with bright hand prints and devils. The air is never fresh.

Pools of sewage are close to homes

Pools of sewage are close to homes

Inside a door this morning, a uniformed girl sat on the floor while her grandmother fixed her hair. At another house a sour-looking laborer scrubbed his sudsed, wiggling little boy on a slab by the door and gave him a smack to improve his cooperation. In a deep ditch between two walls, half covered by a plastic trash bag,  a white dog was dying, shaking, eyes closed, whimpering to herself like an abused child. Just past a stand of rickshaws,  a huge man blocked my path and said in a small voice, “What is your sweet name, please?” Three huge hogs round a house corner just in front of me to root in garbage. A dog runs at me snarling.

India has millions of tiny shops. In the neighborhoods they are little groceries, corner idli and vada shops, tea stands. The grocery stalls have detergent, water, pop, festoons of packaged crunchy snacks, cigarettes sold individually and jars of penny candy. Children run to them on errands.

Women stop to talk. Men buy a tiny cup of steaming tea and eat a quick breakfast for 20 rupees. A cow or two, some goats, are tied nearby or saunter by. Dogs lounge indolently. Rickshaws cluster. The reek of sewage rises from the ditch. Vegetable vendors have their mats spread and the tomatoes and peppers or coconuts displayed. The fruit carts appear. Conversation is everywhere, laughter, the chain-saw tuk-tuk-tuk and horn blare of rickshaws, clucking chickens and a too-loud radio from a doorway.

The vegetables and bright fruits and the saris and the pink and orange walls give color to the shabby steet. Women make the wide-legged peasant bend and draw the day’s rangoli on the lane before the door. Municipal cleaners rake garbage into piles for burning, or to be taken away in carts for burning. A little boy of three defecates in the dirt 10 feet from his doorway, bending his head to watch the progress. Old women and men sit on the pavement or on age-blackened steps, staring at nothing. Escape seems unlikely.

These streets are not much visited by outsiders. I have never seen a Western tourist in them, and official India, including the limp-wristed press, ignores them.

I create a stir as I walk, much as I did snorkeling beyond the reef in the Red Sea, where the fish patterns would dissolve as I approached. It is not hostile, but it is watchful and wary.

I have learned this slowly. The shadow at the door is a woman watching, there an old man, the three men at the tea stand, the woman on the balcony, the man in the grocery stall.

I am closely watched.

They watch, but their first inclination is friendly.

Ellis Nagar, Madurai, March 2014

Ellis Nagar, Madurai, March 2014

Live in Indian hotels, as I have for months, and it’s difficult not to conclude that most Indians are listless, heedless and unresourceful. Such are India’s middle managers and company reps, those who people the hotel world.

In the neighborhoods, however, people, speaking large, are more generous to a stranger.  They have the grace politeness confers; their deference is sincere.

Of India’s many curses of self-indulgence, deference to  foreign, deference to rich and deference to white rank high, close to corruption.

It may be that the powerless are deferential, polite with a thin Potemkin politeness, because they have learned their lot is to be subordinate. Yet in these raggedy streets “they” are not uniformly anything. The weasels are easy to spot, as they are anywhere, the clean and the dirty, the quick to smile and the pimps (for here is where you go if you are looking for sex, whatever your awful predeliction), the stalwart and the respected.

Most return my namaskar greeting, the hands together in front of the chest in the Indian equivalent of “salaam alaikem.” Boys of 8 or 9 run up and say, “Hello how are you I am fine.”

My nationality is important because it confirms I’m from away, where conditions are better.  I say “USA” or  “America,” and they approve, “Ah.” But I have been German and French and Italian and even English, and they said “Ah” in exactly the same way.

No one objects to my presence, and when I stop, seeing a face or texture , I’m quickly hemmed in and pawed by the kids, who call, “Photo, photo,” so I will take their picture. One mother points to another, saying I must take her. Honor her, she says. Grandmothers appear with infants. I shoot, smilingly and pompously dispensing beneficence, as deference insists I must.

My camera has a good view screen. I punch up the shots I just took of the baby, the mother and all the kids, and the kids next door, and I can zoom in on a face and give that person a pat. They crowd in to see under the shade of my hand. No one asks for money.

They look to recognize themselves, and then they smile and thank me, “Super!” I give the little girl who’s pulling too hard on the camera a light smack and say, “Hold on,” for it seems that’s the right thing to do. I give the grandmother’s shoulder a squeeze. Touching seems the right thing to do, for men and women, boys and girls. I shake hands and give half hugs and squeezes and pats. I bask in Tahitian smiles. As I walk on, trailed to lane’s end by 10 or 12 small kids, I’m Pied Piper. One always asks for my pen; all of them are excited. The teenagers we pass are blase.

"Photo, photo"

“Photo, photo”

Celebrity politicians may pass through once every few years in a motorcade, and great seers come to town, but I am the most rare Important Visitor. I take notice. I walk the bustee lanes and speak as I can to individuals and hug pretty little girls and joke with teenage boys and say “Oooh” at babies and shake my finger at a barking dog just as they do, and jump the same streams of sewage.

I speculate, that is, that unfair though it is, I have influence by birth and circumstance somehow to encourage a neighborhood’s prettiest face, as a teacher can  lift shy students, as a priest can bless a life.

My presence and photographs of generations of family and neighbors, all the happy kids—dim images on a view screen in bright sunlight—affirm I think that I have noticed and may remember.

South Madurai bustee, March 22, 2014, about 8 a.m.

South Madurai bustee, March 22, 2014, about 8 a.m.

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2013, 2014, Bad hotel, Cheap Travel in India, Indian bathrooms and showers, Rameshwarum, Shooting midgets, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel

The Shower Conundrum (or: The Inexplicable Shooting of a Midget)

The Shower Conundrum (or: The Inexplicable Shooting of a Midget).

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