The view from our living room window is at odds with October in Mumbai. It's overcast and drizzly, more like a pre - winter day in Delhi than a post-monsoon hot October day. The view is also new to us as we have moved, all of five hundred metres, from not-so-shabby Nariman Point to also not-so-shabby Churchgate. Because Mumbai is a city of neighbourhoods and buildings, with their own distinctive names, rather than streets and house numbers, a move can mean a life altering change of dhobi, sabziwala, phalwala, kabariwala and newspaperwala.
The dhobi we were ok to change, although the new dhobi is a bit nocturnal and non-plussed, ringing the doorbell at 10.00 pm to return my ironed shirts. The new sabziwala and phalwala rolled into one turned into something of an aggregator of fruits and vegetables, bringing us what he had managed to procure from other vendors as opposed to what we had ordered. Two such deliveries and it was back to Premchand Tamaaterwala from Colaba. The previous kabariwala has probably retired on the stuff that he dragged out from our old apartment, so we're looking for a new one and the newspaperwala, Mr. Yadav (of course), we're guarding with our life, because who else will keep track of our mix of Times of India during the week and the Mint Lounge, the FT and Navbharat Times on the weekend?
The confronting thing about this move has been the re-acquaintance and re-confrontation with our accumulations of the past twenty eight years, and some unmarried years before that. My bride calls me a hoarder, which I think does me injustice. I like to think that I curate history as it passes us by, if not for humanity at large then at least for our family. That said, the patterns that have emerged in our collections are illuminating and sometimes confronting. Books on India becoming great, having been great, making it work, going down unwinding roads, India unwinding and India calling, as if buying all of these books will in and of itself will India to achieve the greatness that is its due.
Books on Chicago from the sky, Chicago planned, Chicago unplanned, Los Angeles from the sky, San Francisco from on up high and, from a people who are probably tired of being high, Ecuador From the Ground.
A truly inordinate number of books written by Dutch people for non - Dutch people to advise them on how to better get along with Dutch people, as if the biggest fear of the Dutch is to have their fully attuned lives disrupted by non - Dutch people, which as it happens, it is.
Certain authors float to the top as we discover that we have accumulated more than a few of their books, not all by design. Mr. John Irving, Mr. Naipaul, Mr. Stephen Fry, Mr. William Dalrymple, Mr. Amitav Ghosh and Ms. Isabelle Allende, to name but a few. But the winner by a stretch is Bombay / Mumbai's own prolific and erudite hometown boy Salman Rushdie.
As a family that has lived in five countries we have of course every electricity and power adapter known to mankind, most of which are not of any use to us now. Close contenders for non - useful items are these things called ties.
Or caps, definitely not not useful but always in the dog house until the annual summer holiday.
Remember maps, from the pre - Google era, those huge beautiful paper things that you unfolded on the car bonnet to find out if you were on your right way down the autobahn? The nature of quantity of maps by country is fascinating. The Americans love them and every self respecting town has one, pointing out areas of interest, with local pride and self awareness shining through. The Dutch have some particularly detailed ones, often focusing on bits of nature such as mud flats that they think are or should be of interest.
The Indians for years didn't have any but the most perfunctory maps, rough broad outlines of the country, all driven by the fear that the horrible Pakistanis might actually figure out where we live.
It's only recently that we not only have maps of cities but even of neighbourhoods, showcasing historic sights and local retail. For now we're getting used to our new neighbourhood, adjusting to the view from the window, the shorter run to Marine Drive and the longer walk to the Oval Maidan, all of it still a hop and a skip away.
My missus had the idea to group our collection of Lonely Planet books acquired through the years, leading to the realisation that at least against our collection of single publisher travel books Mr. Rushdie has been outranked. The books are, as they should be, earmarked, bookmarked and literally stuffed with post-its and local brochures.
*from Ahem, as in 'you forgot something' and addendum, an add on.
This monsoon is certainly one for the books and I got soaked again during my Sunday morning run, the dark clouds hovering over and darkening the southern most tip of the city, Navy Nagar, warning me of what they had in store for me as I headed back from Babulnath Temple. I squelched my way back home, stooping to pick up stray bottles (plogging) along the way, the forced stooping and bending accompanied by grimacing and wincing as the stiff legs and back are forcibly stretched.
Our time at Advent is coming to an end, compelled by the owner's desire to sell the place. Our next apartment, a hop and a skip away from where we have lived for the past nine years, two streets away, will take us from Nariman Point to Churchgate, from 400021 to 400020. It will be goodbye to the familiar neighbours and the guards, to Raja, who true to his name is now the King among the pets in the building, pampered by the security guards and drivers.
This is also the weekend of India's attempt to land an explorer on the South Pole of the Moon. While the attempt looked to have failed, or contact was lost with the rover, it was met with an outpouring of support from people from all walks of life, celebrating the ingenuity and persistence that a dedicated team of scientists displayed over many years over the 'success' as measured at a particular moment in time. It is perhaps a cathartic moment for the country as a whole, wedged as this moment is between the more binary defeat and victory in traditional arenas such as sports, business or even war.
As the weekend progresses the rover has been spotted and contact may yet be established, but plans for the next journey, the next run, are already afoot.
I'm meditatively harvesting pure vanilla from a pile of pods given to us years ago by someone actually from Madagascar ("Mada Hoo Ha??" Marty asked). Some of the vanilla has gone into an Ottolenghi chocolate cake recipe (btw, am I the only person who didn't realize his first name isn't Otto?) and the rest is being kept for future use. As I cut and scrape, my mind thinks back to the mad road trip (are there any other kind?) we were on a week ago. A Bangalore to Pondicherry trip that at best should have taken six hours ended up taking close to twelve hours. The driver took us on a detour that added another 150 km to the trip past Salem, the very non - direct way to get from Bangalore to Pondicherry. The side benefit was a view of the beautiful Tamilian countryside with the hills surprisingly well covered.
The French part of Pondicherry, 'White Town', a few square kilometers at best, has the typical white, ochre and red buildings that seem to characterize French cities in Asia, be it Phnom Penh, Hanoi or in this case Pondicherry. The boulevard looks out over the beautiful waters of the Bay of Bengal. Go straight and you'll hit the Andaman and Nicobar islands, closer to Thailand than they are to India.
There are trendy boutiques and coffee places, Tarini and Mira acting as our guides as both of them came here on school trips. A band celebrating their fiftieth anniversary are belting out hits from stage set up at the waterfront. The lead singer, white haired and dressed in a green polo shirt and shorts, somehow still manages to bounce up and down the stage.
The trip back to Bangalore, less than 36 hours after we finally arrived is calmer than the way in. We have swapped drivers and are now in the company of the talkative and self - appointed tour guide Vijay. Vijay is himself a resident of Auroville, established by followers of Sri Aurobindo. Call it what you like, ashram, commune, kibbutz, it's amazing and gratifying to see something started in the 1960's thriving and successfully propagating a balanced lifestyle beyond the immediate confines of the township itself.
Several hours into the drive we pass through a temple town where Vijay points out the Shiva temple with four imposing entrances, dating back to 1100 AD.
A little over the half - way point, in the middle of nowhere we stopped for hot sweet tea at a road side stall. The imposing and corpulent aunty seated on a plastic chair guarding the way to the loos yells "five rupees" after me, as the price for using the facilities. By the time I come back she has changed her mind and it is now 10 rupees. By the time we set off for the last leg of the drive she is walking back to the main building and contentedly closing her plastic box with bank notes.
"Ten rupees too much", Vijay shakes his head as we drive off, but the ladies have voted these the best loos of the trip. We drive into Bangalore a little over six hours after we set off, thoroughly shaken and stirred.
...and a few thousand volunteers gathered at Versova Beach last Saturday for a bit of corporate pep talk, a short three k run on the beach and then an organized beach clean up. A lot has been written about the man behind this effort @AfrozShah1, the young lawyer who together with a neighbour began cleaning up the garbage filled beach behind his apartment building. A five foot deep layer of garbage got cleared over several years but that was as it turns out only one half of Versova Beach. Today was the day to start on the second half, part of #RunForTheOceans and co-sponsored by a sports goods company.
Afroz was there, wedged in between a corporate type who was still passionate about Mumbai, despite having moved to Germany for his employer, a VJ (let's put our hands together for MALINI!!), an actress (let's put our hands togetha for Gul Panaaag!!!), a perky Australian fitness instructor who took a few thousand people through their warm up exercise and the predictable announcer himself (come on Mumbai, let's make some NOISE!!!).
For a South Bombay resident to get out of bed and to Versova by seven a.m. takes an hour of travel. Afroz Shah and his army of citizens dedicated to cleaning up this city's beaches and rivers do this every single Saturday. Versova has become their backdrop now, their weekly work goes on at Mithi River, which they're trying to clean of plastic
Here we were, most of us first - timers, cleaning up bits of the beach. Every mound of sand revealed layers of plastic bags and clothing. Everyone's energy was infectious. There was seven year old Anshu, a portly young boy dressed in a bright red t - shirt and shorts who refused to go home. His father's repeated, "come on Anshu, Mama is waiting for us", had no effect as Anshu's eyes were focused on the next bit of garbage that he could wrest from the sand and throw into collection bin.
There were students from local colleges, housewives, and members of the Dawoodi Bohra community, who had signed up en masse.
These are baby steps and Afroz and his team are under no illusions that it's going to be easy. Apart from cleaning they're trying to get the surrounding communities to buy into the circular economy and stop participating in the throw - way single use economy. Let's see. If one man can get us to this level imagine what a few thousand of us can do.
At 7 am Marine Drive, where the pavement meets the road, is strewn with litter. Empty plastic bottles, aluminium wrapping from food packets, the odd beer bottle, soiled nappies sometimes, thrown onto the pavement and the edge of the street. Thanks out - of - towners, for messing up a piece of real estate that manages to look spotlessly clean from dawn, when the sweepers start their work, until late evening, when the likes of you descend to make memories and leave us with your trash.
Five years into the launch of Swachha Bharat Abhiyan and the Government's attempt to get us to clean up our act as a nation, it seems as if behavioral change still has a long way to go.
My dadi's house next to Dilli Darvaza, in Rajnandgaon, Madhya Pradesh, now Chattisgarh, was spotless. She wasn't a wealthy woman but in the two story house that she and my aunts ran not only could you eat off the floor but meals were actually served to you seated on a wooden plank with your thali resting on the floor.
The habit of throwing your trash onto the street, without a care as to whether it will be picked up, or by whom, looks like one that India's newly affluent classes have acquired, while leaving behind manners that must have been in their families at some point in time. Whether we unlearn these harmful habits, Government program or not, remains to be seen.
Families, day laborers and stragglers still lie asleep as I walk the last stretch after my run, the hot summer sun already beating down on all of us. The farmer's market is up and running alongside Mantralaya, the Seat of Government, and affluent residents from Churchgate and Nariman Point weave in and out of the stalls. A stone's throw away, in the shadow of Mahatma Gandhi's statue, the usual band of harried men and women live on the edge of the LIC bus terminal. The children run to a neighborhood stall to buy or sneak, I don't know which, something to eat.
Congress Government or BJP Government, neither seems to have been able or willing to deal with the shame of people living on the streets of this part of town.
Crow couples are hopping along the pavement, picking up twigs and strands of straw where they can find them, balancing two or more in their beaks in order to go and make their nests. By early June, when the first rains start lashing the city they will have lain their eggs and will take turns guarding the nest as the tree sways dangerously from side to side.
Apart from picking away at baskets of fresh fish being carried to the train station on the roofs of black and yellow taxis, the crows are very effective rat killers, swooping down on them in the early morning as a lone adventurer scurries along the edge of the street. Within an hour the carcass of the rat has disappeared, no sweeper required. The crows are much more effective than the well cared for and thus hopelessly disincentivized fat cats that live in my Churchgate office building. In the winter months you may still catch a glimpse of them during the day, a fat bottom wedged in the nook of a tree as they sleep for hours on end, but in the hot summer months the five of them only appear at seven in the evening, in anticipation of their neighborhood benefactors who brings them their food.
The elections are over in our neck of the woods and Mumbai as a whole hit a turnout high of 55%, although our ward, Colaba, Nariman Point etc was actually two percentage points lower than the last time. The temptations of Alibaug and Goa were still too much to resist for the SoBo crowd. Why skip a weekend trip and vote for a Government that could influence your life for the better?
It takes a certain amount of gumption as a member of the opposition or a critic of the current Indian Government to look at their achievements of the past five years, shrug, and say 'I don't think they really did very much'. Electricity to 98% of Indian villages, guarded railway crossings, 5% more coal production in five years than in all ten years of the previous Government, toilets and sanitation for 75% of the populace, LPG connections for millions of households to replace firewood, increased solar energy production, twenty eight vs twenty kilometers of new roads laid daily for five years, more villages connected by road than ever before, water filtering plants for the large cities, direct flights to smaller towns in North, East and North East India, but no 'I don't think they did very much'.
I certainly don't like everything about the ruling party, the BJP, and like any political party it has its share of unsavoury characters. I don't believe it's good enough to quietly tolerate such people in the 'larger interest', but essential to call out people whom I believe are intolerant of the opinions of others.
I don't need a political party to defend my religion or my beliefs, as my religion is just that, mine, and having been around for a few thousand years perfectly capable of defending itself. More than that, a Government needs to strive explicitly to defend the religion of those less capable of defending themselves.
After five years of rule by the BJP and its allies there's much that still needs fixing and improving in this country. In a city such as Mumbai, one of the richest municipalities in Asia, there are scores of public schools without proper benches or studying material for the kids. Twenty five percent of Indian school kids graduate without the most basic of reading and arithmetic skills, ill equipped for a rapidly changing world. Indian railways last year had 'only' 27 accidents, less than the 56 of the year before, but 27 too many.
I do believe however, that it's incumbent upon a ruling party to get the most basic aspects of running a Government and thus a country right so that people can progress and be equipped to fend for themselves and rise above their current station, and I believe that this Government has made important strides in that direction. More than caste and creed I think there is an impatience with the status quo that unites large parts of the country, an unwillingness to accept poverty and incompetence. In fact, there is an impatience with incompetence that has re-surfaced, and it doesn't just belong to the youth. People who remember a long ago era when not everything was dictated by the Government, but during which busses and trains ran on time and schools and colleges, however simple, functioned.
Seventy years of ill - conceived socialism has today left India poorer than South Korea, a country which until 1959 was measurably and arguably poorer than India. It is time to move ahead, not only for the few, not just for the cronies, who by the way have always flourished more under socialist governments than those of the right, but for all Indians of all religions and creeds. For the young entrepreneurs who wish to set up businesses, for women who wish to enter the work place and feel safe traveling to and from work, for people who wish to be able to commute and travel by train without fear of dying in an accident, because ticket prices have been frozen at the same level for decades and because there's no money for safety equipment, for young children who wish to study and develop their minds, for the soldiers guarding our country who have been waiting for basic fighting gear for more than a decade, for the poor who deserve access to basic healthcare and for the elderly, who now for the first time have a basic pension, and this is why I shall be voting for the ruling party on the 29th of April in Mumbai.
I may not be running this race, but I applaud all those who do.
The trepidation is over, and so are the misgivings if I'm up to it. I've looked over my stats of the past year and they look ok. Picked up my running bib from the Tata Mumbai Marathon centre at BKC this morning, one hour each way by motorbike through Mumbai's crazy traffic, the reverse of the route that I'll be running tomorrow.
The hall was already packed at 11.30 and by the time I left an hour later there was a 200 metre queue of people trying to get in, (mostly) grey haired and well - heeled runners. The hall itself was an Indian bazaar as only Indian bazaars can be, packed to the brim and focused on doing brisk business. Young girl DJ's working microphones from booth to booth, exhorting men to take up ludicrous exercises on some virtual running machine. Shoes, running gear and health food change hands briskly.
The mood has shifted and the excitement has set in. The half marathoners will gather at 4.30 am at Worli Dairy and at 5.30 we'll be let out like bulls from the pen, running in eery silence for the first 45 minutes, up and down the sea link in darkness. Not until we get back to Worli Sea Face will we hear the first shouts of encouragement, local residents wrapped in shawls against the morning chill shouting and clapping, "Come on!! Go Mumbai!!", as if the city itself is running past, and in a way it is.
Up towards Haji Ali with the sun slowly rising over Mahalaxmi Race Course. The climb of Peddar Road looms, the crowds thicken and the first trays with fruit and biscuits appear. Hope that the pace doesn't slow too much on Peddar Road until the downhill part, right past Babulnath Temple, quick deferential nod to Balaji and then left onto Marine Drive, overcome with the thought that you're on the home stretch. Except that you're not and the realisation usually hits half - way on the 4 km stretch of Marine Drive, somewhere along Taraporewala Aquarium. It's after that that the loud part of the party that this city puts on every year starts, Punjabi bhangra dancers and drummers making synchronized moves on a temporary stage. The music overwhelms my playlist and makes it superfluous and so the earphones come off.
Truth be told this is why I run, or at least why I sign up for this annual race and why I try to do those stay-in-some-kind-of-shape runs in Mumbai's unbearable and repressive summer in April and May. For this all - out communal crazy running fest. Where else are you going to have Punjabi bhangra bands, Maharashtrian folk bands and EDM DJ's cracking out beats side by side, egging you on?
On to Veer Nariman Road, the real home stretch, with the senior citizen and disabled participants of the Dream Run already moving in the opposite direction, by foot or in their wheel chairs. And after it's all over, the walk back home from Azad Maidan, past the Oval Maidan, where boys from the suburbs are already lining up the pitches for their Sunday cricket game, past the art deco buildings, in time to head for breakfast at Mondegar or The Pantry.
When his sister approached me for a handout I waived her away, and she moved on. Her well combed and pleated hair meant that she was many steps away from true destitution. By the time the 10 - 11 year old brother approached however, targeting my ice cream with single - minded focus, I was unable to resist. "Uncle!" he yelled, looking not at me but at the ice cream that I had just bought from Naturals on Marine Drive, and grabbing it from my hands.
In all honesty I felt I deserved that ice cream after returning from Lower Parel late at night. Lower Parel, which I at best survive on early morning trips in or out later in the evening is not where I wanted to be at night after a long day.
Morning run at 6.30 a.m.
My first conference call ever with someone in Dakar.
A day later, earlier in the evening than yesterday’s ice cream episode, and I’m grabbing a solitary beer at Cafe Leopold. The staff greet me with exuberant handshakes. I’m not quite Shantaram, but recognized in a Mumbai watering hole , a dubious distinction at this phase of life.
November is unseasonably hot and running is tough.
The man child and his party are convinced that the Prime Minister is headed to jail for the Rafael jet deal, India’s purchase of French fighter jets. “He won’t last a day”, the man child says, presumably referring to the interrogation as opposed to actual time in jail. The Government is battling back with bullet trains, statues, metros and coastal roads.
Bill Gates says that we’re lifting people out of poverty in record numbers and that the world is getting fundamentally better. He’s probably right and in a better postition to know than most of us. Someone just needs to tell that kid who took my ice cream.
We bought our plane tickets to be in England at this particular point in time four months ago. Planning that far ahead for a summer vacation has almost never happened. There is a day by day program to guide our fourteen day stay, itself created more than a month ago. That has definitely never happened. Germany is out of the World Cup, Holland was never even in the World Cup. The English have been transformed into a cycling nation of fit urban people since I last looked in on them, wizzing about town on their bikes, helmets and all, as if they're right up there with the Dutch and the Danes.
We're here for the graduation of one of our child progenies (authentic Indian teacher statement), touring her university town one last time, packing up her last belongings, in between wryly observing a world that seems to have gone topsy turvy.
It's our annual leave Mumbai behind family getaway, leaving behind the 24/7 Mumbai metro work, the monsoon that has finally hit, and yes the daily news on (mob) violence against fellow human beings.
India feels like it's in the middle of an upheaval that's going to last at least another twenty five years. Parts of society can do with going topsy turvy, it's the in between slow motion phase that's the bitch. Rahul the man child will have us believe that if we just elect him and a gaggle of ten other aspiring prime ministers to rule over us next year all will be well. It won't. There's an eruption of violence against women, children, minorities and political opponents on the right and the left that's starting to feel like societal entropy.
Anyway, progeny #1 graduates today and a year from now progeny #2 will be ready to set off for university. Once upon a time, long long ago, they went to their nurseries and play schools in Amsterdam and now here they are, ready to right the wrongs and to stand the world on its head. It needs it.
There are so many classes that make up and define society, and especially Indian society in large metropolises such as Mumbai and Delhi.
There's the ruling class, that ostensibly rotates in- and out of power every few years or so, but even when out of power and in jail manages to wield considerable influence.
There's the incredibly wealthy class, the types that can crack their heads thinking about the six months of celebrations required to lead up to a wedding, including as I was told today the 'what shall we put on the gold plated wedding invitations celebration'.
The upper & within striking distance of wealthy class is increasingly seen in- and around the large Indian cities. These men and women with manicured nails can afford to wear pink polo shirts with upturned collars and shoes with no socks, look like complete twats in the process, but have no one tell them that because they just have a little too much money and therefore influence.
The 'boring old' upper class with their inherited wealth and manners, but without the hunger, drive and psychological need to get to the truly wealthy echelons content themselves with trying to maintain civility, both for themselves and for a piece of society. In cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai they keep the arts going and wax eloquent about the latest Schubert recital.
The raw rambunctious Indian middle class, oozing out of the pores and crevices of this nation is as harried as it's impatient. Ill served by a creaking infrastructure, collapsing Foot Overhead Bridges and derailed trains it's impatient to get ahead in every way possible, which includes airline queues at six in the morning. It may not have as much money as it would like, and suddenly having to pay taxes may be an unpleasant surprise, but it's able to define what it wants.
The working class, the heroes of society, who literally give us our daily bread (and milk and vegetables and newspapers) and who clean our cars and our apartments and our streets where we have dumped our styrofoam cups, I suspect only entertain the thought of hope. I'm amazed at the stories of young boys and girls who sitting in the near darkness of a 50 square foot slum dwelling study for their 10th and 12th grade exams and score in the mid to high nineties.
The criminal class cuts across all classes, the true democratizers and equalizers of society. They may look and smell differently from each other, but they are a brother- and sisterhood in their own right. From the sweat soaked boy who snatches mobile phones from the hands of travelers in a moving train, to Cousin Dawood across the border in Pakistan and to to the dwarf - sized diamond trader who ran a $2 billion loan roll over scheme with an Indian public sector bank, and then just ran and ran and ran until he was out of reach of Indian justice, this class manages to keep our money out of our own reach.
The class that some people love, others hate and I love to hate is the idiot class, the purveyors of mindless entertainment for India's masses when they're not cutting queues or mugging up for exams or falling from Foot Over Bridges. They who fill the pages of the Bimbo Times on a daily basis. The undisputed leader of the idiot class has in the past two days once again been let into- and out of jail for one of his alleged crimes, this time for shooting (not movie shooting, real shooting) a Bambi look - alike in Rajasthan twenty years ago while on a hunting trip with fellow members of the idiot class.
Let us never forget the class that supersedes all classes, the classless class, the heartless class, the fat overfed class with eyes neither at the front or at the back of their heads, the class that will throw their plastic plates on the street so that the working class may sweep them up, the class that manages to gorge on street food at 11 p.m. while an emaciated pre-teen girl standing three feet away stares at them blankly, not even entertaining the hope that she may eat that night.
Btw, the banner photo was taken from our holiday home outside of San Gimignano at 6.20 am. What light! It lasted all of five minutes.