Spot the Gora: A Short Walk Through the Streets of South Bombay


 

No, I hadn't been imagining things  the waiter had really asked me a question in Hindi. At first I told myself that he couldn't be serious, that the guy was surely having a laugh. Then a thought came to me. Could it be that he had genuinely mistaken me for a local? That with my dark Ray-Ban glasses, my newly acquired tan, and the thick beard that I had been growing for the last few weeks, I was starting to look like a native Mumbaikar? Then and there I hatched a plan: I would tell my driver to go home and then I'd make my way to the apartment on Walkeshwar Road on foot. If during my time out on the street, I got followed, stared at, laughed at, or befriended by random strangers, then obviously I looked as Indian as a plate of British fish and chips. If not … well, maybe that waiter at the club hadn't been taking the mickey, after all.

 

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It is five past five when I walk out into the Breach Candy Club car park. Before setting off, I hand the driver my North Face rucksack and once again don my pair of Ray-Bans (seeing that my green eyes would be a bit of a giveaway). Shortly afterwards, I come across my first major logistical hurdle: how to cross to the other side of Bhulabhai Desai Road without getting run over by a honking Ambassador taxi. Looked at it dispassionately, it may not sound like the biggest of challenges — the road is no more than ten or fifteen metres wide, and there is even a raised concrete strip in the middle where you can pause in relative safety for a moment or two. But this is Bombay that we are talking about, where even a theoretically safe crossing can turn into a life-threatening proposition. In the end, after one or two false starts, I make it to the other side, puffing for breath and slightly irritated that every passing car seems to be beeping its horn at me ... but thankful all the same that I have reached my destination in one piece.

Presently I am walking past Premsons, a large retail store which stands opposite the club and which sells everything from designer jeans to battery-operated toothbrushes. Sidestepping around the crowds that usually gather outside Premson’s disproportionately small entrance, I sink my hands into my pockets and continue heading southwards. I feel buoyant, unusually optimistic, convinced that I can make it to Walkeshwar Road without attracting any unwanted attention. Soon I am sauntering past the heavily guarded US Consulate, one of the most famous landmarks in this area. Every Thursday afternoon you will see hundreds, if not thousands of visa-seekers queuing in a line beside this building, something which always astounds me, knowing how it is practically impossible for Indians to remain in a queue without trying to sneak their way to the front. In 1982 about 40 people attacked the building with firebombs in protest at American arms sales to Pakistan. In response the armed policemen guarding the consulate opened fire on the protesters, killing one person and injuring several others.

I press on and soon I reach the end of Bhulabhai Desai Road. It is always busy here due to the fact that there is a particularly slow-changing set of traffic lights up ahead, after which the road branches out in two directions (August Kranti Road to the left, and Nepean Sea Road to the right). Because of the inevitable build-up of traffic in this area, you will often find people trying to sell stuff to the motorists and their passengers. I never cease to marvel at the sorts of things that they sell: umbrellas when it’s raining, garlands of flowers when it’s sunny, little Indian flags on Republic Day and Independence Day, stickers of famous Indian cricketers when there is a big cricket match at the Wankhede Stadium. What I like about these street peddlers is that they are all very brisk and businesslike, quickly moving to the car behind yours if you so much as shake your head. This is in complete contrast to other peddlers in town, many of whom will keep knocking on your window and pestering you until you buy something just to make them go away. Among the sellers who congregate in the area there is a young flat-nosed South Indian woman. She must be thirty or thirty-five and she usually sells garlands of jasmine flowers. I have seen her a few times before and have always been struck by the quiet dignity with which she goes about her work, never shouting or complaining, accepting one rebuff after the other with the same gracious head bobble. As I reach the spot near the Indian Oil petrol station where the sellers normally gather, I raise my gaze from the ground to see if I can spot her in the vicinity. But I cannot detect any flat-nosed flower-sellers today. As a matter of fact, I cannot see anyone selling anything.

Bhulabhai Desai Road comes to an end and I am now at the junction between August Kranti Road and Nepean Sea Road. I could take either road to get to Walkeshwar, but, if I go down Nepean Sea Road, I will then have to ascend Cumballa Hill, which is more than my current level of fitness allows. Therefore, I dismiss Nepean Sea Road as an option and start heading up August Kranti Road. My plan is to reach the top of the street, go under the Kemps Corner flyover, then make my way around Cumballa Hill via Sitaram Patkar Road and Babulnath Road — all of which shouldn’t take more than twenty or twenty-five minutes. Going up August Kranti Road, I look to one side and see St. Stephen’s, a rundown Catholic church that, externally speaking at least, has all the charm of a 1960s’ British fire station. A little higher up the street is Millionaire, a small clothes shop that sells extremely expensive kurtas and kurtis. This store tries to entice its customers by putting up large billboards whose overriding message is that only the very rich can afford to shop at their premises. I am not really sure how to react to places like these. Part of me feels slightly disgusted that, in a city with 9 million people trapped below the poverty line, of which 2 million are living in slum-like conditions, some wealthy bigshot is trying to sell his products to other bigshots by shamelessly appealing to their worst materialistic instincts. And, yet, another part of me cannot help thinking, ‘What is worse — an establishment which openly exhorts its millionaire patrons to flaunt their wealth, or shops in the UK like Primark or Peacocks, where people quite literally wrestle each other for a £1.99 bargain without giving a toss about the trail of third world exploitation which makes such low prices possible in the first place?’

In due course I reach Kemps Corner, one of the busiest junctions in South Mumbai and, according to some, the spiritual hub around which this great city turns. From here you can head off into five different directions: Peddar Road, to your immediate left; Altamont Road, home of the rich and famous, under the flyover and slightly to your left; Sitaram Patkar Road, under the flyover but this time to your right; B. G. Kher Road, which runs parallel to the Parsi Towers of Silence and takes you up into Cumballa Hill itself; and, of course, August Kranti Road, which continues straight ahead under the flyover. Of all the places that I’m encountering during today’s walk, this is possibly the trickiest. One, because it is bloody dangerous to cross the road at such a busy junction. Two, because if anyone can sniff out a foreigner at forty paces, it is the dalit beggars who live in utter poverty under the flyover. Happily, though, my run of good fortune continues and I am able to cross the road without either getting flattened by a taxi or being pursued by a herd of beggar children.

I am now on Sitaram Patkar Road, three streets away from our flat in Walkeshewar. As I negotiate the patchwork of dog turds and broken flagstones on the ground, I find myself walking past Crosswords, one of the largest bookshops in town. This is where all the famous people who write about India come to do book signings: Paul Theroux, Gregory David Roberts, V. S. Naipaul, and so on. Just outside Crosswords, there is usually a handful of beggars waiting to pounce upon the departing booklovers. They normally gather behind the cars parked near the sidewalk, carefully concealed from both the Crossword security guard and the unsuspecting bibliophiles, a scruffy, gaunt-faced, sad-eyed bunch who, in common with the rest of humanity, suffer from the delusion that people who read have stronger humanitarian instincts than those who don’t.... Today, however, there are no beggars in sight and I manage to skim past the bookshop’s entrance without having to break into the usual agitated canter.

Soon afterwards, I leave Sitaram Patkar Road and turn right into Babulnath Road, a long, tree-lined avenue that branches out after six or seven hundred yards into Marine Drive on one side and Walkeshwar Road on the other. Many of the buildings on this street have signs advertising the services of Mumbai’s finest medical men: Dr Girish J. Sanghavi, Psychiatry/ Mental Illnesses; Dr M. Ahmed Khan, Dermatology/ Skin Specialist; Dr Arvind Kulkarni, Orthopaedic Surgeon. Most of the signs look professional and modern, but a few are no more than crudely hand-painted wooden panels, not exactly inspiring the beholder with a lot of confidence....

Continuing eastwards, I come across the roadside entrance to Babulnath temple, an eighteenth-century shrine which is dedicated to Lord Shiva and which is perched on the southern side of Cumbala Hill. To reach the temple’s inner sanctum you have to climb a series of steep and slippery stone steps, although it is possible to pay a couple of rupees instead and catch a rickety elevator which takes you all the way to the top. On religious holidays, it gets so busy around here that scores of policemen have to be called in to marshal the crowds that come in from the suburbs. But at the moment the entrance to the temple is clear and I manage to walk past its beautifully dilapidated entrance arch without attracting attention. A few minutes later, I can hear squawking seagulls and crashing waves, a sure sign that I am nearing the end of Babulnath Road and approaching the Marine Drive/ Walkeshwar Road junction. Before I reach the end of the road, however, I see a familiar figure: the skeletally thin old man who usually loiters near the Marine Drive traffic lights, hoping to make a few rupees by cleaning windscreens. Most traffic lights in Mumbai seem to have their own resident character and this man is undoubtedly the king of this particular locality. Aged anywhere between fifty and seventy years old, with the type of rough, groove-lined face that wouldn’t look amiss in a Pasolini movie, he dresses in a shirt open to his navel and an incredibly dirty dhoti that has been pulled up high, almost like a pair of nappies. To make things worse, he never asks if he can clean your car; he just starts to wipe your windscreen slowly with a rag as dirty as his dhoti, singing and talking to himself as he mucks up your windows in front of your very eyes. My driver, upon catching sight of him, always stops the car thirty or forty yards away from the guy, never minding the beeping cars and trucks behind us. ‘If he touch window,’ he says, fixing his eyes on the rear-view mirror, ‘I am going to angry. That man drunken no-good man.

Finally, I enter Walkeshwar Road. I am now just half a mile away from the flat. I feel wonderfully relaxed and light-footed, happy that I have walked three miles across Bombay without attracting the slightest bit of attention. But even as I am celebrating the achievement, I hear the roar of excited children’s voices coming from the other side of the road. Frowning, wondering what the hell is going on, I look up and see a bunch of street kids jumping up and down next to the Walkeshwar Road police chowky. ‘What in God’s name…?’ I ask myself. Then it suddenly hits me: they are pointing in my direction! Not just that: a few of them are already weaving dangerously in and out of the traffic to get to my side of the road. I can even hear their high-pitched cries above the sound of the running car engines: ‘Uncle, uncle! Baksheesh, baksheesh!’

All right, I think, wearily reaching for my wallet. Maybe I don't look so Indian, after all.  


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