Mumbai (2009)

Our next and final destination in India was “Mumbai.” Every Indian I talked to called it Bombay, and in conversation with them I felt like I would be considered benighted if I said Mumbai. Traditionally the name of the city is Mumbai in Marathi and Gujarati, Bombay in English and Bambai in Hindi, Persian, and Urdu. Since I was speaking English with every Indian I met, we all talked of Bombay. (Like how in Chennai all the English-speaking Indians I talked to called it Madras.) When the far-right Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena party came into power the name of the city was officially changed to Mumbai in 1996 in honor of a Hindu goddess. I will refer to the city by its official name throughout this report, although I rarely called it that while I was there.

Originally Anjali and I were going to take a twenty-six hour train from Chennai to Mumbai. After realizing that plane tickets were less than $100 US, it made more sense to spend one of our final days in India exploring Chennai some more, and not sitting on a train, which we had done plenty of already. In India you can fly from one end of the country to the other in two hours, but a train will take 36 hours or more. Riding the rails is a quintessential Indian experience, but if you have the money, you can certainly cover much more of the country, in far less time, if you opt to fly. And let me tell you, on the cheapest Indian budget airline, they will take far better care of you, and offer you far more in a few hours, than you will get in days on a Western airline. In less than two hours we got offered water four times, a croissant, tea or coffee, a dosa. a couscous-like dish, dal and coconut chutney.   Even the terminal staff take care of you.  From the moment we arrived at the terminal, friendly airport staff circled us, eager to help us navigate the airport and its procedures.  No one seemed to be looking for a tip, and the luggage carts are free.

Stepping off the plane and on to the jetway I was hit by a blast of hot, humid air welcoming me to Mumbai. The new Mumbai domestic airport impressed Anjali with how new, shiny, and immaculate it was, almost making her forget that we were in India. Harsh reality intruded when we exited the airport and were besieged by shark-like taxi drivers eager to grossly overcharge us for the ride to our hotel. I stayed with our mound of luggage while Anjali went in search of a prepaid taxi stand that we learned didn’t exist. What an oversight! Why create a fancy new airport and then leave tourists at the mercy of conniving taxi wallahs? We decided our only hope was to try to find an honest face in the crowd, and Anjali settled on an elderly grandfather, who after learning our destination promptly turned us over to the sketchiest looking con artist on the lot, a low-rent Bollywood villain sipping chai through an enormous bushy mustache. His boys wrestled the luggage cart from me and wheeled it over to the driver’s car. We kept insisting “meter” to which he all too happily agreed, “meter!”

Too happily.

What was wrong here?

Once all our luggage was in his car, his boys hung around long enough, fencing in the car, that we eventually paid them off for the grueling task of pushing a luggage cart a few dozen feet. The driver than explained that he needed to take us to his other AC car. “We don’t care about AC,” we explained, to which he responded that the meter in the car we were in didn’t work, the fuse was broken, and we would need to switch to his other car, whose meter worked. We smelled a rat, and sensing this, he kept insisting that he was “president and CEO” of his company, and he wanted to give us his card, as he didn’t just want our business for the trip to our hotel, but for the entire time we were in Mumbai.

He drove us to a nearby parking lot, and moved all our luggage to his other car. He didn’t strike me as someone that was very fond of physical labor, but he eagerly hefted our bags from car to car. I made sure to take photos of both license plates, figuring that we were in for a mother of a scam. The digital meter in his new car was under the steering column, and not on top of the dash. A few minutes from the airport it was showing a fare far higher than it should have, as if we had already traveled half the distance to our hotel, which was still twenty-some kilometers away. Our driver was very chatty, and it soon came out that he was from Jabalpur, Anjali’s family home, and he started referring to Anjali as “Sister,” so happy it made him that her roots were in his home town.

Anjali’s mother has a saying, “Never trust anyone from Jabalpur,” which this miscreant proved in spades. The fare was spiraling up at such a comic rate that I placed a call to our hotel, loudly asking what the fare should be from the domestic airport. Our driver piped in that the car was “AC,” and was only too eager to find out what they had said after I hung up. I told him, and he quickly started pressing buttons on the meter. Anjali and the driver made eye contact through the rear view mirror while he did this, and he quickly moved his leg over the meter, so that she couldn’t read it for the rest of our trip. She did see that before he started pressing it the meter said that we had already gone 81 km, about four times the actual distance of our entire journey, which we had only just begun. He explained that the rate may be more due to traffic, which is bullshit, because fares are determined by kilometer, not time.

I simmered in the backseat, and he must have begun feeling the heat, for after a while he asked me, “Sir, why are you so unhappy in India? If you are not happy; then I am not happy. Tell me why you are not happy.” I locked eyes with him in the rearview mirror and said, “There are too many chors (thieves) in India.” At this he began protesting loudly and became very defensive. I shouted that I knew what was going on with the rigged meter and that he was cheating us. He insisted we go to the police station before the hotel to clear this up, as “the customer is god,” and once again he could not be happy if I was not happy. I told him how eager I was to go to the police station, and that I had good photos to show them. After calling his bluff he changed tactics with me and began first by talking about how it is America that is full of chors. I agreed to that, and that there were chors everywhere. He loudly yelled that India had all the chors, not America, but I think he was yelling the opposite of what he was trying to communicate. He began complaining about how corrupt the police in Mumbai are, and how all they want is money. He segued into talking about 26/11 (This is how Indians refer to the attacks on Mumbai, as Indians put days before months when they write a date, and the attacks began on November 26th.), and how the reason it dragged on for sixty hours was because of the corruption of the police. After our yelling match he attempted to suggest that everything was OK between us, and he kept wanting to shake my hand from the front seat, but I namasted him instead, which he returned. I told him I wouldn’t shake his hands until we were at the hotel and all our luggage was out of the car. He made no more mention of going to the police station, and ignored me for the rest of the trip, only addressing Anjali, and always as “Sister,” saying we could ignore the meter, and “pay as you wish.”

Anjali didn’t want any more tension for the long traffic-gridlocked ride to our hotel, and wanted me to drop it, but I was all too eager to make this guy squirm the whole way to the hotel. I was clearly channeling a lot of my anger over all our auto wallah rip-offs in Chennai, but I was primarily angry at him for all the hapless tourists he had ripped off in his forty years as a cab driver in Mumbai. He probably imagined all foreigners are rich and I imagined most of them could probably survive the thousands of rupees he would steal from them, but I also imagined people that might have been robbed by him that really couldn’t afford to lose the money at that time. My sense of injustice was thoroughly tweaked, but for Anjali’s sake I stopped yelling and simply smoldered. When we got to the Sea Green South Hotel, I photographed the meter while our driver was dealing with the luggage. It read 150 rupees more than the highest fare the hotel front desk person said we should pay, even after he had reset the meter from its original astronomical progression.

I exited the car to face the driver who was waiting to be paid. I took a photo of him and said that I wanted a photo of “the one honest man in Bombay.”

I handed over the fare the hotel said I should pay and told him not to rip off any more tourists. He looked confused. “Don’t steal,” I said. “Don’t steal from foreigners or god will curse you! God will destroy you!” I could tell from his adornment and his language that he considered himself a devout Hindu, and I wanted to use language he could understand. Maybe if I invoked the threat of divine retribution he would change his ways. He followed me into the hotel making a scene and demanding his additional 150 rupees. –So much for “pay as you wish.”–  While he attempted to win the front desk staff over with his tale of being ripped off by tourists, I showed the staff the photos I had taken on our digital camera. They told him he had gotten plenty and ordered him out. He kept insisting that “God is good,” and continued to make a scene as he exited. Such was my rage that I kept yelling “God will curse you! God will destroy you!” until he was out of earshot. The whole experience reminded me of the sign painted on the back of a truck as related by Suketu Mehta in Maximum City: “101 out of 100 are dishonest. Still my India is the best.”

Anjali quipped, “Getting away with what you can, that’s India.” She was very sympathetic to the man, and none too happy that I sat in our hotel room and had very uncharacteristic thoughts of revenge and a desire for the driver’s utter destruction. Anjali said he was an “uncle” and deserved at least a little respect. She figured he didn’t even see himself as a thief, just someone who was trying to get away with what he could.

We stayed at the Sea Green South Hotel, which was our second choice after the identical adjoining Sea Green Hotel where we stayed at on our prior trip informed us that they were full. We had a romantic attachment from our last stay there, and Anjali’s mother’s family stayed there when her mother was a child. There are fabulously expensive hotels along Marine Drive, overlooking the ocean, but this is the only affordable option we know of, and it is close to the action, right where we want to be, in walking distance of much of central Mumbai. The Sea Green hotels are Art Deco constructions of the 1940’s, built to house British army officers.

We rested in our hotel in our first floor sea-facing room, and after a nap my anger had subsided substantially. I really wanted to report the taxi chor, but I knew it would mean spending all day in bureaucratic hell in a police station and nothing ever coming of it anyway. It took me days before I could let go of the idea, and accept that there were many other ways I would far rather spend my limited time in Mumbai. Sorry if you are the next tourist scammed by this guy.

When we first arrived in Mumbai on our last trip, we stayed with our friend Rajvi and her family, and as she had been living in London recently, we weren’t even sure if we would see her on this trip. We first met in Portland when Rajvi attended Lewis & Clark. She was one of the earliest supporters of Anjali and my professional DJ career, attending all our weekly shows at the Kalga Cafe, and then our larger dance parties at Lola’s Room and the Fez Ballroom. We hadn’t seen her since our last visit to Mumbai five years ago. She called us in our hotel room, and it was great to hear her voice after so much time. We made plans for the next day and then Anjali and I caught a taxi for far too much money down Marine Drive to Cream Centre, a forty-year-old vegetarian restaurant that serves hygienic snack food to the middle class including some very funky fusions and what they claim are the “world’s best nachos.” We remembered Cream Centre fondly from our last trip, but we stuck to Bombay, Delhi, and Panjabi snack food, and didn’t take a chance on their nachos or other unusual fusion dishes. We ordered various combinations of their chana served with different starches and sauces while we watched the sun set on the ocean across from us. Their masala chai comes in a teapot filled with a voluminous amount of tea and spices, including fresh mint. After our meal we crossed Marine Drive and walked for a while on Chowpatty Beach, where men were available for hire to push your child around in a plastic truck, which in America would have been motorized, but the only functioning electronics in these vehicles were radios blasting current Bollywood hits. I couldn’t believe that we were completely ignored and unmolested the whole time we were on the beach. I had remembered being swarmed with beggars when we visited Chowpatty Beach five years ago. After sunset we walked the long promenade along the sea to our hotel, which has been thoroughly “cleaned up,” meaning there are no more stands selling pani puri and bhel puri to people strolling.

As much as I could have easily spent months in Delhi, and as much as I loved Hyderabad, arriving in Mumbai -even with the hassles- I was quickly reminded that it is my favorite city in India.  You can avoid a lot of frustration by staying out of traffic,  sticking to the core of the city, and walking. I love walking around Mumbai:  beautiful hot sunny days, the skies cleared up by ocean breeze, endless vistas of Indian Gothic architecture, long gated parks, actual crosswalks with traffic control lights, and a sea of humanity. Most people ignore you, like in New York, or any other large metropolis used to a regular flow of tourists, and a heavy influx of immigrants.

We arrived in Mumbai on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The night (It happened 10:30pm Indian time.) of Barack Obama’s inauguration was the only time we were in India that we wanted to find a group of Americans with whom to spend our time. We figured the ex-pat’s enclave of Leopold’s that was attacked on 26/11 would be insanely crowded, if not impossible to get into, so we searched for other options on a long walk through Mumbai, while I also searched frantically, and unsuccessfully, for a copy of Timeout Mumbai to find out what our entertainment options were while we were in the city. Two months after the attacks, the city seemed back to normal, except that now there are soldiers with sub machine guns posted behind mounds of sandbags on corners throughout the central city, and Anjali noticed new billboards with terrorism warnings and admonitions to be a part of the effort, keep your eyes open, and report anything suspicious.  My cheeks passed machine gun muzzles inches away, while the soldiers holding them were terrorized, according to anonymous informants, by the mosquitos  and rats that made the damp sand bags home.  In our long and indirect perambulation we  finally found the Gateway of India, now with all new associations. The nearby Taj Mahal Hotel is under intense security, and Anjali and I walked past their guards, the new security wall surrounding the building, went through their metal detectors, and got searched, in order to look for a copy of Timeout Mumbai in their bookstore, and to inquire about any inauguration parties that might be occurring there. They knew of nothing, but they suggested the nearby Tendulkar’s -the celebrity cricket player’s namesake restaurant.

The televisions in Tendulkar’s were tuned to cricket, but they said they could set one up for us to watch the inauguration, but I didn’t want to force a room full of Indians to watch an inauguration they apparently cared little about, nor did I want to pay the astronomical amount of money it would probably cost to spend hours at Tendulkar’s, so we tried Jeffrey’s, near our hotel, which our friend Rajvi recommended. At Jeffrey’s the TVs were tuned to the inauguration and not cricket, but the TVs were on mute with a Wham soundtrack playing over the sound system. As a last-ditch attempt to get some dinner before we headed to our hotel to watch the inauguration, I bought several pastries from their dessert counter, which I ate from a box in front of the TV while we watched the historic broadcast. Anjali saw me as unconsciously saluting the inauguration with my American indulgence.  The chocolate coating of the pastries had the right texture, but no flavor, and the pastries tasted largely of whipped cream and chewy bread.

The next day the Indian newspaper analyses of the inaugural address were entirely focused on what intimations there were of Barack Obama’s intentions for India and to what extent he was going to crackdown on Pakistan. India is eager for Obama to play hardball with Pakistan.  Barack Obama has a lot to prove to equal Bush in the eyes of Indian commentators, as Bush was responsible for the legislation which allowed civilian nuclear technology sharing with India. A commentator noted that in Obama’s foreign policy statement, India, the world’s second most populous country, the world’s largest democracy, and one of America’s allies, isn’t mentioned at all.  I guess that currently our new administration is not thinking about how our relationship with India will play a role in the future of international politics.

Our second day in Mumbai we woke up and went to Shiv Sagar , another hygienic middle class place to order Bombay snack food, South Indian dishes, Chinese food, North Indian food, etc.  We got their (vegetarian) Bombay Burger and Tandoori Burger along with a nice and oniony Rava Masala Dosa. We went to Chor Bazaar, alleys of antique shops in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood dotted with mosques, where we had bought a lot of Bollywood records and ephemera on our last trip. We went back to the dusty shops we remembered from last time, and a couple more in the area of Mutton Street.

Our first time in Chor Bazaar we had spent many hours digging through man-sized stacks of rat-chewed, urine-reeking, mold-spotted albums, but this time we were only willing to look through ones in better condition, as we have so many Bollywood records at this point, we hardly feel a need to buy the most battered ones in existence. Even the better condition records in Chor Bazaar are quite filthy, and after many hours of getting our fingers dirty we ditched our records at the hotel, cleaned off the grime, and took a taxi to the suburb of Bandra to meet up with our friend Rajvi and her friends Shruti and Shanti.

Everyone was in high spirits as Rajvi drove us to the rooftop lounge of the Del Italia restaurant that goes by the name of Il Terrazzo in the Juhu suburb of Mumbai. We were there to see Bollywood singer Anoushka Manchanda sing her own material with a backing band of guitar, bass, keyboards and drums as part of a series called Daddy’s WindSong Wednesdays. Except for a song inspired by the Mumbai terror attacks, all the songs were in English, usually about bad relationships. Anoushka referred to herself and the audience as “middle class” and said the recent terrorist attacks have convinced her, a non-voter, that the middle class, who traditionally don’t vote, need to start.  She talked about when she was broke (living at home!) when she only made $40,000 rupees a month as a VJ.  She had to live on ramen by the end of the month.  Meanwhile, I’m trying to square this with the fact that nearly half the population of India lives on less than 100 rupees a day.

Anoushka swore in both Hindi and English from the stage, and talked openly about sleeping around and drinking too much, very shocking to me after months in what is mostly a very conservative culture. And she came with her parents!  She was quite entertaining as a personality, even though I got tired of her musical set well before it was over. She did do a fun parody-medley of some ’70s Bollywood songs about how the host of Daddy’s strongarmed her into performing her music live. Afterwards the girls wanted to take us to their favorite dive bar Janata, but the bar was closed, only selling liquor through a boy that stood out front of the shuttered edifice.  After placing a to-go order of wine and deliciously oily chili chicken and chili paneer passed around the car and eaten with fingers, we headed to Chowpatty Beach for a late-night stroll. On the way there Shanti was so overcome when the current Indian favorite slow jam “Guzarish” from the Hindi Ghajini soundtrack came on the radio that the sun roof was rolled back so she could stand on her seat and dance in the evening breeze. The nighttime stroll never happened, as security was there to keep us from walking on the beach. After much clowning around on the promenade under the lights of the Queen’s Necklace we called it a night.

The third day Rajvi met up with us to take us back to Swati Snacks, where we had first eaten five years ago. They serve all sorts of Gujarati vegetarian specialties that aren’t available anywhere else in Mumbai. Most of the dishes on the menu I’ve never heard of, or have any idea what they are. As a Gujarati, we leave it up to Rajvi to do the ordering. My favorite dish was called makai khichu: a grain and rice dish with a mashed potato-like texture, with corn kernels stirred in, and a hot chutney on the side. Rajvi had such memories of my joyful eating that she brought a camera just to record my reactions as I ate.

We then learned what a pain parking in Mumbai is, as we searched for chai or paan, but eventually we made it to the Oxford Bookstore for tea. I was horrified to learn that the bookstore had pulled all books by Pakistani authors off the shelves after being threatened by the Shiv Sena. The police even advised they take the books off the shelves after hearing of the threat.  So much for freedom of the press. After browsing, Rajvi took us to the Bandra suburb, where she dropped us at a record stall we had been tipped to by one of the record dealers in Chor Bazaar. They were very friendly and affordable, and we filled up my backpack with records.

We had learned that our friend DJ Rekha from New York was in Mumbai as part of a DJ tour of India that had been arranged by the United States Consulate General, Mumbai. We caught an auto from the record stall to the area of Bandra on the sea called “Bandstand” near the Taj Land’s End. The place was under high security due to a big political meeting occurring at the Taj including human scum Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, so we had to get searched on our way to the outdoor amphitheater where Rekha was performing. We followed the sound of the bass, and made it to the amphitheater. The venue and the time of Rekha’s performance had both been changed at the last minute, due to the big political get-together, so there were very few people in attendance at the performance, part of the Mumbai Festival. There were some Indian break dancers on stage, and Anjali joined them with her own bhangra moves, which the crowd cheered. Anjali danced for so long on stage, with such abandon, that a group of Indian uncles approached her afterwards to congratulate her on her dancing and insist that she must be Panjabi, despite her assertions to the contrary. Rekha played bhangra and hip-hop, including songs by Lil’ Kim and Mary J. Blige. Representing Mumbai she played Bollywood nugget “Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan,” and representing Brooklyn, she played a Biggie song, and Santogold’s “Shove It,” which may have been its Mumbai debut.  That’s just a guess.  Nobody we talked to in India had ever heard of Santoglod.

The show was shut down early so that the speeches of Muslim-slaughterer Narendra Modi and others weren’t interrupted. In 2007 the United States revoked Modi’s visa:

on the accusation that he was responsible for violations of religious freedom as per the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. He was again denied a visa to the United States in August of 2008 for his human and religious rights violations. The Coalition against Genocide (CAG) said that they have urged the state Department to put a lifetime ban on issuing a US visa to Narendra Modi. [wiki]

While we were in Chennai we watched a press conference on the news where a bunch of billionaire heavy hitters from India’s business community declared their desire to see Modi become Prime Minister, as he is seen as being such a friend to development in his state of Gujarat.

We got a ride with Rekha and her assistant/cousin Preksha in a consulate SUV to the super-rich tower apartment they were being hosted in, with amazing views of the city like I had never seen before.  I had been to a lot of swanky places in India, but this felt the most luxurious. Rekha suggested we go to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner, which is an establishment Anjali and I have never patronized, but it seemed wacky enough to be entertaining in a lowbrow kind of way. We arrived at the Hard Rock Cafe to see a long line of guys waiting to get in. “Stags” as single guys are known in India, are not welcome at most clubs. Since I was with three women, we waltzed right in ahead of the long line. Unfortunately I still had a very full and very heavy backpack filled with Bollywood records, so when we discovered that it would be a long wait for a table, I had to stand in the bar area straddling the backpack awkwardly, while people jostled all around me. Our wait was epic as we were serenaded by a DJ playing songs such as Bryan Adams (India’s favorite) “Run to You,” Def Leppard “Animal,” U2 “With Or Without You,” Metallica “Unforgiven,” and Bon Jovi “Livin’ On A Prayer” while wannabe Indian rockers holding beers bobbed their heads and sang along all around us.  While the vibe was incredibly American mainstream, I had to remember that this was an alternative lifestyle in a country overrun by Bollywood music.

When we were finally seated we learned that there was special entertainment for the evening, Indian rocker Gary Lawyer, whose name meant nothing to any of us. We learned later from our friend Rajvi that Gary was the  original Indian rocker of her childhood in the ’80s. To us he just seemed like an embarrassing, washed-up guy with a gray mullet. He started by singing songs from his “new album” to digital backing tracks, including a song dedicated to saving the tigers, which was accompanied by a video broadcast on screens throughout the club showing scenes of tiger slaughter. His lyrics were trite and all in English, and he sang them with great earnestness. When he said he was promoting his fifth album we were shocked, as we couldn’t believe he even had one release to his name.  Eventually a band joined him onstage for old rock’n’roll covers, including “Break on Through to the Other Side” (Apparently Gary Lawyer was once considered India’s Jim Morrison.), “Mustang Sally” and “New York, New York” which we jokingly insisted must have been in Rekha’s honor, so we suggested she join him on stage, to no avail.  I later learned he began his career in the nightclubs of New York in the early ’80s, so his covering that song makes sense, despite how befuddling it was at the time.  He seemed to clear many people from the club, but there were people standing in rapture who were vocal and into it as well, miraculously applauding after each song.  When he performed an oldies medley with many songs made famous by Elvis Presley I noticed two middle-aged men engaged in a passionate twist contest on the floor.

The food was atrocious, and everyone except me left the majority of the food on their plate. I ordered pasta which I figured they couldn’t mess up too bad, but Rekha’s chicken was pink on the inside, and she couldn’t even eat her burger, which she said was salty and all wrong. I’m sorry, but if the Hard Rock Cafe can’t even get a burger right there is something seriously wrong going on in the kitchen. The service was comical in both its absence, and its repeated bunglings. We left just as Gary Lawyer was introducing Louis Banks, “the greatest musician in India” so who knows what we missed out on. Of course Louis called Gary Lawyer “the greatest singer in India,” so that didn’t bode well for the music they were to perform together.

That night we were supposed to go to a hip club called the Blue Frog where the owner Dhruv was celebrating his CD release. Based on who I knew was going to be there, the party probably would have been attended by everyone who is anyone in the Mumbai electronic music and DJ community, and no doubt would have been an unsurpassable networking opportunity.  After hours of hideous mediocrity at the Hard Rock Cafe I had no interest in doing anything other than going to bed. This was typical of how we spent our time in India, managing to avoid anything that could have helped our DJ career in any way. At least most of the time we were eating really good food.

Friday we were looking forward to seeing Slumdog Millionaire on its opening day in India. We had been reading so much about it in the Indian press, and weren’t even sure if it was going to release before we had left the country. The movie had garnered a fair amount of controversy as some people felt that the movie was “poverty porn,” and that it emphasized the poorest elements of India, because that is the only way the West is capable of viewing India. Some commentators argued that a Western director came in to show a picture of poverty that gives people a one-sided view of India. There were opinion pieces upset that Danny Boyle didn’t do a movie about Indian billionaires and skyscrapers and shiny new malls. Certain segments of the Indian upper classes are sick of the traditional Western image of India as a place of overwhelming poverty, and they want their realitly of affluence to be reflected in the world media. There were protests organized against the film, with people demonstrating in front of some theaters on opening day. The word “slumdog” is not known in India, and many slum dwellers took the title literally, and assumed the film was calling them dogs. There were Hindu activists who didn’t like the portrayal of the Lord Rama in the film, who felt that the use of the god’s image in the scenes of the Hindus killing the Muslims was highly inappropriate. There are ongoing protests and lawsuits against the film in India to this day.

We were fortunate that our friend Jacques was in Mumbai visiting from Singapore. We arranged to see an afternoon matinee of Slumdog Millionaire with him at the historic Art Deco 1930’s Regal Cinema in downtown Mumbai on opening day. Before meeting up with Jacques, Anjali and I ate at the very solid Delhi Darbar down the street from the Regal for a feast of North Indian food. I hadn’t had North Indian food in a while, as I wanted a break from the heavy oily sauces and rich and thick breads, but I waited just long enough to thoroughly enjoy this meal, heavy sauces, and thick breads alike. A half hour after our screening was supposed to start, and an hour and a half after we last talked to Jacques, there was still no sign of him. Such is the abysmal nature of Mumbai traffic. We bought another set of tickets for the next Slumdog Millionaire showing and walked down the street to do some shopping for handicrafts af Cottage Industries, hoping Jacques would call us on his cell when he finally got done with his epic taxi ride. We didn’t hear from him, but on our walk back by the theater Anjali checked the lobby to see that Jacques had arrived and was waiting for us.  We walked around a bit in the hot sun before the start of our showing.

Slumdog Millionaire was released in India in two versions, the original English one, and a version dubbed in Hindi called Slumdog Crorepati. The Hindi version has apparently done much better in India as it is too unrealistic for an Indian audience to accept that slum dwellers speak in perfect English to each other. Even I had trouble with those scenes. The theater was only partially full for the mid afternoon showing, and up in the balcony where we bought our (assigned) seats, the reaction was very muted, and I even thought I heard people shushing talkative moviegoers, which is a very un-Indian way to see a movie. People didn’t even applaud at the end. I thought the movie was entertaining, but I thought it didn’t maintain the tension all the way through, and the big emotional surge at the end never really happened for me. MIA got screwed on the Indian version of the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, as both versions of her “Paper Planes” track were dropped from the Indian release. No one that we talked to in India had heard of MIA, even middle class kids with eclectic music collections, and the soundtrack would have been a great introduction to India for MIA. Instead India will learn of MIA through just the highly processed verse of hers included on the “O Saaya” track. In all of India we only found MIA in one CD shop, the hip Rhythm House in Mumbai, which only had her second album.

Upon exiting the theater the three of us took pictures of each other in front of the Slumdog Millionaire poster framed outside the theater. It took me a while to notice that there were a lot of other people taking photos as well, all of Anjali. Apparently many news photographers were sent to take pictures of people exiting Slumdog Millionaire, and the way they were all circled around Anjali and taking photo after photo I wondered if they thought she was a Bollywood actress or something. After the movie we returned to Cream Centre with Jacques, and then we were off to his room at the Four Seasons in Worli to freshen up before seeing DJ Rekha perform at a nightclub in the suburb of Juhu.

Before dinner I got a worrying text from DHL that the last box we had shipped to Portland from Pondicherry was to be “returned to shipper,” and seeing as how incompetent the staff at the Pondicherry DHL were, I was afraid that a bunch of our South Indian music purchases were on their way back to India. After dinner and our arrival at Jacques’ fabulous room on the twenty-first floor I spent an anxiety-ridden evening on the phone with DHL staff in India and the US trying to determine why our shipment had made it to Portland, and then was returned to the East Coast, and seemingly on its way back to India. I needed this music for our return gig at the Fez Ballroom, and was panicked by this turn of events. Jacques was very helpful, and his room was the most luxurious site I could imagine to spend frustrated hours on the phone with call center staff in two continents. By the time I learned that the box was sent back to the East Coast for closer customs inspection, and that I didn’t have to worry about it being returned to India, many hours had passed, and we soon realized that with how early clubs are required to close by law in Mumbai, we would never make it to the Juhu club to see much of Rekha’s set before she had to stop. Anjali and I had looked forward to seeing Rekha and dancing with Rajvi, Jacques and friends, but such was not to be. I knew that once again in addition to missing out on a fun night of dancing and music, we also missed another prime opportunity to network with DJs, producers and promoters in the Mumbai electronic music scene. We managed to make it two months in India without going to a single nightclub to see a single DJ.

It was our fifth day in Mumbai before we got down to the serious business of shopping for contemporary music, as opposed to dusty old records. Vinyl record manufacture largely ceased in India in the late ’80s, so any music from the last twenty years is only available on CD or cassette. We started by going to Rhythm House, which is so densely packed with music and DVDs that I found myself constantly in someone’s (usually many ones’) path as I tried to hunker down in a section and methodically go through the contents. Hindi CDs run less than $4, but if you want a western CD it will cost you around $10 new. I am unaware of any place in India that sells used CDs. We then tried to find the Mumbai outlet of the Planet M chain, which we learned had recently “shifted” (just like the one in Chennai which we never found), and after some walking we found its now much smaller and underwhelming new location.

On the way there we found a record dealer selling records on the street. He had lots of great soundtracks, by some of my favorite music directors, but he wanted 150 rupees a piece for them, even though they were in bad shape, had their edges taped up, and he had gone so far as to write the price in pen on the sleeves. I complained that he was selling 30 rupee records for 150, and became indignant, claiming he didn’t sell 30 rupee records. He took us into an alleyway to show us even more records that he had stashed back there, but they were all in the same poor condition, and no matter how great I’m sure the music was, I wasn’t willing to pay his prices, and we didn’t like his attitude. We left after some looking, but without buying a single record. In the cab ride back to the hotel I suggested we try to contact some of the record sellers whose info I had gotten from DJ Rajah in San Francisco. Anjali groused that their records were probably as bad or worse as the ones we had just looked at, and I chided her for her negativity, since DJ Rajah had been so enthusiastic about the dealers he recommended. I called one of them to make an appointment for the next morning to see his wares. After picking up Indian suits Anjali had tailored, we then spent a large chunk of the evening at DHL shipping our final two boxes of loot back to the States. We finished the evening by going to Gaylord’s restaurant for a classic North Indian dinner.

Our final day in Mumbai we met up with the record seller recommended by DJ Rajah who turned out to be the same guy we had bumped into randomly the day before. We had the same frustrating interaction, except after many requests for records in better condition he brought out a not-too-bad stack. I bargained HARD with him to even get him down to 150 rupees each, as he wanted 250 rupees each for the ones in nicer condition. This was more than five times what I have ever bought records for in Mumbai. He really didn’t want to budge, but after pulling out the money I was willing to give him, and holding it out in front of him, he finally, grudgingly relented. Then he suggested we come back to his house where he had better records. What?? Now he wants to bring out the good records? We had no fun dealing with the man, and weren’t eager to spend any more time with him, so I made one final trip to stock up on Bollywood remixes at Rhythm House while Anjali made her final trip to Fab India to stock up on churidar.

Our friend Rajvi called us after we had returned to our hotel and told us she was coming to meet us. Knowing my love for food, she took us to Diva Maharashtracha in the Mahim area of Mumbai. It is one of three restaurants, along with Culture Curry and Goa Portuguesa, that line a block, and are all run by the couple of chef Deepa Awchat, and Dr. Suhas Awchat MD. They have a very cute and kitschy aesthetic to marketing themselves and their restaurants, and we actually met Dr. Awchat while we were eating. Diva Maharashtracha serves Maharashtrian home specialties that Rajvi says can’t be found at any other restaurant in Mumbai. Rajvi ordered dumplings of colcasia leaves, banana flower dumplings, a smoky, peanuty stuffed eggplant dish called Bharleli Wangi, a Vaal (field beans) dish with coconut and chilies, and Masale Bhat with Katachi Amti, which tasted like a super-flavorful biryani. I thought the food was fabulous, including very unusual savory and spicy Maharashtrian specialty non-alcoholic drinks, but I knew something wasn’t right when two staff came by late in our meal to ask if everything was “OK” and “not too spicy.”

Nooooooooooooooo!!!!! Don’t tell me they made it bland for my whitey ass. Nooooooo!!! We were being treated by our Indian host who ordered, yet still my white skin cursed me. I asked Rajvi if the food tasted blander than she was used to, and after thinking about it, she said that it was indeed blander than they usually serve it. I noticed that she hadn’t asked for it spicy, and I assumed that would be OK, but she, knowing that we like it spicy, didn’t ask for it any special way, not realizing that the staff would make note of my white skin and have the kitchen bland the food out for me. Arrrrrgggghhhhh. Fortunately there were a variety of very unusual and spicy chili-ridden chutneys, so I was able to inject some heat into the meal one way or another. I asked for menus for the two other restaurants, and I slavered over them for quite a while, fantasizing about the meals I would have to eat the next time we were in Mumbai. The Culture Curry menu, with its range of specialties from Southern Indian states looked especially tantalizing to me.

After gorging, Rajvi kindly drove us to the “Bandstand” area of Bandra, on the water, where we got tea at a place with large filthy windows overlooking the rocky beach. Rajvi explained that when she and her brother were children they would crawl along the rocks and see villagers conducting black magic ceremonies on the beach. Now there is only a restaurant with instant chai and coffee vending machines. After chai, Rajvi drove us by the house of Bollywood titan Sharukh Khan, and she noted the unsightly four story tower awkwardly grafted to the back of his house.  Apparently it is illegal and against code, and one floor houses film director Karan Johar and host of Koffee with Karan. The inside word is that Sharukh is bisexual and Karan holds on tightly as they ride Sharukh’s motorcycle around the neighborhood.

Rajvi kindly drove us around the suburbs of Mumbai to help us fulfill our final shopping urges before we had to take our leave of India.   Anjali hoped to find quality paan and Indian sweets to bring home, but was foiled on both fronts.  I managed to find some long kurtas at City Plaza in Santa Cruz, but not the short ones I looked all over India for without success.  After shopping as late as we could, Anjali and I caught a cab back into the city to our hotel. We arranged for the cab to wait for us, packed up all our luggage, and off we went to the airport. After I called to say goodbye to our Sikh friend Lucky from the Golden Temple, Anjali called her Grandmother with the remaining minutes on our Indian cellphone and they exchanged tearful goodbyes.

The taxi driver dropped at the wrong airport gate, and the front of the terminal was mobbed with families saying hello and goodbye. Somehow, despite the mob scene, people instinctively moved out of my way as I made a long trek to the correct gate with all our baggage heaped high on a luggage cart. After checking in we were able to say goodbye to our friend Jacques, who we met in the terminal shortly before his flight departed. We used our last rupees to eat in an abysmal airport restaurant mockingly titled Indian Paradise. More like Indian Cafeteria. It was unbelievably expensive for the tiny portions of flavorless imitation Indian food scooped on to styrofoam plates.

Standing in line at our gate, I was attacked by the mosquitos living inside the airport. As I attempted to kill the ones feasting on my neck, I thought about the irony of catching malaria moments before boarding the plane. Apparently all the stagnant water in the area around the domestic and international airports in Mumbai means that malaria statistics for the airport are quite high.  Slather on mosquito repellent before entering or leaving Mumbai!

Anjali was so sad at the thought of leaving. She was not ready to go back to Portland.  I, however, had had enough of lugging my bags around, and not having the childhood connection that Anjali does, I was ready to return to Portland, for now, at least until our next trip.

After I was selected for a random search, we soon boarded our flight.  Not to Portland, just yet, but instead to three days in Amsterdam . . .

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