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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Mumbai: The Soundtrack

So, I’m sitting in my hotel room in Mumbai as I write this, The Gordon House, a charming little boutique hotel in Colaba, the downtown area of Mumbai, which is constantly jumping. Street bazaars, coffee shops, restaurants abound in Colaba and The Gordon House is right in the center of the action. It’s around the corner from the Gateway of India which is the main port of Mumbai, a city that is so cosmopolitan, so full of energy and life, that I easily fall for it. Thus far, Mumbai is my favorite city in India. The architecture of Mumbai reeks of the British; beautiful Victorian buildings, brownstones on side streets, parks everywhere but with palm trees for a tropical touch, or the reminder that you’re not in Europe. Mumbai ranks with London, Paris and New York, it’s a modern city, with old school charm and loads of character.

The Gordon House, painted baby yellow and white in all the common areas with stressed-wood country French furniture and shabby chic accents in all of the rooms is a hotel where you feel you can relax and escape the hecticness of the Mumbai streets. My room could easily double as a guest bedroom in my future home (one day, one day…) because the taste is exactly mine (Kar – you AND CAROL - would LOVE it). The ONLY drawback is the nightclub downstairs. Yeah. When I checked in, they warned me:
“You like noise?” the receptionist asked devilishly.
“How much noise, why?” I shot back.
“Oh, we have nightclub underneath, noisy,” he replied.
I had NO IDEA just how serious he was….

Hence, my writing this entry at 4 AM on a Saturday night, after my own long evening, tired, weary from a day of exploring and a night of making new travel friends (repeating the same story to new people all the time gets tiring…). The bass is kicking, the walls are pounding, the people are yelling below as the soundtrack continues. I’m NOT sleeping, so I might as well be writing. Fodor’s forgot to mention “the nightclub” when they gave this hotel a starred review. So, to Saturday Night Fever, I begin my Mumbai blog.

I’m not only (Staying Alive), I’m most definitely staying awake…

In my first hours in Mumbai, I went to the Haji Ali mosque, and while Mumbai is so lovely in so many ways, the poverty here rocked me harder than it did in Delhi. The Haji Ali is set at the end of a long pier in Back Bay, off the Arabian Sea. My taxi driver begged me to let him wait and take me my next place, or to let him accompany me to the mosque, but tired of being taken as a female tourist in need of “help” through India, which usually turns into being taken advantage of is some fiscal way, I refused. (Chaka Khan/I Feel For You) As you walk the length of the pier, you are accosted by the poor. Both sides of the pier are lined with beggars and children, holding out silver pans for change. There isn’t room between one family, one group, to the next. And each set of desperate eyes implores you to aid them in some way. The limbless form circles on the ground, drumming their stubs in unison while chanting religious songs, the babies are malnourished, their bellies swollen while their limbs are bony, the blind walk with canes in one hand, jars in the other, mothers with broods and little clothing put their hands to their mouths as you pass, and you can’t help but stare. I was completely aghast at the intensity of the poverty on the pier. I was emotional, trying hard not to make eye contact, not to crack. (Electric Avenue) Then, I got to the mosque. I guess that because I was so focused on the homeless, I wasn’t seeing that I was being watched by a thousand Muslim eyes. I was wearing a tank top (I keep forgetting!!) and knee length skirt. My head wasn’t covered, I was “announcing” myself, seemingly. And, as I made way into the mosque (where I wasn’t asked to cover) I felt the oppression of the women of this country. Signs everywhere in the mosque denoting where “women only” should be. Men leering in hordes, closing in, surrounding me. I kept wandering through, “I’M FINE” running as a mantra in my head. But, clearly, I wasn’t. Between the pier and the mosque, I had had my fill. I started back the way that I came, spinning a little from the sensory and intellectual overload. (YMCA) And, there, on the pier was my taxi driver, relentlessly waiting. My relief at seeing him, at being “rescued” even if I was going to get a whopping “wait charge” on the taxi that was bullshit, was overwhelming. Seeing my body language – he whispered, “Let’s go, ok?” I rightfully offered him the “you were right” once we were back in the cab. Polite as always, he replied, “No madam, it was my duty,” and smiled, secretly loving that I had given him his due. Of course, he ripped me off anywy, that’s par for the course. I’m always ripped off in Asia, that’s what Asia does best.

(Land Down Under) I spent the next two days merely wandering Mumbai. The city is one big bazaar. The tunics, colorful skirts, silk and gorgeously patterned Kashmiri pashmina scarves and shawls, the bangle bracelets, the rugs, the linens, the jewels, it’s all eye-candy and Oh-So-Enticing. But, between the stalls lie naked babies sleeping alone on scorching concrete sidewalks that you practically trip over, looking down to see what you’re about to step on and – gasp – it’s a CHILD, bums and beggars in nooks and crannies, distracting you from the myriad of colors and cottons. But, like Delhi, next to beggars on corners, are Hugo Boss clad business men with Rolexes on cell phones, drivers waiting to whisk them to their next meeting. India’s contrasts are country-wide, seemingly, all cities are plagued by the highbrow-lowbrow gap. (Don’t You Want Me) As you walk through the streets, the market places, you’re pestered by the sellers: “Pst, hello,” “Look at my shop,” “Take a peek, it doesn’t cost you anything to LOOK,” “Sssss, tourist, my store,” “Come inside, you, you, hello.” You are also hissed at, whistled at by the men. They “brush” into you as you go by, gently swatted on the rear as you pass. Try as you might to avoid it, the density of people everywhere allows such transgressions to occur, and as you turn to ball out the dirty old man that “accidentally” fell into you, he’s gone – swallowed by the throng that’s just passed you by. (Get Into the Groove)

One of the other things specific to Mumbai is the Bollywood agents. India’s movie industry is HUGE. Second, in international size, only to Hong Kong. Hollywood pales in comparison to the obsession that Indians place on cinema and their stars. All over the streets of Mumbai are men looking for foreign women to “go to Bollywood.” There isn’t an hour that passes that foreigners, both male and female, aren’t approached by shady looking dudes asking “You want to be a star?” “You want to be in a Bollywood movie?” (Billie Jean) Friends I made in the city, Kiera and Rowena (from Ireland) and I couldn’t understand JUST WHO actually says yes to these Bollywood agents. Do people REALLY fall for this schtick?? They pay 500 Rupees a day, which is roughly $10 for 8 or so hours of work, and they’re NOT selective. The girl with purple hair, a cheek tattoo and freckles is equal to the blond haired, blue eyed, C-cup model next to her. Is this how one gets discovered or makes money? We can’t imagine either possibility. (I Will Survive ) It’s a scam!

So, a girl I had met earlier in the day, Jodi from Australia, had given me the idea of going to see a Bollywood movie in the theater. Michele and Jeff also said it’s a must-do in India as Bollywood movies come with all different plots, but what they all have in common is these overdone music/dance scenes. They’re like music video diversions to the actual story line. And, supposedly, the audience is interactive at Bollywood movies, ala Rocky Horror Picture Show, shouting at the hero that the bad guy is behind him, cheering with the cops catch the killer, and clapping and singing along with the video sidebars. (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go).

We go to meet Jodi to see Taxi 9211, a psychological thriller, which opened the night before. But when we arrive, Jodi is talking to Harry. A tall, spiky-haired Australian with a skin-pigmentation disease who is…recruiting for Bollywood!!! I couldn’t have scripted this better!!! The two of them are in the deepest of conversations. See, Harry was already in a Bollywood movie, but the agent hasn’t paid him (shocker…). He has to round up 10 girls for ANOTHER movie and IF Harry does that, he’ll get paid for BOTH. Makes sense, right?!?!?!? (Grease Lightning). Enter Jodi (again), who now shares with the group that THE REASON she came to India was to be in a Bollywood movie, but she hasn’t been approached yet (Really? I thought any Tom, Dick, Jane or Susan with sideburns gets approached) and she had planned to leave tomorrow. BUT, Harry has saved her! He approached her! He righted her Indian fantasy! Kiera and I can’t even make eye contact. My mouth is agape, I cannot believe the look in this girl’s eyes, what is transpiring in front of me. Then, as if the whole scene wasn’t ridiculous enough…Jodi exclaims “I’m a bellydancer at home! This is PER-fect!” (Like a Prayer) Bollywood. Go figure.

My questions answered as to just WHO goes Bollywood, we (sans Jodi who left to help Harry recruit 9 more women), still laughing, go to see Taxi 9211. The only tickets we can get are from a scalper (I kid you not…) dripping in goombah gold and tripling the price. After we are shown to our assigned seats (ala Broadway not Loews), and pay respect to the National Anthem (please rise, hats off), the movie starts. (That Thing You Do) On cue, the audience starts chattering, laughing, clapping, cheering. The musical interludes, that J-Lo couldn’t top, break up murder scenes, and the half-Hindi, half-English dialogue semi-amuses. Everything will be in Hindi, and then the main character will go – “Take it easy, man.” Or “Bye, I love you, babe,” at the end of a phone conversation. So random. At intermission (yes, intermission), we head out. We were stuck in the third row, necks craned, dizzying ourselves from the manic dance scenes. Outside of John Abraham (lead actor), the hottest Indian man I’ve EVER seen, possibly the hottest MAN I’ve ever seen, we decide we’re over Bollywood, and sticking with Hollywood.

But…it was good while it lasted. (Last Dance).


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