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Mumbai

The Cost of Faith

I wouldn’t say I am religious, but I would affirm I am spiritual. I do not like doctrine and I find the word religion to be incredibly loaded. The practice of religion is very much a currency in India – every place of worship, especially the ones that we have been to, will be surrounded by shops and attractions that require money. It is impossible to estimate how much this brings in, but you can assume it is a hefty amount and it is inevitably mostly cash in hand.

When my parents brought me up, they were not afraid to admit that they did not have the answers to my questions. Whenever we conducted anything religious, there were always holes to be found in meanings and understandings, but it was a challenge to find out the answer – it was not something to be ignored. This inquisitiveness has never left me. In fact, it has probably permeated into every part of my life.

Our last day in Mumbai was important to my Mum. The school of thought within which my family has learnt about Hinduism is based in a small insitution in Mumbai. Early on a Sunday morning we made our way to the lecture theatre and sat in the room where the teaching had first begun over 80 years ago. Having seen it on videos and in pictures, it was like de ja vu when we walked into the courtyard and took to the benches at the back.

The man who started the movement demanded that it should not be outwardly publicised, but instead should be passed from person to person, so I will not name him here. However, this weekend would have been the celebration of his 95th birthday and so there were people present from all over the world. My mother had actually met him when he had been alive, and their first meeting was when she was only a girl, a little younger than me, just 20km away from where we stood.

He was responsible for the development of the first university in the world that was built on the ancient tapovan system of education – focusing on the development of the individual, rather than their future aspirations. This unassuming campus was tucked away in the suburbs of Mumbai and it was the beginning of my Mum’s faith. It would also be the birthplace of mine.

It is difficult to describe. There were very few buildings, but the place itself was inundated with nature. It was completely green and you could barely hear the sounds of the noisy highway once you were through the gates. The intention was to create tranquillity. To remove the impurities of the mind by purifying the landscape around them. It had a profoundly uplifting quality.

The students were mild mannered and wore simple white clothes. There was not much talking and people from all walks of life trundled barefoot through the landscape. It was only open to visitors on a Sunday afternoon for a few hours and so this was a chance for the outside world to creep in and take a peek. There was a point in my adolescence when I thought this could be my destination, but that seems like a long time ago now.

Before we left, Mum stood standing in front of the flowered gateway. She was crying and looking forward in silence. She told me how she remembered the last time she was here and spoke to the man who made this place a reality. He was sitting on a bench and greeted her like a distant uncle – she remembered seeing a twinkle in his eye but was too naïve to understand the impact that he would have in her life at that point. Years later she stood in the same spot and imparted that knowledge to us knowing that this was where it had all begun, where it had all started to make sense.

A stranger looking onward came over to ask her why she was crying. She said they were tears of longing joy. He smiled warmly and introduced himself and his wife. They made polite conversation and reminded us of the reasons why he was there – to reinvigorate his faith. Mum smiled back and looked at me with the same expression. She was not upset anymore. He took his leave and I never learned his name, but I remember his warm smile and the way his eyes lit up when we spoke.

That probably doesn’t mean much, but it made all the difference to me. There are many places here that will measure the size of your faith by the thickness of your wallet. They will try to fool you and capture your belief. However, I am forever grateful for the fact that my faith was presented to me as my decision. I was not told what to believe and not vilified for what I thought. It has always been a healthy process of re-assessment and contemplation.

I am happy to be a part of something that recognises the kindness and dignity of complete strangers. For a man to look at us and offer conversation as a means of solace, with no ulterior motive. When you can instil a thought like that, there isn’t the need for expensive prayers. Humanity is enough.

Congest-jam

I was very, very wrong about Mumbai. My first impressions of it being a spaced out haven were thrown out of the air-conditioned window at 10am when we got stuck in one of the worst traffic jams that I have ever seen in my life. In fact, Mumbai is a huge traffic jam. The drivers here add on 30 minutes to every journey between 7am and 11pm to account for being stuck…that is basically all of the hours that we could possibly be awake! No wonder that the air quality is so poor here – they actually have meters to measure the quality when the smog gets critical – but if you looked over the bay, you could probably work this out all by yourself.

When I came here for the first time and spent time with my cousin Pooja, I had made a list of all of the things that I wanted to do. As soon as she saw that list, she laughed at me and then crossed off all but three – you can only do things very slowly in Mumbai. It may be one of the fastest paces in the world, but nothing happens quickly. One great example of this is the bank. It took a total of 1:45 hours for my Dad to check the balance of his account and make a deposit in the government Bank of India – think about the kiosk in your local Natwest and be grateful for your waiting times. In all this time, I was baking in the noonday Sun, realising that I should have eaten breakfast rather than frying outside.

However, things were about to change. Walking past an unassuming restaurant, Gokul Lite stood out with its menu as a takeaway next door. I saw falafel on the menu and decided that my stomach would finally be able to take it. I can only describe it as the best thing I have ever consumed in India. An unassuming roti roll, I wasn’t expecting much, but it was just indescribably amazing and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is in South Mumbai any time soon. Another thing worth seeing is the Colaba Causeway. It is the first time I have seen Europeans in India, and I imagine a huge tourist attraction.

Turning right on the corner of the famous Café Mondegar (the same bar that Pooja and I had visited until the early hours last year) it is a canopied stretch for a couple of kilometres of the best wares that you can get in Mumbai for the cheapest price. If you can live with the constant pushing and the fact that the walkway itself shouldn’t be able to accommodate anything more than a single file line, you can find a good bargain here. Within the space of an hour, we were able to cover the gifts for more than half a dozen of our friends and I managed to nab myself a beautiful wallet. I don’t think we spent more than twenty quid in total and we bought some drinks along the way.

Leaving the Causeway, we made our way to the famous Juhu Beach. Considering how chaotic the city is, and even how busy the beach itself is, there was nothing that compared to looking out over the horizon just before sunset. I am not a beach holiday sort of person, but feeling the sand beneath my toes and the waves lapping up against my ankles, I realised how much I had missed this sort of thing. There was no need to do anything but just stand and admire what was in front of us.

Although as you can imagine, the quiet didn’t last for long. It wasn’t too long before men in red trilbys were asking us if we wanted a photo taken, showing us albums of previous happy customers. Waiters from the nearby street stalls were dragging us away by the arm and telling us how good their food was. Strange men were selling questionable snacks from mobile clay ovens that were strapped around their neck. Indians seem to know a business opportunity when they see one.

Rather than being harangued by the local street sellers, the family we had come to see invited us to the Shiv Sagar restaurant, a five minute walk from the beach. It served the best pau bhaji I have ever had, and I don’t even like the stuff. This is the sort of thing that has started to become quite frequent now. Every time we sit down to eat, it surpasses my expectations and I am shocked how the smallest of places can produce the most incredible food. Shiv Sagar itself is world-renowned and it can’t sit more than 30 people at a time.

I guess that is what I am starting to like about Mumbai. Regardless of it being busy, there are so many nooks and crannies with fantastic things on offer. You just have to be willing to brave the congestion and find them.

The Very Last Adventure

Mumbai is a completely different kettle of fish. It took us 12 hours (yes, 12 hours) to drive from Baroda to the busiest city in the world in our not-so-little campervan. I am starting to get a little tired of these long car journeys bouncing on the road, but there isn’t much more travelling to do. Along the way there was some beautiful natural landscapes that made the crucial few hours of the journey more than bearable.

You can hear Mumbai before it comes into view. The sound of horns and engines as the traffic signals the start of the city boundaries. The natural light of the sky gives way to headlamps and neon billboards that line the way like road signs. There isn’t a place in the world that could rival this, as well as being inundated with shacks selling some of the most delicious food you will ever eat, it sits near some of the biggest slums that this country has to offer. India is nothing if not a place of contrast.

Once you get past all of the advertisements and lights, you realise how well structured the city actually is. To house 21 million people is no mean feat, and regardless of the fact that the place is a huge traffic jam, it is fairly well spaced out. Compared to other places that we have seen, from a first glance, Mumbai seems to be a pleasant and welcome surprise.

This is the first time that we are staying in a lavish hotel as well. The Lalco Residency has floors of apartment style hotel rooms so that we can stay together as a family. It is the first time since we left that we have sat down on sofas together, as just the five of us, and talked about our day. I suppose we sometimes forget in all of the running around that this could be our very last family holiday. The last time that we sit around a coffee table and decide what the next day will bring.

It is not always easy to sit in a luxury apartment knowing how difficult it is outside this walls. I make no bones about the fact that we are living in a cocoon that we have built for ourselves. It has been really interesting to speak to and meet so many people already that have shown us that it is not the money that we have that brings them any more pleasure than our company. In fact, as much as many of you might think that having a few bucks is helpful here, what you get for free is far more valuable.

We are going to enjoy ourselves no question. This isn’t a hollow enterprise, neither is it a spiritual epiphany. It is a holiday. But we are always mindful and grateful for what we have. My parents have brought me up with the intention of sharing this wealth (whether materially or otherwise) with everyone that has the capacity to receive it. You cannot take it with you.

It is now 2am and I fear that any more writing, or thinking, will lead to rambling so I will stop here. If this appears to be the very last adventure, then we might as well go out with a bang.

A Dozen Or So Lanterns

There are many things about the British influence in India that I find abhorrent. The way that the old Maharaja were treated is one such circumstance that makes me feel sick. The loss of wealth, the pandering, the lack of respect, but most of all, the idea that everything should be made into a theme park. Suprisingly, the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, the venue dedicated for the reception did not live up to any of my preconceptions. It was still lived in (albeit as a hotel – you can’t win them all!), but it was understated, elegant and absolutely beautiful.

Four times the size of Buckingham Palace, it was unmistakably one of the biggest residences I had ever seen. Considering the temple yesterday had absolutely overwhelmed me, I was starting to realise why people choose to get married in India. You don’t need to hire any decorators because every venue is furnished as if it were welcoming royalty. We were dressed like kings and queens when we arrived in the early evening – everyone else seemed to have gone for smart casual – and we went for this-is-the-only-Indian-wedding-we-are-going-to-so-let’s-turn-up outfits. I was told that the suit I was wearing was supposed to be for a lagna; I smiled politely before quickly scurrying away and taking a seat. There is still plenty of time to arrange my marriage. Not today please.

It was the first time that I saw Pooja, the bride and my cousin, at ease. She was spending time with her new husband, walking through the grounds before everyone started to arrive, and it seems like she could finally relax and enjoy herself. The culmination of three weddings in one week had obviously taken their toll. When we bumped into each other during dinner, it was so bizarre to see her as a fully-fledged adult when only a year ago we were traipsing around Mumbai in the early hours, looking for a café that would serve us. She made one of the busiest cities in the world so manageable (and now writing this in retrospect in Mumbai, I am so grateful I got to spend that time with her).

The garden banquet took most of the crowd’s attention. When we were stood outside, there was everything from a live pasta station to a coffee bar being replenished constantly under the lights of a dozen or so lanterns. You can see a glimpse of how it looked in the picture above. My stomach was still recovering so it was a case of window shopping when it came to most of the food. Like the famous Goodness Gracious Me sketch, I ended up with the blandest thing on the menu and a free reign on the desserts. I wasn’t complaining.

As the night started to draw to a close, our Indian wedding seemed to be drawing to an end. I had missed half of the festivities due to illness, had made the most of the wedding and now stood in a groom’s suit at the reception – it was fair to say that it hadn’t been the conventional way to do things. Nevertheless, it was a wedding that I wouldn’t forget soon. It was probably going to be the last time I saw Pooja for a while as she was moving to Malaysia, probably the last Indian wedding I would attend in India, and most probably one of the last that we would attend as a family (that wasn’t hosted by us). A sobering experience in a state that has banned alcohol.

I thought back to the amount of weddings that must have taken place here. The lavish receptions and bountiful food. For over a hundred years, these walls and gardens were the boundaries of so much happiness and hope. I have noted before how assumable marriage is an institution of progression and prosperity – in fact, someone noted that on these occasions that big weddings are inevitably worth it.

Although, finally the confetti hits the floor and it is time to start the rest of your life. Pooja and Eldan will be walking around Paris now enjoying the first steps of theirs, as our own journey continues. The wedding, the reason for our coming, is now over – but this is the start of a new chapter.

This is the start of our holiday.

Incredible India

Whilst you are reading this, I am on a plane to the subcontinent where my ancestry began. I have no idea what the time is yet, I am probably squashed like a sardine in an aluminium tin and the musk is going to hit me like a freight train when the plane doors open, but you know what? I am going home for the first time. I am actually going to touch down in India.

Whilst I am writing this, just before going to the airport for the flight, I can feel my hands are starting to get a bit clammier and my head feels heavier. All the excitement of the last few months of planning the trip of a lifetime is starting to set it, and the gravity of the situation is dawning on me. The real headache is not knowing what to expect. Getting varied second-hand reports from all sorts of people has made me confused – it has made it daunting because India seems to be, as a friend put it…interesting.

That is a loaded word. It isn’t particularly positive or negative. It is just curious. A place where over a billion people live and work – a part of me believes that India has got something for everyone. But what do I want to get out of this trip? What part of the real India do I want to see? Will I get to see the real India at all? I hope so. But I am going to have to throw myself into it.

The title of this post comes from an advertising campaign that the Indian Tourist Board ran when I was a kid. Slightly adapted, the ‘!ncredible India’ campaign made me fall in love with the place. The colour from Holi, the beautiful sunscapes of Goa and the bustling hive of Mumbai and Delhi made it seem like a wonderland. Then as I grew up, I realised how this affinity with the place became more and more stretched.

India isn’t by any means perfect. A large majority of the population is poor and lives in slums. It is overpopulated, overcrowded and overheated. It is bubbling hotpot of political corruption. Women are not treated with respect. The healthcare system is a sham. But, there is something that India has that makes it incredible.

It has history. Culture. An air of pomp and grandeur. It is a paradise. And I am going to spend a month exploring it. This will be my last post for a while because I will be busy discovering. A trip to catch up on 19 years.

I will tell you all about when I come back. But I don’t think it will fit on a postcard. Namaste.