I HAD A SPARE day in Mumbai. I had been there a few times before, but I’d never spent any time just wandering around the downtown area. I was at a conference at an expensive hotel are little way out, and decided to take the local train downtown.
That was an experience in itself. I had never caught a train in India before, commuter or long-distance. Some cities in India have new metros. Not Mumbai. The suburban trains are decrepit and incredibly crowded. You’ve seen pictures of passengers on the roof – it really happens. Apparently about ten people die every day on Mumbai’s trains.
I got into town without too much trouble. I was tormented on the train by a crippled beggar child but some locals chased her away. They were pretty surprised to see someone like me on the train. I got out at the massive Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the busiest in India. It was known as Victoria Terminus until 1996. It’s on the edge of the downtown area.
I walked down to the Gateway of India, the massive waterfront arch built by the British and opened in 1924, intended as a ceremonial entrance to the country for ships arriving from England. It is the epicentre of the city. That day, a Saturday, there were thousands of people thronging around it.
Death in the afternoon
I walked across the road to have a look at the famous Taj Mahal Hotel. You can’t just wander in anymore, as I had in my previous visit to Mumbai ten years earlier. Since the big terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, which was centered on the hotel, you have to go through airport type security to get inside. I wandered through the place then went down the street to the Leopold Café, popular with foreigners and also one of the key targets of the terrorist attack.
I sat down and ordered some lunch. I asked the waiter if there were any signs of the attack and he pointed to a bullet hole in the wall behind my chair. I was sitting in the very spot where someone had been shot dead. Seven people died in the Leopold Café that day.
When I left I was accosted by Raj, a young Indian man who seemed to be on the make. But he didn’t ask for money and was pleasant enough. He offered to take me to a place where we could watch the cricket on TV. It was a cheap bar with lousy TV reception. We had a couple of beers (I paid of course) and he offered to teach me some Hindi, a language I’d never even bothered to learn a word of. Still he didn’t ask for any money, and he seemed an OK kinda guy.
We hung around a bit together, then later in the afternoon he asked if I wanted to go back to his place to see what sort of life his family led. That seemed like an interesting proposition, so we went back to the train station and jumped in a crowded carriage. We went about a half dozen stops to a nondescript station whose name I didn’t note.
We walked down a wide street. There were people everywhere, which is typical of India. It was dusk. We walked down a narrower street, then a narrower one still, then an alleyway, then a path that appeared through a crack between two rundown buildings. We went down the path away then Raj brushed aside a piece of cloth over a doorway and we walked into his home.
Into Raj's home
There was one large room about the size of a decent lounge room in a Western house. Four double mattresses were piled high in one corner. Obviously they were pulled out at night when people slept. In the opposite corner there was a small bench that contained an electric food processor. An old TV with a picture as bad as the one we had seen downtown earlier was somehow attached to the ceiling in a corner of the room. The electricity appeared to be coming from some sort of illegal tapping into some bare wires next to it.
There was running water in a small bathroom and toilet off this room. You flushed the toilet by filling a bucket of water and pouring it on your waste. God knows where it went. There was no other room.
Raj told me 14 people lived there. His mother had left his abusive father in Rajasthan a few years earlier and come to the big city to live with her brother and his family. There were a few cousins and other relatives. A young girl who looked to be in her early teens was preparing something in the food processor. There was no fridge, and I couldn’t see anywhere for food storage or cooking implements or crockery.
I asked Raj if the girl was his sister. “No, she’s the maid,” he replied. “Where’s your mother?” I asked. “She’s out begging,” he said.
He asked me if I’d like a beer. He made some sort of small noise and two urchins appeared at the door out of nowhere. I gave them 50 rupees and he said something to them, and they came back about ten minutes later with two warm cans of beer.
Life in Mumbai
I talked to Raj about his life. He made his living by befriending people like me and relying on them to give him some money for his company or his services. His mother begged, apparently successfully enough. The other family members seemed to have menial jobs here and there. The maid was a homeless waif they took in to do domestic chores in exchange for food and board.
They never had much money but they never went hungry, he said. The combined family income was about US$50 a week. When I looked into it all later I found out they were actually comparatively well off by Mumbai standards. They had electricity and running water, after a fashion, and the place was clean and tidy. Technically speaking it wasn’t even a slum. Mumbai is one of the most crowded cities on earth, with some of the highest real estate prices, and even people like police and teachers with regular jobs live in places like Raj’s.
I gave him enough rupees to justify the half day he spent with me. He was never a beggar – I was paying him for the interesting insight he had given me into Mumbai life. I jumped a rickshaw (those black and yellow three wheeled motorbike things) back to my five-star hotel.
When I recount the story people ask me if I was ever scared, going to into a run-down neighborhood and to Raj’s house. No I wasn’t. I’m a trusting sort of fellow anyway, but India is simply not an overly violent or threatening place - at least for males. It was just like visiting anybody’s house.
I often think about my time with Raj. I sit in my lounge room at home and reflect that more than a dozen people in Mumbai are living in a room this size. I wish I had met his family. It was a fascinating experience. It was certainly more interesting than staying in the hotel all day and listening to boring conference presentations.
I have always loved India. Nothing I have seen there or experienced there has ever put me off the place. But that half day with Raj remains my strongest memory.