Jasmine scent on a hot night


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Category: International 16 Dec 07

I am sitting high up—14 floors up—in a hotel room on Marine Drive in Bombay. Over the years since the age of 14, after we had migrated to Trinidad and Tobago, I have passed through Bombay on my way to other cities, first to the possibility of an arranged marriage, then to other family obligations.

I watched the film A Mighty Heart about reporter Daniel Pearl’s brutal killing in Pakistan. I thought, then, how used we are to brutality.

If we made a film each time one of our citizens was killed and mutilated in cold blood, how many films would that be? A manifestation of our disintegrating rule of law.

In London, I met many Trinidadians who brace against the cold and a strange way of life every day, but still they say at least they feel safe.

Those who can are leaving the madness one by one. Now that my love for Trinidad, which I have been writing about these 15 years, was being battered by crime, I was afraid of the abyss of falling between worlds, being a non-person.

I worried my Trini children would hate it here. Years back, when my husband was 17, he came here and reports he was so shocked by the beggars that he remained in his room the whole trip. I knew the variety of India.

The coolness of the ordered army life in many cities, the officers’ messes and clubs. It was not the India of tourists. Now as a tourist I asked the taxi driver about the colonies of slum dwellers.

He said they had been pushed out of Mumbai to surrounding areas, made invisible to tourists. Huge fines are imposed for littering, which explained the clean streets in commercial tourist areas.

The real hustle of slum life lies in the darkness.

The taxi driver promised us when we arrived in the midday heat that the harbour would be transformed into a necklace of lights.

We saw this on our first evening, feeling the sea breezes on the promenade where people strolled and chatted by the sea. It reminded me briefly of Chaguaramas, but the scale is where the city asserts itself.

The lights follow an arc from the skyscrapers from the south of this city of 16 million people, to the foot of Chowpatty beach packed with crowds.

Even high up in this hotel room, after three days of roaming the city, I can feel its crowded streets, its infuriating bumper-to-bumper traffic, its crazy, non-stop honking driving, its vendors, and shops.

Its ancient temples in alcoves, its jasmine and flowers, food and spices, filth and dust press into me.

The gardens and buildings are exquisite with a kind of crumbling splendour of the Mogul and Raj eras. The streets in the well-heeled areas are wide, with ancient banyan trees and sprawling roots shading entire streets with speckled sun and moonshine.

The middle classes have taken over. Flashy billboards advertise international designer brands worn by youngsters who look like they could be on a street in London.

In five-star hotel lobbies, suited businessmen from Europe, Japan, China, America meet to provide financial services to the richest city in India.

The ancient and the future mingle effortlessly as a “cool” hairdresser speaks of slaughtering a sheep for Eid; women in saris ride motorbikes, while speaking on their hands-off cellphones; street dwellers cook on their haunches while watching cable TV from their tiny tin and canvas homes.

At night, you see as much flesh as you would in any carnival fete, and a coy bride heavy with jewels emerges from a car where an emaciated woman begs with a baby in her arms.

This is the country of extremes, of moving between diamonds and hovels in two seconds.

This is Mumbai!

Next week: Bhopal, Agra.  


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur