Travel in music: Chapter 30 - 2005, India
2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!
2005 – Chapter 30 | By the time we were reunited for back-to-back projects in India, Leanne and I had revealed our hitherto hidden relationship to our employers and asked to carry out all future projects together. We would do another four as a team, including these two on the steel and textile industries. India was a country that Leanne already knew well. Not only does her maternal South African family have distant roots in Tamil Nadu, she had also backpacked and volunteered extensively throughout the country. On the other hand, my experience was limited to books I had read on India or by Indian authors. Dominique Lapierre’s “City of Joy”, Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy“, Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance“, Arundhati Roy’s “The God Of Small Things” and many others had fed my imagination and stoked vivid curiosity but I still lacked all the other sensorial elements that forge true impressions of a country, particularly one so intense as India. Indeed, no pages can convey the sheer assault on the senses a city like Mumbai incites. Nothing can fully prepare you for the array of smells, the variety and intensity of noise, the intoxicating crowds, the juxtaposition of indecent wealth with extreme poverty, the ill-disciplined traffic, the urban cohabitation of humans and animals, or the beauty and filth of such permanent chaos.
Our apartment reflected all these elements to perfection. It was large, luxurious and modern by Mumbai standards. It had a rare open kitchen and a massive 3rd floor terrace overlooking Linking Road, one of the main commercial thoroughfares of our lively Khar neighborhood. At street level, the building’s proprietor managed a busy sari shop and the unpainted, cement staircase up to the apartment was full of litter and the trademark purple spit stains that betel nut chewers left behind. On the pavement, a family of beggars slept on cardboard. Glamorous clients would step out of fancy limousines and hop over their ragged bodies on the way to buy fabric, without batting an eyelid. On the opposite side of the street, a noisy market sold everything and anything: vegetables and fruits, handcrafted shoes, CD and DVD rip-offs, spices, tea, sugarcane juice, etc. In the middle of its muddy aisles, cows grazed lazily on trash heaps and naked kids tugged at your clothes for a bit of change.
It was overwhelming but also thrilling. The city heaved and puffed like a rusty, bloated organism that never slept. Indeed, Mumbai nights were just as animated and they formed a big part of our experience in the ‘Maximum City’ (the particularly apt nickname Suketu Mehta gave the city in his eponymously named book). There were innumerable house parties with a fun and very international crowd we met thanks to a Capetonian friend’s ex-boyfriend – some of which took place on our terrace. Happy hour would usually take place in the trendy cocktail bars of Bandra right after work. A little later, dinner options were infinite but I particularly liked the scenic atmosphere of the Marine Drive beach restaurants we sampled. Finally, on a couple of occasions, we would dance away the night’s last hours in one of Juhu’s posh clubs, rubbing shoulders with India’s most extravagant stars and divas. Leanne’s Bollywood dance lessons proved quite useful when the hits demanded knowledge of elaborate dancefloor choreographies…
The owner of our apartment became a close friend. He went out of his way to make sure we discovered as many facets of Mumbai life as possible, providing running commentary as he guided us through its diverse neighborhoods. He invited us to his brother’s wedding, a gigantic, very social affair that, in true Indian fashion, accommodated several thousand guests over several days. He also took us out to his beach house, on a peaceful stretch of coast, where we hit a welcome pause from the city’s exhausting rumble. Several years later, he paid us a visit in Cape Town and offered Leanne the magnificently embroidered fabric she used for her wedding dress.
There were other welcome escapes from Mumbai’s exhilarating but energy-sapping mayhem. During the steel project, we visited the eastern states of Orissa and Jharkhand where most of India’s iron ore deposits lay underground. They are also home to hundreds of temples, which attest to their ancient and deep devotion to Hinduism. In Bhubaneswar, Orissa’s capital, the intricately carved Mukteshvara and the 11th century Lingaraj Temple complex particularly mesmerized us. We spent a day in Kolkata as well but it was too fleeting to remember much else than the impressive size of the cricket stadium. India’s other “religion” clearly had quite a few devotees too. For the textile project, we traveled to Pune, an industrial town not far from Mumbai, whose factories and workshops did not impress my memory. Delhi, where an old childhood friend of mine accommodated us for a few days, was a different story. There we were, in India’s capital, spending so much time interviewing politicians and entrepreneurs that there was none left for leisure and culture. I was very frustrated but, between meetings, we still managed to sneak quick visits to the imposing Red Fort, the old residence of the Mughal emperors, and to the palatial garden tomb of Humayun, a 16th century Mughal monarch whose spouse built a resting place that could almost rival the famed Taj Mahal.
For proper rest, on a couple of weekends, we hit the laid-back beaches of Goa and chilled under coconut trees, as far away possible from the ex-hippie retreats that had now morphed into ugly tourist resorts further up north. Through a bizarre occurrence, Kingfisher airlines almost condemned us to an accidental long holiday on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On our way back to Mumbai from Kolkata, airline staff boarded us on a plane headed to Port Blair by mistake. Only when the last boarding passenger complained that we were sitting in his assigned seat did the stewards realize their blunder and redirected us. With only one flight per week connecting this remote Bay of Bengal archipelago to the mainland, we would have been unwittingly stuck in paradise for days. In truth, Leanne and I might have not complained much but I think our agency would have had a hard time believing it was a genuine, albeit slightly Kafkaesque, error...