If all we had seen of Mumbai was from our tour the first day, our lasting impression would have been that India is hot, dirty, crowded, and noisy. The crows that occupied a security watchtower on the pier set up a cacophony that almost drowned out conversation. (I wonder if that’s why a group of crows is called a “murder” – their noise could drive you to it.) And from then on, the incessant honking of automobile horns became the theme song of the city. We never could figure out why everyone honks, since no one seems to be paying attention. Traffic in Mumbai is unbelievably bad, with cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, and pedestrians all occupying the same limited space. Traffic laws appear to be merely suggestions, and if you even think about crossing the street on a green “walk” signal, you’re courting disaster.
We had an excellent tour guide for our visit to the “Highlights of Bombay,” and the first thing she told us was not to give anything to the beggars who shadowed us everywhere on the streets, often a very young girl carrying a sleeping infant, no matter how pathetic they appeared. It seems that the beggars of Mumbai are run by the Indian Mafia, and that early every morning they gather on the outskirts of the city to rent babies for the day to increase their take. We’re sure the babies were sedated, because we must have seen dozens of them and not one baby was even awake, much less crying or moving. We were so angry about the exploitation of these children that we had difficulty paying attention to the guide’s commentary.
Other than the relatively few impressive buildings, Mumbai is a sprawling city of awful mid-twentieth-century architecture, dirty and badly maintained. The city has 17 million inhabitants, and we know that some of them are well educated with good jobs, but we didn’t see a single equivalent of a modern store in the entire downtown. There were just miles of streets lined with tiny, cluttered shops open to the heat and dust, selling mobile phones and shoes and shirts and toys and costume jewelry –and fresh produce. Much of the commerce of Mumbai appears to take place in open market stalls, some in tourist areas but mainly catering to the local population. And as for those tourist areas, the street sellers pushing postcards and bangle bracelets and peacock fans were relentless – we had to push our way through them every time we got on or off the bus.
The Gateway of India on the bay front, built to commemorate the 1911 visit of King George V and Queen Mary, is also an impressive structure which many consider the principal landmark of Mumbai. Immediately across the plaza from the Gateway is the beautiful Taj Hotel, one of the sites attacked and occupied by Islamist terrorists three years ago. It took days before security forces were able to root out the terrorists, and the hotel suffered severe damage to its interior, since repaired. In addition to the fatalities at the Taj Hotel, a second site across from the Victoria Terminus saw the heaviest loss of life (68 dead) during the raid.
One of the essential features of any visit to Mumbai is Dhobi Ghat, the largest outdoor commercial laundry in the world. It began as the laundry service for the uniforms of the British Army during the time of the Raj, but it expanded to serve hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants, and small hotels without their own in-house laundry. Each day, thousand of sheets, towels, and items of clothing are hand-laundered, sun-dried, and ironed by dhobi wallahs,who are mainly men. Quite a spectacular sight, especially to all the women on our tour whose husbands can’t find the utility room at home.
A visit to a Jain temple (Jainism is one of the lesser-known religions in India) was an interesting experience for us. Like Buddhists, Jain followers believe that the purpose of life is self-enlightenment, which can be achieved with the help of teachers and guides. They do not observe India’s traditional caste system, believing that every human being is of equal worth. They do apparently honor certain gods, since there was a statue of Parsvanath, the principal god, set in a marble shrine (we were asked not to turn our backs on the statue, since that is a sign of disrespect), but the teachings of their spiritual guides are of paramount importance. The temple itself is beautiful, built entirely of white marble, with two decorated marble elephants guarding the entrance. As in Hindu temples, we had to remove our shoes before entering, where they were collected by a very enthusiastic – and entrepreneurial – fellow and heaped in a pile called “Bus 6.” I wonder if everyone would have gotten his own shoes back afterward if no one had tipped him. We were told not to carry or wear any leather into the temple, since Jainites strive to harm nothing. They don’t eat root vegetables, either, since they believe that pulling something from the earth destroys more than just the life of that carrot or beet.
We didn’t see all of Mumbai, of course, but we did drive through a substantial part of the city. And we never saw any housing that a working-class family in the U.S. would consider living in. The home of the richest man in India is in Mumbai, smack in the middle of what we would consider tenements. (Pictures of that house, in all its obscene excess, have been circulating on the internet, so you may have seen them. It looks like a cantilevered high-rise apartment building, with several floors of parking for 100 cars, an indoor pool, a helicopter pad, multiple verandas on each level, and more bedrooms and baths than we could possibly imagine, the entire building for the use of this one family alone. The family of five has never moved in and only uses the home as a pied a terre.)
We visited the Gandhi Memorial, which is in the house where he lived in Mumbai after he left South Africa, and where he was arrested in 1932 during his nonviolent resistance to British rule. It’s a small place, but the spirit of that remarkable man still seems to fill the rooms. We also saw the unprepossessing Hanging Gardens, set in the Malabar Hills overlooking the city – their main interest comes from being adjacent to the Zoroastrian “burial” grounds, where the dead are left exposed to the elements rather than entombed. The Zoroastrians believe that it is wasteful to bury the body, that everything should be used to nourish the living creatures of the earth.
Our second day in Mumbai, though, did something to reshape our feeling about the city. The tour was called “Jewish Chronicles of India,” and it was terrific. Our ebullient guide was sometimes difficult to understand because she spoke fast, but she was so knowledgeable about the history of the Jews in India that it was hard to believe she was Hindu. There are 3,000 Jews in Mumbai today (6,000 in all of India) and nine synagogues, four of which we saw on the tour. The first Jews came more than 2,000 years ago, a small group shipwrecked off the coast of the islands that became Mumbai, and weren’t discovered by the Jewish world until the 1700’s. Over the centuries, the settlers had lost most of their traditions, but they still observed Shabbat (the Sabbath) and Hanukkah. Because they used oil lamps in their observances, they became the local oil merchants, but they would never do business on Saturday. Our guide, who grew up in that region, said that her Hindu mother still refuses to buy oil on a Saturday because it means bad luck. It’s funny how traditions evolve and continue long after their meaning is lost.
The synagogues were beautiful, each in its own way. The oldest, Shaar Ha-Rahahim (the Gate of Mercy), was built in 1796 and is small and simple, nestled into a web of narrow lanes. (For this tour only, we had to carry our passports ashore, another reminder of the impact of the terrorist attack, when a Jewish school was invaded and a rabbi, his wife and child were killed. Every synagogue in Mumbai pays attention to security now as never before.) The largest synagogue in Asia, Magen David, was built in 1861 by Sir David Sassoon, a wealthy descendant of the Jews who fled Baghdad in 1796 and who retained their Arabic language and culture, becoming successful traders and financiers in Mumbai. His grandson, Jacob Sassoon, built Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in 1884; it is the most beautiful in Mumbai, with ornamental pillars, carved marble, and a spectacular stained glasswindow. Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue, with its royal purple velvet hangings, small library, and stacks of prayer books, seemed as if it could have been transplanted to any European town without making a single change.
We were struck, though, by the lack of attention to the exteriors of these fragile and historic buildings. Paint and stucco were flaking off, vines grew from cracks in the walls, and I hate to think about the condition of the roof of at least one of them. Many donations to the upkeep of the synagogues have been made over the years by European, American, and Israeli Jews, but apparently no one thinks it’s as important to make sure the buildings don’t fall down as it is to buy new prayer books.
By now, some of us were having severe shopping withdrawal (Gerry and I decided that we would rather be shot than return to the street where we were taken the first day to “shop,” which meant clutching our belongings and repeating the word “No” in increasingly assertive fashion). So our guide took us to a street in the wholesale district, where some of the shops were even air conditioned, and where we found a liquor store with a decent Italian wine, and where I bought a sari (actually about eight yards of beautifully printed silk edged in gold) to have made into a dress when we get home.
So Mumbai redeemed itself somewhat the second day – partly because the weather was a little cooler and a lot less humid than the previous day – but we can’t think of any reason to go back. You may be wondering why we didn’t just skip Mumbai and take the land tour to the Taj Mahal in Agra. I’ll tell you all about that next time.
Laurie and Gerry