My flight into Mumbai was delayed by two hours in Singapore.
Arriving at Mumbai airport after midnight, my plane had to bank for twenty minutes before it could land. In the airport, there was a breakdown at the baggage belt. It was 3 am when I got through customs. I bought a ticket for a prepaid taxi.
Emerging from the airport, passed hundreds of people, I found myself alone staring into the warm night holding a piece of paper for which I’d paid four hundred rupees but now seemed worthless.
In the distance, under the dark silhouettes of trees were rows of dilapidated, beaten up taxis. There must have been fifty of them.
I walked over there and looked for the number plate of the taxi on my piece of paper. Finally found it and after the driver ostentatiously welcomed me and put by bag in the boot, he announced that he couldn’t start the car.
Could I get out and help him to push start it?
On the way into Mumbai, the driver had to stop to get more fuel.
Why he didn’t have enough petrol in the first place was something I would have liked to ask him if he had spoken more than a few words English and I, more than a few words of Hindi.
We pulled into a ramshackle looking place with a few beaten up looking petrol pumps covered in dust. Nearby, cows peered at us dolefully. The driver turned off the motor before getting out of the car and so of course, after he had put more petrol in the car, I had to get out whilst he got in – and push and push to get the car running again.
It was 4 am in the morning and I had a long flight behind me and I was definitely not amused.
Nothing more definite!
Arriving in Colaba, we drove down narrow streets lined with old apartment buildings. He lost his way.
At the airport he had given me the impression that he knew exactly where my hotel was.
In actual fact, he had no idea where it was.
He stopped at regular intervals to ask for information from the few individuals still wandering around on the abandoned streets at that ungodly time of the morning.
And yes, of course, at one of these fact finding stops, the car conked out again and I had to get out give my driver another push start.
I was having to push start his taxi because he didn’t know where to go…huh?
At 5 am, I finally arrived at my hotel, very jaded and very tired.
On the pavement stood a young man whose job it was to stand there all night watching everyone who came and went in and out of the hotel.
My first reaction was to be very short and direct with him.
But he spoke good English and he was very nice.
Like the taxi driver he was just another peon at the bottom of the pile just trying to get by.
I struck up a conversation with him.
He was from Orissa, one of the poorest states in India. Like so many others, he had come to Mumbai to find work. Every night, from 8 pm to 8am, he stood on the pavement. He shared a room with nine other young men. He said it was ok, five of them worked at night, five during the day, so the room was never too crowded. He had no education, but within five months of arriving in Mumbai and meeting westerners he had learned enough English to hold an extended conversation. He asked me the normal Indian questions – how old I was, whether I was married, how many kids I had and so on. He was amazed to discover that I had no caste, wasn’t married and had no kids (‘don’t you like children? who will look after you when you get old?’).
After talking to him for quite some time, I went inside the hotel.
After filling out some forms – ‘some forms?’, one hell of a lot of forms! – I climbed narrow flights of stairs up to my room on the fourth floor, had a shower and passed out…..
Two hours afterwards I was wrenched out of a much-needed sleep by an ungodly noise, a terrible cacophony.
What the bloody hell?!
I was not a happy man. I was in a mood to kill someone.
I looked out the window.
I couldn’t see anything. To the left of my window there was a dingy apartment building with rows of barred windows and on the flat roof, a bevy of crows dancing around.
To the right of the building was a clear view of a major road. My eyes focused on the road – and then I saw the cause of my misery: marching along the road was a procession of men dressed in red suits and wearing caps bashing drums, blowing horns, trumpets and trombones – and just to add to the noise, bagpipes.
My anger evaporated.
I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
Was I awake or was this a dream/nightmare?
After the band came lines of school kids, immaculately turned out in their uniforms: blue trousers and dresses and white shirts.
After them came an elephant.
Even in my tired, depleted state of mind I had to smile and wonder:
Where else in the world this possibly happen?
Welcome to India!!!