Bombay

For the purposes of this post, I will be following Christopher Hitchens‘ policy and refusing to accept Hindu extremist party Shiv Sena‘s etymologically spurious name change, and stubbornly continuing to call the city ‘Bombay‘.

Before I left Delhi, my friend Nidhi told me that there’s a big rivalry between the two cities, and I would have to choose which one I liked. It couldn’t be both. Within five minutes of arriving I could answer her question: Bombay. Definitely Bombay.

The Taj Hotel and Gateway to India, South Bombay

It’s cleaner, more modern, more cosmopolitan, relatively hassle-free, and less rapey. And, about two days after I’d arrived, I suddenly realised: there are no cows! It’s like a real city. I could even consider living here (though only in the upmarket expat enclave of Bandra), except for one thing: the heat.

Rajasthan had been cooling down throughout November, and had reached the point where nights were a bit chilly, and days were pleasantly warm. Then I travelled 600 miles south to Bombay. On the military temperature scale, it’s REDDERS, and that’s now, when it’s cooler, and the locals are saying how nice it is. Apparently, between April and June, it reaches the next point on the scale, which involves a swear word.

I arrived in Bombay from Udaipur, taking a direct sleeper coach, and then an autorickshaw to my couchsurfing hosts’ flat. Here’s another thing about Bombay: the taxis and autorickshaws actually use their meters. So you know you’re not getting ripped off haggling over a price up front. If you encounter one of the few drivers who won’t use the meter, you just walk off and find one who will. It’s puzzling: how do the non-meter-using drivers survive? Surely they’re forced out of business if every customer insists on the meter, and most other drivers use it. And why doesn’t this happen elsewhere? You won’t find an auto in Delhi that’ll use the meter, and not enough people are demanding it, to make a change. There must be a tipping point when the public’s expectation of systematic fair treatment forces it to become the norm. This point marks the difference between a medieval dirthole which has accidentally acquired 20th century technology, like Delhi, and a modern – deeply flawed but essentially modern – city like Bombay.

My couchsurfing hosts were an Indian doctor called Upen, and his French boyfriend Bruno. No, I’m not making that up.

Here’s a good thing about staying with a gay couple: they have a lovely, clean apartment in a posh, trendy part of town.

Here’s a good thing about staying with a Frenchman called Bruno: he says, “some cheese, some bread, some wine, that’s all we need, unh?” as he walks into an expensive, Western-style deli and stocks up on Roquefort, Emmenthal and sparkling whites. And this was his way of recovering from the meat sweats that he’d caught after gorging at a specialist all-meat restaurant the night before.

I guess you want to know about all the sights of Bombay which I visited. There aren’t actually that many. I went for a bit of a wander around the downtown area, Colaba and Fort, and saw a lot of colonial architecture. Walking along the edge of the maidans, where there were about 300 cricket matches being played simultaneously, and seeing places like the High Court (which looks like a gothic mansion) and the telegraph building (which wouldn’t look out of place as a Saxon Rathaus), it’s quite reminiscent of London. You could be strolling along the edge of Hyde Park, except that it’s the hottest day of the year, during a record-breaking heatwave, and someone’s firing a heatray at you from a nearby building.

Lion statue at Victoria Terminus, Bombay

The railway station, Victoria Terminus (again, not calling it the ridiculous ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus’) has been mocked as a hideous pile, and an overblown, pretentious mishmash of architectural styles (“Victorian-Gothic-Saracenic-Italianate-Oriental-St Pancras-Baroque,” by one journalist). I think it’s fabulous. You could argue that all those varied styles existed so that they could culminate and combine in this one ultimate building of eclectic splendour.

I visited the Prince of Wales Museum (‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya’, are you serious?), took a stroll along Marine Drive and spent quite a bit of time visiting various people in Bandra. None of it’s that interesting to write about. Bombay’s not the sort of place there’s much to do as a tourist. It’s more the sort of place you might just live in and enjoy day to day.

I did go to Mani Bhavan, former home of, and now museum dedicated to, one of the 20th century’s most overrated people, Gandhi. Here’s a letter he wrote which sums up why his naive pacifism was self-serving posturing at best, and a dangerous fantasy at worst.

I also visited Elephanta Island, which I’ll cover in a separate post. That’s it for Bombay. Apart from melting into the pavement every time I went out, I enjoyed it. But don’t worry, I have some stuff to rant about in the next few posts.

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