When in doubt, sit it out
Deepika’s husband Emil travels to Byculla (a Mumba neighbourhood) six or seven days a week to help at the 65-year old family-run American Express Bakery. I find this interesting because I love baked goods, but also because Deepika’s family also has baking in their history. Her great-grandmum ran the Cheron Bakery in Burma before WWII, and Aloysius has written numberous stories on the wonderful, peaceful times they enjoyed in pre-invasion Rangoon (I’ll try to include a few later in the blog).
Emil gave me a tour of the building where his staff direct kneaded rounds of dough at each other across a ten-foot floured table, then press the loaves into square-edged pans to bake. I noticed that there two ovens and no ceiling fans, but the room was a pleasant temperature due to the high ceilings.
Today was to be my “tourist walk” day in Colaba.
Aloysius dropped me off at the Americican Express Bakery (where Emil had brought my walking shoes) in Byculla on the way to his factory at New (“Navi”) Bombay and I caught a southward public bus (B.E.S.T.) into the downtown area. Naturally, I told the conductor to let me off at Colaba as he took my 5 rupees, and naturally he forgot to. I ended up at the end of the line which was fortuitously located at the foot of St. John’s cathedral and inside the military zone.
“When in doubt, sit it out,” I reminded myself. I took a stone seat under a banyan tree, pulled out my Mumbai city map, and was quickly invited to tour the inside of the locked Anglican cathedral. Afterwards, I strolled the wide, shaded and pleasant road back the direction the bus had come, admiring the crisp officers on their military bicycles but knowing not to raise my camera.
On being ignored, and the scarcity of toilets
Colaba Causeway Road is typical Mumbai: jam-packed with life and traffic “…too busy going about their everyday lives to pay much attention to tourists” (as one guidebook aptly puts it). There’s a lot of freedom to be had in being ignored. No one pays you much attention except when you want it.
At a busy little veg cafe, for example, I was crammed into a booth table with a man and his three sons and – after quick acknowledgement – they ate their roti and I my palak paneer. One of the boys stared as I sipped my “cold coffee” (India’s version of iced coffee) and I passed his dad my leftover palak to share, as at 40 rupees ($1 CAD) it wasn’t worth packing around for the rest of the day. The city feels like a seat on a crowded bus: we all try to share and we might as well be civil about it.
Toilets are elusive, I’ve learned. They’re clean enough if you find one that’s maintained for 2 rupees a visit, but they’re far and few between. Unlike other (less dense) cities I’ve visited, no one is willing to let you use theirs, and you probably wouldn’t want to. Throughout the course of the day I was able to “tour” all kinds of toilets: public use at the Gateway of India tourist attraction (porcelain bowl set in ground, bucket and cup to use instead of toilet paper), semi-public at the Jehanjir Art Galley (as above, but more modern), and five-star exclusive at the Taj Mahal Hotel (two security gates and a purse search).
I tucked in and out of shoe, clothing and art shops most of the day, then – after a plateful of pakoras – decided a brisk seven-kilometre walk back to Aloysius’ home in Breach Candy was in order.
Shopping for a wife
“Hello, what is your name?”I looked to my right and a shortish man in glasses, shirt and trousers was striding energetically at my side. I was traveling along the wide promenade on South Mumbai’s Marine Drive and had been absorbed in taking in the setting sun, the couples and families, and the art-deco apartments.
“Jane,” I told him. I didn’t ask his. I knew from previous travels that a man coming up to a (foreign) women like this was not customary and that one should proceed with caution. That said, I knew I had a long walk ahead of me and welcomed the amusement of conversion.
He told me he worked for a property management company that bought apartment blocks like the ones we were passing, and converted them into rentals for middle- and upper-income buyers. Over the course of our walk he also shared that he was single, that he had dated foreign ladies in the past, and what did I think of Indian men?
We carried on this like for a good hour (where I played at being absolutely oblivious to the not-so-subtle direction that the conversion was taking). I thought about the “Matrimonials” page I’d seen in the newspaper that morning: parents looking for a husband for their slim, educated, “fair” (that’s Indian for light-skinned) daughters. I guessed that to this 40-something bachelor, I fit the bill.
At Chowpatty Beach I felt the compelling need to explore a toilet, so I turned to him and told him I had to go in.
“I’ll wait for you,” he suggested.
“Er, I’ll be in there a while,” I said matter-of-factly.
“That’s okay,” he brightened, “I’ll wait”.
“This is me saying good-bye” I said firmly. I turned, paid my 2 rupees and disappeared into the stall.
What would Ekhardt Tolle say?
He was gone when I came out, so I continued towards Aloysius’s house and eventually passed the oft-mentioned Crosswords bookstore. Their toilets had been warmly recommended by cousin Deepika but I decided against a pre-emptive visit.
Not far past the shop, I approached the notoriously busy in the Kemp’s Corners intersection and strategically positioned myself next to a tall fellow in a crisp white shirt and waited to shadow him as he crossed. He looked over at me I started to follow him, then we both quickly stepped back when a bus bore down on us.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he apologized. “I didn’t realize you were a foreigner – here, let me walk with you across.” Once again, I was glad for the escort. “Dev” told me he had seen me at Crosswords.
“Have you ever heard of Eckhardt Tolle?” he asked. He had been in the bookstore insisting that they stock more copies of this Vancouver-based writer’s self-help books, as he was a huge fan and believed more people should read the authour. We wove our way around the garland-sellers, tailors and fruit stands and I learned that despite his education and clipped accent, Dev hadn’t traveled much and said he hadn’t thought much of foreign ladies.
“You mean you’re not shopping for a wife?” I said doubtfully. Dev looked affronted.
“I am glad to meet you,” he said passionately, “And if we become friends over time that would be very nice, but why would you say such a thing?”
I laughed and we continued to the corner in the neighbourhood of Breach Candy where I was staying with Aloysius and where I now needed to turn. I extended my hand to Dev.
“Goodbye,” I said, “It was nice to meet you.” Dev stared at my hand, then shook it.“Would you like to stay in touch?” he asked.
“Er, no thanks,” I said. I admit: Dev was handsome and intellectual but he was eight years younger, Hindu and though a very different fellow, he’d nonetheless used the same technique as the first fellow to meet this foreign lady.
Later, when I related the story of the two men to my astonished cousin, she blamed it on the Bollywood movies. “In the films, loose women are portrayed in Western dress and mannerisms. Then,” said Deepika, “When she’s met the ‘right man’ she changes her ways, wears a sari and becomes a wife.”
What kind of impression do I make, I asked myself. Am I invisibly Indian or acutely Western? Today I’d tasted a bit of both along with my palak and pakoras. I suspected that as my time in India lengthened, I’d become less of one and more of the other.