I open my eyes, woken up by streetnoise and the sweat that is running down my face. My legs are numb, my head way too heavy, my throat dry and the constant stop-and-go puts me into a slight concussion. Once I take a look out of the window on the right side I see quonsets, left some blue tarpaulins, which cover improvised houses of several families – as a protection against dust, rain and the freaking hot sun. I arrived in Mumbai. Together with about 12.5. million other people plus numerous tourists.
My stomach is going nuts and deep insight my head I am going through the to-do-list, which I neatly created at home. Mumbai, a city that I always envied to see and enjoy, to smell and feel. Well, afterwards I could easily relinquish smelling it, but still: I wanted to be mesmerised by the city. Just like Prabaker, Lindsay, Karla and the other characters from Gregory David Roberts’ book Shantaram.
I would love to say that I inhaled the book and that I finished it within seconds. This is not the reality. Instead, it took me one year until I read through the fascinating history of an Australian criminal, who, after a stopover in a prison in New Zealand, fled to Mumbai and started a new life: he challenged himself as slum doctor, passport creator, drug dealer and became a proper hero. I am sure that this one year, which was filled with Shantaram, increased my inner urge of getting to know Mumbai. Last year I followed the urge and went there.
And well, here I am, sitting in a cab for three hours already trying to make it to my hotel, while my ass becomes one with my pants thanks to the sweat. Mumbai, I love you already.
Mumbai Guide: “There are no mistakes. Only new paths to explore”
…and those new paths will be explored during my first day in Mumbai. I am strolling through the little alleys, fascinated by their architecture and contrasts. On the right side I look at a stunning colonial building and students standing in front of it indulging in proper Indian chai. The streets are filled due to the major rush-hour. The streets on the left side are filled with bookstores, beggars and barbers. Mumbai, you city of contrasts. Did you know that Mumbai, after Miami, has the second largest number of Art Deco buildings?
The best way to explore Mumbai is by foot or by cab. You will only find tuk tuks in the very North of the city, which is handy if you want to see fancy Mumbai in its suburb Bandra.
Mumbai Guide: “Whatever you do, in the privacy of your own rain shower, is your own business”
Business – something that can be found around every single corner in Mumbai. The chai man, who diligently sells chai on Mumbai’s busiest beach Girgaum Chowpatty, the barber who squeezed his stall into Mumbai’s most packed night market and the kids who jump up the garbage hills determined to find plastic and metal that can be recycled – and transformed into new products.
The smartness of Indians living in Mumbai reaches its peak in Dhobi Ghat, the largest open-air laundry in the world. Here, around 5.000 men wash cloths from hospitals, hotels, laundries or factories in about 826 basins. Being a tourist in Mumbai you might find your pants hung up in Dhobi Ghat as most small laundries give their clothes to the hard-working men in Dhobi Ghat too.
Most men who work here, started this job when they were around 13 or 14 years old and, since then, wash clothes every single day from Monday to Sunday – 14 hours per day. The work causes severe burns and does not pay well. I am sure that the image of the men standing in the basins, water up to their knees, and washing clothes will never get out of my head.
Mumbai Guide: “Food is music to the body, music is food to the heart”
With a slightly irritated feeling in my stomach, a feeling anxiety or trepidation after seeing Dhobi Ghat I went back on the traces of Shantaram and found myself in the famous Leopold Café – the spot for Shantaram lovers as this is the central spot of the book. In Shantaram, the Leopold Café is described as mystic and dark place, a perfect location for criminals making new deals. For me, it is the place where you can find the best Lassi in town.
Actually seeing a spot, which you, up until now, only knew from books is an inspiring feeling. The imaginations that you came up with, page after page, will now be taken into reality. Was your imagination right? In the case of Leopold Café – yes, they were: it is dark, it is random, it is packed and it smells weirdly.
Mumbai Guide: “Happiness is a myth. It was invented to make us buy new things”
Whether this quote is actually right? Don’t know. What I do know is, that shopping does, from time to time, make you happy. Shopping in Mumbai, however, does not mean that you walk from shop to shop. No. It means that you slalom over markets which will take your breath away from various reasons. One, the smell is, well, in need of getting used to. Two, get ready to see shoes being sold next to curry and curry being sold next to the barber. Three, it is freaking fascinating!
You feel like seeing this? Check out Chor Bazaar. Once this market was called Shor Bazaar (translated into “The noisy market”) but since the British had problems pronouncing this it quickly became Chor Bazaar, which means market of the thieves.
Mumbai Guide: “Heroes only come in three kinds: dead, damaged or dubios”
After having thrown away my to-to-list as quickly as the sweat ran down my face, I promised myself to simply get to know Mumbai by strolling around like a lost stranger. Still, there is one thing that you should not forget to check out. Something that is inspiring, fascinating and unbelievable at the same time: a visit in Mahatma Ghandi’s house. Ghandi, the hero for most Indians. His fight for equality, against racism, for human rights for untouchables and women and his constant with for India’s independency are unforgotten.
If you walk around Ghandi’s house goosebumps is a highly understated feeling. Various shelves are filled with his books, with books read by Ghandi. In one corner you find the reconstructed sleeping room of Ghandi. The squeaky floor and the few sunbeams that make their way through the grids on the windows make the whole surrounding perfect and almost indescribable.
After two days in Mumbai I can say that it fully got to me. It is a fascinating city, which is unique. The sweat, the noise, the people, the smell, the garbage, the poverty and the homeless – this is Mumbai just like the 5-star hotels, the palaces and the restaurants with securities are Mumbai.
I spend my last night on the walls around the Chowpatty and think about how Lindsay from Shantaram would consider his life in this very moment.