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Bombay Blast Blues – 30th November 2008

When I took this photograph with a colleague, Steve Foster, in the foreground some weeks back , I had little knowledge and experience on India. DSC00418It was my first full day in the country and three of us hired a driver and car to take us around the city sights. The photograph was of the tourist carriage in the middle ground. However, the Taj Mahal Hotel in the background is now the main point of interest.

With the events that have unfolded this week in India, my memory has been stirred and small conversations that occurred while I was there now make sense.

For me, India is an energetic and ambitious country from the little I have seen of it. In October, they launched a space craft into a moon orbit. They were in talks with the US and other governments to start building their own nuclear power plants to drive their economy. Buildings were going up everywhere in Mumbai and Pune. The people I met are courteous, ambitious and keen to improve themselves. 

What is now making sense, in retrospect, is how much tension there is below the surface. Our driver in Mumbai, Ahsok, kept commenting on the fact that most of the slums were inhabited by Muslims. Judging by the number of mosques dotted amongst the slums, it was clear that the divide between Hindus and Muslims was not limited to their religions. The lack of opportunity for Muslims was patently obvious if the size of the slums is anything to go by.  Ashok’s wife is a Muslim although he is a Hindu.

Friends I made out there have commented about their anger at the ineffectual government letting this happen. It is difficult to protect the innocent against these type of attacks without having good intelligence so that you can reduce the potential for terror attacks like this. Even the Americans got this wrong.

Another British friend I made in Pune has just emailed me to say she went through the train station in Mumbai in the morning before the attacks on her way back to the UK.

Another friend of mine who I met in Pune has had to cancel his trip to Goa over Christmas and Easter because there is now a terrorist threat against the region.

Another aspect of Indian life which struck was how they treat each other. Indian is very regionalised, so much so that people from another state are regarded as different and perhaps suspiciously. For example, my driver in Pune, Yusuf, is a Maharastran. Yet, the security guard outside the buildings in which I was working was from another state.

Coming into the business park each afternoon, Yusuf would ask the security guard to move the tape and bollards on the pavement so that he could drop "Sir" (i.e. me) off right next to the front door. One particular afternoon, a new guard was there who refused to move the bollards and tape. Yusuf quickly showed his anger at the guards’ refusal to carry out his request and beckoned him to approach our four-by-four.

The guard soon found him being grappled by Yusuf through his window in a manner which looked as though Yusuf was trying to break his neck of which a commando would have been proud.

The guard soon complied and Yusuf dropped me off at the main entrance while muttering how stupid the guard was because he was from the Punjab.

In that one incident, I saw just how much tension there is in India let alone between its neighbours.

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Categories: travel

Bombay Diaries – 28 Sep

It is only a small thing but it highlights the differences between home (the UK), and India. I found the Indian times hooked to the outside of my door this morning and I took it down to breakfast to read. Vishnu and Steve

There had been a bomb attack in New Delhi and a small boy had been killed when he picked up the bomb which had been dropped by the pillion passenger on the attackers’ motorbike. Dreadful.

The first difference I noticed was how much more graphic the description of the bombing was than in Britain. The article literally described how the boy’s head had been blown off summed it up for me.

Furthermore, the language used by the journalist was just slightly different to British English. He used the word "normalcy" to describe that the scene of the bomb attack had returned to its regular beat. I don’t think I have ever used that word before. This morning’s papers described that police investigating the attack as "sleuths" which was particularly intriguing. This sounds so much better than ‘investigators’ and I understand that "sleuths" is probably more appropriate for the circumstances.

The reason for this is that here in Mumbai, for example, there is a population of about 16 million people. But there are only about 40,000 police officers. They have to rely on a network of paid informers to find out anything about what is going on and the word ‘sleuth’ is fitting.

Mumbai 015 Three of us (Liam, Steve, WH) hired one of the hotel’s cars with a driver, Vishnu, to take us around the city sites. After a stop in the Bandara district of the city, which is where many of the Bollywood stars live, so Liam could buy a camera, we set off.

The traffic here is chaotic but it works, somehow. Tuk-tuk’s cutting up cars, cars cutting up buses, and pedestrians mingling amongst speeding traffic, beggars at the traffic lights. An old beggar

Vishnu informed us that if he were to hit anyone and kill them on the road, he could be in and out of the police station within an hour and only 950 rupees lighter which is about £11.

As it turned out, the highlight of the day was not what I thought it would be. The Gateway to India is a major attraction, but that turned out to be an anti-climax.

The highlight of the day was the public laundry. Vishnu dropped us off on a bridge overlooking it which turned out to be a tourist viewing point with the incumbent beggars.

The public laundry is a large area of small businesses washing people’s clothes for The Public Laundryabout 35p an item. There were young men in large tubs scrubbing and cleaning with waves of clothes drying in the sunshine.

Nearby is a rail station where numerous trains, even for a Sunday, scooted through with open doors and  passengers peering out.

Everyone says the smells in India are memorable. I mentioned the smell to Liam and Steve, who said I should wait until tomorrow when we went through a large slum area on the way to the ‘Three Mobile’ offices where we are working.

We passed some of the ‘houses’ that many people live in. They are tiny. The roadside slumsinhabitants leave their mornings to pick up water each day at 5-30am to take back to their homes. Their were many children at the traffic lights begging who, apparently, have to pay the local mafia 10% to 20% of their takings. Even the beggars have contracts with the mafia to be able to have a spot from which to beg.

I admit my ignorance here. I had no idea that Gandhi lived in Bombay for some years. His house is a museum. He started several famous campaigns here. His house was packed with books, pictures and displays. But the most fascinating was his room. It was simple and modest, in such contrast to the admiration which he gained for his powerful and positive effects upon India and the world. Gandhi's house

Outside, I was accosted by two female hawkers who were very amusing. I bought some of their bags for Emily and I am sure I paid too much for them. It was at least £2.30.

Vishnu then took us through the ‘city’ area of Mumbai (I still say Bombay) stopping at the ‘VT’ or Victoria Terminus rail station. It is VT rail station Mumbaicalled something else now but everyone still calls it ‘VT’. Vishnu complained that the current government was not spending enough on the upkeep of such lovely buildings.

On the way to the Women traders ouside Gandhi's houseGateway of India, I was struck by the people and families bustling through the streets barefoot. There was a noticeable increase in the number of European faces as we neared the Gateway.

Gateway to IndiaThe Gateway of India was half covered in scaffolding and it was a bit disappointing as a result.

  

Vishnu then took us past some very good shops with some lovely items. But the sales pressure failed and we asked to be driven back!

The Indian forms of transport are a source of fascination. The motorbike or scooter is the best one.  The family was one of many we saw making best use of two wheels and a motor.

Indian FamilyLater, as we neared our hotel, Vishnu pointed out the groups of people lined up beside the road in front of what looked like kitchens. These were people waiting for someone to pay 200 rupees (£2.30) to the owner so he could feed the beggars waiting for food. There were about 20 beggars at each kitchen.

We returned to the Hyatt for a pizza and a beer. My pizza was 410 rupees.

Indian transportTomorrow, I start work.

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Categories: travel