Every time I am about to leave India, especially Mumbai, I tell myself never to come back. This time was no exception; the “India fatigue” seemed to hit me hard as the car crawled towards the airport. The darkness scared me, if only unconsciously. I always seemed to choose airlines that left in the early morning; 2 am. 3 am. Horrid points in time, for travelling. I wish it had been noon, the traffic would have been less although still heavy. We would be in between rush hours. If anything should happen – I’m not exactly sure what – it would be easily solved in broad daylight.
It was dark, the air was damp from recent rain. No, wait, the street lamps revealed a drizzle and I could see people taking shelter under their umbrellas. “Waiting for a taxi,” Babu said. My driver had, to my relief, kept quiet for a while. He had been talking non-stop since we left the hotel in Colaba. His staccato, grunting voice was taking a toll on me, maybe because I felt distress coming and going.
All day, my suitcase had been packed and stored with a few loose items on top. Arriving was easier; I could just peel off the layers of clothes. Long haul journeys sometimes felt like travelling in a freezer and I wouldn’t like to arrive in India with a cold. Better save that for the return. Upon landing, my jacket went around my waist, the cardigan would have to stay on until the luggage had been picked up, and the big woollen scarf trailed behind me as I overtook everybody in long strides. First come, first served, I always thought, with immigration in mind.
Now the jacket was once again around my waist, the cardigan kept the air-conditioning at bay, my jogging shoes felt tight and heavy, and the woollen scarf seemed superfluous but better be prepared for the Ice Box, which had become my nickname for Jet Airways.
Once off Marine Drive, the city’s famous sea promenade, the traffic was congested. “Two festivals are ending tonight,” Babu informed me. “One Hindu festival and one Muslim. It will be crowded on the streets. I think I will chance upon another route. Hopefully we will be lucky.”
I didn’t want us to take a chance and hope luck stood by, but I knew Babu was doing his best. One could trust Mumbai drivers. Well, maybe not about money, there always seemed to be a second price tag attached to their services. But Babu wanted, as much as I did, to avoid any jam. “We have enough time,” he said. “We will arrive at the airport before 11. Probably earlier, let’s see.” The car had made a full stop, but I could see the red traffic light at a distance. Traffic lights equal civilised, I reassured myself, pleased with the rhyme. When the traffic came to a standstill for no apparent reason, it was time to worry. My eyes fell on a group of women with children on their hips, and the shacks along the pavement. Children never seem to go to bed, I thought fleetingly, knowing that beds as we know them were non-existent.
When I first came to Mumbai, I never stopped wondering how people lived their lives on the streets. My face was always glued to the car window, I saw children defecate (so where did the grown-ups do it?) next to what could be their mother or aunt who was preparing dinner over a small fire. Did they remove it, or let it be? I could never get myself to ask anybody. There were rows upon rows of shacks, but not every citizen had a roof – whatever that might be – over their head. I had never seen pavements, anywhere else, so frequently doubling as beds.
Some pictures always stuck in my mind. The small family around a bonfire on a traffic island – as if every pavement was fully booked. Mumbai is always hot and sticky, they must have been cooking a late meal in the midst of the traffic, rather than warming themselves. And I would never forget the body, totally enveloped in a blanket, like a mummy, right there on the floor of Borivali railway station in the far north of Mumbai. He, or she, had simply gone to bed amongst busy passers-by. Everybody took care not to step upon what could have been a corpse. I have never seen such loneliness.
Now I saw, for the first time, Mumbai during the monsoon rain and I wondered what life was like behind the flimsy tarpaulins. I imagined the huddled creatures as the rain came gushing down. Even though the sun came out during the day, I asked myself if it was sufficient to dry the damp clothes. I thought about how easily I escaped the hot and humid air by stepping into a cool car, or an air-conditioned shop. How I could trawl back to my hotel, walk right into the bathroom, remove my clothes in a flash and step into the shower; as good as new in seconds. Yet out of the car window, I regretfully observed children, women and men struggle with lives made even more uncomfortable by the rain. Seeing everything through a been-here-so-many-times filter, I didn’t get shocked anymore. I believed what I saw, although I was still not able to retell it the way I wanted, when I came home.
Babu had taken me around the south of Mumbai earlier that day. Everybody who has left a big, hot, rainy city at 2 in the morning knows that time prior to departure hardly flies. The idea of an air-conditioned car with a driver who could take me exactly where I wanted, and maybe add some new places to my list, seemed like a good one. I had been far-sighted enough to leave some space in the suitcase for last minute shopping, which would, including traffic jams, fill a few hours. In fact, I would welcome a traffic jam or two. I would lean back and close my eyes in the cool environment, or letting life outside the car play as a movie, so time would pass.
I told Babu I wanted to go to Kemps Corner, to buy some books at Crossword and then visit the BIBA store.
“Madam,” he said, “don’t you find BIBA expensive?”
“Naaaa …” I didn’t like to tell him that a few BIBA tunics would hardly show on my budget. I found their clothes ridiculously inexpensive, or maybe exceptionally affordable. Maybe I could just leave out the adverbs and then tell him.
“But, madam, there is another shop next to BIBA.” Babu wasn’t ready to leave the topic. As a driver cum guide, Babu obviously knew a few facts about the fashion world. “The Anita Dongre shop, people say her outfits start at 40 000 or 50 000 rupees.”
“Ahhh, way beyond my budget,” I was happy to admit. “Yes, I know the shop, the entrance looks very modest and smells big money from a long way.
Babu was the elder brother of another Mr. Singh, the younger one a tall and sturdy man in his fifties. Bearded and turbaned as most Sikhs, he seemed to reign the front desk of Hotel Godwin. I never quite understood his role in the reception hierarchy, but treated him as the ultimate boss. Even though I had stayed at the hotel several times, he never failed to tell me, on my last day, how he was about to lose one of his hotel stars. The first time I was genuinely surprised, until I understood that I was his third star. I had laughed at his silly joke and later came to realise that this was probably how he sent off most of his western, female guests.
When we arrived at the toll station, Babu leaned out of the window and suddenly the two men in the booth and Babu started an argument. The young men’s eyes, lit up by the light in the booth, glistened in the dark and wet weather. The discussion got agitated and I felt uneasy. We might have to make a turn, I thought. Something might be wrong with Babu’s license, maybe he is not allowed to drive a tourist car after all. Those things happened in India; I once thought I was stuck in Agra for ever. But why should they care about these things, their job was to collect the charge. Then Babu got his change and drove on, stopped a few metres after the booth, opened the door and was about to leave the car as I shouted, “What now?”
“I didn’t get the slip, how can I return without the slip?” Babu muttered and left me. In a flash, I imagined the Ice Box leaving Mumbai without me as I was stranded on one of the main arteries out of Mumbai, while Babu and the toll authorities were trying to settle a minor discrepancy. It never came to that of course. Seconds later, Babu was back in the car with his slip, although still grunting. What a neurotic fool I am, I thought.
I had returned to the hotel around 4 pm. The younger Mr. Singh had offered me a room for a few hundred rupees until I had to leave for the airport. I thought it was reasonable. What would I otherwise do? I might while away the hours in the reception, another icebox. Every time I stepped out of the lift, the cold air slapped me in the face. As did the hot air as I stepped out of the hotel. I wasn’t really up to any extreme temperature.
I decided to lie down on the bed for a while, just to breathe in and breathe out. So preoccupied was I by the idea of a rest I must have missed the sound of the drill next door, once I came out of the lift. The hotel was under renovation, the room next to mine seemed to be the subject of a range of hard-hitting tools. I reckoned the workers would leave at 6 pm and went down to the reception to order a pizza. I never felt ashamed to eat pizza from neither Pizza Hut nor Domino’s while in India, although people back home rolled their eyes. I asked the reception to call for a Spicy Veggie, which I savoured in the empty breakfast room together with a Coke of strange, metallic flavour.
The Spicy Veggie must have made me drowsy and I fell asleep in spite of the ongoing terror next door. Sometime later, I woke up with a jolt, only to notice the hammers and sledges replaced by another sound. Was it rain? The curtains were drawn because the room was facing a grim backyard, I peeped out and was horrified to see the nature of the rain. I found no word to describe it, but it must have been the thunder that woke me. I spent the next hours alternatively dozing, repacking and thinking about a shower, while listening to the ongoing, rambunctious weather. Anxiety crept upon me. Would the airport shut down? Was my 02.40 am Jet Airways plane parked on the airport, or was it in the air somewhere, being redirected to drier destinations? Would roads towards the airport be flooded? The Wi-Fi seemed to be out, there was no way I could check the forecast or the departures and arrivals at Mumbai Airport.
I had ample reason to worry. Ten days earlier, as my flight was about to start its descent towards Mumbai, the captain with his jolly “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” – a phrase he would stick to through thick and thin, presaged trouble. A plane had skidded off the runway, the rain and poor visibility made it difficult to land. No, it made it impossible to land. At present. His little speech gave way to both hope and despair in the course of a few seconds.
We were circling above Mumbai for one hour, and so were planes from many other directions. It must have been crowded up there, but I chose not to think about it in too much detail.
“So we’re diverting to Hyderabad.” The pilot continued his story, not failing to inform us that he and his crew would have to leave the plane in six hours, he would however stick with us until we were safely grounded and disembarked. As if it was a generous offer.
The air above Hyderabad was congested, it took some time to find a loophole and get down – hopefully air traffic control saw it differently. “And I have decided,” the pilot, our trusted shepherd, was faithfully making another statement, “that we will remain in the plane all night because Hyderabad airport is in a state of total chaos and besides, certain rules apply to international flights.” People said ‘Oh my God’ in a variety of ways, grabbed their cell phones, but remained surprisingly composed.
We were stuck in the plane for six hours, we were stuck for 20 heated and agitated minutes in the bus that took us to the terminal building. We felt stuck in the immigration queue, waited patiently for the luggage and wondered what would be the next move now that the pilot had left his flock to “commercial” aka Jet Airways who had barricaded themselves, it turned out, behind glass windows. The queue had the shape of an unruly crowd that sometimes sprang to life through shouting people, some hammering on the glass windows.
The silence from Jet Airways persisted. Based on rumours, the flock of several hundred stranded passengers from various flights had been, without any specific guidance herded into the departure hall, later through security – all the time clutching our crumpled boarding passes stating AMS-BOM although we were in HYD. We were told to leave our luggage in a heap close to the check-in counters and choose one of the five flights that somehow had materialised, to Mumbai. I know one rule of the aviation world, the one that unconditionally states that the luggage should always go with the passenger. But the airport had for a moment turned into a petty bus station.
Now, heading back to that same airport, I read the familiar signs; Bandra, Santa Cruz, Andheri. The one with Airport would appear soon enough, and I could feel how relief gradually replaced the feeling of unrest. We were off the highway now, Babu manoeuvred his car through busy and sometimes congested lanes and assured me, although with some hesitation, it would take only 20 minutes to reach. He didn’t seem ready to call off a possible traffic jam, yet.
I hadn’t once looked at my watch during the drive, but when the newly refurbished and spectacular Mumbai Airport appeared in front of us, I instantly knew I would have plenty of time for the slow-moving, meandering queues. I turned towards Babu and gave him those extra rupees he both expected and deserved. “Next time I come to Mumbai I want you as my driver,” I said. The promise I had made to myself more than an hour earlier, had vanished into moist air.
Mumbai – Bombay. Always coming back.