Mahim East is perhaps not an area in Mumbai that attracts tourists in hordes. As the train approaches Mahim Junction, I’m struck by the extreme and poor settlements along the railway line and the amount of garbage is overwhelming.
Mahim East is also home to Dharavi, for many years known as Asia’s largest slum. Slum is a broad term and not always about poverty, but also entrepreneurship and – surprisingly for many – wealth, as in parts of Dharavi. The way people choose to live doesn’t always reflect their general standard of life.
We are on our way to Mahim to look at street art, largely huge murals in strong colours and vigorous expressions. We walk around with our necks bent towards the sky to be sure not to miss anything, and we admire what we see.
What primarily characterizes the murals is their size. Entire end-walls of many buildings are covered with colourful drawings and you must have a good wide angle on your camera to capture it all. Over the years, the rainy season has been putting its mark on the buildings’ facades. The rain, mixed with pollution, has mixed new lines into the art and given it a completely new texture.
Mahim East, like so many other districts in Mumbai, is almost a city of its own. The lower middle class as we know it in India lives and works here, and the district is partly characterized by poverty. The large murals are part of a project that wants to beautify the decrepit expression of the district and many different artists, including foreign ones, have contributed.
Some tour guides will take you to Mahim East as part of a visit to Dharavi.
It’s no point denying it, I’m not fond of fish. Or the smell of it. But the sight of it …? Give me an Asian fishing village and I’m ready to go any minute. Madh Island in the north of Mumbai is such a place. Here, you’ll find clean beaches and expensive resorts – but also a smelly and heavily polluted fishing village. If you’re new to it, it might be quite a challenge to your senses!
I’m travelling in an autorickshaw with my guide through another fishing village, Versova. Roads are narrow, lanes even more so. It’s crowded, people carry heavy loads on their heads or transport even bigger loads by handcarts accompanied by likewise heavy shouting and everybody seem to be in each other’s way. Dogs are scuttling here and there, on the look-out for a free meal – which shouldn’t be hard to find.
The barge that is going to take us across makes me slightly apprehensive. People stand shoulder to shoulder and jump off together with a few two-wheelers. Next, it’s our turn, we board and the crowd is less – which means that my idea of sinking becomes less intrusive … And before I know it we have reached the other side, a few steps lead us to a turnstile where we pay the fee which is so small I have to look twice! (ten rupees if I’m not wrong). And we’re at Madh Island.
An autorickshaw takes us along the main thoroughfare of the fishing village which is lined with stalls. People are selling fish and other food, after a while we jump off and walk the last part to get a better feel of the atmosphere and to speak to people on our way. It’s crowded, it’s smelly, it’s energy at high speed! Just what I was looking for!
We’re aiming for the pier where boats unload fish. Today there seem to be shrimps and more shrimps! All the way along the pier people, mostly women, are working with shrimps. Some children are helping, or maybe they just want to be close to their mothers. The ground is full of shrimps. Together with the setting sun the world takes on a pink-ish look. Beautiful wicker baskets, waiting to be filled, surround the women.
I have forgotten all about the fierce smell pushing its way through my nostrils as we make our return to the wharf. The market is still lively, buying and selling – and cooking – will take place for many hours still. A barge is on its way as we reach the jetty, we stumble on, ready to return to the city.
“That’s where they landed, the terrorists who attacked The Taj Mahal Hotel back in 2008,” my guide cum driver says, as he points to the right towards a small bay. He asks me if I remember and I tell him that it happened on my birthday. “It’s not allowed to stop or park the car and police are always posted”, he adds. I didn’t see any police although our car was hardly moving. But maybe I was not supposed to. We were on our way to Sassoon Docks, another Mumbai tourist attraction in Colaba, in the very south of the megalopolis.
Several web pages had pointed out that photography was not welcomed by the workers, some pages even used the word prohibited. I ask my guide who shrugs and says he couldn’t really tell. “You never know, maybe it depends on their mood that could be marked by the catch of the day,” he says without enthusiasm. It was clear that he wouldn’t be of any help. I tell myself to be polite, and not too intrusive.
Sassoon Docks, built in 1875, is one of the oldest docks in Mumbai and was the first wet-dock constructed in Bombay. It is also one of the few docks in the city open to the public. According to The Maritime History Society of Mumbai, the Sassoon Dock was formally inaugurated on Tuesday, 8th June 1875. The Times of India dated 09 June 1875, in an article titled ‘The Colaba Sassoon Dock’, describes the dock in the following words: “The dock is about 690 feet in length, 300 feet in breadth, 40 feet from gate to gate, has therefore an area of about 195,000 square feet, and has a 15.4 fill below the wear tide. A substantial stone bunder encloses the dock; and flood gates are provided at the entrance on the east side.” The docks were built by David Sassoon and Co., a banking and mercantile company which was run by David Sassoon’s son at the time. The dock is no longer in private hands, that happened years ago.
We walk through the big gates and head towards the quay while trying to avoid lorries, busy men with hand-carts and the many puddles of water. More men are working outside the ramshackle buildings, while beautiful women in their immaculate working attire – a beautiful sari – are sailing past us, bowls on their heads. I had braced myself for the smell of fish, it had been raining and the sky was painted grey. But as always in India: colours prevail. From the shining yellow boots worn by men shuffling ice, to the bright orange and blue plastic crates, the colourful trucks and boats – and again, the women in colourful saris.
The fishing boats lay shoulder by shoulder, row upon row, in the water that seems to glister with oil. They look wrecked, like a colony of sinking ships. Everywhere around us, men and women rest on plastic chairs or on the ground in front of fish unknown to me. But as I later knew would be pomfret, Indian red snapper, cuttlefish, swordfish, stingrays and shrimps. Baskets, bowls, crates – many types of storage were lying carelessly around – or placed on top of somebody’s head. The whole place is bustling, and I make it a point not to be in anybody’s way.
The fisheries are run by the Kolis, a group of people who helped develop the harbours and coastlines of Mumbai back in the days when the city was named Bombay, a scattered amalgamation of seven islands. The Kolis live in Koliwadas, modest quarters of the city, distinguished from the rest of Mumbai in their traditions and social life. I had read that the women, in particular, were aggressive and prone to shouting at tourists – especially those with cameras. I experience no such thing; the women are either smiling or busy with their work.
I sneak around, trying to make myself invisible. My guide seems uncomfortable, it’s obvious that he wants to avoid any form of provocation, I am after all his responsibility – for the time being. But nobody seems to pay me any attention, the shrewd Koli women have more important things on their mind. While the men catch the fish, it is the women who sell the catch and thus are responsible for the family economy.
It’s getting warmer and the overall stench seems more persistent. The guide is ready to leave and I tug along. As he turns the car and starts to drive towards the north, he points at some shacks and tells me that many of their residents earn their living from the docks. “They’re not poor,” he says, “although it might look like a slum. Inside these shacks you’ll find millions of rupees in cash, and gold. But this is how they prefer to live.” It could be the truth, or part of the truth, but possibly also a myth – popular among guides. If Sassoon Docks will outlive further urbanisation of Mumbai remains to see, so don’t miss it should you get the chance!
The air is hot and humid. Sweat is trickling down my spine and my sandals draw water. I sneak through a narrow passage to the sound of clapping feet running back and forth. Loud voices come with violent outbursts and I get a feeling of being in the way. Large knots of dirty clothes hang heavily over the shoulders of the men, and every now and then I see a woman with a knot on her head. We are visiting an open-air laundry in Colaba, in the south of Mumbai. A dhobi ghat.
Tourist attraction A little further north, Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat is still one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, although the laundry has been predicted to close for many years. The area is attractive to large developers who believe this type of laundry belongs to the past. The laundry was established in 1890 and has been presented in The Guinness Book of Records (2011) as the world’s largest open-air laundry. From the large bridge at Mahalaxmi Railway Station you get a good overview of a damp and crawling ‘anthill’ where, at the most and once, close to a thousand washermen, called dhobis, simultaneously earned a living.
Dirty clothes are primarily delivered from hotels and hospitals. The area is divided into wash pens, each fitted with its own flogging stone. It might not be the place where I’d send my summer dress.
Inherited profession The dhobis have to pay rent for each washing pen to the Mumbai authorities. In a society still plagued by corruption, they must expect to be exposed to money collectors who ask for bribes in order to renew leases on behalf of the authorities.
The profession of a dhobi is hard and passed down from generation to generation. Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat spans many blocks and is seen as urban slum. Here, the dhobis live with their families in very poor conditions, and child labour is not uncommon. After all, many are born into the profession.
Dhobi ghat in the south We chose to visit a smaller and more unknown dhobi ghat in Colaba, the far south of Mumbai. Here you can get closer, and walk unnoticed between busy men, giggling children and the ubiquitous stray dogs. Although a dhobi ghat is characterized by manual labour, there are a few large electrically powered centrifuges under cover.
Large, white or colourful sheets mixed with worn jeans hang to dry along the walls or on large racks on the roofs of surrounding buildings. You probably have to be a bit of an acrobat to get the laundry hung to dry! Flats, one of top of the other, painted in India’s candy colors, surround parts of the laundry and lighten up an otherwise grey area.
It is the middle of the day and the activity is low. Most of the work takes place early in the morning so that washing can hang to dry throughout the day. Here, there is no computer or app that registers washing in and out, but a coding system that keeps track of customers and laundry. We notice how some of the men soap themselves and shower with water from a bucket. A few minutes of respite breaks up a tough daily life – mostly about soap and water anyway.
WHERE: Dhobi Ghat off Capt. Prakash Petha Marg, Colaba
“You should go to the cemetery,” a photographer in Kolkata once told me. “No, you must go, he added. “You’re staying just around the corner.” So I went there.
Kolkata, or Calcutta – a name with much more history attached to it, is like any other Indian city of a certain size, a beast. Crowded, noisy, confusing, at times heavily polluted. The moment I walked through the gate of the cemetery, I found peace. And now, reminiscing about my visit, I come to think of the title of an old pop song from the 60’s, ‘Graveyard Paradise’.
Photography prohibited; a sign tells me. But most things are available at a price, I motioned my camera towards the guards and upon request paid 200 rupis for potentially using my camera. I was not able to understand the logic behind the fee, but the amount was small and the guards welcoming.
The immediate sight was overwhelming. The cemetery looked like an old, lush overgrown garden. The footpaths were flanked by weathered tombs, colonnades, mausoleums, obelisks, sarcophagi, and stone cupolas – all partly covered in moss and framed by a variety of trees, bushes and potted plants. Chirping birds made the picture complete, the traffic noise became nothing but a soft backdrop. And the whole place reeked of old history from the time of the Britishers.
This burial ground came into being in 1767, in a marshy area. To reach it, a new road had to be built – today called Park Street, and no one visits Calcutta without strolling up and down this street. But I might not have walked this far had I not known what to find …
The cemetery was in its time opened to relieve the pressure on the city’s old burial ground. It became the final resting place of the many Britishers who came to stay in India for several reasons, but many hardships had to be endured and many tombs tell stories about short lives. Tropical diseases, poor sanitation, and lack of medicines were the main reasons for all those early deaths.
Some 1600 British men, women and children are buried here, among them some notable personalities and there are quite a few military burials. The cemetery also tells stories about young women who presumably died in childbirth, as many children are buried together with their mothers.
South Park Street Cemetery covers 8 acres, and walled off from the busy streets makes it the perfect get-away for young couples. Visit any big garden or park in India, and you’ll find youngsters strolling leisurely along the footpaths, holdings hands, sitting close on benches – or they might be seen kissing and cuddling behind big tree trunks. The cemetery is no exception. I teasingly asked a young couple if I could take their picture, but they leaped up from their bench as if they had seen a … ghost!
I immediately noticed them when I first came to Calcutta, and never stopped doing so: The newspaper men. To me, they are men reading newspapers on the streets, in their stalls, sitting on stools and chairs, leaning onto railings, or whatever comes their way, at bus stops – simply everywhere. Yes, there are people hunched over cellphones like everywhere else in the world, but more noticeably are those who fold out broadsheets or the likes.
“Asia’s first newspaper started in Calcutta,” says Soham Chakrabarty, founder of Calcutta Capsule. “The Hicky’s Bengal Gazette (1780) was published for two years before The East India Company seized the newspaper’s printing press. Calcutta was once home to a lot of newspapers, and some of today’s newspapers are more than a hundred years old, like The Statesman.”
While Delhi, with its grand monuments, is the capital of India, and Mumbai the financial hub, Calcutta is often seen as the cultural capital of India marked by art, literature, science, politics and journalism. Bengal, especially Calcutta, was the cradle of journalism in India and till the 1880’s the main hub of newspaper publication.
“Newspapers acted as a medium to reach out to the common crowd,” says Soham. “The independence movement, but also other political issues, included a lot of newspapers through which freedom fighters and activists voiced their opinions.”
Till this date I haven’t seen a single woman reading a newspaper on the streets of Calcutta. Nor are there many female street vendors. “The streets of Calcutta are a man’s world” says Soham. “Common culture be it, or whatever reason, do not make it comfortable for women to spend too much time on the streets hence you don’t see them reading newspapers. Whereas a lot of men do spend time on the streets, sometimes for no obvious reason, where they see it fit to read newspapers. Both my grandmothers had habits of reading newspapers. They were homemakers, but always found time to newspapers within the premises of their house.”
As I go through my Calcutta photos it comes as no surprise that the men reading newspapers aren’t exactly the young generation, rather middle-aged men who, like myself, finds pleasure in something that is about to become an anachronism. And the day I was about to finish this blog post, the newspapers didn’t show up in my mailbox on a Saturday morning; the prime newspaper day of the week. A tablet was put on the table, but no matter how hard I tried I wasn’t able to digest the electronic news together with bread and butter. [END of story, more photos below]
I once came to Rishikesh for a wedding. The hotel was a disappointment, it had looked fine on the website but appeared dilapidated once I came inside. I was given a room with a window facing the corridor. I said I couldn’t accept it. I needed daylight. We looked at another room, but it was the same; the window was facing the corridor. As if I hadn’t made myself clear. The third room looked fine though, light flooded into the room which was facing a backyard, at least I wouldn’t be bothered with traffic noise. And the man promised that curtains, straight from the laundry, would be in place within two hours. He kept his promise. I went to bed that evening in a dark, cool room and not a honking horn within earshot. Then arrived a pack of dogs on the scene; barking, howling & growling … and kept me awake for hours.
Stray dogs in India are omnipresent. I have always called them ’The All India Dog’ because they look as if they have been cast in the same mold. Light brown, short coat, skinny and light-footed. Oher distinct features are sharp nose, perked up ears and curly tails.
I didn’t know until recently that this dog is actually a breed called The Pariah Dog. Indians with a soft spot for these dogs, and animal activists, don’t like this name – for obvious reasons – and prefer Desi (national) Dog. Other commonly used names are Pye Dog, Indi-dog or In-dog (various spellings occur). On the other hand, it’s obvious that many stray dogs gallivanting Indian streets are of a mixed breed.
They are known to be extremely intelligent, which is required for their ability to survive with little human support. They are often used as guard dogs or police dogs, as they are both territorial and defensive. But many people find them a nuisance and nothing but a problem. The biggest reason for growing in such numbers is open garbage, a problem which India has yet to solve. Stray dogs rely on garbage while hunting for eatables. In India, killing of dogs has been banned since 2001. But dogs are probably intentionally (and illegally) killed anyway, and some should definitely be put to rest due to hunger, illness and injuries. Their existence can be tough.
Every sane grown-up (tourist) knows that one should avoid stray dogs in India at all cost, the buzz word being rabies. An estimated 35 million stray dogs live in India and according to World Health Organisation (WHO) India faces about 18,000 to 20,000 cases of rabies every year.
Once, in Calcutta, I was pointing my camera towards a street vendor, and a dog probably reacted to my movement of the camera and jumped towards me while barking. People were quick to call him, the dog was probably known in the area, and everybody must have noticed how frightened I became. Since then, I have become even more wary towards stray dogs, no matter how cool I think they are. I often take photos of them, but mostly when they are lying down and I make sure to move my camera in a controlled way.
That night in Rishikesh wasn’t my first night in India accompanied by the hullaballoo of stray dogs. But somehow, they belong to the Indian ‘backdrop’. You go to sleep with the sound of honking horns, wake up in the middle of the night to howling dogs and welcome the early morning together with cawing crows. [END of text]
I never, never thought I’d miss the long and exhausting immigration queue at Mumbai, or Delhi airport. And before that, the long strides; trying to overtake other passengers when KLM and Lufthansa are emptying their big bellies at midnight. But miserably enough, the line seems endless once I reach. The straps of the rucksack with my photo gear start gnawing into my shoulders the minute I find my place, the over-sized handbag seems even heavier than when I left home although the apples are eaten – and a book doesn’t feel lighter only because it’s almost finished. The air is thick and moist. The cardigan and wind jacket, once useful when I was waiting for the airport shuttle back home at 4 am in 8 degrees C, are now superfluous and nowhere to be stowed away. And how come the shoes seem to have shrunk so badly. I’m telling myself I’m not tired, and text a message to the homefront: Grounded.
People are moving slowly towards the immigration counters, and everybody is at one point asking the same question: Why are only x out of y counters manned? The most important question of our times, when stranded in this Godforsaken queue. And we stretch our necks and realise that the grave men behind the counters, their faces cut in stone, are still struggling with that little remedy we all have to put our finger(s) on and apparently this remedy still doesn’t go well with clammy index fingers, so in turn we all try and several times again until luck (certainly not technology) strikes. But contrary to US immigration, we are not cross-examined about our whereabouts in India, just nodded tiredly away from the counter. Thank God for small mercy’s!
Released, everybody rush through the sparkling tax free, but why would we rush to pick up the luggage when we know it’s probably still roaming the underbelly labyrinth of the airport. I grab a trolley, check the monitor and meander through the throngs of people, trolleys, luggage, loitering airport staff, and silently place myself in the middle of chaos surrounding belt 40, scanning it in the hope that my suitcase has won the lottery: already spitted out and hit the belt. Alas no. Instead the fear, no horror, of not getting the suitcase at all is what occupies my mind.
I wait politely and patiently among the unruly mass of people, text another message just to kill time: Waiting for the luggage, while I in wonder and amazement watch the amount of luggage the native Indians lift off the belt and how they make towers of king size suitcases while they’re waiting for more. And I keep thinking that Mumbai might not be their final destination and how they, past midnight, maybe after several flights from the US or Canada via Amsterdam must check in their towers again and take that dreary shuttle bus to the domestic airport. It makes me feel a little less miserable. I cling to my trolley while waves of fatigue races through my body, and just as I give up hope my suitcase pops up – and down, and I grab it before it goes for another swing.
Nearly there, I tell myself, relieved (should I text a message?) – before another worry takes hold of my stomach as I rush towards the green channel. Why if the driver is not outside to pick me up? (I mean, it has happened once or twice, so why not a third time?)
This is what I miss right now. And I miss it badly!
Many moons ago, I attended a talk about India by a travel journalist. I recently came across my notes, and among other things I had jotted down was: NB! Calcutta, College Street. When I planned my first visit to Calcutta three years ago, College Street – known to be the largest second-hand book sale in Asia or the world for that matter (statistics vary) – was high on my agenda.
College Street is rightly a street, but putting all the nearby book-ish lanes and alleys together, it becomes an area. Here you’ll find the city’s most prestigious and renowned academic institutions like University of Calcutta, Calcutta Medical College, Presidency College, Sanskrit College, Hare School and Hindu School. Not surprisingly then, the many stalls and shops sell text books and students can be seen roaming the area. In fact, text books seem to be predominantly.
I haven’t actively searched for novels on College Street, but from the many hand painted signs literary work seems to be less available. From what I’ve read, it hasn’t always been like this, but India now has Amazon and Flipkart, and people are turning to their computers here as elsewhere. Although I’m pretty sure those intent of finding that rare, long sought-after book on College Street will be able to, either by luck or hard work. Because books are more than plenty in ‘Boi Para’; the Book Town. And that is of course an understatement … Uncountable, I’d say, at the same time I guess every stall and shop-owner has a reasonable idea about his stock.
If you’re not hunting for that special book, there are still plenty of reasons to visit College Street, like for instance the mere sight of the area. What intrigues me more than the number of books, is the various stalls; how they come in many sizes and shapes, made of different materials. Always with a man (yes, this is yet another man’s world) peeping out of an opening; small or large, made to measure, hand in glove – some not wasting a centimetre and stack their books so that their face is just about visible. What more do you need to sell a book anyway?
Some stalls are just a cupboard, others seem to be literary made of books – more spacious ones occur. And there are of course ordinary shops among the stalls, many of them highly reputable, dating years back, like Dasgupta established in 1886. College Street is also home to important publishing houses. Some of the shops have beautifully fitted furniture and a feeling of awe is never far away. Or perhaps it is fear; that all this will be lost to a modern e-world.
What I also love about College Street, is the hand painted signs (found all over the city for that matter). I haven’t seen a single neon-lit sign, only beautiful lettering. Signs may be worn and grimy, looking rather poor as it is, but they belong to the city’s rough surface.
A must-visit on College Street is the Indian Coffee House. It’s a renowned intellectual and literary hub, proud to have once welcomed Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray and many more. One might go there to admire the waiter’s fancy hats and the retro environment, but coffee is definitely better elsewhere. I couldn’t resist paying a short visit to TripAdvisor, and it’s obvious that many visitors (based on their grumpy coments) expect something entirely different than they get. In many ways I’m glad the place seems not to have lost its eccentricity and ended up a slick tourist destination. Maybe the coffee house is best left to the native people of Calcutta and their adda.
College Street is a fascinating jumble of book stalls, food stalls, people – and among the buses, cars, carts and rickshaws I spotted a flock of goats being herded down College Street – just to complete the picture!
The hand pulled rickshaws are undoubtedly part of Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) DNA. They date back to colonial times and have since become an important part of Calcutta’s transportation network. People who has lived a lifetime in Calcutta, might have seem them decline in numbers. But for me, visiting Calcutta for the third time, they seem to be omnipresent, at least in some parts of the city. Pulled by thin and sinew men in checked lungis, they seem to belong more than anything else. According to a website (indianeagle), Kolkata does currently have 18,000 rickshaw pullers and 6000 rickshaws. Not all of them are licensed by the municipality.
I have been told many stories – and read them as well: The hand pulled rickshaws are slowly disappearing. Human Right’s organisations would like to ban them, for obvious reasons. The city itself would like to put a stop to them because it doesn’t look good. In a modern world, it reminds us of slavery. I have been told that rickshaw wallahs have been given a right to continue their trade until old age, or until they for other reasons are not able to work, or pass away. But a rickshaw wallah may pass on his vehicle to his son (no women in the picture here), or other male family members, or sell it. And who would come to know, in this big and seemingly chaotic city? And should the authorities ask questions, a wad of rupees might easily solve the problem. On the other hand, people are getting more educated these days, and only those in need, or with no other option will resolve to the trade.
It can’t be denied that a hand pulled rickshaw is a practical vehicle, especially when the streets of Calcutta are flooded during the monsoon. Moreover, they work like hand in glove in the narrow lanes and alleys, – and those are many in parts of Calcutta. The rickshaws deliver goods from one place to the other, carry children to schools and take them back to homes, and carry women to nearby local markets. The rickshaw seems like an efficient solution, because the traffic is tough in Calcutta. The iconic yellow taxis very often refuse to take passengers, for reasons I cannot fathom (other than that they earn enough, or they think it too troublesome to go certain places at certain times of the day).
I have never seen a single (white) tourist being transported by a hand pulled rickshaw, although it must certainly happen from time to time. I have debated with myself whether I should try it out, or not. After all, being a rickshaw wallah is a job like any other and should be respected. And the rickshaw wallahs are often immigrants, hailing from poor, neighbouring states like Bihar and Odisha. So why shouldn’t I support them, instead of the lazy taxi drivers? But somehow, I can’t see myself perching on the seat of a rickshaw, but it might just be a wonderful way to experience the streets of Calcutta.
Unfamiliar with Calcutta, one might easily condemn the hand pulled rickshaws. But once there, all the men plying the streets of Calcutta pulling rickshaws and carts, or running through the streets carrying enormous loads of goods on their heads, they all seem to belong, and I can’t imagine Calcutta without them. Whether it is right or wrong, it’s not for me to judge in this piece of writing.