I had only booked the hotel in Bhandra for one night so on my first full day I had to spend over an hour in a cab to get to the Fort and Colaba area. It was scorching hot, 36 degrees centigrade, by eleven in the morning. I travelled with the window open, taking in everything from the decadent office blocks to the squalid slums. My hotel was above a busy street cafe, crowded with taxi drivers who watched me and my huge backpack negotiate the tiny stairwell. It was utterly filthy until I reached a clear glass door on the first floor. When I closed it behind me, the noise and chaos of outside disappeared and I was surrounded by pale marble and cool air, infused with rose incense. This area was not far on the map from the main tourist hub so I settled into my room and put on my best trekking sandals and started walking. I passed the huge Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the gothic exterior giving away it’s roots and former name, Victoria Terminus.
When I stopped to look at a stall, I was asked. “Where are you from?” and my response of “England” was met with two words I would hear repeated throughout my entire trip, “Lovely Jubbly!”. It seems even Del Boy has a place in Indian culture.
I kept walking down busy streets where people crowded into the road. I was flagged down by a couple from Leeds and we greeted each other like old friends. They were lost and hadn’t encountered any other westerners at all, Stanley and Dr Livingstone sprang to mind. We were fresh arrivals and I considered how strange and utterly polite we English are in these circumstances, exchanging pleasantries based only on the fact that we look alike. Pale, pasty and decidedly ginger.
I walked for maybe two hours until I reached Leopold’s Café in Colaba. It played a central part in the book ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts and it was a hive of western activity, bar snacks and glorious cold beer. From there, fully refreshed, I made my way to the magnificent Gateway for some tourist shots and before I knew it, I was being asked to pose in photos with families, like some kind of Bollywood star.
The next day was far less eventful and I decided to put these weird incidents of over enthusiastic men to the back of my mind. I took a cab down Marine Drive, past Chowpatty Beach and visited Gandhi’s house. It was an amazing insight into the man. His simple life and modest existence is so at odds with how politicians and powerful people live life in the twenty-first century. I found some beautiful words inscribed on a card, “Be truthful, gentle and fearless”, advice for me to carry forward on this journey.
I found a brightly coloured café, sipped tea and watched cricket until the heat outside subsided slightly. On my way back to the hotel I passed many families lying in the shade of the trees and saw a young woman bathe a tiny baby girl in a puddle. We exchanged smiles and I offered a handful of money, not much but enough to help. These scenes of extreme poverty made me realise that a huge amount of people in India are desperately struggling to survive in a country with a population of almost a billion people. But, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi, at least they have their freedom.