Follow the contradiction of bright saris and business suits. Follow the plucked chickens in cages and the carts of flowers being artfully dodged on wheelbarrows through the crowd. Follow the avalanche of footsteps as they tumble onto the mosaic tiles, the shout of “Cha-iiii!”. Follow your nose. But look up, grey pigeons live a superior life up in the eaves. They watch with beady eyes our anty existence down below, happily subsisting on flakes of samosas and colourful bhuja, dropped in the rush to catch a train.
I had just finished Shantaram before we began our Indian adventure so we had to visit the hero of the book, the city itself. We had two days here, so hedging our bets safely with the clean, cheap but fairly penitential Salvation Army hostel, we were close to all the things we were “supposed” to see. The Gateway of India, Taj Mahal Hotel, Colaba Causeway and Prince of Wales Museum. In a city where there’s no tuk tuks, being in walking distance is a blessing if you don’t want to argue with taxi drivers and is probably faster due to the semi permanent gridlock, anyway.
The first day we were here, we walked. Through tree-lined avenues that could’ve been plucked from Mary Poppins, through the outer fringes of slums, up and down streets framed with towering grey gothic architecture, and around green gardens with fountains, and office workers having naps. We saw some dabbawallahs and their rickety bikes, distributing their lunch wares with military precision, we haggled with the vendors selling their tat on Colaba Causeway.
Here, we picked up a couple of persistent beggar children and their mother, heartbrakingly manipulative- asking us for rice (ok, we’ll buy you rice) -but the rice has to be from this exact place. Smell a rat, this plate of rice is costing £5. The Mumbai Mafia runs things around here, begging is a full time profession, skills of emotional manipulation on a par with the Bollywood actors advertised in high definition billboards up above all of our heads.
But bear this in mind; if the predominant religion in India is Hinduism, which is strongly pinned on giving away your wealth and goods as offerings to the Gods and to people less fortunate- and yet the rich, middle class Indians aren’t giving money to the beggars directly, but taking their business to the vendors, there is a reason. Support the honest traders, and hard as it is, ignore the skinny, crying baby being thrust into your face by a rag-tag girl asking for money. As much as you want to help, your money won’t be received by those you intended it for.
Just double the time planned to get anywhere, due to the numerous photo requests you will receive from domestic tourists, to whom you are more of a photo worthy attraction than the grand arcitechture.