It’s not Mumbai without Gaylords, not Wendy without berries

Today has been difficult, and another day of heart wrenching firsts. On the way to and from there were some classic Mumbai street scenes, less traffic and pollution because it was Sunday, but very Mumbai. I had some pictures of slums to include, but having now been into one, sat with women and girls, well I’m not showing people’s suffering.

This is Haji Ali Mosque, a special site that you drive past so often here. At high tide the causeway floods making a holy island refuge.

After ward I got the taxi to drop me at Gateway to India from where I wandered back to the hotel. I needed the steps and the air and the mental space lost in the throng. Continue reading “It’s not Mumbai without Gaylords, not Wendy without berries”

The people in the restaurant

Since I often travel alone I have loads of time to people-watch, and restaurants are often great venues for the best and worst that the world and my imagination have to offer. This morning’s breakfast, well, no exception… the English couple at the next table were complaining that everything’s dirty and that they wanted proper tea not chai. The elderly lady in hijab was staring pointedly at the English lady’s shorts & crop top. The Polish businessmen wanted to smoke in the restaurant. There is always an American complaining about how many Indians are here (in India). The staff kept smiling at me in hope as I keep smiling at them and bemusing them by ordering in Hindi. Bombay is outside and the sun is shining.

And a humorous universe has the Internationale playing over the sound system. Must be the Russian tape as we’d just had Lara’s Theme.

These posts I’m inserting with 2014 and earlier dates, they were written at those times but since I didn’t have a blog then were not published. The photos were taken at the times and places where I wrote. Inspiration for this one of course, Agatha Christie, or maybe Miss Phryne Fisher.

January 2014
Murder in the Mansion

It’s time for people watching: I am at dinner in the hall of a 112 year old mansion. 300 years ago this district welcomed a people from North Tamil Nadu who were displaced by a Tsunami. Chettina they’re called. They soon took power as money talks and they had plenty as bankers and money lenders financing investments around the rim of the Bay of Bengal – Burma, and Indonesia principally, teak and rubber. Great town, went for an afternoon perambulate and met some of the locals, just brilliant.

The mansion I’m staying in is internally solid teak, intricately carved and studded in bronze, it’s like staying in a beautiful bank vault with all the Victorian era locks and bars. Room after room is teak walls and cool locally made ceramic floor tiles – I had to sit through a demonstration of those being made. There’s the reception hall, meeting hall, party hall, and the Durbah hall which has been converted into the dining room where we sit in subtly illuminated splendour. It’s brilliant, in addition to the teak ceilings and ceramic floor tiles, there are granite columns, rosewood columns and slow spinning ceiling fans. Belgian glass in the windows and coloured crystal chandeliers with low wattage globes. Japanese wall tiles of peacocks and mountain scenes in lovely pastel shades.

We also visited a nearby mansion earlier in the day, it’s a museum not a hotel. Just beautiful, and again so cool inside.

At the next table are an English couple, we’ll call them Mavis and John. John is finding the pepper chicken a touch spicy and blowing his nose in the fabric napkin before screwing a corner to a point and ramming it up his left nostril as if seeking to remove his brain in a DIY Egyptian mummification process.

Next table over are two French Saphists, drinking white wine and smiling, holding hands. They appear much in love and are also struggling with the pepper chicken, although with greater style and sophistication than John. They instead sneeze and giggle. We’ll call them Marianne and Ginger. We have two older English academic ladies, very new labour they’ve invited their driver in to eat with them and he looks most uncomfortable. If either Mabel or Gerty are murdered they’ll try and pin it on poor Suresh. I feel sad for him already, he’s missing a night in the carpark with the drivers swatting mozzies. And there are more mozzies here than I’ve seen since the last Japanese encephalitis convention.

My fish course had bright green bones, totally to be expected from this fish variety apparently, but it’s something currently causing consternation to our next decorous Parisienne couple. I must say bright green bones in a white fish you’re eating is a touch unsettling. Anyway our Parisienne gent must be in money and here to get some finance tips to save Europe, I think she is a fashionable worrier – an executive assistant I believe. We’ll call them Alexia and Roget.  It was delicious, the green boned fish I mean.

The final couple are Britishers. We’ll call them Bree (shapeless, tasteless and very double washed soft rind) and Nick (as he’s wearing high waisted pants like another Nick I knew in sustainability, his middle name is Alisdair.) There is simply nothing remarkable about them apart from their shapeless matching chambray shirts and pale slacks.

Oh I forgot to mention that John is wearing shorts, roman sandals and knee high white socks. He has one of those beards where the cheeks are shaved low but the hair around the face and under the bottom lip remains bushy and lush, bordering the face just about a cm or so. He should be murdered for crimes against fashion and etiquette.

Ah Bree and Nick have left us already. Shame. I think they’ve gone on the house tour before desert. I hope they’re not murdered in the Doll Hall out the back where special dolls are kept and only displayed for a local festival.

day-10-img_0761cSo onto dinner; fixed menu (~$15) and delivered by our two innocent, or are they, wait staff Shiva and Rama – I kid you not that’s their names, the other names I invented but not those two. Are they innocent? Shiva just needed me to pay cash for my beer as the mansion is not licensed.  He’s also just made a plan for our assignation – 7 am by the pool for my house tour!!

Back to the dinner menu – Drumstick soup good for the health (drumstick beans not chicken). Veg pakora with tomato chutney, delicate. The fish cutlet with the bright green bones, tandoori style. Then a plate of the pepper chicken curry, mixed veg with cabbage, cauliflower curry and rice. All concluded with a most odd, fried potato ball, sweet. Most odd.

Will we all make it through the night?  Will someone be tied up in their bed and hung by the panka rope? That’s the amazing wooden board with brocade curtain that’s hanging above the foot of the four poster bed. Simply pull the rope behind the bed head to fan yourself and your companion of choice. Wonder if my kindle enjoyed the breeze?


630 am.

Next morning… The power went off while I was in the shower for at least 5 mins… I kept hoping for blood curdling screams, but none. Perchance we all survived?

Shiva and I climbed in the dawning light up four floors onto the roof to take in the view. He didn’t push me off, he took lots of photographs using my phone. We didn’t catch a glimpse of anyone stealing away from the murder scene, not from the roof and not through the bars from the women’s quarters above the Durbah Hall. It’s a very nice roof, locally made terracotta tiles all moulded on one man’s thigh so as to have a consistent profile! I kid you not. I wonder what would happen if his thigh met with an accident mid construction?

Tour complete I’m waiting for breakfast. According to Karthik’s instructions I now take black tea with lemon, fruit and curd, dosa – no eggs.

John is arguing that his bill’s not ready. I later understand his point as I waited interminably for mine. But at least it was in luxurious surrounds and I’m under instruction to be nice to the servants.

After finally leaving the hotel we did a drive by photo shoot of the local fort: Thirumayam Fort. Variously described as ancient and built totally new by Britishers Madam. Certainly the remains are British but whether this hill side had prior defensive fortifications is unclear. It certainly has a commanding aspect.

Yesterday after arriving at Chidambara Vilas there was a (late) guide and we toured the environs – another banker’s house, the aforementioned tile makers, a cotton weavers, the outside of Maharaja’s palace and a temple or two.

The “important” temple is for Ganesha. Karthik is hilarious. Clearly he’s under instruction that I’m to be made happy and he’s worked out that happy means temples and markets. He gave the guide a right telling off in Tamil when we got to the Ganesha temple 30 mins before afternoon opening time and the guide suggested that we not bother to wait! My instant Tamil (which appears to use lots of English words) allows me to follow both this lecture on Madam’s predilection for temples, and to understand directions every time we get lost, which is often but fun.

So, Ganesha temple, this is an important temple because it’s the only one where Ganesha’s trunk bends up to his right. Everywhere else it’s left side. No idea why. The temple is about 1600 years old and quite worth the wait. The deity is carved in the rock and covered in gold. The temple and god are carved into the surrounding granite monolith – not separated from the “living rock”. It’s not a cave, just carved into the granite. It was good.

The “surprise” temple was for Lindsay and me. Lindsay coz it’s a horse temple. If you want to petition the god, you get a terracotta horse made, put your name on its chest and donate it to the temple. It’s interesting for me as the book I found describes those local village temples as pre-Hindu, confirmed later as originally Dravidian. The Dravidians are interesting as they are among the first modern humans to come out of Africa, some of their more adventurous number walked on to Australia. Dravidians had no construction and worshipped protector spirits who lived in nature.

Today we went to another, very very old Dravidian temple. More of the terracotta horses this time leading to and placed under a massive ancient tree. The god here is called both Shiva (most high of the Hindu gods here) and also Ayyanar which is local Tamil for most high god. Seems to be an amalgamation of the pre-Aryan /Dravidian local most high god with Aryan love of horses adopting the Hindu name also for the most high god. Very interesting and I loved it, but I’ll stop now before you all fall asleep.

Anyway by the time we got back to the hotel last night I was filthy, marinated in bug spray, dust and sweat – it’s hotter here. So it was swim, a shower and then the murder dinner where nobody died. Not even a monkey.

I Can’t Keep Quiet

Soundtrack: MILCK Quiet

Had a crisis of confidence this morning. Is the India of my hopes and expectations a place only of my imagining? It looks so different out the hotel window. Am I indulging in some white colonial fantasy even thinking of coming to live here? What right do I have to speak? Should I shut up, go home, stay in my place. Could I do that?

But no one knows me no one ever will
if I don’t say something, if I just lie still

Since the global Women’s marches last week I’ve been listening to MILCK Quiet. A song written about finding the confidence to talk about mental illness. A song performed in Washington proclaiming that Women cannot keep quiet when politics abuses. It’s an anthem for anyone who has ever  doubted their right to exist, their right to use the planet’s oxygen to speak, to breathe.

Can I keep quiet about what I’ve learned, seen? Should I? Could I?

Maybe it’s time I left my 4.5 star luxury and went out to find the India I love, to find my smile. To find my muse, Karthik’s daughter, and Kali with her sisters.

Febuary 2014
There is a Castle on a Cloud

There is a bookmark on my pillow this evening… “All that we are is a result of what we have thought.”

Today we reached Chennai, last stop on this three week temple tour. I’m in 6 star luxury high up in the sky feeling like the Queen of Sheba (no glass floor or hairy cloven foot, thank you Miss B) and I’m a little sanguine.

I get very close to India each trip, and the occasional luxuries I allow myself become more incongruous each time. We’ve talked about change and India in the IT age is different but it’s not the India I love and seek. The ordinary people I come here to encounter, Malar and Yoda, the people in the villages and temples and markets, they would never see inside a place like this. And from here I cannot hear their voices. After 3 weeks in their world the pretension here chafes.

Today as I ate a 2500 rupee ($45) lunch in splendid isolation, Karthik waited in the car outside the hotel. On the road he lives on a 500 rupee per day allowance. I used the words of Monty Python on Facebook: “Luxury! We had box in middle of road!” He has a car by the side of the road, and even that is not his.

At 3pm Karthik collected me for our afternoon walk (I took him the fruit bowl from my hotel room to ease my conscience) and we went to the beach.  Just walking and watching for a couple of hours outside my golden handcuffs… come, walk with us:

There are breakers crashing on a long white beach, the air pregnant with salt and spray. The sun lowering in the sky creates long shadows, we slide away from profane time through the shimmering mists to another between world.

Let the salty mist cloud your harsh vision and tint your dark glasses. Stop looking at the rubbish and poverty. See the human not the beggar. Slide out of knowing on a beach on the edge of time. Feel with your soul.

Not in my castle on a cloud

Through the mists the hotels to the south flatten into a single silhouette turreted by a/c towers and elevator blocks. The radar post looms a high watchtower over the mists. Sand castles guarding, watching the sea.


What horrors they watched on 26 December 2004 as tsunami ripped this beach clean… on the feast of Stephen, when the sand lay round about, deep and crisp and even, uncountable beggars and slums washed away.

For millennia we have been drawn to the edges, to the deep, above the waves, beyond these shores. Into the unknown. Here we pause out of time. In the interstices, the beginnings of life.

I feel safer out here with Karthik than in the locked hotel with its security gates and guns.

Stay out of time with us: boys ride bareback on horses along the beach, gallant knights their sand castles fallen into the sea. Off to find a princess or a kingdom to save. The shell seller blows his conch, troubadour echoing a haunting call across ages, percussion by the thump of the waves. There is a castle on a cloud.

The fairy floss seller a splash of color. Madam madam, Karthik gives a few rupees to a small girl begging with a monkey. Is he thinking of his own little daughter?

Rubbish and crows. Wind all wind. Coconut shells tangled in red cloth, “From cremation” Karthik says. People put the ashes in a mud pot, inside a coconut shell. Wrap it in red cloth and cast it into the sea. Fly, be free… I like that.

Walkers make their way around colored fishing boats pulled high onto the sand. Nets formed in tidy piles like a thousand tumbleweeds frozen in the moment. Men sit and talk, repairing nets by hand. Stand on the sand cliff between the boats and lean into the wind. Embrace the spray. Timeless, safe, at home on the shore, the space between. On one side a road of cars and motorbikes and took tooks race, humanity seethes. On the other the sea roads take massive container ships stately plying the eastern ocean, waves crash and propellers drive. Both made Other in the spray filled mists. Stand safe in the space between, be the liminal. Lift your arms into the wind, for 20 rupees hold a balloon above your head and fly.

Drink the spray. Inhale the timelessness.  Stalls and chairs available for the serious moneyed consumer. But drink time not cola. Breathe.

We perch on the side of a small fishing boat. No more than 5 logs lashed together. Laughing as our weight tips it over and us off onto the sand. We sit. Silent. Different worlds, separate, souls touching. Alive.


The sun breaks through a hole in the sky, spotlights girls dancing along the edge of the waves, sari ends like froth on the waves.

Breathe. A chai wallah walks past. Then ice cream wallah. Coconuts and driftwood litter the beach. Even the rubbish glistens in piles on the sand.

Walk, walk with wind in your face, sun on your back. Walk north. Walk.

The inland flattened hotel castle-scrapers are replaced, now behind the cars and busses and haste are crazy, voluptuous, ice-cream shaped exotica of silhouetted Victorian British architecture, the railway station and university. More continuous motion frozen out of our still silent space. Their world of knowledge, progress and speed.  Here all is timeless and without form, slipping in and out pulsing with the waves, adrift on the spray.

A group of fully clad swimmers laughing and giggling full of joy and salt. Splashing at play. Beach cricket on the edge of the world. “Water is very wet” says Karthik.

Wind blows away words. Wind and tide and time. Shadows lengthen. Long shadows. Walk, walk. Time to turn madam. Which way? Follow the tractor tracks back to the real world. What is real? What is dream? What is in between? He is my guide, and nothing will ever be the same.

 I know a place where no one’s lost,
 I know a place where no one cries,
 Crying at all is not allowed.
 Not in my castle on a cloud.

Though I feel inadequate,
my heart not big enough for the love, the pain,
the hope…

I can’t keep quiet, for anyone, not anymore


Feeling odd – from Hyderabad to home

Soundtrack Leonard Cohen, Suzanne

1130… 2017
It’s Republic Day here at home, Australia Day there at home. I’m going home to Mumbai to my second favourite city in the world. I feel odd, shakey inside. Colonised. Coloniser. Post-colonial.

I just finished packing, looked out the hotel window. A poor man is washing trousers in a muddy puddle on a construction site. It’s the same image I saw on my first morning, on my first trip to Mumbai in 2001. Refugee women cooking breakfast on rubbish fires, washing clothes in muddy puddles on a construction site. It is India. Progress, change, the same.

Today I feel lost inside. 

I was born on the land of the Kulin nation
I grew up on Wurundjeri land
Today I live on the land of the Turrbul people
My ancestors were English and Scottish
I am Australian, my soul Indian
Today I journey, always coming home.

What to say. Where to look. Who to be. Human? Woman? Anthropologist? Ex-engineer? Just me? Who is that?

On the way out last night, the Uber GPS said, “You will arrive at 2015.” Time travel or taxi?

I guess the only way to find out is to go. Journey home. Always coming home. Home is where the heart is… right?

And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there

November 2006
Hard to imaging that I didn’t even want to come to India when my first work trip came up more than four years ago – five years ago, wow time flies. I raised a sardonic eyebrow when a friend offered the advice: “You like people. There are lots of people in India.  You’ll be fine.”

But fine I was, WOW, more than fine. Come with me a moment, I will get back to this trip I promise, but if you’re going to have any chance of understanding how I feel about India you need to go with me on this – did you ever read Pookie books when you were a kid?  You know about the little white rabbit with wings?  Well, I have these memories of sitting up in bed with Mum reading me the adventures of Pookie.  She bought me all of them. He was a little lost rabbit, different, who found home and belonging on arriving in the Gypsy night market full of incredible sights and smells too foreign and wondrous to imagine.

So there I was, 2001, starry eyed like Pookie in the back of a black Ambassador taxi inching out of Mumbai airport into a full on Indian traffic jam.  Back then direct flights from Australia landed after 10pm.  And it was also Ganesha’s Birthday, a festival that is just huge in Mumbai.  Imagine Pookie’s lights, a million little pixie lights strung over stalls made for the festival, twisted around barrows selling food of unknown tastes and ingredients, with awesome smells.  Everywhere women selling garlands of flowers.  Fresh coconuts split for juice, sugar cane squeezed to make some sweet elixir, later advised by my local friend to be too hygienically dodgy for me drink.  Glass cabinets of fried samosas of a million different varieties.  Amazing exotic flowers festooning multicoloured smoke filled entrance ways, beckoning, offering passage to new worlds where mysterious temples are inhabited by brightly lit, smiling, blue idols.  And everywhere incense and smoke from small fires.  People rushing in and out between the traffic, cars ignoring lane markings – are there lane markings? I laugh, unable to wipe the grin off my face.  Horns are blaring, head lights flashing all in a relentless press to get somewhere.  Children laughing, calling, running out, adults carrying impossibly balanced loads over miniature foot bridges before disappearing into shanty towns shrouded in mystery and smoke. Everywhere full of people and laughter and magic lights.  So much pulsing life.

And I sat hypnotised in the back of my taxi inhaling the scent and wonder.  Like Pookie, uniquely at home.  Somehow belonging.

Waking to the next morning’s foetid reality after a pre-dawn tropical thunder storm couldn’t dampen my wonder.  Naked children were playing in puddles. Those narrow foot bridges had been over open sewers foul with every kind of rubbish and excrement. Scrawny yellow dogs snapped and chased and barked.  Brightly clad women squatted, cooking over rubbish fires in a squalid shanty town clinging like the torn underskirts of an ageing sari to a freeway construction site where men were already working in the dawn light, swarming like a million ants.  Squalid, dirty, raw poverty.  But shining with the pride and beauty of the human spirit. I felt truly at home and that feeling hasn’t changed.

On arriving this time I simply passed through Mumbai on my way down to God’s own Country and, perhaps foolishly, I economised on an airport hotel.  That economy meant the hotel was “functional” at best and that I only slept courtesy of the airline earplugs I had stuffed in my bag.  I should say immediately that I still slept with a smile – in fact I don’t regret it at all.  Peaking between the dusty hotel curtains before bed to see where all the noise was coming from showed, even through the filthy glass, that five floors below traffic is still snaking down the same main road into Mumbai along which my taxi crawled five years ago, and it’s still gridlocked in one continuous traffic jam, even at midnight.  The look also showed that my room’s twinkling ambience is courtesy of the top floor of my hotel being festooned with constellations of a million pixie lights.  Home again, home again, jiggity jig.

Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look amid the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror

2215… 2017
I’m back in the familiar Marine Plaza Hotel in a subtly shifted Mumbai. So much has changed, so much is still the same. The drive was much faster, more prosaic, even with the engineering feat that is the new Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link. But Haji Ali Mosque is still at the end of its causeway, all lit up and floating. And the Tower of Silence is still there, looming above the unsilent. I always used to have tomato soup and a club sandwich when I arrived here, going native with the vegetarian tandoori sticks tonight!

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you will trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind