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Time of Monsoon

 

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Night City

L1004519 2BOMBAY–Rush hour starts late by American standards. At 8 a.m. the traffic is light. At 4 or even 5 in the evening the traffic is insane but light by Bombay standards. 7 p.m. is a madhouse of trucks and horns and motorbikes and rickshaws and trains and buses heading home into the evening.  The city only really comes alive at night.  It comes alive at night then starts late the next day.  For all the day’s bustle of trade and commerce, it is the night that everyone is looking forward to.  It is the night whose cool shadows salve the burns of the day.  It is the night whose shadows provide a sense of solitude, a place where one can be alone or find privacy in a lover’s arm.  It is night where the long sea walk of Marine Drive is lit up like a string of electric pearls and called The Queen’s Necklace.  It is through these streets that the yellow and black cabs ply their trade.  Painted with names like, “Night Queen,” and “Speed,” they race towards assignations, strobe lit by dashboard shrines to Ganesh.  It is night where the lights of temples and liquor bars and sidewalk stores provide islands of neon gaiety in the humid blackness of Bombay.  It is a night of film stars and music and a little glamour for the millions who struggle through the day and it is the darkness of gangsters and women being sold in cages and the quiet noises of people sleeping under tarps because there is nowhere else.

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The Coming Storm

Mumbai cloudsMUMBAI—There were drops of rain on the windscreen this morning. The surface of the Sea Link bridge was wet and there were towering grey clouds in the near distance pierced by light grey rays of sunlight. The news tells of rain in the countryside, rain to the east, rain in Sri Lanka. The official start date of the monsoon is June 10, just days away, but aside from a drop here and there, it is dry. Each morning I wake before dawn. There are clouds to the north, clouds to the east, and the scent of something like storms on the morning wind.

Last year the rains began as we were told they would. They came for days on end, obliterating the boundary between water and air. Streets flooded, trains stopped running, and we settled in for the long haul. Then they stopped . “This is usual,” people said with confident authority, “The rains cease for several days then come back even harder.” But the rains didn’t come again. The monsoon failed. People talked of how the crops would not grow, how ruined farmers would die by their own hand, how the hot season would be even more unbearable, parching a soon to be withered land. The rains never did come again. They stopped 10 or 11 months ago and it has barely rained since. The land is parched and withered. Farmers have killed themselves. Streets melt and lakes dry up.

There is something about this time of year, some strange energy. Last year I blamed it on a particularly malignant case of jet lag and a bad reaction to the anti-malaria drugs I was taking. I couldn’t sleep. I felt sick and dizzy and, at the same time, as if I were jacked into the energy web of Mumbai itself. My body vibrated with strange tension, connected directly to the manic life all around me even as I lay in bed. Nights were spent awake or in a semi- lucid state of fatigue-altered consciousness. Days were dreamlike, nightmarish times of heat and light and sweat, until I felt not only ill but half-mad. Finally I realized it was the malaria medicine. I stopped taking the mefloquine and the worst symptoms subsided in days. It was jetlag as well and, minus the toxic effects of the malaria drugs, I finally began sleeping normally, sleeping to the roaring white noise of the rain outside. I began to sleep and heal and adjust.

But now it is time again for the monsoon and I feel much as I did a year ago. The awful symptoms of the mefloquine are long gone as is the disorientation of the jetlag. I have acclimated to the heat and rarely get sick. But that strange feeling of being electrified has returned. The days pass in a heat-stunned daze then, come evening, I am wide awake. I lie in bed and when I do sleep I know I am asleep. It feels as if Mumbai and India and Asia are one enormous capacitor storing up energy, building up a charge of heat and light and human friction and that I am in the middle of that humming, sparking thing. And, like last year, and all the years before, there will be no relief until the stored energy is discharged in the cataclysm of water and storm called the monsoon.

The Gateway To India

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A Moment in Traffic

MUMBAI — I had been out photographing the streets of south Bombay all day.  It is the hot season.  I was tired and on my way home and almost ready to put my camera in its bag.  We stopped at an intersection and I looked over to see a little girl staring at me.  I stared back and just as the traffic began to move I remembered my camera, put it to my eye, and pressed the shutter release.L1002925 3

Bring the Mountain to Mumbai

Koolar & Co. is one of the remaining Parsi cafés in Mumbai. It sits at a point and is full of polished wood and mirrors, old movie posters, and all sorts of advertising for Mountain Dew. There are Mountain Dew signs within and without that make the place glow green.  You can get a mutton kheema sandwich. You can get a spicy five egg wrestler's omelet and a masala chai. But you cannot get a Mountain Dew.

Koolar & Co. is one of the remaining Parsi cafés in Mumbai. It sits at a point and is full of polished wood and mirrors, old movie posters, and all sorts of advertising for Mountain Dew. There are Mountain Dew signs within and without that make the place glow green. You can get a mutton kheema sandwich. You can get a spicy five egg wrestler’s omelet and a masala chai. But you cannot get a Mountain Dew.

Up From Underground

The woman sat on the steps and the commuters parted around her like river water around a stone.

The woman sat on the steps of the underground and commuters parted around her like river water around a stone.

Jaipur

MUMBAI – The cab from the Jaipur Airport to our hotel was driven at such a relaxed, normal pace it made me nervous. I looked L1001608around, wondering what nefarious activity this could signify. It appeared that everyone else was driving at a fairly relaxed, normal pace and that I had been in Mumbai too long. A day or two later I went out in the evening to walk around the old Pink City. I took a rickshaw back to the hotel during rush hour. The driver asked if I had ever seen such awful traffic. I said I lived in Mumbai. “Oh,” he replied, “That is too much bad.”

IMG_7236Jaipur is the capital of the mostly desert state of Rajasthan in north-west India. Even while still on the plane, it reminded me of Arizona. The approach is over brown desert and dark, rocky mountains and the first thing that strikes you upon stepping off the plane is the dry air and the smell of dust and spice. Preserved by the arid climate, the buildings do not have the scabrous, underwater appearance that everything but the solid British stone buildings in Mumbai do. Even the piles of trash in Jaipur appear cleaner.

It takes a while to shake off the stress and pace of The Maximum City. We arrived at the Sarang Palace Hotel in a foul mood. Still relative novices at traveling with children, we still had the subconscious expectation that one could arrive at a hotel, lie back, and relax for a few minutes. A hotel, to a three year old, is not a place of relaxation or romance, but a gymnastics course of bed shaped trampolines and new furniture from which to launch surprise ninja assaults. I think that too much time in Mumbai gives you a skewed perspective of everything else. A friend recently returned from Thailand. He told me his first trip overseas was to Bangkok and he remembers how hectic and chaotic it seemed at the time. Now, after a year or so in Mumbai, he thinks of Bangkok as an oasis of calm, clean order. There are times that I long for the quiet and efficiency of Honduras. These are all signs you have been in Mumbai too long.

In reality, Jaipur is plenty chaotic, but there is still a certain laid back feel. With a population of a little over three million, it is stillL1001612 tiny compared to Mumbai. Travel a short distance in any direction and you are in the countryside. Jaipur is, perhaps, the India of your Orientalist subconscious with rickshaws and camels, elephants painted with Hindu symbols, mountain forts with pointed archways, and temples on hills guarded by monkeys and sadhus.

Another thing traveling with children allows you to do is to be a shameless tourist. Guided tour? Absolutely. Silly hats? Why not? Elephant rides? Without a doubt. I look forward to our first Disney cruise. Of course traveling with two children, a toddler and an infant no less, anywhere in India, is far from a Disney cruise. Like much of the world, there are few regulations and even fewer safety rails. We traveled by motor rickshaw, with plenty of rushing wind and no seat belts. We rode pachyderms, an animal known for its intelligence, memory, and occasional murderous rages. A cobra (presumably defanged, it was a sad cobra) was draped me and my son. Up at the monkey temple (actually a sun temple but home to many vicious primates) we were well received. Perhaps it was because we brought our kids, maybe it was our eldest son who was a diplomat from the day he was born and could work a D.C. cocktail party by the time he could walk, but we were invited to sit a long time inside the temple, were hand-fed sweets, garlanded with marigolds, and my wife and son’s hands painted with henna designs, bindis painted on all of our foreheads. It may be that we were dedicated to the sun god and his legions of Hanuman avatars, but we escaped handily enough. We walked down the long hill, watching other sightseers being threatened by the monkeys who left us alone. I like to believe it was professional courtesy on their part.

P1010438We toured the Amber Fort, visited an elephant village and the Monkey Temple and met the man I believe to be the Pirate King of the TukTuk drivers. To me, the most fascinating thing was the bazaar section of the Pink City. Colonnades run in every direction housing shop after shop. The shops sell everything from the famous textiles of Rajasthan to cheap bangles, brass idols, and gemstones. Then you turn a corner and the shops are selling furniture, farm implements, and electronics. Walk a little farther into the domain of the spice dealers and the air is thick with the scent of turmeric, so heavy with the vapor of chilies that your eyes and throat burn, and then redolent of theP1010387 4 tea being scooped out ounce by ounce and pound by pound. Each major street eventually leads to one of the city gates but the place is like an alternate universe. Just when you think you have your bearings you are lost again and I found the best way to navigate, as I often have in India, is by noting landmarks and using a compass. The north gate, after all, will still be in the north. But perhaps the best way to navigate is to wander until you are lost then hail a rickshaw, observe the worlL1001667 2d from its exposed perch, and be slowly and steadily peddled to your hotel by a man who actually knows where he is going.

I could easily have spent the days we were there and more besides simply wandering the markets, watching the sun and shadows shift through the colonnades, setting the streets aglow. Like Arizona, the evenings were long with fantastic skies but all in all there were far more elephants and camels. Coming home to Mumbai we felt tough. Sure we could live in a place like Jaipur with its dry air and charming architecture. But we lived in Mumbai, The Maximum City. We had made it there so we could make it anywhere.

Street Still Life

Walls are closets, tarps are roofs, sidewalks are homes.

Walls are closets, tarps are roofs, sidewalks are homes.

Alibaug

IMG_6121MUMBAI—The Arabian Sea is a shimmering blue-tinged gold and the tall palms a fringed wall of green. In between are the sands of Alibaug’s beaches. You can imagine those beaches have changed little since British colonists saw them from the decks of tall ships bound for old Bombay, or Shivaji’s armies marched by few hundred years before. Alibaug is a getaway spot for locals fleeing the crush of Mumbai. There are scores of hotels and guest houses but it is far off the international tourist trail. It is relaxing, at least compared to the non-stop Mumbai hustle of 30 million people and all of their machines and animals. The air seems clean and it is fairly quiet. There are breezes and trees and open spaces to rest the eye upon. The city of Alibaug itself is unlovely, nor are the beaches the white sands of Waikiki. But they have what beaches require, sun, sand, and surf and are not trash receptacles like Chowpatty and Juhu Beach in Mumbai. All in all this is what I expected. What I did not expect is what a visually surreal place Alibaug can be.

You can drive to Alibaug from Mumbai — and an interesting drive it is — through industrial flat lands, small towns, and forested mountains teeming with monkeys. But the drive is long and since the point of Alibaug is to escape traffic, there is P1000932a much more pleasant way to get there. Each morning ferries packed with holiday makers depart from the British built Gateway of India down in Colaba. The top deck at the stern is the place to be. The morning sun makes the Gateway, that massive arching monument to failed empire glow gold. Other colorful ferries rock gently at anchor. When it is full, the ferry pulls away in a cloud of diesel smoke but a little out to sea the forward motion and ocean wind clear the air. The boat is followed by flocks of gulls, swirling and swooping, coming almost close enough to touch and everyone shrieks back at them, throwing bits of breakfast to the birds as tiffins are opened and food passed around.

The ride is a pleasant hour or so, and at the dock you take a large motor rickshaw for an additional 20 minutes, puttering along down country lanes overhung by trees. We had booked a small guesthouse, taking one of the two rooms in a village outside the city. It became a lovely haven over the long weekend. The caretaker would ask us what we wanted to eat (the choices being prawns, fish, chicken, or vegetables). We would tell him and he would take off on his motorbike and come back with the fresh ingredients. He and his wife would cook them into delicious fresh meals while our older son played with the village kids and the older women came to take turns holding the baby, giving my wife a well needed rest.
The ferry left Bombay about 8:30 in the morning, and we found our guesthouse, ordered lunch, changed, hailed a rickshaw and were at a nearby beacP1000672h by 11 a.m. To the left and right were open, empty sands but for a few hundred yards in the middle was a vision of Indian beach weirdness. Brightly colored carts, streaming with flags, galloped through the surf pulled by tiny horses while the riders took selfies. Several entrepreneurs were giving camel rides and those ships of the desert were silhouetted against the sparkling waves of the midday ocean. Farther out were the canopies of parasailers and 20 foot inflatable tubes were pulled back and forth by motorboats while screaming families clung to their sides. In the middles of all this people were laying out, playing in the sand, swimming, eating snacks, playing soccer and cricket, and most of the women were dressed in bright red and orange and green and gold saris while they waded in the surf. It all melded into the weird cinematic vision of a Subcontinental Fellini. Like many scenes in India, I saw it in monochrome. There is always a tension here, as a photographer, between the vibrant color of India and the strong light, the shapes, shadows and silhouettes that translate so well in black and white.

The next day brought more strangeness. We took a motor rickshaw the other direction, to the town of Alibaug. The state of Maharashtra is littered with forts. They are everywhere, atop hill and mountain, dominating passes and approaches, commanding islands and bays. Alibaug, or Kolaba fort as it is alternately known, lies offshore about a mile at high tide. At low tied it is easily accessed by walking across tidal flats which are utterly bare save for the wave sculpted ripples of the sand. If you dP1000792on’t feel like walking, there are more camels and pony carts which will race across the sand, carrying you out to the old fort. These conveyances are silhouetted against the flat landscape and the sea is a dazzling mirage of light in the background. The fort itself is interesting. There is an Archeological Survey of India office on site and digging into the fort’s past is ongoing. Many of the layers of history are there to see without a shovel: a Hindu temple still in use, the refuse of partiers, some of which will add to the historical record, and several large British canons, cast in Sheffield. It was the tidal flats, however, that held my attention. Something of the landscape and the people crossing it had the appearance of a pilgrimage. The landscape was ocean and desert and tropical at once and each image, whether photographed or kept in memory, seemed to hold some coded memory, some element of archetype and myth.

P1000783Alibaug is not a glamorous destination. It is a local beach town, a quick getaway from one of the world’s largest cities. Cheap, friendly, and basic, it serves well its stated purpose. But it occupies a larger psychic space and seems much farther away than it is. In the daily grind of Mumbai traffic, car horns, yells, streets jammed with busses, trucks, motor rickshaws, the stink of diesel, humans, animals and life, Alibaug is a place of sunlight and open space with the outlines of palms and camels etched on a glittering backdrop of the Arabian Sea.