Monthly Archive for January, 2009

Dan: The Ruined Metropolis

Keep up! Today we find ourselves in Chennai (previously known as Madras). Last night we flew in from Mumbai (previously known as Bombay); tomorrow morning we’ll be back at the airport once again. This time we‘ll be flying due east for one thousand one hundred and ninety kilometers, straight into the middle of the Bay of Bengal. Our destination: Port Blair, largest city in the Andaman Island chain.

Can you believe we left Kampala only two months ago? It seems like a year or more since we first put on our backpacks. We’ve said Hello and Goodbye to Zanzibar, Ethiopia, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Mumbai and now Chennai… and now only the Andaman Islands remain. But perhaps we’ve saved the best till last – the picture-perfect beaches surrounding this island chain promise welcome relief from the madness of India’s frantic cities, not to mention a perfect location for a pre-wedding honeymoon!

But that’s for tomorrow. Today I want to say a few things about the place we’ve just come from, the place Salman Rushdie once described as “The Great, Ruined Metropolis” – Mumbai.

First of all, why “ruined”? On our visit, in the depth of midwinter, the sun shone and the temperature never dropped below 30 degrees. Dozens of magnificent Raj-era buildings – colonial relics from the days of old Bombay – lined the wide, palm-fronted avenues. (Only the Brits could build a palace and call it a Post Office, build a castle and call it a High Court, and build a cathedral and call it Victoria Terminal Railway Station.) Great street-food could be found on every corner, cold beer in almost every restaurant. The fifteenth-century rock carvings on Elephanta Island were truly spectacular.

So why “ruined”? Well, I think because of what this city once was, when the infrastructure the Brits had put in place had not yet started to creak, groan and finally teeter on the brink; when overpopulation hadn’t created the slums, the rubbish, the dirt, the grime the crime and the filth; when gridlock on the roads was the exception, not the rule; when the sewers actually worked – perhaps the city was “ruined” when the reek of human waste finally overpowered all other aromas.

But this ruined city exudes a raw energy that only nineteen million souls crammed onto a tiny island can generate. Like New York and Hong Kong, in Mumbai there are a million things to do, exhibitions to visit, concerts to savour, talks to attend and restaurants to enjoy. During our short stay we were able to catch a concert by sitar maestro Shri. Nishat Khan, a evening of Qawwali (Sufi music) from the Wadali brothers at the Gateway of India monument, and a performance of classical Indian music in the regal setting of St. Xavier’s College Hall. We even managed to squeeze in a talk by the British historian Simon Sharma on the phenomenal rise of Barack Obama.

Grania has promised to write a post on that last event. Suffice to say it was a memorable night, and at one point involved both of us being bundled into the back of a Mumbai police car!

Grania has also promised to write something on our week in Gujarat. So stay tuned to find out just what we learnt on our Punjabi cookery course, if our search for wild ass in the Rann of Kutch actually paid off, whether we managed to survive for a week without meat or alcohol, and just what the Mumbai police were up to!