Back in my college years, India was a childish dream, slightly more than a fantasy behind which I could take refuge. But the more I grew up, the more I wanted to fulfil that dream. Soon I wouldn’t be able to describe myself as a student anymore, and going under “jobless” was a tangible threat.” Traveller” was by far a more alluring term.
To leave on a twelve month break, was like a mouthful of fresh air before facing reality. And India was the right place to hide, from others as well as myself. But escape is just an illusion, and I was waiting for an old guru to pop out any moment telling me “Yo! You have to do this and that! That’s your path!”.
It never happened: no holy man ever showed me the light. In the meanwhile, time passed on and my journey was close to its end. A plane from Mumbai would have taken me home and I was spending day after day cruising in town like a ghost trapped between two dimensions. I was avoiding everyone, avoiding talks, avoiding events, and would often find myself crossing the gloomiest alleys at the absurdest time. My only companion being just this huge town, its breath resounding in the sea waves.
The first trauma arriving in Mumbai is the accomodation. This town is among the most expensive in India, double the price of Hyderabad or Bangalore, ten times the amount when compared with the smaller villages, where I used to sleep for less than 20 or 30 rupees per night (about 40 euro cents). After waisting some time in a hopless search I rented a room in Colaba, a tourist area full of shops and restaurants. But “room” isn’t the appropriate term: beside the bed, I had barely room enough to lay my feet on the ground and there were no windows, just a loud fan over my head which helplessly tried to face the smell of the tropical heat.
Anyway, the manager and his assistent were friendly and always smiled, and that was enough to me. Plus, I was close to Apollo Bunder and the Gateway of India, the huge gate under which the last british soldiers marched after Indian independance. And another pleasant surprise has been to find myself just over the famous Leapold Cafe, an institution for all travellers who had been in Mumbai at least once. Since flower power this place hosted tourists and nomads, but also traffickers, thieves, gangsters and crooks. Its fame attracted terrorists in 2008, when the town shaked under the blast of twelve timed attacks that killed 164 people.
Mumbai is also the place with the most terrifying rail service I ever witnessed. I tried just once, and I still don’t know how I got through alive among that crowds of people, terrific even for Indian standards. I used to walk, a lot. I had time. And there was Girgaum Chaupati – aka Chowpatty Beach – which hugged the sea in a passionate bend, offering a charming sight on the city stroked by the waves.
I didn’t miss the open air laundry either, at Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, where any piece of clothes is said to pass by when given up for washing. Or the Haki Ali mosque, in Worli, with its long gangway crowded by believers and beggars. With high tide the path gets flooded and the mosque becomes a spectral island.
On my last evening, when I was under the belief I finally understood a few things about Indian culture, I met an old sikh – with turbant, beard, traditional dagger and comb in his belt – during a jazz live show. After a few whiskeys, this eighty year old man went on the stage and started singing in a deep voice with the band leader. After the show I went back to my room, lonely as a cat under the mysterious Indian sky, knowing I still had no idea about the complex traits of this extraordinary country.