That One Time Mumbai Won Me Over

Mar 12, 2013

Oh how the world looks different during the day.
Stepping outside the doorway of Hotel Transylvania and onto a street riddled with cracks, we were met with the punch of morning sounds that is intrinsic to Mumbai.  Once a group of sleepy fishermen islands called Bombaya, Mumbai has evolved into anything but sleepy.
Rickshaws putter passed, blaring their horns at weaving motorbikes that add their own noise to the symphony.  Vendors cry out prices using exotic sounding names for ordinary things like cucumbers, sardines, and rice; and the smell of fish caught from the Arabian Sea just that morning hangs in the air.  We find out we’re actually staying in a crayfish market and not in the city center, which explains why we felt shortchanged earlier that morning.  We wait as a cow passes before heading toward a taxi, momentarily glimpsing a citrus colored sari in a window as we cross. After haggling for a low price and doing the dance that is fake-walking-away, we open the cab door and are on our way to the heart of the city.

While weaving through four-lane roads, taking side roads that hug bends and mysteriously turn into alleys, and flying across the mayhem that is a round-about — the city quickly becomes overwhelming as we plunge into it and we decide to hunt down a map as soon as we pay the fare.  A hundred (hundred!) page map in hand, we have all the curious twists and bends labeled that vein Mumbai.  
And so we start.
The city is an oxymoron- a mix of extreme wealth with extreme poverty, old beauty with new squalor   As we walk the roads, tracing the map with our finger as we go, we’re met with walls after walls of buildings that echo times that sleep in the past.  Old colonial buildings peer down at you, mirroring London but kissed with Bombay flair.  Like a great grandfather they hold stories from when they were younger: when tail coats and high collars mingled with saris on the streets; when you could get a scone as easily as a poori set.  
The cobbled streets walk you round bends that always seem to surprise you with another European building, and you’d swear you were in England if you didn’t have sweat stains the size of dinner plates. But much like all buildings in India they’re dulled with dark grime, making it look like an old, forgotten ghost.  
After many, many wrong turns we find the Gateway of India almost by accident (see: we were drooling over a menu in a window when Marc looks right and spots it), an elaborate entrance to Mumbai from the Arabian Sea hollowed with cathedral curves, and decorated with Muslim arches and elaborate Hindu carvings.  It was built to welcome King George V on his 1911 visit to his colony, but was actually only used in 1942 when the British troops were permanently marching out of India.  While musing on the romance of that, we decide to walk down the steps to the docked boats and buy a $3 boat ride to Elephanta, an island an hour away that kept thousand year old caves under water like a well-kept secret.  The caves were discovered in the 1970’s when the sea level fell, but you can’t keep from wondering if the island kept the home of the gods quiet and undisturbed for centuries on purpose. 
Once there you make your way up an obscenely long flight of stairs scaling a hill, occasionally ducking from a mischievous monkey and occasionally discouraging an aggressive vendor.  
But once you reach the mouth of the cave it’s easy to drop that rant that’s being mumbled under your breath.  
At first it looks nothing more than a wound on the side of a cliff, but then you catch the carefully carved pillars a little ways in.  You cant help but feel eerie as you move deeper into the dark prayer ground, flanked by shadows from columns and massive gods alike.  You can’t hear much other than the soft echo of your boots and you feel almost disrespectful looking straight into the eyes of the many incarnations of Shiva. I could understand why local tradition believes these carvings weren’t man-made; the quiet there isn’t completely quiet, if that makes sense. 
Let me tell you, standing toe to toe with a deity taller than a house is very humbling, and it makes you feel extremely human.  Trying to take in the details with eyes that just can’t absorb enough and gingerly touching one of the extended hands of a god, you feel the touches of thousands of people before you, the thousands of prayers quietly entrusted, and the thousands of years that the stone still holds. Being face to face with that type of web of connections makes you feel like a drop in the ocean. But apart of the ocean nonetheless.
It’s a beautiful feeling.

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  1. Gosh, this was so well-written! A pleasure to read. You painted such a nice picture of your experience; the mix of lavish and squalour can be quite overwhelming and, as you say, paradoxical, but it's nice that you found a moment of humbling peace at the shrine. Sounds absolutely beautiful :)


  2. You are an amazing writer, and this was so enchanting! Wow. India sounds SO amazing.

  3. wow Marlen you are an incredible writer! do you work in writing? you definitely should, this was seriously beautiful. i really like your use of anaologies like the greatgrandfather and "a wound on the side of a cliff." I think somehow I'd never heard of Elephanta but am off to google it... and had you really not intended to go? a place so incredible sounding seems like it'd def be on the "to see" list. oh and of course i have to ask if you got pictures.


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