You know the saying “out of the frying pan, into the fire?” Never has it been more true than when we arrived in Mumbai, stepping off the hotbox train and into this sunny, humid and chaotic city. I’m glad Mohammed warned me about Mumbai traffic. It took about 1 hour to drive 5 miles. Thankfully, the colonial buildings and Gothic majesty of gentrified South Mumbai meant there was plenty to look at. It’s cleaned up a lot since Mohammed was last here, about 15 years ago.
After getting lost a couple of times en route, Barbs and I reached our Colaba youth hostel. I’m a fan of hostels, generally, as you get to meet some awesome fellow travellers. However, it was Mohammed’s first time, so I was interested to see what he’d think. Not that we’d find out now, though, as it was well before check-in time. So, we dropped our bags, and walked the 400 metres to the Gateway of India – top of my Mumbai itinerary.
The Gateway of India sits on a massive square by Mumbai’s quayside. The majestic archway was built in 1924 by the British, to commemorate King George V’s visit to the then-colony in 1911. Fast forward a couple of decades, and it earned a symbolic place in history, as the place the last British troops departed an independent India in 1948. These days, the Mughal-Gothic archway bears the stains of Mumbai pollution and the scars of terrorist attacks that have taken place nearby, but judging by the throngs of pigeons and tourists it’s still the heart of the city.
We stopped for a moment to observe. We’d passed by the Taj Palace hotel, where we’d decided that the afternoon teas were too expensive. Having just got off the night train, we were probably far too scruffy anyway. Touts bothered foreigners and Indians alike, hoping to sell them boat tickets at a high markup. Indian lads, meanwhile, set up impromptu photoshoots with their squad of pals. In amongst all the madness was me and Mohammed, just trying to find the boats to Elephanta Island without being noticed.
Unfortunately, when you are a stylish NRI and a sweaty gori (white girl), that’s not likely to happen. We were a bit of a curiosity in India. Many assumed we were married (at points, it was easier to pretend we were than explain the complex story of our friendship), others thought we were entirely separate entities who just happened to be standing in the same place. Here, they didn’t care, they just wanted to sell us boat tickets. We ignored them, found the official ticket office, paid 205 rupees and boarded the boat.
The boat ride was an hour and a quarter, which is actually quite dull if you have no entertainment to hand. The highlight was the ship graveyard, where floating ghost hulls have been reclaimed by (terrifying) seagulls. It’s just before the unsightly oil refinery.
As I mentioned, we were heading to Elephanta Island, a small island near Mumbai. Aside from the rather appealing name (which comes from an antique elephant statue, which the British tried to steal, accidentally sunk and broke, then raised it and shoved it in a park in Mumbai), it’s home to one of India’s most remarkable pieces of ancient history – the Elephanta Caves.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a complex of 7 caves cut into the side of cliffs. The site dates back to the 2nd Century, when Buddhist stupas were constructed here, but the caves themselves are a product of the Hindu era, completed in the 6th Century. They’re dedicated to Shiva, and feature these incredible rock-cut reliefs carved into the cave walls, as well as hefty pillars to hold the whole thing up.
To get there, you can walk a kilometre to the entrance, or take the world’s slowest toy train. We took the latter because Mohammed was feeling tired, but I’m serious – even the most leisurely pedestrians overtook us. Combine that with the mad scramble to get on said train, and we wished we’d just walked. When we eventually reached the entrance, we stopped for some grub at a beach bar. There was no beach, but that didn’t bother me. For the first time, I felt I was on holiday, not ‘proper travelling’ as we had been doing. I munched my paneer and parathas while steel drum music played from the stereo. Monkeys and cows lurked, hoping for grub. I sipped my non-alcoholic strawberry beer, enjoying the sun and vacay vibes.
We climbed the steep steps up the hill, which are flanked by a souvenir market. It’s actually not a bad place to buy trinkets, if you can haggle well – I picked up the long-coveted blue elephant statuette for £1.50. But perhaps buy them on the way back down, so you don’t have to carry your bangles all around Elephanta.
The first cave you come to is the Great Cave, a vast temple sheltering under a basalt cliff. First impressions are deceiving – its rather modest entrance belied the huge hall inside. Besides incredible rock carvings of scenes from Hindu scripture, there was a Shiva shrine that faces the sunrise, and magnificent artwork. Here’s a taste of what’s inside:
Here’s Shiva killing a demon. Everything feels like something out of Tomb Raider – my hands touching the cool stone and the halls echoing our conversation. I hummed the theme music as I walked, much to Mohammed’s annoyance.
This 6-foot-tall monolithic statue is a 3-headed Shiva. Each head represents one aspect of his powers: creation, protection and destruction.
The Ardhanarishvara is half female (Parvati) and half male (Shiva), demonstrating the interdependence of femininity and masculinity. That explains why one side has a boob and waist, the other doesn’t. Here’s me doing my best impression.
We strolled around for ages, amazed by this ancient Hindu site of worship. They don’t save the best until last, quite the opposite. The clue is in the name, so the Great Cave was by far the most awe inspiring. The other caves seem to decrease in wow factor, as they get plainer and smaller as you go. But, it’s still well worth exploring the island in full, as the grassy hills, quiet beaches and green foliage gives you a taste of what Mumbai might have been like, before the land was built on and industrialised beyond recognition.
You’ll also want to people-watch fellow visitors. Women in colourful sarees are everywhere, as are groups of men capturing their next Facebook profile picture. Westerners turn red with the Indian sunshine, and flawlessly fashionable East Asians desperately try to keep their lovely clothes from getting dusty. It’s a myriad of international stereotypes. And I love it.
Satisfied we’d seen all there was to see, we clambered back down the hill, got on the boat, and sailed back to Mumbai. By now, both of us were keen to rest up and clean up after our train journey and day’s exploring. This time there’d be no waiting around or getting under each other’s feet, as we’d booked separate rooms. After 2 weeks of nearly constantly being together, it felt odd to have personal space again. Mohammed even said he missed my incessant wittering. Which, in a way, is quite touching.
He didn’t need to worry, because I’d be back on top form tonight. We were off to see a Bollywood movie, something I’d been desperate to do since that opportunity was scuppered in Jaipur. The iconic, art deco Regal Cinema was just steps away from our hostel along Colaba Causeway, a famous shopping street. The pavements are a bit of a squeeze, as the shops tend to spill out onto their front steps, while market stalls offer the same goods at a much smaller price. But at night, around 8pm, the street is at its liveliest. Cleverly set up halogen lights makes costume jewellery sparkle, making the sun’s work pale in comparison. You can hardly hear the ambient music coming from restaurants, as the patrons’ chatter is so much louder. It also has to contend with the rush of motorbikes and taxis, which stops only for a moment when the lights are red – and sometimes not even then.
The Regal Cinema mirrors Colaba, in that its once glorious Art Deco architecture has faded. Years of wear and tear has left it looking a bit decrepit, and it’s not the uber-modern techy paradise you might expect from India, with hole-punch machines in place of ticket-scanning barcode readers. But that character gives it charm. It’s why Bollywood lovers come here instead of a monotonous multiplex. Knowing I was going to a place of pilgrimage, I dressed up for the occasion. This was, after all, the night I’d been waiting for.
I went to visit the ladies’ room, while Mohammed sat in the lobby. It was here he’d have his most edifying experience of the trip yet. A couple came up to him and asked him in Hindi where the box office was, assuming he worked at the Regal. Mohammed looked up at them, blinking in bewilderment. “I’m terribly sorry”, said he in the most English accent he could muster, “I’m afraid I don’t actually work here”. The couple walked off, but Mohammed smiled. In this moment, he’d transitioned from a very foreign NRI to one of the locals. He could blend in, if he wanted to. He just didn’t want to. And that was why he had a spring in his step when I found him, ten seconds later. We followed the couple to the box office.
There was a choice of two films – Good Newwz, a comedy about an IVF treatment that goes wrong, and Tanhaji, a historical drama. You could gauge the vibe of each movie just by the font they used – Good Newwz was childish, each letter a different coloured balloon. Tanhaji was violent, with sword slashes and blood splats everywhere. We’re history lovers, so guess which one we went for.
Good Newwz was so much fun.
Usually, I watch Bollywood movies with English subs, because (surprise surprise) I don’t speak Hindi. However, since we were in Bollywood’s home town, there’d be no subtitles. It didn’t really need them, though. Bollywood comedies are not known for their subtlety or nuance, and with the odd English word thrown in here and a dash of overacting there, I understood what was going on.
Not fully comprehending what was being said did give me time to focus on other things. The film opened with the national anthem, and convention dictates that you stand up for that. Some sang and held their hand to their hearts, some stood awkwardly. Once we’d sat down again and got settled, I noticed people were on their phones, not really paying attention. Which was annoying, as it’s just not done in England. Then again, we weren’t in England.
But as the plot thickened and the comedy became more daring, the phones went off, and the audience switched on. Bollywood is known for its conservatism, but Good Newwz showed things that would never have flown a few years ago – jokes about sex, drugs, even abortion. Mohammed clapped as he chuckled at some particularly raunchy jokes, which he struggled to translate for me, cringeworthy as they were. I was amazed this stuff had made it past the censor, but then, Bollywood is changing, and its audience with it.
Some things never change, though, and that’s a blessing. For instance, Bollywood films having a lot of catchy, dancey tunes.
Punjabis stealing the show, as usual. I love Diljit Dosanjh even more now.
As promised, members of the scattered audience danced, whooped, and sang along. But it wasn’t all joy – there were moments of sadness too. It was everything I’d imagined it would be, and more. This is the reason I love Bollywood – it’s pure emotion, drama, fun, tears, and laughter all rolled into a 3 hour slot. We wandered back to the hostel, and though the streets were dead, I felt high on life. Mohammed probably just wanted to go to sleep.
By the way, I saw Tanhaji when I got back home. Even with English subtitles, it was rubbish.