I’m having quite the opposite experience in Mumbai to my beloved.
He’s here working long dusty hours on a film and I’m here sightseeing and having a lovely time.
There’s a strike on that’s making his life a misery – all the small retail shops are shut because owners don’t want a new tax that’s coming in so the Ginger can’t buy any of the things he needs for his sets.
But for me it means the streets are empty so it’s easier to get where I am going. I’m being helped in this endeavour by Pinto, the taxi driver.
Pinto saw me trailing my beloved and another friend on their one day off through the streets of Colaba last weekend as I tried to find a tailor that had been recommended.
My beloved and the other friend were over it but as they were cribbing on my shopping mission I didn’t care. Despite the heat and dust and noise and general chaos I was determined that the winter trousers I had brought from New Zealand would be copied.
A taxi driver appeared at my shoulder and asked if we wanted a ride, but I shrugged him off and said I was looking for “Michele Boutique” which was in my guide book.
The taxi driver said all the boutiques were in the next street over so I should look there. I did and we found it, plus, when we came out with all missions accomplished, there was the taxi driver waiting outside Michele Boutique with his lovely a/c cab glowing like an icy beacon on the heat.
Pinto is his name.
I’ve had three outings with him since: the first time we went to the Gandhi House in South Bombay, which is a house where the Father of the Nation used to live in a lovely leafy part of the city, with a slightly insane but deeply fabulous series of mini tableaux depicting Gandhi’s life.
It’s sort of Barbie-Gandhi in glass cases about the size of an old Philips K9 television.
It starts with Gandhi’s mother letting him leave India for England only if he vows to avoid wine, women and meat then traces him to South Africa where he is the victim of racism, back to India where he becomes the man of the people and on to the many battles he fought on behalf of the many downtrodden.
My favourite was the one where Gandhi meets the King and Queen in Buckingham Palace. Gandhi’s outfit beats hers, big time.
Then Pinto took me to a part of old Bombay famous for its coloured terraced houses and on to Café Samovar, an iconic old café in Colaba where I had fresh watermelon juice and a really good chicken biryani for about five bucks.
On the way, I got the details of Pinto’s life. He came to Mumbai on his own when he was 12 and slept on the streets for years, although he says this isn’t as bad as it sounds although I’ve seen the streets so I find that hard to believe.
He worked on a banana truck and in restaurants and finally saved up the money for a taxi licence but when he gave the money to the licencing man, he ran away with it.
It took another 15 months to save the money again by which stage Pinto had made a friend whose father helped him with the paperwork and this time he got his licence.
For the next 10 years he slept in the back of the taxi, but for the past 7 years he’s been in a guest house, commuting back to the north of India once or twice a year to see his wife and four children: a big son, a little son, someone else and a very small baby.
It takes him 38 hours non-stop travelling by train and bus to there.
He seems quite cheerful about this. In fact he seems quite cheerful about everything.
We’ve since been to see the amazing swarm that is the dabbahwallahs bringing the lunch boxes into the city from the suburbs and to the famous outdoor laundry. I could watch that forever – it’s like a beehive, always something moving somewhere: a kid bathing in one of the pools, a pile of blue shirts being spread, a bunch of yellow being bashed against the concrete to dry, a sheath or red flapping in the breeze, a near-naked guy lathering up beneath a small city of hanging sheets. Amazing.
Pinto also took me down to the docks to see the fishing boats come in. Photos aren’t allowed down here but I could barely believe my eyes. The boats are hand made, wooden, and festooned with vibrant nets of all different bright shades. They look incredible en masse. And here again it is like a beehive, where the bees are throwing giant fish from one side of the dock to the other, there are blocks of ice being hauled over here, empty hand carts being hauled over there, piles of silvery looking eel type things in one corner, giant fish tails poking out of dozens of blue plastic bins in another.
Pinto introduced me to guy who owns three of the fishing boats and his lovely son, who spoke good English. The boats go out for 15 days at a time and luxury cruisers they ain’t. The son said he was very happy that he was a boat owner’s son, not a fisherman. The boats travel maybe 100 miles off the coast for the fish because the fish that’s closer isn’t any good. Well, no surprises there. Humans don’t swim in the sea here, after all.
Pinto says the docks are the reality of Mumbai but the boat owner’s son says they’re too old-fashioned. He and his dad want to move to Oman.
Yesterday, a friend I made at the hotel and I went over to Elefanta Island to see the famous Hindu carvings in the caves there. I could’ve stayed longer to watch the monkeys even though the mums have poxy faces, but yeez it was hot.
The boat ride back was something else, watching the vast swathe of Mumbai skyscrapers emerge out of the haze as we approached the majestic Gateway of India and no I don’t want your book of blurry postcards, mr pushy street vendor, thank you very much, or your enormous orange gourd-shaped balloon! (Who would, I wonder? At least with a fan made of peacock feathers you can fan yourself but what are you going to do with a giant inflatable gourd?)
We made our way back to Michele Boutique so I could check on my tailoring (giving that another try) and then dripped into Leopold’s Café for lunch and a beer. This is where a lot of action in the best-selling book Shantaram takes place and I would know a lot more about what exactly if I had read the book. I don’t even have the excuse that it’s 900 pages because I’ve got the kindle edition.
Anyways, I was just thinking that I had a couple of chores to do and then wanted to head back to the hotel but that perhaps my friend might like to go to the Gandhi house when – bing! – I got a text, from Pinto, to say he was free in case I needed anything.
I felt bad we only needed a taxi ride, not anything that would help buy his kids school uniforms, so I asked if it was OK just to go back to the hotel.
I’ve watched him text. This is a guy with no formal schooling who has taught himself everything from scratch - just enough to get by, with a bit of extra pizazz.
“100 time yes OK” came his reply.
“Thank you for helping me,” he says, every time I get out of his cab. “Have a wonderful life.”