Thursday, 3 December 2009

Aer bar, Four Seasons Hotel, Mumbai

I first heard about Aer bar when I did a hotel tour of Mumbai's superlative Four Seasons hotel in Worli back in June. Then, with monsoon bearing down on the city, it was muggy as hell and there was sweat dripping down my back even inside the air-conditioned confines of the hotel. The PR girl took me up to the rooftop, 34 flights up, delicately stepping through the rubble in her stilettos. Despite the rooftop being little more than a building site, I could already see it taking shape: 360° views, a cool breeze, nary a whiff of Eau de Mumbai (sewage, fish, salty sea air, pollution, heady anticipation).

Now, Aer Bar has opened, and last week I got sent the first publicity images:




Is this Mumbai, seriously? It could be Hong Kong, or Shanghai. Sure, there's undoubtedly a lot of Photoshop liberty - and you can't photograph a smell, but this is way at odds with Mumbai's reputation. And, decor-wise, not a touch of anything Indian: no Devanagari script, no paisley motifs, no lotus flowers, no turbanned waiters, nothing to set this bar apart from bars in modern cities in booming economies.

Very excited about going there.


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Just desserts?

First that delightful Punjabi phrase "tere maa ki" entered the Australian lexicon thanks to laboured ICC deliberations over whether Harbhajan Singh called Andrew Symonds a monkey or referred to a part of his mother's anatomy, back in early 2008. The lasting effects of that particular incident means all pissed-up Ozzies getting in taxis now know exactly how to best insult their hapless Indian cabbies.

Now, the ancient Indian sport of kabbadi, a kind of squatting wrestling, has gained a bit of nationwide attention. Australian-Indian violence has been in the headlines of late, particularly if you're partial to a bit of that hysterical jingoism that is the delightful Times Now. Now, it seems, the tables have turned:

POLICE were investigating whether racist abuse was behind a brawl involving angry Indian wrestlers in Melbourne's northern suburbs that put two men in hospital.
Police have confirmed two men... were assaulted and hit with sticks in a fight after joining a "mouthy" skateboarder who allegedly sparked the incident outside Meadowglen International Athletics Stadium in Epping yesterday afternoon.
Inspector Mark Doney, from Mill Park Police, said the incident occurred when contestants of the wrestling team sport kabaddi, which attracted up to 5000 people, began to leave the venue.
"One of the youths there tried to get in the way of the cars and yelled out a bit of abuse at people,'' he said today.
"I think he got his just desserts by the occupants of the vehicle after he smashed the window of their car."


I am actually in Melbourne at the moment (it is freezing): my lord the Australian accent is harsh when you're used to the mellifluous tones of south Delhi. I'd like to introduce foreign readers to a bit of Australian vernacular that would well describe the skaters above: bogan. But be warned: many wear it as a mark of pride. If you really want to offend, try calling an Australian a yuppie. That, they won't take kindly to.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Night out in Delhi

So the dress I wrote about last was for the British High Commission ball, which was on last Saturday night at the Taj Mansingh hotel in central Delhi; we were invited by a friend who works there. Immediately my Antipodean inferiority complex took hold and for the preceding week, feeling all Eliza Doolittle, I practiced walking gracefully, eating daintily and rounding my vowels.

I needn't have worried.

It's not that British HC types are a bunch of lushes, but they're terribly jolly, like a drink and a tango and one to drink and tango with, and don't seem to worry which fork one is using.

Seated next to me at our table - which was at least fifty percent Australian anyway - was the wife of a diplomat. She was already quite squiffy and in a confessional mood (but not embarrassingly so). I thought, I quite like you, especially as she poured me another glass of valpolicella, and forgot to be intimidated.

Later, I met another American, this time a Marine in full regalia. He started telling me about some of his tours of duty to 27 countries and I could have kept talking to him except that the cars had arrived and we had to go.

All up, a wonderful night, one of those nights when you pinch yourself and feel blessed to be there.

And the dress? The dress turned out magnif, so much so I'm very much regretting divulging the name of the tailor in my previous post.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The tailor of Qutb Minar

Sometimes, here in this aggressive, rude, often violent and almost always misogynistic city of Delhi, you meet someone, or have an experience that makes it all worthwhile.

I met Kuku Arora in a fairly unremarkable way: I needed a dress made for a ball I'm going to tomorrow night; he is a tailor recommended by someone on the expat forum. I went to his studio in one of Delhi's 40-odd urban villages, not far from some of the city's important heritage sites (as opposed to the unimportant ones; Delhi is a city that literally has a Mughul ruin on every street corner). Kuku, a gently-spoken man with a permanent smile, told me of the London boutiques his workshop provides garments for, and the celebrities who've worn those garments (Uma Thurman amongst others).

Once my sartorial needs were fixed, we got chatting. "Are these your children?" I asked, pointing to a photo above his desk. "Well yes they are my two biological children, but I have more than a hundred others," he said, smiling and pointing at the wall. From the other side came the hubbub of a classroom, sounds that had until that point been merely white noise.

Turns out, Kuku has taken custodianship of around a hundred of the local slum children - he schools them, feeds them three meals each day, clothes them, and provides for them in every way - except they go home at night to sleep.

Kuku's mission began about six years ago when a young girl who appeared around the same age as his eldest son - then two years old - began hanging around the alleyway outside his office. She had no right hand, and was usually begging. Kuku began musing on the vast gulf of opportunity between his own son and this little girl, and started bringing her food in every day - sometimes a sandwich, sometimes a banana. Numbers swelled and soon Kuku found himself bringing half a dozen, a dozen sandwiches or bananas in each day for the local underprivileged children.

After much consideration, one day he approached the girl's parents, and asked if they would permit him to look after her as his own child: to provide food, education, medical care and the other childhood necessities they were unable to give her, however she would remain their daughter and go home to them each night. They said no. Kuku pressed on, offering to also help out their other daughter. Still, the parents said no. Only when he agreed to take on their son as well did they acquiesce.

Over the course of the conversation a group of children had gathered around. Take me too! And me! they said. So that's where the school began.

Since then, the children have become an integral part of Kuku's family. August 24 is when they all celebrate their birthdays (most don't' know their birthdate; that date is his son's birthday). They get cake, clowns, balloons, and presents. Monday was Eid, and all students - Muslim, Hindu, otherwise - celebrated accordingly. Next month is Diwali and again, a festivus is in store. There'll be sweets, firecrackers, sparklers and gifts: each child will receive a blanket, as winter is approaching.

The school, which occupies a large part of the floor next to Kuku's office, is staffed with teachers and the usual array of peons and office boys. These kids are bright: I sat with them for a bit yesterday when I went for a fitting and was treated to their English reading skills, got to see almost impeccable report cards, and shook lots of little hands proffered by beaming, healthy kids.

A handful of the brightest kids are actually enrolled at a program at one of the city's top schools, Delhi Public School, meaning each afternoon they receive instruction from that school's teachers and get to use its facilities.

What's most remarkable about this is that it is self-funded. When I asked Kuku whether he's considered setting up as an NGO, he waved it away. Too much trouble, it's better as it is. Do his biological children ever get jealous of the time he spends with the other kids? It's all they've ever known, he replied. In fact, his elder son does a bit of teaching at the school.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The longest bus trip

Perhaps I was misguided in thinking I might get some sleep on the overnight bus between Delhi and Manali. The coach's optimistic schedule has it leaving Janpath at 6pm, a brief dinner stop at a roadside Haryana dhaba, then through the night up the hill to reach Manali by 6am.

Down with a cold, I tried to get out of my bus ticket, but failed, so I arrived at the designated coach stop in central Delhi. Here I found hundreds of passengers waiting to get on one of dozens of buses, in a busy street. It took me almost an hour to find my bus, which turned out to be in a completely different location to what I'd been told, but it didn't matter as it was well past seven by the time we left, after the sharp-featured Sikh driver had shot the breeze and smoked beedis with his mates. The bus, an ageing Volvo with dust-flecked curtains and broken pouches lurched into action for a minute or two, then inexplicably stopped again. There it stayed, on an empty road, just metres from our starting point, for a good ten minutes.

My plan had been to get at least five hours sleep which would leave me the entire day to explore the town of Manali. I had come armed with foam sleeping plugs to help me, and was pleased to find I had no one sitting next to me.

I dozed for a bit, then woke with a start. Looking out the window, it was dark and we were travelling down an isolated albeit manicured highway. Along came a building, rising out from the empty blackness. Next to it, a stand with a black digital banner, showing headlines of the day. It was the office of the local newspaper: Chandigarh was approaching.

At the next stop, a group of adult passengers got on, and an argument about seating held up the bus another 20 minutes. There was a lot of shouting by the men standing in the aisle as they jabbed their tickets, a lot of shrugging by the driver, and a lot of sighing by the women. In Hindi, so I didn't understand. Finally one of the men looked over at me. "Well what do you say, what is your choice, young lady?"

They'd apparently been arguing about who had to sit next to me.

Finally one of the wives acquiesced. She was clutching a toddler girl, who turned to stare. "Mama, auntie bolo?" she asked, but didn't wait for an answer, just settled into her mother's bosom and fell asleep.

It wasn't long until little Hasinca was spread-eagled across her mother and me - feet resting on my knee, hands hanging numbly in my airspace. Her mother too was spreading under the weight of her child and had firmly colonised the arm rest, while her head was dangling precariously near my shoulder.

I envied their easy sleep, something I was far from, not helped by the raucous Bollywood flick playing overhead. In fact, it was the latest of many films off the one pirated DVD that had been on rotation throughout the trip., complete with static. However every time the driver took a phone call he turned the volume off or hit pause, replacing the blaring strains of "Gold mine, gold mine, everyone wants a gold mine" with the shouted contents of his call. He would then flick to another film, meaning I will now never find out what happens in the end of Garam Masala, in which some hapless playboy spends the first two and a half hours juggling air hostess girlfriends called Preity and Schweety.

Added to this were the soft snores from Hasinca's mother in my ear. No matter how many times I gently nudged her towards the aisle, her head would inevitably drift back towards me.

Eventually the movie ended at about 2am. Finally some quiet, I thought. But it was not to be. Immediately the driver started up his tape of bhangra tunes, loudly, and this time without sweet blessed telephone breaks. So I resigned myself to a night of no sleep; it didn't help me that all around me were able to.

By this stage we were well into the mountains, travelling up a skinny steep road. Outside, lush grass and towering pine trees lined the road. On one side - thankfully not mine - the road dropped away steeply, with the occasional row of boulders or concrete slabs cautioning against driving too rashly. This route is popular at night, judging by the amount of traffic, and we found ourselves stuck in frequent jams, alongside trucks bearing likenesses of Krishna clutching his flute just above the windows, in the 'third eye' spot. After a good half hour wait at one were were back on the way, only to halt suddenly a short time later.

Driver went out to investigate, came back in and mumbled something in Punjabi, switched off the air conditioning, grabbed his bedroll and went back out. I tried to sleep but finally gave up and headed outside for some air. Ahead, a couple of trucks and a bus were also stopped; turned out the bus had broken down and behind us, a line of vehicles as far as I could see. No one had thought to try to direct traffic around the broken-down bus. Instead, our driver had rolled out his bedroll on the road in front of the bus and was having a nap. Most of the people from our bus were scattered out on the road, some lying prostrate on the concrete barriers lining the road, others crouched and smoking.

I was a bit dazed and woozy and didn't fancy trying to sleep on a boulder only to roll over and find myself rolling down the mountain, so went exploring. About 100 feet up the hill was a little temple. I took off my shoes and went inside. Despite its apparent modesty, it was fitted out with about half a dozen elaborate, almost life size statues of various gods. Most appeared to be Shiva or Vishnu and various incarnations, clutching their wives on one side and tridents on the other. I'm Hindu but it's been a while since I was last in a temple - my wedding wasn't even in one - so I wasn't really sure what to do.

Out of nowhere appeared a sadhu, with dreadlocks and wearing shrunken and stained shorts and a t-shirt. Muttering and swinging his dreads, he bounced from one statue to the next, placing what looked like a beedi on the fork of each trident.

Then the bells started. Unnoticed by me was a network of about twenty bells of varying sizes and shapes suspended from the roof. In those eerie minutes before dawn, the sandhu was conducting his daily puja.

I got out of the way, stepped outside and joined the crowd gathering there. The sadhu's bell ringing and chanting was a long crescendo, gradually getting louder and more frenzied. Some in the crowd bent their head so their forehead met their namasted fingertips; some touching their eye, nose, earlobe and cheek in rapid succession, others just gawking at the spectacle, with the sky still dark but daylight about to burst through.

The sadhu must have done something right for it wasn't long before driver came crashing through, announcing we were to be on our way.

Our bus trundled along for a while, stopping a few hours later for breakfast. I abstained, not wanting to be forced to go to a roadside toilet. Hasinca and her mother went back to their original seats and one of their male companions took the seat next to me, nervously sitting on his hands and joking with his friends. I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep, but was thrown awake with a neck-jarring jolt and screams. I turned to see, over the aisle, little Hasinca and her parents covered in pebbly glass, along with the couple behind them. I thought a boulder had rolled down the side of the mountain and screamed, but it turned out we'd been hit by a truck coming too fast around a bend. Wordlessly, most of the men on the bus got up, filed out, and helped with the negotiations. Other passengers used towels to break the remaining glass from the window pane.

Another hour later we were back on our way.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Travel update: Himachal Pradesh #2

The drive from Dharamsala to Manali, about eight hours, is staggeringly beautiful, so beautiful I forgot to be scared of the steep drop on the side of the road. Although at one point we were stopped by men in land-diggers who sensed that a rockslide was about to begin. They were right, and we watched as rocks the size of skulls started pouring down the side of the steep hill.

Parts of the drive is along the riverbed, which is lush and this flourescent green, straight out of In the Night Garden or some similarly disturbing Japanese cartoon.





At one point we stopped at a grubby little roadside dhaba so the driver could have a nap (??) and I left my fellow travellers - two Israeli hippies, one Polish Buddhist - and wandered out the back onto their balcony, and was rewarded with this view:



Imagine it with the whooshing, gushing sounds of a swiftly-moving river to complete the imagery.

Manali is an odd place: it's the destination of choice for many honeymooning Indian couples, ageing hippies who enjoy the easy access to the finest of Himalayan charas, as well as an array of local and foreign mountain hikers. So walking down the main street, you are greeted with the sight of spaced-out Israeli hippies on their obligatory post-military-service drop-out-of-life-in-India, Indian brides covered in mehendi, wearing fancy red-and-gold salwar kameezes, and Himachali locals. The locals, particularly the older generation, have a unique gypsy-style dress: baggy pants, a plaid - usually fuschia - blanket-style tunic, a floral headscarf and gold hoops snaking up their ears.

I found a place to stay out of the LP: an old British Raj-era homestead converted into shabby guest rooms, but oh what a view:



Here, I met a young Danish backpacker travelling on his own for six weeks through the Himalayas, attracted to the mountains in that they're the opposite of Denmark, which is as flat as a chapati. I opted to do my own thing during the daytime but for the three nights I was there we would hang out in the evening, sitting on the balcony watching the flickering lights across the valley, drinking rhododendron wine, a regional speciality, and chatting. In other circumstances that might have been a prelude to that special kind of bedroom mountain hike, but he was waaay younger than my married self so I was thoroughly comfortable there would be no awkwardness. We discussed all manner of things: travel, siblings, art, etiquette. He'd recently been on a philosophy summer school so told me about the learnings and teachings of the great Danish philosopher Kierkegaard.

The last night, however, I came up the stairs and found my young Dane looking rather pleased with himself, joined by two Euro chicky babes. The three were drinking on our shared balcony so I joined them and offered up the remnants of my bottle of special Himachali fruit wine (not special as in a Manali Cream way, special in that it's hard to find out of the region). I could see the Dane getting twitchy, all like "am I going to get it on tonight? Which one? Could I be truly lucky and get both?" But try as he might, he could not manage to steer the conversation the way he wanted, given he had three females discussing Gossip Girl for company. (Some things manage to transcend all cultural and linguistic boundaries.)

After some time my phone rang so I withdrew into my room to have my goodnight chat to my husband. The other three were still drinking and laughing outside and I was itching to rejoin them - but wifely duties overrode so I focused on J. "I miss yooou... no I haven't been speaking to any boys etc".

Outside, I heard the conversation lull. Then the Dane, an unmistakeable twang of hopefulness in his voice: "You know, Kierkegaard had some very interesting theories regarding sex".

I took that as my cue to retire.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Travel update: Himachal Pradesh

I just love being able to say I've spent three weeks in the past month on the road. It's what I dreamed about two years ago when I was stuck behind a desk in the middle of the night in Melbourne writing stupid stories about, oooh I don't know, the importance of soy in one's diet, just because there was somewhat of an Asian angle to it. Because of course, Asian soy eaters didn't know that already.

So. I have spent three of the last four weeks on the road. Working backwards: Dubai, London, Dharamsala and Manali. The latter two are in Himachal Pradesh, just north of Delhi. The other two destinations are in somewhat of a northwesterly direction from Delhi.

Dharamsala, or more accurately the satellite town of McLeodGanj, is home to the Dalai Lama and many, many Tibetan refugees. I was only there for a night, but liked it enormously. (So clean! No open gutters! Great coffee at the cafe/photo gallery!) Apart from having a rather welcome tourist infrastructure, I had many enjoyable conversations with lovely warm people. I also had my fortune read by a Tibetan fortune teller, based on my birthdate. I am to "be careful" in the mountains, but will have a long and happy life with my "karmic" husband.

Another highlight was discovering a serene little stretch of road, just beyond the main temple:



I walked up and down this on my own a few times. Most of the time I was on my own, and nary a sound to be heard, just the fluttering of prayer flags in the wind, bells chiming and birds singing. At the end was a little cottage with H.H.D.L. carved into the gatepost; but I doubt it was home to the big man of Dharamsala: there was a child's bicycle in the backyard and someone inside was watching Hindi soaps on telly.

More tomorrow.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Hospitals, comfort food and shame

Often when I'm sick, all I can think about is food. Just after the Delhi move I spent a week holed up in a guesthouse room saddled with food poisoning, I would lie awake at night thinking about chimichurri sauce: how I would make it and how I would eat it, once I was better. My top chimichurri experience was at last year's birthday dinner at London's Gaucho Grill where I had it with an exceptionally fantastic piece of steak. I decided steak might be a bit of an ask in India so I would opt to have it smeared on a great bit of sourdough, dripping in olive oil. I never did make the sauce; I still don't have a mortar and pestle or a food processor so chimichurri remains on the to-do list.

Now I'm sick again, but a different kind of sick, recuperating from emergency surgery two days ago. It was only a minor procedure, but they still opted to put me under a general. Maybe it was to shut me up: I was getting increasingly nervous and shrill; even after they gave me the shot I was still instructing the anaesthetist to "make sure you don't fuck it up, my husband is a journalist!" Then I passed out.

Now I'm back home and fine, but have virtually zero appetite. However I must eat to keep down the copious amounts of antibiotics I'm on, so food is still on my mind. Mostly I'm eating Vegemite on toast. To the uninitiated, Vegemite is like eating a gummy stock cube: salty and yeasty and disgusting. But it's immensely popular in Australia, one of those strange acquired tastes that develop in geographically isolated countries. I only started liking it during a sick spell two years ago, and now it's at the top of my comfort food list.

My other comfort foods are pretty much all carb-based: the obligatory mashed potato, plain pasta, toasted sandwiches with plastic cheese. Even though I've virtually sworn off local food - nine months of chicken tikka will do that to you - I could eat a tub of soft fluffy idlis, thus belying my South Indian roots. Without sambhar but with a healthy dollop of ghee and a scraping of mint chutney, that hint of flavour and fat them from being boring.

Unfortunately making idlis requires technique, patience and equipment, none of which I have. I could always order them in from one of Delhi's smattering of South Indian restaurants, or ask my Tamil maid to make them for me, but I feel slightly shameful for not having ever bothered to learn how to. Perhaps this sick spell is a wake-up call to claim back a bit of Indian-ness I lost when I moved out of home. But for now, I'm off to eat spaghetti laced with extra virgin olive oil and a smattering of parmesan cheese.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Staying at home is hard, you know

To locals in India, Expat Wives are like a species of exotic bird: far from home, colourfully plumed, and something to be gawked at from afar, sometimes furtively through binoculars from a faraway balcony.

Expat Wives represent the pinnacle of achievement in a society where men strive to be keepers and women strive to be kept. They don't appear to work - rather, they lunch and shop, all the while dressed in cool white linens and leather espadrilles. Their lives are structured around the school year at the American School or the French School. Conversations are primarily about how hard it is to get, and keep, good staff.

In Bombay I skated around the edges of the Expat Wife brigade: I occasionally went to their coffee mornings, did a bit of volunteering (I was made painfully aware that I was the only one without a car) and went to the odd business function. I always felt woefully out of place, mainly because I was there out of choice rather than for career enhancement, wasn't "kept" in any sort of style, and pretty much lived like a glorified backpacker.

Nevertheless, I found them, in general, to be friendly and open, if a little smug. Even the MacBank wives and partners of oil prospecteers were quite genial (yes, apparently there is oil in the Bay of Bengal. Who knew?).

Here in Delhi, there's an edge. There are far, far more expats. There are far, far more wives. Their natural habitat is the shops and cafes of Khan Market. They also flock towards any five-star hotel, particularly the Hyatt on a Tuesday.

I can now reasonably count myself among them, as, while J is away at his Connaught Place office job, I am at home dealing with Household Stuff. (I am also working freelance from home, might I add.) Virtually every day there is someone coming round to deliver something, do something or fix something. Last week I dealt with the gas connection people. I also had four separate visits from the curtain installation men. Just when they had finished their third visit and I was heading out the door with friends, there turned up the plumber for a long-awaited yet unannounced visit.

No one is ever on time, No one ever turns up when you expect them to. When they finally turn up, the temptation to tell them where to go is usually pushed aside by the pressing need to get things done.

The great irony being, while the role of Expat Wife is ridiculed and longed for in equal parts, it's actually quite necessary just to keep the household ticking over in a normal kind of way. I never, ever, imagined I would be a stay at home wife. It is so boring. I cannot imagine how I would cope if I didn't have my modicum of freelance work to keep me busy. But I'm slowly realising that perhaps this is my new role, my next stage in life, which is a little frightening, and very different to what I had planned. I had wanted to further my career here, but the GFC has put paid to that. Luckily the freelance work is quite interesting and enjoyable, however I'd really like more of it.

I have tried and failed to join the main expats' group here. I forgot to take my passport proving my Australian citizenship, so they wouldn't let me join. The disinterested German battleaxe manning the desk the day of my visit barely let me in the door of the office. "No, you can't look at the notice board it's for members only and you might be trying to sell something. Lots of locals turn up here claiming to be expats you know." Being Of Native Appearance, I had no comeback to that, and just gawked, agog, at the salwar kameez-clad old white woman.

I did, however, steal a furtive flick through their guide to settling in to Delhi. It was like a high school textbook on local customs and the hiring and firing of staff. I half expected to see a little cartoon showing madam teaching driver how to count his wages using orange quarters.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Househunting, Delhi style

My yogic bliss, posted about last, did not come easily. Prior to that was many weeks of soul-destroying househunting, which saw me shed kilos as I hauled myself up numerous sets of stairs in the midday, 40+ heat, to view yet another unspeakable wreck of a flat.

Househunting in Delhi - perhaps in all of India - is not for the fainthearted. It is also very different to househunting in Melbourne or Sydney. There, you make a shortlist of potentials off a website and go to the open houses, usually on a weekend. Prices are rarely negotiable, only depending upon the market. Here, you engage a wily, shifty broker to drive you from place to place. When you decide on an apartment you have tea with the owner and are expected to haggle their price down. Your usually slick broker stays strangely silent during this process; his fee is up to one month's rent, so it is in his interests for the price to be on the higher side.

I hooked up with a bunch of brokers. I told them my price limit. They promptly showed me places double that, and told me, "it's all negotiable, madam."

All up, we saw about 30 places; many of them unsuitable because of our insistence upon things like, oh I don't know, having the fridge in the kitchen, or a bathroom we could actuallly fit inside.

Here are some highlights:

This place had the strangest layout: four rooms, all leading into each other. The asking price? 55K (rs) per month:



This place was actually in our price range, in a decent area, and was fully furnished. Bingo. Until we saw the kitchen:



What's that strange greenish tinge? Why, that's natural light filtered through this poor excuse for a ceiling:



This one looks pretty great, doesn't it? Spacious, good kitchen, overlooking a park....



Then I went outside and saw next door:



"It's no problem, madam," said the owner and the broker. "It's a very well-respected doctor. And look, there are no builders there even now!"

The fact that it was midday on a weekday did not fill me with hope that this was a project nearing its end stages.

The next place the same broker took me to was here:



It was brand new and as slick and sleek as an apartment out of Entourage. I was mentally arranging our furniture and about to ask to meet the landlord when I glanced out of a side window. There, I saw an empty space that had been dug out, preparing for foundations. Another building site. When I pointed it out to the brokers they looked at their shoes and were silent. They did not even bother to redress the issue by pointing out the marble flooring.

This final one is my favourite: it's how I imagine Saddam's underground lair might have looked like. And yes, that is a gold sofa:



Sadly I was unable, because there were too many people hanging about, to take photos of the flat that was undoubtedly inspired by Gaza: complete with wires hanging from crumbling cement walls and a bombed-out looking car across the road.

Delhi yoga isn't for wusses

Settled. Finally. After six weeks of being an itinerant, I am now happily ensconced in my top-floor flat in Delhi. It hasn't been without its struggles though: getting a gas bottle was a whole world of pain that remains too raw to write about; temperatures hover around the mid-40s (although the rains came today!) and trying to negotiate with rickshawallahs in pidgin Bambaiya Hindi is far less fun to experience than to watch.

Now, however, things have settled. I can finally cook - hurrah! We can turn off the ACs and open up all the windows and let the post-rain air drift through! We have a driver - albeit a temporary loan - who is extraordinarily helpful, and not just in terms of driving us around. He also speaks English - a lot. On day one I heard about his family, his family's sleeping arrangements, the cost of school fees and his decision to name his baby son Harry - after Prince Harry. "Because my son too is a prince."

I have also started yoga again after a long break. My preference is for Iyengar yoga, because I like messing around with all the props and hanging upside down from the ropes, but I ruled out the local Iyengar studio because they charge a whopping 1000 rupees ($A33) per casual class - "but only 700 rupees if you're not a foreigner, madam."

So I managed to get into a beginner's course at the nearby Sivananda Yoga centre, which runs for two weeks. At the start I had to sign a code of conduct stating, amongst other points:

- I must not wear tight or revealing clothing
- I must not carry a mobile phone into the class
- I must not bring water into the class

Sod that, I thought. When it's 40 degrees Celsius outside it is inhuman to disallow water when you are engaging in physical activity in a room with no air conditioning. So from the outset I opted to be a rulebreaker.

I also broke another rule by wearing a top with a baggy neckline to the first class. The European man in front of me politely looked elsewhere during the downward dog pose rather than down my thoroughly exposed top.

Now, halfway through week two, I can say that I am really enjoying the yoga. I'm not a good yoga practitioner: I am twitchy and incapable of sitting still, instead of meditating I look at everyone else and wonder about their lives, and am not spiritual in any way. I like yoga for exercise and relaxation, and to help open up my diaphragm and vocal chords, but I don't view it as some kind of pathway to spiritual fulfillment.

Sivananda yoga is not really strenuous; the first half an hour is taken up with breathing exercises, followed by a number of slow sun salutes, followed by various other poses, interspersed and ending with long periods of relaxation. Of course, in the heat, anything more would be far too taxing. It is perfect for this weather and the strong focus on the breath has already made a difference.

Yogamaster is a one, though. He is this wiry, petite man who could be any age between 25 and 45. During the breathing, he sings: "Inhaaaale! Ex-haaale!" over and over, getting increasingly nasal. When he gives the last syllable of "Ex-haaale!" a steep upward inflection, you know you're moving on to something new.

Yogamaster is also strict. I got told off three times today. The first time, because I slackened off during sun salutes. Second, because I rolled out of the shoulder stand earlier than everyone else. I tried to explain that my thyroid gland was way overstimulated but he was having none of it. And thirdly, because he'd noted my melting ice-cube of a water bottle and informed me that only room temperature water, if any, was permissible.

Still, after my efforts later on in headstand, I think I redeemed myself.

I haven't been this bossed around at yoga since I tried bikram in Melbourne and they restrained me from leaving the room, and later told me I shouldn't fan myself in class "because it just reminds the others of how hot they are."

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Still here!

I've been neglecting this blog dreadfully: something I shall redress once I am settled. For, you see, I have moved again. Now I am Delhi, after J got a job here with a company too good to refuse. We've been here about three weeks and tomorrow, with luck, finally move out of the guesthouse and into a place of our own.

I haven't really been that inclined to go out and about here, unlike Bombay. That's mainly because it's about a thousand degrees outside and each breath feels like you're sucking in a desert. It's stupid because Humayun's Tomb and other ancient delights are scattered all around the area I've been staying in. I feel I should hand in my 'intrepid and adventurous' card some days.

But really, after eight months of living unsettled-like, I'm really looking forward to having a proper abode. Somewhere I can hang the art I bought in Kerala, some of J's photos, and sit and write, with new gauzy white curtains fluttering in the breeze. I'm particularly looking forward to cooking, and after weeks of eating out almost constantly and gastronomic misadventures like yak meat, I simply cannot wait to cook.

Yak meat? Yes I ate yak meat, while on a trek in the Himalayas. Trek? Yes, and I'm alive to tell the tale. Hung with Tenzing Norgay's son.

But more on that in a later post, when I'm settled on my new sofa under the fluttering curtain.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Reality bites in Dharavi

When I was young and my grandmother still lived in Bombay, every visit to India would begin and end at her top-floor flat in the suburb of Sion. It's the flat where my mother grew up, along with her parents, grandmother, three siblings, her father's brother, his wife and three cousins. And assorted domestic staff, natch.

Sion is in central Bombay, and borders the great slum of Dharavi. The road from the airport would take us straight through Dharavi, and we always knew to wind up the windows and clutch hankies to our noses, so great was the sulphuric stench hanging over the area like a cloud. At the same time, we would peer out of the cab windows, curious to see as much as we could of the shantytowns and prefab buildings facing the street, hinting at the maze of alleys and dark underbelly contained within.

Since then, a network of flyovers has been built, making Dharavi a little more avoidable. Plus, I now live to the west of the island, so there's no need to travel through there.

This week, I finally entered to see things for myself. And I'm not alone: Reality Tours, which run the Dharavi slum tours, say around 15% of their clients are Indians, many of them inhabitants of surrounding suburbs like Mahim and Sion.

My friends are divided on the issue of the slum tours: some think it's poverty porn. But Reality Tours handle them extremely well and with great compassion. Taking photos is banned, and much of the profits go back in to the community in the form of an education centre. When the tours were first mooted, there was extensive consultation with the locals to ensure they were run according to their wishes.

Quoting official government figures, our guide Ganesh tells us the following facts:

- Dharavi's oldest building dates back to around 1840
- It is 1.75 square kilometres and Asia's biggest slum (oddly, this latter fact seems to be a point of pride)
- Inhabitants are around 40% Muslim, 35% Hindu and 5% Christian. Tamils are a large group among them, as are Maharastrians
- The slum's main industries are leather, pottery-making, plastic recycling and garment manufacturing
- Dharavi operates as its own, self-contained town: there are schools (government and private), hospitals, movie theatres, shops, and all basic essential services
- There are many NGOs operating in Dharavi
- Dharavi's official population is one million; however is estimated to really be around two and a half million
- Dharavi's annual GDP is about US$665 million

This last point is evident because the first thing I notice as we enter is that it's far more developed than I'd expected. There are proper paved roads with trucks and taxis hurtling down, vegetable markets on the sidewalks, and restaurants and makeshift movie theatres.

But then we turn down a narrow alleyway and, although the buildings are still properly fabricated, it becomes a little darker. We entered a plastic recycling area. Plastic that's foraged from all over the city, and even sent here from as far away as the US, is melted down, dyed and turned into little pellets, ready to be remodelled into toys or whatever. It's a sobering sight: a cramped warehouse, lit only by grubby skylights, containing about ten men operating various dangerous machines without any safety equipment. One man was doing something, soldering or similar, and staring with great concentration at the white flame that looked suspiciously like magnesium with his naked eyes. Another was feeding plastic through a machine with big rollers to flatten it, and presses himself closer to the whirring machine to let us pass.

Next, we see paint cans being recycled. A plume of dark smoke is in the air; Ganesh says to stay on the other side so we don't breathe the toxic fumes from the paint being burnt out of the cans.

Ganesh tells us that, despite the solid presence of NGOs, there are no unions nor OH&S requirements. Business owners pay off government officials. They then pay day wages of just Rs150 (about A$5) to workers who are too afraid or ignorant to speak up.

Later we see tiny workshops housing clothing manufacturers, where every available centimetre of floor space has children's clothes piled up. We see a one-room home slash factory where a man and his two young sons spend their days making women's shoes, then sleep on a mezzanine level at night. Then a bakery that's been in existence for more than 70 years and has been passed down the generations; there, we drink tiny cups of tea and chat in hybrid English-Hindi-gesticulations with the owner, a young guy who points to his flabby belly and tells us he's just two months pregnant.

We walk through tiny alleyways in the residential area but don't go in to any homes, however pick up a trail of young kids in a Pied Piper-like fashion. Then outside, in an area that seems to be a kids' playing yard, leather tannery, big outdoor latrine and garbage tip all in one, Ganesh points out neighbouring apartment blocks built twelve years ago to rehouse some of the Dharavi inhabitants.

"Bill Clinton came to Bombay for the inauguration," he says.

"But they cleaned up all this for his visit," he adds, pointing to the garbage, where at that moment, appropriately, a little boy is taking a dump.

He then introduces us to a gaggle of men sorting through some leather pellets. Dharavi's leather specialists are said to be amongst the best in the world. By feeling the leather they can tell you what sort of animal it came from, whether the animal died naturally or from some sort of disease, whether it was pregnant at the time and whether it was male or female. Top earners can fetch about Rs500 per day (A$15).

Ganesh, poker-faced, tells us that leather is Dharavi's top industry and many foreign companies get their leathergoods manufactured here. "Even Gucci, Versace, big labels like that."

At first I think he's talking about fakes, but when I ask if we can go and take a look he shakes his head. Apparently companies are uber paranoid about the outside world seeing the conditions their bags are made under, that security is extremely tight. Even workers not wearing ID badges aren't allowed in.

Surprisingly to me, it's all relatively hygenic* and clean, no worse than any other part of Bombay. There are wide streets, English-medium schools, and children in school uniforms swinging down the street. Away from the horrific conditions of the industrial areas, people appear no more afflicted, malnourished or mistreated than in any where else in the city.

Nevertheless it would be remiss to suggest that Dharavi is some kind of utopian paradise that has jobs aplenty for desperate migrants from the impoverished countryside. It's a pretty unpleasant place to live and work. Plans for urban renewal are in hiatus thanks to corruption, so even though Dharavi is due to be torn down, it's not clear when, or if, this will happen. Residents who have been there since before 1995 will receive a home, those who've settled since then will have to make their own arrangements.

I'm not easily moved by poverty or squalor - middle-class Bombay blood runs deep - and I'll admit I wasn't left 'depressed' by the tour. Rather, uncomfortable and pissed off. Uncomfortable because it's hot and cramped in there! It's like being in a medieval village! And pissed off because there's so little option for people lower down on the food chain to have dignity. How do you progress from earning Rs150 a day? How do you save for the future, plan to have kids, buy yourself anything but the most basic of food? How do you attend to human needs on that amount? When do you see trees, the sun, the coast? And what do you do when your dangerous work conditions leave you with lung cancer, or blind?

What's the point of even trying to survive when it means living that sort of life?

There's a lot more that can be said about poverty and desperation in Bombay, but I feel much of it has been said before, by people more knowledgeable, analytical and lyrical than myself. Before The White Tiger there was A Fine Balance, which did what Aravind Adiga did, but 14 years earlier and better. And before Slumdog Millionaire there was Salaam Bombay! which was great (even though I find Mira Nair pompous and irritating).

Read it, see it, come back and discuss.

*Relatively: there are open sewers lining the streets of the main tourist area close to the Taj Mahal in Agra, and through Fort Cochin. There are small open sewers running through Dharavi but for the most part they're enclosed. I saw no rats in Dharavi; I've seen rats scampering through the streets of Colaba near the Gateway of India.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Temperature hot, not spicy hot

Man, it is hot. It is so hot here that crows are rationing their squawks. It is so hot here that traffic light hawkers are pulling pages from their pirated copies of Barack Obama's autobiography to fashion makeshift umbrellas. It is so hot here that truck reverse muzak now plays "Hot in the City" instead of "It's a Small World". It is so hot it feels like my skin is melting from my bones, sliding off layer by layer.

We came back from nine days in Kerala where it was hot and humid beyond belief - or so we thought. When we landed at Mumbai airport, Kingfisher informed us the outside temperature was 30 degrees. At midnight.

Since then, two days ago, daytime temperatures have hovered close to the 40 degree mark, although inside our flat it's probably three to four more than that. Right now it's 29 at midnight. It is so hot I can't sit still for more than a few minutes at a time and keep getting up to douse myself in cold water. Right now, ice is my best friend. When we first took this flat in December we were warned we'd likely suffer in summer without air conditioning. I naively thought we could struggle through with ceiling fans. I now realise how utterly misguided that was.

This is not the worst of it, however. The worst is yet to come. Summer doesn't begin in earnest till next month, and after that comes the monsoon. That's basically 40 degree temperatures combined with rainfall so heavy it's horizontal.

Annoyingly, no one seems to dress appropriately for the heat. Bandra babes still get around in skinny jeans and long sleeved shirts or kurtis. No one else wears shorts or singlets. I'm starting to appreciate the practicalities of the salwar kameez, something I've avoided thus far as I don't like appearing in my pyjamas in public.

I will post ads for Croma credit. Please.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Highlighting the good in the fifth worst

Bombay often gets a bad rap. From Suketu Mehta drawing the city as a place crawling with underworld sharpshooters and crooked cops, to Slumdog's depiction of alleyways and toilet pits of the slums, Bombay is rarely mentioned internationally as anything other than a cesspit of poo and plague.

And now, Business Week has rated Bombay as the fifth worst place in the world to do business, citing issues such as security problems, pollution, sanitation, infrasructure and traffic as major impediments.

I admit, I too am guilty of adding to the negative Bombay profile, having complained about the same issues. Bombay is not an easy place to live, and I'm sure it's an even harder place to do business, particularly for foreigners. Just the simple act of travelling from a meeting in the city to one in the suburbs can sap your energy and time. Travelling from the city to Bandra, where I live, can take up to an hour and a half (even though it's only about 20 kms). Being stuck in an un-airconditioned taxi leaves you the choice of either suffocating in a furnace-like environment with the windows wound tightly up, or choking in pollution with the windows down. Either way, it takes a couple of hours to recover: that's a couple of hours you're out of action and unable to do anything constructive.

Having said all that, Bombay is a fantastic place on many levels and I feel compelled to highlight some of these.

1.Generally relaxed and friendly population. Bombay people are coastal, they're outward-looking and broadminded. They will, almost without exception, help you with directions, help you with translations, help you choose the right pappadums at the supermarket. It's relatively safe for women to walk down the street alone.
2. People at the top end without fail speak English. This is good for business. Further down the food chain, English proficiency might falter, but most people know enough to get by.
3. Geographic location. Two hours by plane to Dubai, four hours to Rome, eight to London. Only about five hours to Singapore, about seven to Hong Kong. For someone from Australia where everything is long-haul, this is important. In fact, considering Sydney and London as the bookends to my life, Bombay is extremely central.
4. It never closes. Granted, most businesses here open at 10am but they're often open till late. Restaurants are open till at least 11, shops close at around 9.30pm. Almost everywhere home delivers, so there's no need to even go out to get milk.
5. Good nightlife. Lots of options when it comes to drinking and socialising. Blue Frog. And, unlike Australia where people stay in during the week and then get completely shitfaced on Friday and Saturday, every night is a chance for a night out. That's partially because most people have maids, so don't have to go home and do housework.
6. It's cheaper to live than most countries. Although real estate is phenomenally expensive. But it's a good place to try to ride out the recession and dramatic global media meltdown as an under-employed journalist.
7.Did I mention the sunsets?

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Holi-est of days

Just as Melbourne has a public holiday for a horse race, India has a public holiday so people can throw coloured powder at each other and men can get drunk.

That day was today, Holi. Or Holi-day for punny headline writers.

Excitement has been building for days. Kids have been stalking the corridors of the apartment building, armed with sophisticated water rifles to douche passersby. (Not us though, they're still a bit hesitant to hassle the firangis.) Last night bonfires were lit across the city, cutting off roads and masking the stench of chemicals at illegal-drainoff hour.

According to my source of information of many things Indian (Jason sometimes tells me I should hand in my club membership; I tell him it's hard to return a skin pigment), bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape made by a staunch devotee to Lord Vishnu, who escaped from a fire without any injuries, thanks to his unshakeable devotion.

So today, being a public holiday, the streets were quiet and devoid of traffic, shops were closed. But I woke up at 9am to the sound of thumping electro-Bollywood from the gated community next door which was already in partay mode.

Jason and I headed down to Bandra Bandstand, but it was fairly empty, so we caught a rickshaw to Juhu Beach.

There, numbers swelled over the course of the afternoon. It's hard to estimate but there would have been at least 2,000 people on the beach. It was like Bondi Beach at Christmas but without the drunken Irish and their beer can castles.







I have a brilliant photo I wanted to post, of a guy who dug himself a little loungechair in the sand and was languidly lying there watching the colour and movement in the water. When I transferred it to iPhoto, however, I realised a kid running past him is completely stark naked. And that's not a good look for a public blog, however innocent.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Postscript

The lifestyle coach has emailed me.

Actually, she calls herself a "lifestyle manager".

She's emailed asking me some detailed questions about my project, saying she'd love to give me some information, but needs to know more from me first.

Question: should I bother? Or should I persevere with this one in the hope that they turn out to be good talent? (Because, naturally, the lifestyle manager is now inextricably a part of the story.)

Saturday, 7 March 2009

And just what, pray, is a "lifestyle coach"?

I just had the most hilarious phone conversation.

I had a chat recently with a filmmaker friend who offered his services as a cameraman should I sell a documentary idea, so consequently I've been trawling for ideas. I put a post up on the expat forum this morning calling for interested parties, and got a phone call a few minutes ago.

"This is S", she said.

"Before I tell you anything about what I'm involved in, I need to know more about what you're doing and who it's for."

I explained my idea was in its formative stages and at this stage I'm just looking for stories relevant to my ideas.

She insisted on knowing more, divulging little more than what she was involved in is in the "fashion slash entertainment field."

"But, you know, it's very important that I'm in complete control over my image and the coverage this project gets."

"Okaaay," I said. "Let me assure you this is all off the record, it's just a preliminary chat to see if there's a story there, and whether it's going to be suitable for what I'm doing."

But she didn't seem to take it in. "I'm really not satisfied with the lack of information you're giving me," she said.

"I will give your number to my lifestyle coach, who is handling all publicity for me, and if she decides she likes you and what you're doing, she'll make me available."

I said thanks, but really I'm interested in you and what you're doing. There's nothing insidious about this, I'm just getting some information together.

Again she repeated that only after receiving clearance from her lifestyle coach would she speak to me further and give me any more information about her project.

At this point I was thinking, what the fuck? Who exactly is being interviewed here?

I tried to start talking about the casting process, but halfway through I started laughing, and said, I'm sorry S, but I'm not speaking to any friggin' lifestyle coach. If you're interested in this, give me a call and tell me more.

I don't know if she heard because her last words were "Tabitha will give you a caaaaa..."

I hung up.

Ranting, spewing forth some toxic sludge


If hell is the slums at Dharavi, then the road to hell most likely runs through Bandra on a Saturday.

Specifically, it's SV Road, which bisects the shopping strip Linking Road. I spent much of this afternoon stuck in traffic, mostly on SV Road, trying to do nothing more ambitious than check out a shop a friend told me about and then visit the vegetable market. I was in a rickshaw, which left me completely open to the acid fumes belching from trucks, 50-year old Ambassadors and other rickshaws for the better part of two hours. In the end I gave up. And henceforth, I shall no longer try to shop in Bandra on a Saturday. From now on, Saturdays will be for housework and YouTube.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

So close but yet so far

India is a country where the ready availability of personnel, everywhere and at all times, often outweighs the need for process, workflow or even plain efficiency.

Take the humble address. In Sydney, or London, or indeed any part of the world, a street address might read something like the following:

Street number
Street name
Suburb or city
State
Country

In India, however, a more lateral approach is taken. Some might even say counter-intuitive. My address here in Bombay is something along the lines of:

Shende Apartments
(Near Lilavati Hospital)
Bandra (W)

This leaves it up to the postie to decipher many things. Which side of the road? Which side of Lilavati (conveniently situated on a corner block)? Which, in a colony of roughly 20 apartment buildings, is the correct one? Then, which apartment is the mail intended for?

Landmarks are more important here than street names or addresses. Because, inevitably, when it comes to mail being delivered, there will be a multitude of people milling about the streets, loitering at paanwallahs or tea stalls or bhel shops, who will be able to give directions to or point out the relevant building. Once there, the postie can ask the doorman which apartment to leave the mail at. And he will remember these details for next time, and the time after that, until you move out or he moves on.

Problems occur when no one knows where it is you want to go. Because no one wants to admit they don't know.

Last night Jason and I decided to track down a newly-reopened restaurant. Cafe Goa is described as a "restobar" - apparently a restaurant slash bar, but something that to me sounds like a toilet pit stop on a long haul bus journey.

The address listed was:

Off St John the Baptiste Road
Near Mount Mary Steps
(look for the lights in the trees)
Bandra (W)

Apparently "lights in trees" is a suitable alternative for street name and number. But I was unfazed. Living within fairly close proximity to Mount Mary - a kind of suburb-within-a-suburb, I was fairly confident I could find the famous steps. And indeed, it took little time to get there. We hopped out of the rickshaw, and as it tootled away, we looked around for "the lights in the trees".

Nothing. Nothing but gated community-type apartment blocks with bored security guards standing listlessly by. But there was a lone cigarette stand, with one light and one customer.

We made our way over and in our best heavily accented, gesticulating efforts at communicating, we tried to explain what we were looking for.

Cigarette-wallah looked at us blankly.

We tried again, a few more times, each time our words getting slower and louder. By this time, a small crowd had gathered, the way they tend to do in India.

"Where... is... Cafe ...Gooooaaa?" I asked.

"Ah!" said one bystander, recognising one keyword. In Hindi, he gave loud and slow directions while waving his arms.

We gratefully followed, turning left around a corner and down a hill. Five minutes later we stood in front of a well-lit, gleaming destination.

It was a Cafe Coffee Day branch.

We returned to the cigarette stand and this time asked for St John the Baptiste Road. Everyone looked a little blank, but no one said those three magic words you'll never hear in India. I don't know. Those three words that have the power to save many missed turns, mis-navigations and frayed foreign nerves.

About an hour later, after walking the hilly streets of Bandra in my red patent heels chasing every light-on-high I could see, we decided to give up the Goa, and returned home for some toast.

But being troupers, we gave it another burl tonight. And thanks in part to a determined rickshaw driver who appeared to want to find Cafe Goa as much as we did, we finally found the place. Where was it? Turns out St John the Baptiste Road is the continuation of our local shopping strip, Chapel Road. If we'd taken a left last night instead of a right, we would have found it.

And yes, there were indeed lights in the trees.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Some rather nice sunsets

Bombay sunsets are spectacular. I mean, they're ridiculous. They would make even the most jaded, faded, busy and harried urbanite stop and sharply draw in their breath. They would even make the friggin crows shut their beaks for a blessed five minutes and stare in awe - that is, if crows cared more about sunsets and less about pissing me off.

If you've seen the movie-that-I-am-heartily-sick-of-and-don't-want-to-discuss-for-at-least-a-week, you'll have seen what I'm talking about. For about an hour a day, right before sunset, the entire city is bathed in this incredible golden-orange light. It's bright, like an orange gel stuck over a klieg light. It's best seen in that scene where J is talking to his brother perched dangling on that ledge of the half-finished building in Juhu.

It looks something like this:



It's ridiculously beautiful. It even makes slums look appealing. For that one hour, you don't see the piles of rubbish, the goats, the ragged tarpaulins and the campfires. You just see the way the light glints off the corrugated tin. Dusty cotton saris look like silk. Goathair looks like... well, pashmina. It's like the varnish Vermeer used on his paintings, on acid. As though the urine of thousands of mango-munching cows has been piped straight into the atmosphere.

Really, there's a very simple scientific explanation. Jason explained it to me after looking at me dubiously and saying, "you want to know about... science?" He then even drew a little diagram with stick figures and arrows, so I definitely couldn't miss the point.

It goes something like this: When sunlight travels through the atmosphere, particles scatter the blue light from the rays. The more particles there are present in the air, the less blue light is seen. There are a lot of particles in Bombay's air - especially at the end of another chemical-spewing, cigarette-smoking, campfire-cooking day. Consequently, most of the blue and violet light gets scattered, leaving just spectacular red light. That's why sunsets look like this:


(taken from the top of the Intercontinental, on Marine Drive)



(taken from Bandra Bandstand)

In the last one you can actually SEE the sun sinking through layers of particle-laden air, like it's sinking into a pillow.

If you want to see more sunsets, check me out on Flickr. There, roughly 93% of my photos are sunsets.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

From Pinto to just plain pants

Slumdog Millionaire has made Freida Pinto a star; now Freida Pinto is quickly making one George Kotsiopoulos a star. He's the stylist responsible for the outfits that have rapidly propelled her to the top of best-dressed lists everywhere; from UK Grazia! to the Fug Girls.

I have been quietly following Freida since the Globes when she made this marvellous and ballsy choice:



When I first saw this dress, I thought, wonderful colour, bold choice for a major awards debut... but what it really needs is a touch of olive green.

And then I saw this:



Bingo!

Slumdog might really have an ensemble cast, but it's Freida that's being trotted out at every awards night and promotional opportunity as the token eye candy, and quite rightly too.

This is my favourite look: from the colour to the clean lined yet edgy silouhette, it suits her perfectly:



And more hits:





She's not really jumping through any major cutting edge fashion hoops - but I love how she wears bright, unusual block colours, stays away from prints (red carpet death) and accessorises appropriately. This latter point in particular is something that tends to be a difficult concept to grasp if you're Indian, such is our maximumism aesthetic.

Also, Freida is a fellow Bandra girl, and despite my deep mistrust of Bandra Babes after one particular hottie tried to CHAT UP MY HUSBAND IN FRONT OF ME at Spencer's supermarket, I am developing quite a Freida bug. She's so cute! Her posture is great! She's so well spoken!

I just hope that in real life she's not an obnoxious twit.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The Expat Wives’ Club

Although my blog is ostensibly about living in Bombay, I’ve found it difficult to post regularly about Bombay: simply because I haven’t spent enough time in the city. Instead I’ve been travelling. I’ve been here:



And here:



And then to northern Karnataka’s Dharwad, home to little else of note other than the famous Dharwadi pedha, a sweet made by boiling a heap of milk with a heap of sugar until it’s a solidified brown lump:



It’s actually surprisingly light-tasting, and while more than a mouthful can be cloying, it’s not as teeth-achingly sweet as most Indian delights.

Dharwad’s twin town is Hubli, famous for having possibly the highest concentration of medical, dental and nursing students of any town in India. Not surprisingly there also are many hospitals. That would have been great if I was in need of urgent medical attention. Unfortunately what I was most in need of was a drink, thanks to an acute case of familial claustrophobicitus, and given Hubli’s status as home to the Sri Ram Sena, that was particularly hard to come by.

It was then on to Kolhapur, in southern Maharashtra, for another family reunion. Four generations of my mother’s side, one tiny apartment, three and a half days. And just five bottles of wine.

So now that I’m back home, I’ve decided it’s time to buckle down and really become properly acquainted with the community. A few weeks ago a friend told me about an expat coffee morning. Despite the qualifier that “it’s really for women who don’t work”, this morning I went.

I must admit I had many pre-conceived notions about this particular group of women, compounded by a few visits to Basilico.

Basilico is Ground Zero for Expat Wives: here, you’ll find gaggles of 30- and 40-something, blonde-tipped, Miu Miu bag-carrying women at the outdoor tables on any given weekday. Basilico long lunches give the impression that Expat Wife Life is one of wallowing in shallow, pampered languor, where one needs an army of helpers to maintain the barest semblance of home. And when things get too tiresome to bear, when one exhausts of the same faces at the same parties, one knows it’s time to move on to the next exotic and hot locale.

So en route in the rickshaw I wondered, will I have to pretend to have more than one maid who only comes for an hour a day? Will I need to talk knowingly about the standard of service at the Taj Wildflower? Will it really be like White Mischief?

The event was hosted by the wife of a foreign diplomat who’s been here for six months, after being stationed in a particularly beleaguered Eastern European country for five years. Both she and her husband began as overseas volunteers many years ago and worked their way up the ladder. A pleasant surprise, she was extremely likeable. A Person Like Us.

Others filtered in. One Dutch woman was in native dress, a designer salwar kameez. Another woman with a transatlantic accent, a taut belly and a suspiciously pert chest appeared with wet hair and in a tracksuit. Others discussed the best places to stay in Bali. Then they moved on to the merits of one exclusive private members’ club over another. Later they discussed the best places to buy hummus in Bombay. And there was much, much talk of school and children.

They certainly weren’t bad people. In fact, they came across as relatively unaffected and grounded. Nothing at all like that famous French and Saunders sketch (sadly, all trace of which has disappeared from YouTube). But there was the uncomfortable aura of glee in their circumstances, in that they could live a lifestyle unaffordable at home, and without having to work. And even for someone who six months ago was very excited by the prospect of some time out, the whole “not working” thing can seem a little... cloying. Like the feeling of overindulging in Indian sweets.

Maybe I should give away my pedha stash.

Monday, 9 February 2009

When push comes to shove

Every morning the Times of India is pushed between the bars on my front door and with it, like an uninvited party guest, the tabloidesque Mumbai Mirror. Usually the Mirror dabbles in news of showbiz couples, crime and civic outrage. Last week it delved into the story of how thousands of angry commuters stormed train tracks at a suburban station after a morning peak hour train was cancelled and another was moved from platform 2 to 8.



Now these are big deals. Bombay's trains are famous for being like cattle trucks - with many many times more people than is safe packed onto carriages. Peak hour is madness, with hordes of commuters stampeding down the platform in the hope of not getting a seat, but just getting on the train. Even non-peak hour is pretty horrendous.

Bombay's Central Railway Dept's solution for dealing with overcrowded trains? Not to add more trains, or more carriages, or update trains to have more space. No, according to the Mirror, they will be employing policemen to act as "pushers": literally, to push people onto the trains, during peak hours.

It's not a uniquely Indian phenomenon, however: pushers and pullers are also employed in Japan to help people get on and off trains in Tokyo's famously overcrowded subway.

Naturally, the Shiv Sena has weighed in and is planning "Sena" style protest. No details on just what form this protest might be in. If my RSS-apologist grandmother is to be believed, it could be something fairly benign. The Shiv Sena, she insists, do nothing more harmful than write letters of objection.

Bushfires

The death toll is now tipped to reach 230. Some say its a portent of what is to come in a climactically-altered world.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Black day

I should eat my words. Things do happen in Australia after all.

Like most people I know, I'm actually rather devastated. Firstly, that ridiculous little mullet-haired ratbags with their waistbands around their knees thought it would be a laugh to play with matches in a region where there have been scorching days and nights for the past week or two. Then, because I spent many a happy summer at the holiday house of friends' in Marysville, a little town a couple of hours' drive from Melbourne. Marysville is no longer. And without a doubt, my friend's holiday house will have most likely been reduced to ashes in the inferno.

Sadder still, though, is the loss of life. At the last count there were about 96 casualties.

For anyone living in the country in Australia, or even on the outskirts of big cities, the threat of bushfires is an annual scourge. Most people pack up their photos and other prized possessions and either leave them in the car, ready for a quick getaway, or with friends, fully anticipating a bushfire to strike sometime during the season. And as a journalist, every year you brace yourself for the inevitable onslaught of "the state is a tinderbox" type stories. After a while you begin to get a bit mercenary about it: "Five hectares burnt? Pah! Not worth a story!"

This, however, is a whole new league. The last time there was something on this scale was Ash Wednesday, in 1983. I remember being in school and having to hold a minutes' silence.

It's all just horribly sad. Clearly, no matter how well-prepared you might be, it's no match for the combination of high winds, searing dry heat and little pyromaniacal shitbags.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Literati glitterati

Back in Bombay after a 23-hour train journey, which saw me packed into a compartment with six Indian men and, thankfully, air conditioning. Interesting in an anthropological sense, and it's always lovely to be rocked to sleep by the gentle movements of the train, but it was even better to get off the train. We must have looked like shell-shocked tourists because we were immediately accosted by a Sikh cabbie touting his wares. He turned out to be a shyster and after raised voices before 9am in the courtyard of our apartment building, a neighbour intervened to help us out. She then ran to the lift (old style cage door) and called out, "Never take a sardarji cab".

But the festival, oh the festival! It was truly a delight, like being in the kind of alter-universe in which you KNOW you belong but haven't really done anything to deserve. It was held in the grounds of Diggi Palace, which was resplendent in fuschia and marigold streamers. We had press accreditation, which turned out to be extremely useful, in more ways than one.

Highlights? So many, so many. But because I mentioned it in my last post, I'll have to talk about the Big B. Yep, Amitabh. Amitabh and me. And, oh, perhaps 3,000 of our closest friends.

He was at the festival to launch a book on his life on film. Now I'd heard about the frenzy that surrounds this man everywhere he goes, but I, somewhat naively, thought that a sedate literature festival would be a little less desperate.

Not so.

Launch time and I found myself a good possie about five metres stage left, wedged between some big speakers and the PR chick, and got comfortable. Jason slipped into the photographers' enclosure, which was guarded by these fantastically moustachioed Rajput security heavies.
As soon as Big B was sighted, a collective gasp came from the crowd. He appeared on stage and immediately the photogs and cammos jumped to their feet, leading to the stage manager to leap to the microphone and exhort everyone to sit down and calm down.

Amitabh - perhaps reciting an much-repeated script? - told the crowd how humble he was for their support, how he was an ordinary actor and not a star, and thanked his fans, his family and God for all he had.

[An aside: a few days later I visited the Rambagh Palace and stood inside the presidential suite the festival had apparently put him up in for his Jaipur stay.]

As he took the stage, a surge of people appeared from the wings and took over any available centimetre of space still available. Behind me was some guy in a polyester suit who held his mobile phone out to record the entire thing, his arm arched above me, curled around me like a prawn - spooning me, if you will. I assumed my usual crowd-deflector stance: elbows out, feet square, small of back arched to avoid having my neighbour use the crush to press their nether regions into me. But I needn't have worried. It became clear very soon that if there was any activity going on down there for my friend, it was less to do with me and more to do with what was up on stage.

The launch over, it was question time. Questions were generally fairly benign and banal - although one guy did get up and SING VERSES OF A SONG HE WROTE FOR BACHCHAN. And then when the moderator declared there was time for just one last question, the journalists around me started urgently calling out and surging towards the stage, like ants towards a sticky trail.

If you want to know what he looks like in the flesh, you'll find some better photos over at G-G-G - Jason had a better spot and has a way better camera.

The festival wasn't just about Amitabh Bachchan. There were many, many literary luminaries there. And the great thing about it was the fantastic access you had to Major People. You would literally find yourself standing next to William Dalrymple or Colin Thubron in the lunch line, or striking up a conversation with Michael Wood in the bookshop. Not that I did anything of the sort, of course. Well maybe once. But more on that in a later post.

And then there was the final night of the festival. Like Cinderellas with press passes, we got to go to the ball! At the City Palace! Magical! From the moment we arrived on foot (we got the rickshaw to drop us around the corner; everyone else was arriving in AC cars with drivers) it was surreal: from the painted elephants at the gate, to the rose petal-strewn passageway, to the private lawn area where the ball was on. (And it is indeed private: we went to the palace as tourists a few days earlier and that section had been blocked off.)

Of course, being a literary festival, the crowd around the bar was deep, so it took us a fair while to get a drink, but it wasn't long before we were meeting Interesting and Accomplished people.

I really wish Blogger would let me post my photos - that way, you could see how the lights at the palace were on - indicating the Jaipur royals were home and watching our little shindig from up high. I like to think they were sprinkling little sachets of good tidings onto all us proletariat down below who were inhabiting their private lawns. Or maybe they might have been tossing gold coins down. I was a bit too squiffy to know.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Shiro and more

Oh, Shiro, you reaaaallly need a website. Judging by the number of hits I seem to get based on a brief mention of Shiro below, there is a dearth of online information about the place.

But because I'm unashamedly a total SEO slut... Shiro Bangalore UB City cool bar Shiro Bangalore UB City bar Bengaluru Shiro Vittal Mallya Shiro Shiro Shiro.

(And there may be a few more commented out below.)

In other news, Jason and I have a new maid. After a few false starts, we've found one we're happy with. She's been with us four days and already the neighbours are trying to steal her.

We are off to Rajasthan tomorrow, for the Jaipur Literature Festival , where I will be plumping for an interview with Vikas Swarup. Vikram Seth, Simon Schama and (swoon) Hari Kunzru will also be there. Oh, and some guy called Amitabh Bachchan who I'm told has a cult following here in India. I have the fiery combination of media accreditation and no shame, so stay tuned for photos.

I wrote a blog post last night while watching the inauguration but, upon rereading today, now seems woefully out of date. Everything that could possibly be said, has been said, I feel. But how SHEER was the complete, unadulterated JOY of seeing Bush glowering while Obama was ripping him to shreds up there?