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


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

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.