There are many Mumbais. What I remember most about the one that I grew to love over the past half-decade is the view from my hotel room of the Gateway of India, breakfast at Indigo Deli, evening drinks at Shiros, and the gorgeous colonial architecture of SoBo. Today I saw a different Mumbai – no big car waiting for me at the airport, no air-conditioned hotel room on the other side – on my own without the comfort afforded by an expense account. Today, Mumbai feels like a different city and for the first time, I feel like a stranger. The room at the Taj Mahal Hotel has been replaced by a 50 year old apartment in Sindhi colony in Mahim. Rather than run a hot bath, I spent my first half hour wiping the coat of dust off every surface that I might need to touch. Rather than order room service, I scoured the local stores for a carton of Nestle milk, dish cleaner, detergent and an iron.
I unpacked my espresso machine, made a coffee, took a shower. Next order of priority – get an internet connection. Having researched the various options available over the internet from London, I decided to make my way to Reliance World on Bandra’s Linking Road and get a prepaid 3G card. I flagged down the first back and yellow Fiat taxi that passed me. The back glass, like so many others in Mumbai had ’Panvel, Bhayender, New Bombay’ written in bold white letters. I asked the driver why he was advertising these desolate corners of the city. I don’t know if it was my Tamil accented Hindi or the nature of my question but he chose to ignore the question and angrily asked where I wanted to go. Perhaps the streets in the suburbs are worse than those in ‘town’ (anything south of Worli is ‘town‘) or perhaps the suspension system of the antique Fiat was useless – either way, the streets felt a lot bumpier than I remembered them.
The folks at Reliance World refused to sell me a data card without ‘proof of address’. The address in Chennai listed on my Tamil Nadu driving licence was not good enough. Nor was the London address listed on my passport. I explained my situation – temporarily staying at an aunt’s apartment (which means no lease agreement, no utility bills, no paper trail) but the staff was not sympathetic. They blamed the heightened security after the terrorist attacks. I could not convince them that a Chennai address did not make me a potential terrorist but merely a person who spoke particularly bad Hindi. They stood firm – no Mumbai address, no internet connection. Offering to hand over Rs. 10,000 to cover 6 months of subscription in advance only made them more suspicious. Accepting that I was not going to get an internet connection, I settled for new pillows and towels from Shopper’s Stop and made my way home. The Chennai address did not stop the salesman at checkout from convincing me to buy a ‘First Citizen’ loyalty card. You can be from Chennai (and by implication, a potential terrorist) – so long as you shopped at Shopper’s Stop, you were welcome.
I was hungry. I flagged down another Fiat driving cabbie who was proudly advertising some other desolate corners of Mumbai that I will never visit. There are two restaurants near my apartment – Goa Portugesa and Shobha Restaurant. Goa is well known and seemed like a relatively upmarket place so I elected to go to Shobha, which proudly advertised itself as ‘Party-A/C’. Unexpectedly and despite my pleading, I was denied access to the A/C section of Shobha and made to share a table with a rather sweaty and smelly individual, who hesitantly returned my greeting and proceeded to ignore me and wolfe down his thali lunch. My dosa was utterly uninspiring – serves me right for trusting a Hindi speaker to make a dosa.