Once Upon a 26/11

Posted in India - Mumbai at 4:04 pm by Jackson Lee

I hate you Bollywood, but all will be forgiven after breakfast.

At times, India can seem like one continuous breakfast bar. Chai – India’s version of tea – eggs and toast are available almost everywhere. In this, India is a gratifying culinary stop on the west to east breakfast journey of the Eurasian landmass – a journey that ends in the dreadfully uninspired, yet amazingly common, rice-porridge breakfasts of Southern China (pickles are added for taste – what kind of mental taste buds enjoy pickles in the morning).

I don’t really care for eating in comfortable environments unless, of course, comfort makes the food better. With its neat tables, neat chairs and thoughtfully placed decorations, Leopolds inspired me like the thought of curry for breakfast. In a country of unequal’s, the cynical travellers avoids Cafe’s like Leopolds, instead finding refuge amongst the innumerable mom and pops diners the country’s middle class nourish on. Imrans rejection, however, was fresh and our karma was in need of soothing – hanging out with follow travellers seemed like the best way to remind us that this trip was not just an adventure, but the best possible excuse to avoid grown-up lives.

Entering, we sat and soon found ourselves squinting at the small menu which was neatly plastered on the inside of the tables cover. What kind of people think menu’s are to valuable to hand our freely?

“Its the bullet holes that make this place”, Locky offered as a conversation starter.

“Huh?”, I looked around, vainly trying to notice something other than neatness.

Bullet holes don’t commonly decorate cafe walls but violence and its cheerleader, religious intolerance, spent a night here not long ago, making a ugly statement for fanaticism. The event commonly referred to as 26/11 is a part of the subcontinents post colonial terrorist history. Interestingly, the bullet holes have been covered by glass – allowing patrons to see the buildings ‘wounds’ – this being either a reminder of the tragic events from November 26th 2008 or a marketing stunt by the owners.

Two men walked into Leopolds that night, lifted their AK47’s and opened fire on the crowd sitting amongst the neatly arranged tables. Soon 10 people lay dead, scores injured and blood coloured shoe prints dotted the once neat floors. The two gunmen departed, firing into the street as the headed to the next target. The group of terrorists, which had split into groups upon arriving, went on to kill over 150 people and injured hundreds others before the Indian special forces (who initially had to travel 1000 kms to reach Mumbai) finally contained the situation 50+ hours later.

Perhaps the most disturbing evidence to come out of the attacks were recordings of cell phone calls made between the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan. Orders such as leave the phone on so we can hear you kill everyone and “explode grenades every 15 minutes” to create maximum terror litter the recordings.

Terrorism seems extra meaningless in a place of such poverty. Finding the days next meal would probably concern most Mumbains more than fearing a chance encounter with a heavily armed, over-rip religious fanatic. Our hostel looked over one of the service entrances to the Taj Mahal Hotel – which witnessed some of the worst violence – it was hard not to think that once upon a time, it was view to such terror.

To be continued (22nd November 2011)

Once Upon a Bollywood

Posted in India - Mumbai at 3:56 am by Jackson Lee

Early morning arrived well after the alarm.

The low frequency hum of an overhead fan, for once, could be heard above the background noise of the usually hyperactive streets. Ignoring a wave of thoughts demanding more sleep and less Bollywood, Locky and I shoot into action. Hair styles styled, faces improved and crazy good looking guys were created using tap water and dashing smiles. Three and half minutes after the alarm sounded, we were ready to hit the streets and deal with the flashing camera’s of this filthy industries paparazzi.

Descending into the street we passed into a begone era. We were staying in a aged hotel in Colaba, which was not unusual given most of the buildings in Colaba looked aged. Perhaps it was the effects of the heavy humidity that made everything look charmingly run-down – or more likely it was a by-product of the monstrous economic growth Mumbai had experienced over the last twenty years.

Quaint, mould covered colonial architecture filled spaces modernisation had yet to reach. Neck-think electrical wiring, a sign the city was struggling to keep up with change, tangled across walls in quantities that even first generation nuclear power plants couldn’t justify.

The early morning was motionless save piles of homeless sleeping on the streets – a common sight in all Indian cities. Bodies lay in almost every niche on whatever material was available, cardboard being the most common. Every inch of skin covered from head to toe in long sari’s to protect against the hordes of mosquitoes who worked the night shift. Mumbai, the star itself, seemed to enjoy this moment of the day. A deep breathe before the chaos of humanity. Unlike other ‘cosmopolitan cities, the night-life of Mumbai is forever hamstrung by India’s early bar closing laws (which come hand in hand with the Hindu-Muslim culture) – giving a quietness to Colaba’s early morning which daytime disagrees with entirely.

Our agent by proxy, Nicholas the Swede, didn’t know the name or details of the movie being filmed. This however was the least of our problems. Imran, the agent we were heading to meet, was expecting a blond Swedish guy for the days shooting – not two blokes from the south Pacific, neither of whom looked especially Swedish. Was this uncool in the cool world of movie making?

We arrived at Mcdonalds – the meeting point. Locky went in search of his favourite morning elixir. I lent against a wall assuming the look of a skilful extra. There was no one about to admire my lean. My feet shuffled impatiently beneath me. It occurred to me that nervousness makes even leaning difficult. Locky returned with his coffee. He was happier. I continued to lean. Time inched forward. Had Nicholas given us the wrong details?

The arrival of another foreigners snapped us out of the spell – we introduced ourselves. As a matter of intellectual pride, Locky and I have spent a lifetime fabricating different alter-egos to answer the same-same questions that come with most introductions. How often does someone tell you they come from a pacific island nation that has recently succumbed to global warming and sunk beneath the waves? Thick blond dread wearing Josephine, hands down, wins the prize for originality. After travelling through India in her youth pursuing the wisdom of various yogis, she stumbled across a Bollywood dancing school. Years later she now calls rural Sweden home (think snow-covered forests) and teaches Bollywood dancing to the descendants of Erik the Red and Harald Hardrada. Josephine explained that she was in Bombay to brush up on the latest dance moves and had heard a rumor that today’s filming involved gangsters and dancing

The group of foreigners swells. The screech of wheels heralded the arrival of a dark green Japanese sports car. A couple of almost well dressed lads sprang out and started bustling about with moves Derek Zoolander’s practices in the mirror. No one reacted.

Collar up. Smile out. Three o’clock shadow cut to the minute. Imran enters stage left… door. Dressed in-a-way hungry lions do when they see approaching wildebeest, Imran was everything you’d expect of a Bollywood agent tasked with hunting down camera worthy foreigners.

The group relaxed as Imran’s mojo went to work. Hands were shook. Smile’s and cheesy comments thrown about recklessly. Bollywood rocks so far.

He approached us.

“Hi, I’m Imran”, he says smooth as a cotton sari. A firm handshake coupled with that over-white smile – is he running for the presidency?

He frowned as we gave him our names.

“So, who organised for you to be here?”, he asks while looking us up and down. I self-consciously kick myself for not looking more Swedish.

Neither of us answer clearly. Imran seems to understand. He smiles smoothly and directs us to cross the road to another marshaling point. Feeling hesitantly triumphant we join the group of foreigners milling about on the increasingly busy Mumbai streets. Most of the best backpacker stories start with a epic faking-it moment.

Imran is soon back.

“Sorry lads, we don’t have anything for you today”, sincerity and regret give his facial repertoire considerable challenge, “we need more girls and we already have enough guys for today’s shoot” he delivers the industry ‘let-down’ line with the kind of emotional richness I’d very soon hoped to display on the big screen.

“But guys’, the smile was back, “Give me your contact details, we have more filming over the next few days”, he hands me a pad.

With fake names and a bogus contact number scribbled down we shake hands and head off in search of breakfast and a new, awesome, face-saving plan. Our aspirations of Bollywood fade like Kevin Costner’s acting career post Waterworld. Neither of us speak, our uncanny travellers luck laughs at us from nearby. After a few minutes walking, the decision to leave Mumbai is wordlessly passed.