Apr 20, 2009

Some Things

Rounding the backstretch of our time in India, I have come to the saddening realization that things that once seemed exciting, exotic, and different from life at home now seem commonplace. So before I forget them all, let me list a few endearing facets of day-to-day Indian life:

-things that would be thrown away at home are repaired here; today I got my falling-apart knock-off Birkenstocks repaired for an extended life; shoes, watches, clothes, and appliances can be fixed anywhere for cheap

-vendors of fruit, vegetables and metal cooking vessels use analog balance scales (Libra-style) to price their goods

-shoe polishes and ironing services are widely available at reasonable prices

-use of carbon paper is widespread; everything is recorded in triplicate paper copy

-almost all rope and cord is made of natural fibres

-male cousins are called "cousin-brother" and female cousins are called "cousin-sister"

-and this, from "Maximum City":

"Asad, of all people, has seen humanity at its worst. I asked him if he feels pessimistic about the human race.

'Not at all,' he responded. ' Look at the hands from the trains.'

If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you can reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals. As you run alongside the train, you will be picked up and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the open doorway. The rest is up to you. You will probably have to hang on to the door frame with your fingertips, being careful not to lean out too far lest you get decapitated by a pole placed too close to the tracks. But consider what has happened. Your fellow passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts already drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, retain an empathy for you, know that your boss might yell at you or cut your pay if you miss this train, and will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. At at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning or whether you're from Malabar Hill or New York or Jogeshwari. All they know is that you're trying to get to the city of gold, and that's enough. Come on board, they say. We'll adjust."

Chor Bazaar

If you're in need of old camera gear, vintage toys, collector lithograph Bollywood posters, or monkey wrenches, I highly recommend Chor Bazaar in Bombay. Chor means "thief" apparently, so all the stuff may or not be stolen, which is sort of fun.

Bombay Cleaners

We were literally taken to the cleaners in Colaba, Bombay by what should prove to be our most expensive laundry bill in India. But it was ok, given the pricey real estate the shop occupied, and because it was, start to finish, an efficient, professional, and highly satisfactory laundering experience. Everything was carefully machine washed according to colour and fabric, beautifully ironed (even our sleeping sacks, which we insisted need not be pressed) and each article came back with a strangely touching hand-sewn tag indicating our particular batch of laundry.

Later in the day we visited dhobi ghats, where most of Bombay gets their laundry done. Shirts for 2 Rs instead of 30 Rs. A "12 or 13" year old girl served as an impromptu tour guide (exact birthdates not such a big deal here)- the white laundry is from the hotels, the red from the hospital, the blue from somewhere else, she told us. We should have come earlier in the morning, to see more action, she also told us. We offered her a 10 Rs note as a nominal fee for her helpful information. She refused the money and wanted a Pepsi instead. No fool, she went for the 60 Rs 2 Litre 7-Up that came with a free 7-Up can. I hope she shared.

Note wrapping of laundry into parcels.

Laundry tag.

Yes, that's a genuine ShamWow.

Dhobi Ghats

Apr 15, 2009


Walking along Colaba Causeway, foreigners are in high demand, and for a change, they want to give us money. The Bollywood film industry in Mumbai is booming, with half a dozen features being filmed around the city on any given day. White faces are sought out for background work, and it is considered de rigueur on the backpacker circuit to work as an extra.

As it was a starred item on our cliched-but-still-valuable experiences of India checklist, we were excited to be cast by a background talent agent within our first hour in Mumbai. Extras were needed for a fancy restaurant scene (set in Bangkok) for the movie Blue, which stars Katrina Kaif, a young up-and-comer, and Akshay Kumer, a "big-time superstar". Andrew, who had already familiarized himself with the top Indian film stars by reading two Bollywood gossip mags on the train, was impressed with the star power, and so we accepted the offer.

Unfortunately, our Bollywood experience was far from glamorous. Thirty of us were packed into a non-AC bus in the middle of Bombay rush-hour. Two hours later, we arrived in the service entrance of the Renaissance Hotel and we "hurried up and waited", as they say, to be handed out tacky outfits with far too much lace and polyester. The girls then lined up for makeup and hair, with disastrous results.

Six hours after our bus departed downtown Bombay, the restless extras were hoarded through the hotel and onto our set. The mise-en-scene was tasteful and quite high-budget (unfortunately, the same can't be said about our outfits). The producers picked through the women extras and chose their favourites. Those with long blonde hair were positioned in the centre of the shot, and those of us with shorter and/or darker hair were placed around the peripheries. While I sulked behind a pillar in the back left, Andrew was centre-stage, playing the doting boyfriend of a young girl from England with Barbie-doll features. Ouch.

The frenetic energy on set died down after a couple of hours, as the two stars still hadn't shown. Rumours began to circulate: Katrina was filming another movie, and was caught on set across the city. Gasp!

Eventually, a man came running into the room and made the universal sign of a hand cutting his throat: Shoot's over! The disgruntled extras started collecting our things, but then a vision in red appeared. It was Katrina Kaif, walking with purpose onto set... Four hours late, but she is gorgeous, and immediately forgiven.

But, thirty minutes later (now 11:30pm), the male star had not yet appeared, and this time the shoot was cancelled for good. And so, we headed back downtown tired, cranky, and some of us with a bruised ego.

fugly outfits


The next day, it was front page news: AKSHAY KUMAR EMBARRASSES INDIA. While modeling in an Indian Fashion Week show earlier in the day of our shoot for the Levi's "Un-zipped" campaign, Akshay had his wife unzip his jeans. Apparently, some members of the audience were outraged and marched straight to the police office. An official police complaint has been issued against Kumar for public indecency. He was last seen on a flight with his wife to South Africa.