Memories of Mumbai

My first trip to India was in early 1994 and I passed through Bombay (as it was then called) on my way to and from Poona (Pune). My flight from London to Bombay arrived at about three o’clock in the morning and I was greeted outside the immigration area by a young man holding a sign with my name on it who had my train tickets for the next leg of the journey. The train didn’t leave until 6.30am so he asked me what I wanted to do until then. I said I thought I would just go to the station if it was open and wait there. He looked surprised, but said that, yes, the station was open all night. He then kindly offered me a lift in his car as he was heading home and would be going roughly in that direction.

When we got to Bombay Victoria I realised why he had been surprised. I had assumed the station would be fairly empty and I might be able to sleep on a bench or something. When I walked into the concourse it was jam-packed with people sleeping all over the floor. I wandered in sheepishly, the only westerner to be seen, and started to look for what platform my train would be leaving from. Immediately I was surrounded by beggars – women with small babies, cripples, people with gruesome scabs and sores – all pushing me around and pleading for money. Then a teenage boy tried to lift my walkman from my pocket and I started to feel not just uncomfortable but scared.

Pretty soon, though, an official from the State Railways saw my predicament and came to my rescue. Delivering numerous clips around ears he speedily liberated me from my oppressors, took me to into a small kiosk situated on the platform, and offered me a cup of tea. It had far too much sugar in it, but I drank it gratefully anyway. He asked me where I was going, and I told him. He was initially suspicious, I think, because the primary place westerners tended to visit in Pune those days was the Ashram run by Bhagwan Shree Rasjneesh where his disciplines were encouraged to participate in unrestricted sexual activities. When I told my friend from the railways that I actually going to visit IUCAA, which at that time was run by the famous Professor Narlikar, he beamed with relief. I think he wasn’t unique amongst Indians who thought that Rasjneesh was a fraud and his disciples gullible idiots.

It turned out that the train I was to take to Pune was actually already in the station but was being cleaned. Since they cleaned the first class compartments first, I was allowed to get on the train early, about 4.30, and immediately nodded off. I only woke up when the train pulled out of the station and started on its journey up towards the Deccan plateau.

I enjoyed the journey enormously, partly because the train was slow enough to allow me to take in all the sights, and partly because I was sharing a compartment with a very friendly Indian couple (a professor of engineering and his wife). They had done the customary thing when on a long railway journey in India, which is to consult the list of passenger names posted on the platform before the train left the station. When I woke up as the train left the station, they greeted me by name and introduced themselves. It was a refreshing change from the United Kingdom, where it is apparently forbidden to talk to strangers on a train.

I stayed about a month in Pune working with a colleague, Varun Sahni, on a lengthy article for Physics Reports. When that was over I had been invited to visit the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Bombay for a few days on my way home, so I got the train back to Victoria. Arriving on time, I left the train to be confronted by a crowd of small boys who tried to convince me that there were no taxis but that they would arrange one for me for a price of 200 rupees. That was way over the odds for a taxi (at the time) so I laughed and said no thanks.

Proceeding out of the station to the taxi rank, I realised that they had been telling the truth. All the taxis in Bombay were on strike that day. I started to panic. How am I going to get to TIFR? Then I remembered that I was to have asked the taxi driver for “Navy Nagar Bus Stop”, which is right next to the guest house I was supposed to stay in.

I thought that if there’s a bus stop there must be a bus, so I found a policeman and asked him where the buses went from. He gave me very clear directions and told me I needed the Number 11. I found the stop without much difficulty, but then there was a hitch. The buses themselves were red double-decker Routemaster types just like those you could find in London. Unfortunately, though, the numbers were written in Marathi script which I couldn’t read. Only when a bus went past did I see that the arabic numerals “11” were written on the back. A few minutes later I was joined at the bus stop by an Indian guy so I asked him if he could tell me the numbers of the buses as they came into view. He asked me where I was going, so I told him and it turned out he was going there too. Sorted.

On the bus I sat with my luggage around me and the front of the lower saloon facing backwards. All the locals peered at me like I was an exhibit in a museum, but most of them smiled. A couple of stops into the journey an old man got on wearing a scruffy coat. He looked rather poorly and had some sort of skin condition. He sat facing me and started scratching himself through his coat. I started to feel quite uncomfortable because this performance went on for some time. Then he started to unbutton his coat as if he was going to take it off. It was then that I realised the cause of his discomfort as a chicken poked its head out.

The bus was quite slow and the journey quite long so, when I finally got to the TIFR guest house, it was quite late. When I found the building, I was pleased to see my host, a physicist called TP Singh, in the lobby talking on the phone. He had his back towards me and was in the middle of a heated conversation, so I waited until he had finished before introducing myself. After a few minutes he put the phone down and turned around, so I offered my handshake and said hello.

He had a look of complete confusion on his face which gradually gave way to relief. “Peter!”, he shouted. “How did you get here?”

I got the bus, was my answer. It turned out he had found out in the afternoon (when I had already left Pune) that there would be no taxis,ย  so he had sent the TIFR car and driver to meet me at the station. I hadn’t seen the driver amongst the crowds and wasn’t expecting to be met anyway. In those days I didn’t have a mobile phone so there was no way of warning me about it. After scouring the station, the driver had returned to TIFR and reported that I was missing. When I had arrived at the guest house, my host had actually been on the phone to the local police in order to report me lost.

It was during this short visit of three days or so before flying back to London that I behaved as a tourist although I was taken around by students and staff from TIFR which was nicer than the more usual guided tour. I visited the Gateway to India, had tea at the Cafe Leopold, and took a boat to Elephanta Island.

Mumbai (as it is now called) is an enormous, bustling city in which extreme wealth and abject poverty can be found in close proximity and where religious tensions are never far away. Riots are fairly commonplace and there are powerful grievances between the different social groups and claims of police corruption. The sheer scale of the place means that no casual visitor can hope to understand what itย  is really like to live. But my visit there left me with an impression of a city full of energy and determination in which there is much kindness to be found not far below the surface.



5 Responses to “Memories of Mumbai”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    This story of Peter’s arrival in Mumbai/Bombay reminds of a time when I arrived in Santiago, Chile.

    This was for an observing trip to the European Southern Observatory. Observing at ESO proved a surprise to me because ESO made all the travel and accommodation arrangements, apart from local travel to the airport in Britain.

    I travelled by taking a flight from Birmingham to Paris Charles de Gaulle, then a different plane to Santiago. I arrived at Birmingham airport some time before the checking-in time in case there were problems. On checking in, I was offered a switch to an earlier flight, and accepted. This meant extra time waiting at Charles de Gaulle – a few hours – but that didn’t particularly matter.

    My second flight arrived at Santiago airport. I disembarked and went to the carousel to collect my luggage. Luggage eventually started to appear, but there was no sign of my suitcase. Most people collected their belongings and departed. A small number of us remained and waited. Eventually the final batch of luggage appeared on the carousel. There was still no sign of my case. Everyone else left. Then my suitcase appeared, the very last item to come on to the carousel.

    I went through customs and immigration control, and emerged in the public area of the airport. There was no ESO driver waiting for me.

    This meant taking a taxi myself. I looked in my hand luggage for the sheet of paper with the address of the ESO guesthouse and other contact details, but failed to find it. I opened my suitcase and searched for it inside. It wasn’t there. So I had no idea where in the large city I was going. This was before portable devices with internet connection.

    Some airport staff noticed me standing around not knowing where to go. They made enquiries on my behalf, got the address and arranged a taxi.

    It turned out that the driver had collected some other visitors to ESO who had been on flight (unknown to me). He did not see me so assumed I’d missed the flight, and departed.

    • I also had a harrowing experience in Santiago, on the way to a conference on Omega. After changing into fewer clothes because I came from winter and arrived in summer (from Paris via Buenos Aires), I put everything in my bag (only hand baggage) except what I needed to check in for the connecting flight. Coming downstairs to the check-in counter, I recognized four colleagues and asked them to watch my bag while I checked in. About 5 minutes later, I came back. No bag. “Where’s my bag?” Deadpan faces. I suspected a practical joke, but when they all started looking around, i realized that it was really gone.

      After recovering somewhat from the shock, I realized that it would be a good idea to get this noted officially; perhaps some insurance would pay some damages or something. Apart from passport, what I was wearing, and the boarding pass for the connecting flight, everything was in that bag: more clothes, money, mobile phone (quite expensive back then), etc. Since I knew little Spanish, a colleague who spoke Spanish (but not a native speaker) came along to help me out. We described what happen and information was recorded. Upon seeing his passport, the official was relieved to see that he wasn’t a native speaker; apparently his accent made him sound like a drunk native speaker or something. He overheard something about a thief having been caught, and mentioned that it might be the one who had stolen my bag and that we would stick around for a few hours (fortunately there was a long layover until the connecting flight was to depart). Noted, but no hope all around.

      Having no money, I was glad that a colleague bought my lunch. (I’m not mentioning any names, though I am eternally grateful; maybe the embarrassment of having my bag stolen is greater than the praise for being so generous.) While we were eating, someone found us and said that I should come to the police station. I brought my trusty interpreter along. There were about 30 people waiting; all had had their bags stolen. One by one, they went into a room with a glimmer of hope, then came out looking glummer than before. One was a physician whose medical bag had been stolen. After about 12 people had gone in and came out glum, it was my turn. I immediately recognized my bag. They asked me what was in it. I told them. They handed it to me. I looked inside. All was there!

      It turned out that it had been stolen by an experienced thief. A henchman* had created a minor disturbance—not enough to be remembered, but enough to distract people for a few seconds—while the thief put my bag into a larger bag. He could then walk slowly away, arousing no suspicion.

      I also later learned that this was not just luck. This was just after the deposition of Pinochet. Apparently there were many unemployed people with “security experience”, so plain-clothes personnel were cheap. It turned out that they were all over the airport.

      We then flew in a very small plane to the south of Chile in an area which reminded me of Switzerland (mountains and lakes), and many natives had Swiss-German names. The conference was in a resort town, with my hotel suite larger than the flat I was living in in Germany at the time (with the family of four). No traffic lights, but someone directing traffic at each intersection (perhaps cheaper).

      It was a great conference. Similarly to the Moriond meetings, there was a morning session and evening session; in-between no skiing but there was a nice swimming pool. As is the custom, supper was late, by which time it was dark. I had been in the southern hemisphere only once before, at the 1995 gravitational-lens conference in Melbourne, but in (southern) winter with overcast skies. Very impressive. Some of the locals found out that there were astronomers in town, and asked some questions. However, it is possible to be an astronomer—even an observer—and not be familiar with the southern sky. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Really great food, freshly made juices (I usually had banana) and probably more absolutely gorgeous women per square metre than anywhere else I have been. ๐Ÿ™‚

      The conference town was about an hour’s drive from the small airport in the south. We were met by someone with an upper-case Greek Omega on a sign. He had been surprised that some of the attendees had arrived on a previous flight. At least, that’s what he had thought, since they came up to the Omega sign and expected to be driven away. There was a maths conference at the same time, and the mathematicians assumed that anyone in a small town in the south of Chile carrying a sign with an uppercase Greek Omega on it must be the driver for the participants at the maths conference. ๐Ÿ˜€

      *My first use of the word “henchman” in a blog comment.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I’m glad the bag was found. The theft must have been a very unpleasant experience, even if things worked out all right in the end.

      • Yes, I was quite unsettled! My first time in South America, then something like this. And Europe was a long way away.

        All’s well that ends well, perhaps. ๐Ÿ˜

        I might go back to Chile in 2019; maybe my future experience will eclipse this one from almost 20 years ago. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        Apart from this episode, though, it was a great journey and a great conference with great food, fresh juice, nice pool, beautiful women, southern skies.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        The story of the stolen bag reminds me of something else.

        I was once employed on an observational project operating a scientific instrument. I joined the project after it had been fully operational for two years. When I joined the the project, my new colleagues told me that the project leader had been writing a general research paper about the instrument, its operation and scientific results for about two years, but he had not shown anyone his draft.

        Over the next two and a half years, every time I or someone else asked the leader about how he was getting on with the general paper, he would reply that he was making progress but he was not quite ready to show the draft to anyone else. The draft now included results from lots of different research projects I had been put to work on. Then one week I asked him about how it was coming on, and he replied that it was very nearly ready, and that I could have the first draft the following week.

        The leader was due to go away on an extended summer visit to eastern Europe. Days before he was due to leave he reported that his backpack had been stolen from outside his office. It had contained various things, including his passport, holiday money, his much-loved scientific calculator and the draft scientific paper. He explained, “I saw a huge black man running down the corridor with the backpack. I chased after him but he got away.”

        We were told several weeks later that the police had raided a flat in the city and had recovered lots of stolen property that included the stolen backpack. The backpack contained all the missing items with the exception of the money and the draft scientific paper.

        No general scientific paper about the instrument and its results was ever published.

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