In 2004, I was lucky enough to take a trip through many parts of India, including Bangalore, Marahashtra State (in which Mumbai is located), Kerala, Jaipur, and many locations in-between. I and a group of friends hired an Indian man from Aurangabad who was an experienced professional tour guide (Ebote B.V., whose services I can strongly recommend) and went on our merry way. My modest trip through India will remain one of the high points of my life; something that I have described at agonizing length to all of my friends.
Throughout the trip, I felt completely safe, despite being surrounded by swarming masses of people, and despite the hair-raising chaos that is Indian transportation. The trip included a several days in Mumbai, so many of the locations of the current terror siege are familiar to me. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with astounding hospitality and benign (sometimes intrusive) curiosity. Since that first trip, I've been scheming to get back to India. Nothing that's happened in the past few days has changed that, nor should it discourage anyone who is thinking of visiting this thrillingly vibrant place. Considering the country's huge and diverse population, and the inevitable social friction that entails, the remarkable thing is that violence is so rare.
An Indian friend recently sent me these two comments from Indian writers. Maximum City, the book that's referred to, is strongly recommended:
The writer Suketu Mehta captured brilliantly the dogged, resilient compassion of Mumbai in his book “Maximum City: Mumbai Lost and Found.”
In remarks he has given based on the book, he spoke of asking a man named Asad bin Saif, who worked at an institute for secularism, whether the chaos and slums and filth made him pessimistic about human beings. Here is how Mr. Mehta continued the story:
“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 reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and you will 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 compartment. The rest is up to you; you will probably have to hang on with your fingertips on the door frame, 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. And 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 live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari, whether you’re from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to work in the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.
Our colleague Anand Giridharadas, who writes a column for the International Herald Tribune, sees the Taj Hotel as unique. He had this to say:
Anyone, anywhere who has lived in Mumbai was gasping at the sight of a burning Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel. That is because it is not your average hotel.
It is not another Sheraton or Hilton in the business district of another world city. It is the aorta through which anything glamorous, sentimental, confidential or profitable passes in Mumbai. Its major role is to serve its guests, who come from around the world and elsewhere in India. But it also serves the local city in a way that few hotels in the world could claim to do.
If a momentous infidelity is being committed on a given night, or a billion-dollar business deal being inked, or a recklessly brilliant idea being hatched, there is a fair chance it is being committed, inked, hatched at the Taj. Mumbaikars who can afford it have their most romantic meals at its Wasabi restaurant, accept marriage proposals in its Sea Lounge, land job offers in its coffee shop.
Non-guests are forbidden to use the pool. But so many Mumbaikars enterprisingly bring a towel, furnish a fake room number and dip into its manmade lagoon.
It stands across from the Gateway of India. Those who would not dream of paying $3 – a decent daily wage – for one of its fresh-lime sodas sit outside the hotel, leaning against the stone wall on the sea. They take in the scene; they admire the finely dressed people breezing in and out. They know that it is not their time for the Taj now, but, should a fortune bless them, it is in the Taj they will spend it.
Few other hotels of the world could say they were built out of spite.
Legend has it that Jamsetji Tata, a nineteenth-century industrialist, was once turned away from a hotel in British-era Mumbai because he happened to be Indian. He decided, in a strange kind of revenge, to build the best hotel in the country, outfitted with German elevators, French bathtubs and other refinements from all around the world.
The hotel became, for many Indians, a symbol of the overthrow of the indignities of the colonial age. And it became a symbol of the best that could be had in a city paved with dreams.
After the break, I've posted a slideshow of some of the pictures I took on the India trip. The slideshow starts in Bombay, then moves on to Hampi, Kerala, Jaipur, and lesser-known places in-between. It includes places and monuments sacred to Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity, and Judaism, as well as pictures of the gorgeous chaos that is Indian street life. No captions, but really, none are needed.