Random Mumbai Facts

From the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai:

  • Mumbai’s 7.2 million slumdwellers constitute 60% of the population
  • In a four month period starting last November, government bulldozers demolished 90,000 dwellings, making 300,000 people homeless
  • Only 40% of households are connected to sewers
  • There are 800 functioning public toilet blocks; this is 20,000 less than needed; the public toilets are so deep in shit that city workers refuse to clean them, even for extra pay
  • Suburban trains have a capacity of 1,750 passengers; at rush hour, 4,000 passengers are crammed into each train
  • 110 new vehicles are added to Mumbai every day; average traffic speed: 6-8 km/h

Mumbai Mirror‘s Daily Sexpert Question earlier this week:

“I am a 25 year old married woman. I need some advice regarding our sex life. We got married in May this year. My husband faces the following problems during intercourse: 1) he breathes heavily and gets exhausted very soon, 2) he sweats a lot 3) our sex does not last for long and we don’t enjoy the act. Kindly suggest a solution to these problems”

The Insanity Called Commute

So now I have a lovely car, and I am driving it. Myself, to work every day. What kind of looked crazy from the backseat of my former driver’s car, can now indeed be diagnosed as exactly that: insanity. The morning is not so bad, and today was actually pretty quiet. I take the Western Express Highway and after about 30mins and a few potholes here and there, I am at work. The way back, however, is absolutely mind-boggling. At around 7pm, it’s usually already dark, and today it was raining a bit as well. Not that the roads would be slippery or anything – the fact is, The Western Express Highway on Friday evenings is never quite express enough to anywhere near any speeds where one could slip.

The best part, however, is getting onto the highway to begin with. It’s about 3km or so through residential areas (well, in Mumbai, everything, literally, is a residential area), on pretty narrow lanes, each occupied by two or three cars each direction. There’s thousands of pedestrians fighting for space with the traffic. The road has fantastic potholes that make the cars look like little cogs in a whirlpool, or maybe toilet bowl.

I knew I was in a bit of trouble when a riksha coming the opposite direction got close enough to fold in my side mirror. Matters got a little more exciting when another riksha cut me off and scratched the left front corner of my car. It was my turn next when a truck to my right started swinging so heavily from the potholes that I saw it coming within fractions of an inch of my sidemirror, so I took a little swing to the left to evade him and immediately made contact with a riksha. So I heard a nice scratching sound and felt very sorry for my left door.

Drivers around here are incredibly impatient. The traffic is not moving one bit, there is absolutely no movement in sight in front of me, and the guy behind me keeps honking his horn like his life depends on it. There’s pretty much zero courtesy – instead it’s an all out war for every single inch of space. The Western Express Highway has a couple of stretches that could be considered fast road, but there’s other stretches where one has no choice but go down into first gear to make it over the potholes relatively safely.

Of course, the highway is filled with rikshas as well, and just like on the NJ Turnpike, the very slowest cars are happily crawling along on the center lane. Except they are passing two wheelers (helmet optional, flip-flops mandatory) and sometimes the odd pedestrian. Still, some folks in their Hondas and Hyundais will use every split second opportunity to zig zag their way around the mess, always with the hand firmly attached to the horn, never too shy to come within inches of anything the pass.

I don’t think accidents happen all that much – traffic is generally too slow for anything serious to happen, and the bumps and scratches are just part of the deal. Of course the absolutely last thing I’d like to happen would be to hit a pedestrian. As it is, no matter what, it would be my fault – if the guy walks onto the street without looking, as seems to be the custom, it doesn’t matter. Interestingly, however, if the driver is a woman, at least that’s what I was told, it is never her fault.

Anyways, so my commute back home usually takes an hour or more, for a distance of about 20km. And at the rate of three little bumps per day, my car will very quickly develop some lovely patina. I guess that’s the way it should be, although the amount of cars with dents and scratches is actually pretty low, so maybe this just means that I’ve got to learn how to drive. I thought Italy was pretty good practice, but really, it’s just elementary school compared to the masters of the Mumbai roads.

Weekend In Pune

Last weekend, before the flood disaster, we drove to Pune with my co-worker. Pune is about 100 miles from Mumbai and there’s a three-lane express highway. Still, it took three hours to get there and four hours to get back, due to heavy rain and insane traffic on the way out of and back into Mumbai. But it was worth the trip.

When we drove there, it was dark, and we didn’t see much of the landscape. What we did see where heavy trucks crawling up the Ghats mountain range at the speed of snails – except we didn’t actually see them, because hardly any of them had any rear lights, and a lot didn’t have any front lights either. Of course, that didn’t stop them from using the middle lane or pulling over to pass an even slower truck without much notice. Add to that a good amount of wind an rain and an “express highway” that, while in surprisingly good shape can have curves like Marilyn Monroe only more dangerous, and one can say it was an exciting trip.

Apart from the truly insane truck drivers, there was also a number of people parking their cars right in the middle of a blind spot after a curve, where there is no emergency lane or anything, so basically on the middle of the highway. Why? Well, because they were in the mood to get out of the car for a piss or maybe to take some pictures.

Anyways, we got to Pune at 11pm or so and checked into a little hotel with the obligatory Barista on the grounds, right next to the Osho Ashram. One of the first things I noticed in Pune was the number of hipsters walking around, sitting at Barista, and standing around in front of some modern movie theater/mall. The term hipster of course simply denotes college kids in jeans and t-shirt, as Pune is actually also known as the Oxford of India, due to the number of IT colleges and universities here, so don’t think East Village, as the dress code is rather unimaginative, and labels win over originality any time.

Now, we are anything but hippies, but the Osho Ashram promises to be a very quiet green space where one can relax and meditate. Osho, of course, is the guru that at some point got deported from the US for tax evasion, and whom Western tabloids used to refer to as the sex guru, because he had pretty liberal views on sex. But really, it is just big business, and a pretty weird place. I had somehow expected that we would only find Westerners there, but there were about 30% Indians as well.

The first thing that happens when one gets there is you need to pay Rs1200, fill out a bunch of forms, show your visa, have a picture taken, and get an HIV test done. No, you don’t see anybody having sex or anything, but basically, it’s part of the belief that sex is natural and shouldn’t be discouraged, and besides Osho apparently was pretty paranoid about hygiene, so there’s also big signs everywhere about how not to handle the food, where not to go if you have a cold, and where to wear socks instead of bare feet.

Then, during the day, everyone has to wear a maroon robe, no exceptions. In the evening, they have a huge two and a half hour evening meeting, where white robes are mandatory. At the swimming pool, maroon swim suits only. It’s all quite cultish and rather unenlightened, and of course they want you to buy these things on the premises for inflated prices. On the other hand, the pool is very nice, and they have a sauna and a tennis court (for extra cash). Oh, and taking pictures on the premises wasn’t allowed either.

We also went to a couple of meditation sessions, which are basically a mix of dance therapy and Osho philosophy brainwash. An interesting experience maybe, but why anyone would want to devote his or her life to this sort of thing is a bit beyond me. Add to that the obvious big business mentality – Osho’s Rolls Royce is exhibited right next to his ashes in the “Silent Meditation Area” – and one could easily get pissed off by all of it. Or one could travel thousands of miles from Europe or elsewhere, just to spend a few weeks here, as many people do.

The big evening meeting was in a gorgeous auditorium – a huge square space with a black marble floor and a huge triangular ceiling. Absolutely no coughing allowed for two and a half hours. There were 200 or 300 people there, and the thing starts with some music and “meditative” dancing, which in our case ended with some freak woman hysterically crying out for Krishna, untill she got escorted out. Maybe she was a real freak, or maybe the whole thing was staged, either by her or by the Osho Ashram head of marketing, who knows.

Then there is an hour long or so video of Osho giving a speech. I kind of fell asleep at some point, but basically he was saying that Western religions have been created by the poor and for the poor, with Jesus having been a carpenter and Islam promising 72 virgins after death, Christianity promising heavenly paradise, etc. while Indian religions were created by kings, who had everything materially, and desired nothing but solitude and nothingness. No wonder than that Indian religions have found such a large following among the spoiled and sated Western population, while Hinduism has nothing to offer for the poor in India, he said.

Well, I don’t know, it sounded like an odd mix of half-truths and bullshit, but it certainly seemed to show that Osho knew his target group and built a pretty successful marketing and product line around it, because Westerners are coming in droves. Besides, he probably had trouble getting laid, so what better idea to help him out on that account than coming up with a sexually liberal cult targeted at rich Westerners? I had thought this was a cliche, and maybe it is, but we definitely saw a number of single older Western ladies hanging around with young Indian boys.

In the immediate vicinity of the Osho Ashram is a “German Bakery”, which was crowded with Indians, hippies, and regular travellers, and, as Ksenia observed, the atmosphere was a pretty much like they took everything stereotypical Indian, digested it in California, and spat it back out here in Pune. Somewhat interesting, and somewhat revolting, just like the Osho Ashram itself, which would make a fine relaxed place to go to, as it is clean and green and has nice facilities, if it weren’t for the cultish freaks and the many strings firmly attached to visitors’ wallets.

Anyways, bottom line: I am still not enlightened, despite having walked around in a maroon robe all weekend, looking like I don’t know what.

The Maid

In NYC, we used to have a cleaning woman, who’d come in every two weeks and clean everything in three hours. She is from Chile and does a great job. Now, having a cleaning woman in NYC was strange enough for me, at least at the beginning. It’s not like I grew up on Beverly Hills or Windsor Castle, quite the contrary. But living in Mumbai, it is pretty clear pretty quickly that spoiled Westerners that we are, we need a maid on a daily basis, at least part time. First of all, this place is dirty and our apartment would get covered in dust very very quickly. Also, we have no idea what to buy in terms of groceries etc., where to buy it, and what it should cost. And even if we did, we’d have a hell of a time communicating with the shop owners. So we were recommended a maid and hired her.

She came with a number of references and spoke English quite well. She said she would clean, do the shopping (or rather order the stuff for delivery, since everything can get delivered), do the laundry and cook a couple of times a week. Unfortunately, we were not prepared for the fact that having a maid is basically a full-time job. We were naively thinking that you could just have her come in, and she would know what to do without much prompting. Instead, Ksenia tried for a week to show her how to clean, to convince her to do the shopping, but basically nothing got done.

Other people confirmed then confirmed that getting a good maid is very very difficult, and that one basically needs to spend a few months explaining to them exactly what they need to do. Our maid basically refused to do the shopping, because she said there are no shops around (there are, besides, then she made a big long face when Ksenia asked her to call somebody for delivery). After a week of her cleaning our living room, our telephone was still covered in dust, because she didn’t know that we wanted her to clean the telephone, too.

We still don’t really have any idea about how this works, but we sort of thought that if our cleaning woman in NYC can figure out without being told that dusting the living room includes the telephone, then it should not be too much of a problem here. Well, apparently it was, plus at the end of the week we think that we are missing a number of Rs500 bills from a locked drawer, and although we cannot be 100% certain what happened to it, we figured it would be better to let her go.

Our landlord told us that you basically cannot trust any maid and that they will all rob you and need very strict supervision. Another expat told us that in her Indian friend’s family, the maid is basically locked up in the kitchen, where she sleeps on the floor. So what do you do? We obviously want to treat our maid like responsible adults, but it turns out that this may be easier said than done.

Anyways, so we have now hired a different maid, who was also recommended to us with all sorts of references. Her English is not quite as good, but so far, she’s quite a bit more thorough. She was cooking a tasty chicken dish today, and while she didn’t do the vegetable dish that she said she would do, nor cleaned the kitchen cabinets that she said she would clean, she did call the grocery to get the chicken and vegetables delivered.

Speaking of which: at this point, we have slowly lost any concept of believing what anyone says. The cable guy said he would stop by in the afternoon to get us digital cable; he never did. The dry cleaner said he would stop by in half an hour to pick up some shirts; he never did. The furniture shop said they would come at 2pm to deliver the furniture; they never did. We then drove to the shop ourselves, and then the story was that the furniture was actually made in a different store outside of town and that it can’t get delivered until Tuesday because of the floods. The travel desk at work told me they’d come by in 10 minutes to give me Ksenia’s tickets to NYC; they never did. When I went there myself, it turned out that the tickets were double booked and that the real ticket will be an electronic ticket. I guess we have yet to learn how to get this sort of information on the phone, without actually having to show up in person. There’s countless stories like this, and maybe even more so than the heat and the rain and the traffic and the pollution, it makes India quite an exhausting place to live.

In any event, I guess it’ll be interesting how things will go once Ksenia is off to NYC for two months, and I will only have half an hour or so in the morning to tell the maid what to do. I think I might be bitching about my maid and become a Desperate Housewife myself. Of course, Ksenia thinks I will spoil her and let her get away with doing nothing, and then she will have to fire her, when she gets back, because her tolerance for questionable work ethics is a bit lower than mine, but we’ll see. I am already calling Ksenia My Good Colonialist, but really, we have no idea what people were talking about when Indians in the US say: “Oh, you are going to India on US salary – you are going to live like a King, you’ll have a maid and a driver, and everything is going to get delivered!” Yeah, right, but I’ll have to quit my job first, so I have time to manage my maid and my driver.

The Flood Recap

So far, the monsoon season has been very nice and pleasant to us. Temperatures are in the high 20’s celsius, as opposed to mid or high 30’s, and although it is very humid, the air feels better and fresher than before the monsoon started. It rains every couple of days for a few hours, but that is that.

But then last Tuesday, all hell broke lose, and as our luck would have it, we had the pleasure to experience the heaviest rainfall in Mumbai’s history. As of today, over 450 people died in the State of Maharashtra, and about 60 in Mumbai. Some parts of Mumbai got 90cm of rainfall, that’s three feet.

The rain started sometime in the early afternoon, when I was at work and Ksenia at her yoga class. Around 5pm we were told we could leave the office early. I took off with Manish from work in his Tata Sierra, a fairly heavy SUV. The rain was absolutely incredible, stronger than anything I have ever seen. It soon became clear that it’ll take a while to get home. The traffic was crawling, but still moving, sort of. Eventually, cars started to use both lanes in both directions. Initially, the water on the streets was only a few inches, but soon it reached about half a foot, and in some spots a foot or more.

So by 7pm, we had gone through one particularly deep spot, we were maybe 3km away from the office and we were stuck. The water was too deep, and besides, people had started abandoning their cars in the middle of the streets. By now it was dark, and the traffic lights were out; there was no electricity anywhere. For some reason, I managed to call Ksenia on her mobile, and she said that she is walking home. Our car was flooded, she was knee deep in the water, and our driver was walking her home.

Luckily, Manish’s aunt lived nearby where we were stuck, so we turned around and managed to park the car in a better spot. But both of us wanted to get home, so we started walking. We were about 7km (5 miles) from home, and, well, it took us five hours. The water reached our hips very quickly, and in some spots our chests. Now, of course, I am using the term water quite liberally – think sewage. Luckily, it was dark, so we couldn’t really see what’s floating by, but it wasn’t pretty.

At one spot, the current was so strong that it kept pulling us back and I couldn’t get a firm hold with my feet. Of course, I was still wearing my office shoes and, actually, my best suit pants, not to mention my tie. Anyways, somehow we managed to get cross that particular spot and kept wading through the floods. There were abandoned flooded cars and city busses everywhere. People were resting in the busses or waiting for God knows what, plus there was a good amount of thunder an lightening, so the whole scene had a bit of an apocalyptic touch.

The street lights were out, but the lightening then and again made them go on, which didn’t really add to my general feeling of discomfort. Wading through hip deep sewage for a few kilometers is not exactly my idea of fun, especially when you know that it’s quite possible that you make a wrong step and get stuck in a pothole, or worse, end up in a manhole. The people around us seemed to have a blast though. First of all, they had no problems touching the traffic light posts, thunder and lightening or not. But apart from that, they were generally laughing, a few were singing to the rain God, Ganesh, and they were all holding hands to help each other through the sewage, so that was nice.

Some overdid the fun part a little, I guess: Ksenia told me later that where she was, there were rats swimming around all over the place, trying to huddle up on top of the gas tank of a motor bike, which was just above water level – and if that’s not enough, there were a bunch of teenage boys with sticks picking up the rats and throwing them towards the people passing by. Thankfully, no-one was hit, so the little pricks weren’t very good at it, and I didn’t see any of that – I just met a whole lot of people greeting me with “Hello foreigner, how do you like India?”

Eventually, Manish and I reached a higher spot in Juhu where there was no flooding, just by the JW Mariott Hotel, which was bizarrely lit up like a Christmas tree. I guess it pays to have your own generator. An hour or so later, I reached home. Our street also was not flooded, but I had to restrain myself not to strangle the woman who asked me, her cell phone in hand: “Excuse me, but why is there so much traffic on Linking Road?”

Poor Ksenia had gotten home quite a bit earlier, just to find our apartment flooded in two inch deep water. The drains on our terrace were clogged, so the water was overflowing into our apartment, despite all doors being shut. Of course, these drains are a joke to begin with – there’s only two of them, each maybe an inch and a half in diameter, and our terrace is pretty large. Needless to say, our upstairs neighbors throwing plastic bags and newspapers onto our terrace on a regular basis didn’t help.

So she and the driver spent hours getting rid of the water, and of course the driver had no place to go, so he slept in our second bedroom. Ksenia wouldn’t have found her way home without him, so we were very lucky to have him. On the plus side, Ksenia was able to take a few shots with her camera.

We had no electricity and eventually also no water, nevermind no landline phone, so the next day and night were a bit of a challenge. Electricity and water came back Thursday morning, but of course still no phone. One would think that the telephone is a fairly proven technology, but not around here. Strangely, mobile phone service was working for the most part, except for a relatively short disruption for a few hours and heavy congestion.

Also quite striking was the complete lack of any police, fire department, ambulance or any other kind of public service. Rail and airport service were of course completely shut down for almost 40 hours, but people were generally completely left to their own devices. One would think that in an area where heavy rains are an annual fact of life, there would maybe exist some kind of emergency plan, maybe even inflatable boats, but I guess not, which maybe isn’t surprising, given that the sewage system is such a joke, i.e. in large parts non-existent and otherwise completely useless.

So today everything is pretty much back to normal, except still no phone and conflicting reports on whether there’s any flights going out of Mumbai. Ksenia was supposed to leave for NYC tonight, so we will see. We are still planning to go to a dance performance in the evening, and her flight is scheduled for 2am. At least I have now found a Barista cafe with WiFi access and it actually works, with a good speed to boot. But Ksenia is taking her laptop with her, so my fun was limited to today. On the bright site, on TV they said that I can now worry a bit about getting leprotosis from the rat piss that no doubt was plenty in the sewage that I had been walking around in – yummy!