Friday, March 30, 2007


Mumbai is hot these days. For those of you who are planning to visit - my advice is, stay indoors in the afternoons. That means cold beer, long lunches, and of course, airconditioned shopping. By 4:30 p.m. the heat isn't quite so bad, and you can try walking through the heritage district, or the bazaars, or really, anything that takes your fancy.

If you're planning to go see Elephanta, there are two ways to do it - one is by taking the 2:00 p.m. boat. You'll get to the island at 3:00, when it starts to cool down a bit. There's a twenty minute uphill climb. Fortunately, it is a shady climb with lots of space to sit down and rest, and there are little shops all along the climb where you can browse and shop. Don't forget to take bottled water. You'll have until 4:30 to see the caves, before you need to come downhill. You can take the 5:00 p.m. boat back.

The other way is to take the first boat out at 9:00 a.m. before the crowds come in. That's what I did yesterday.

If you take the 9:00 a.m. boat, you'll be up the hill by ten thirty, a
nd after an hour at the caves, you can come down and take the 12:00 noon boat. The boat ride is actually pretty nice, its cool and breezy in the lower deck.

This is me on the upper deck of the boat. It was sunny but not hot. I paid ten rupees extra for the upper deck (weird, you'd have thought the cool lower decks would be more expensive).

You can see the Gateway of India in the background. The
tall building is the new wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel, it completely dwarfs the Gateway from some angles. To the left is the old heritage wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel. They are renovating/repairing the dome.

P.S. Check out my 'sensible' shoes.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pappadam Central

If you ever wondered where Bombay's papads come from, look no further.
This is a little corner of Sion-Dharavi, where papad making is a cottage industry. Women sit in the shade of their homes, rolling papads by the dozen. Almost every home in this part of Dharavi seems to be making papads.

The sun is a friendly partner, providing free heat to dry the papads. That means, obviously, in the three monsoon months starting July, these households have to look for other sources of income.

It was noon when I got there. There was this drowsy air everywhere. The women were busy, but papad making and gossip go hand in hand, so it was a little bit like an afternoon party.

Apart from papad, the other thing we saw was lots and lots of red chillies. I'm not sure where it comes from, or what they're doing with it. I'm going to ask the next time I go there.

It seems to be an all woman industry. We didn't see any men, except for one really old man who was in charge of picking up dried papads and packing them.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Bollywood in the skies

Two twenty a.m., Mumbai International Airport, on my way to London. I was dead sleepy. As soon as we boarded the plane, I went into my usual routine - drank my sweet lime juice, got my spare blanket, changed into my jammies, and snuggled down as best as I could to do some serious aisle-watching.

Lots of interesting people were boarding, including a group of good-looking Hare Krishna devotees. How do they manage to make thin white cotton into a fashion statement? Or maybe I'm particularly susceptible to blue-eyed 40-year old men draped in see-through linen.

Anyway, the lecherous moment passed. The Hare Krishnas disappeared into Economy Class. They were followed by the regular folks - 70-year olds visiting their NRI children and grandchildren, Gujarati women with shopping bags, young couples on their honeymoon, tourists with skin like broiled lobster, the usual sales guys from Indian IT companies (think laptops plus moustaches), London businessmen returning home...there was enough and more to keep me engaged.

Finally, the train of people ended. Everyone settled down. Overhead compartments were shut. I'd just closed my eyes where there was a sort of buzzzzzzzzzz in the cabin. I opened my eyes a tiny bit. Two flight attendants were hovering around someone who had just boarded, laying out the complete red carpet. I looked to see who the new guy was - it took me a few seconds to realise it was a Hindi Movie Star. Not an aspiring wannabe. Not a mildly successful actor. He was the real McCoy, a Bollywood actor truly-bluely in the Super Star league.

It is hard to describe the buzz that a Bollywood star generates. There was a sort of starry-eyed bewilderment all round, as everyone in the cabin figured out for themselves who he was. As the buzz went around, what was a boring and sleepy flight seemed to suddenly come alive. The air in the cabin sparkled. Staid businessmen and bankers in Business Class craned their necks, wishing their seats weren't so darned private. It was a bit like when the three wise men discovered baby Jesus - there was a Star in our midst and nothing on that flight was the same any more.

At Heathrow airport, it was the same story. Wherever he walked, women were bowled over. The Punjabi matrons at immigration straightened their blouses and skirts. I'm sure some prayed their lipstick was ok. The lady from airport ground staff assigned to escort him chattered non-stop, her face was flushed, eyes sparkling. At baggage claim, co-passengers from the depths of the Economy Class discovered him standing for his bags, and went into that familiar starry-eyed look. Some just dropped everything else and stared. Others tried to be discreet, I guess all those years of training to be 'womanly' and modest just kicked in automatically.

I looked at the scene and thought, my God, it's amazing how Indian women react to male Bollywood stars. Brad Pitt was here a couple of months ago, but perhaps even he would not generate this sort of visceral reaction. Is it because these are Indian stars, and more real than a Brad Pitt? Or, er, is it all the singing-and-dancing in the modern Bollywood movie, does that generate its own different brand of heat?

And how does the star handle this adulation? How does anyone manage a million Indian female fantasies coming at them at a rate of twenty thousand per second?

The star in question seemed impervious to it all. He was polite, smiling at the lady who was with him, making small talk. Watching him handle the situation was quite an education.

I have to admit, I enjoyed the whole thing thoroughly.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Back home after Holi

OK, it was fun, but now there's hell to pay.
The green colour is stubborn and won't come off that easy.
At least I gave as good as I got!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Great Indian Tipping Challenge

Overseas visitors to Mumbai always ask me for advice on tipping. There is such a bewildering variety of people to tip!

Drivers, porters, doormen, car attendants, tour guides and waiters at restaurants, they're all part of The Great Tipping Challenge.

But never fear - they all fall into a neat pecking order when it comes to tips. All you need is this - Deepa's Official Guide to Mumbai Tipping.

Arm yourself with this Guide, and you can waltz in and out of Mumbai with a song on your lips, secure in the comfort that you're not over-paying or being downright stingy.

Let's start with the lowest guy in the tipping spectrum, the doorman. The doorman comes in two varieties. Let's call Type 1 the Moustachioed Turbaned Doorman. You'll see Type 1 Doormen at the Taj Mahal Hotel, or the Oberoi, or any of the grander sorts of hotels. They usually open car doors, both when you arrive at the hotel, and when you're leaving. They also open the main door to the hotel.

Type 1 Doormen have perfected several arts:
1 - The Art of Opening Door with a Bow and a Flourish
2 - The Art of the Broad Unctuous Smile
3 - The Art of Greeting Foreigners in English
4 - The Art of Looking As If They Should Be Tipped

These guys are a Grade 1 Challenge. In the first place, they look, um, intimidating. They're tall, broadshouldered, colourful, and of course, that moustache is nothing to scoff at. What do you tip such guys? They look as if they'd scorn a ten-rupee note. But surely fifty is too much? And when do you tip these guys? Surely not when you arrive tired from the airport at some odd hour of the night?

Deepa's Official Guide to Mumbai Tipping recommends a 20 rupee note, judiciously kept ready, handed over subtly when you leave the hotel in the morning for work or sightseeing. It will earn you an Extra-Flourish when you come back to the hotel in the evening.

And if you want to do that very touristy thing - ask the Type 1 Doorman to pose for a photo - then please be ready to pay a crisp 100-rupee note. Anything less than that is, er, shoddy. Payment is logically made after the photo is clicked, with a pleasant thank you. Women can get away with Payment By Giggle, but honestly? Doorman Type 1 prefers cash.

And what of the Type 2 Doorman? The Type 2 Doorman, like Aesop's fable of the Town and the Country Mouse, is the poor cousin of Type 1. Found at less plush hotels, Type 2 still rush about opening and closing doors, but alas, they lack both the moustache and the turban. The Type 2 Doorman, horror of horrors, is the Doorman with the Faded Uniform And The Whistle.

Type Two has perfected the Art of The Whistle as Weapon. Unerringly and shrilly, the Whistle summons cars, stops incoming traffic, and lets you exit the hotel in a grand if noisy style.

The Tipping Guide recommends 20 rupees, handed over before you get into the car. Your reward? Frenetic whistling and much rushing about to block traffic in person, so that your car can sail forth undisputed like the Queen Mary.

Friday, March 02, 2007

'Dance in the wind'

The Tamil word for windwheels - those pretty colourful paper fans you see at the beach - is kaathaadi. Kaathu, meaning breeze, and Aadi, meaning dance. Literally, that which dances in the wind.

I was walking along Chowpatty beach, when I spotted the windwheel stand. They were selling bright dancing windwheels, colourful balloons, and all sorts of other shiny things.

Two women sat in the sand nearby, making windwheels.

When they finished some wheels, one of them would go stick them on their sales stand.

These were the tools of their trade:
  • Frayed straw mat to sit on, so the sand doesn't get into everything
  • A steel plate, in which they ate their lunch, and which doubled up as their work platform
  • A steel box, in which they brought the lunch, which doubled up as platform 2
  • Two tiny boxes of gum
  • A plastic cup, to draw circles
  • Small pair of scissors
  • Lots of coloured paper
  • Nimble fingers
  • Sharp eyes - to watch for the police or the municipal van!