Saturday, April 9, 2011


Gateway to India - Sunrise

"The starving, the dead, the slaves... There's a truth that's deeper than experience. It's beyond what we see, or even what we feel. It's an order of truth that separates the profound from the merely clever, and the reality from the perception. We're helpless, usually, in the face of it; and the cost of knowing it, like the cost of knowing love, is sometimes greater than any heart would willingly pay. It doesn't always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world. And the only way to know that truth is to share it... just as I'm telling you now."
Gregory David Roberts - Shantaram

Back when Bombay was the unsettled gangster frontier of the world, a fugitive entered its streets. The Bollywood metropolis of India was new beginning for Gregory David Roberts arriving just a few months after his impossible maneuver at a maximum security prison in Australia. He and one other friend scaled the front wall of an impenetrable, inescapable fortress, and after being smuggled by a biker gang through the outback and across New Zealand, he found salvation in Bombay, a city wildly different than anything he knew. Soon after arriving, he found himself wandering Colaba Causeway, and eventually at the doorway of Leopold's. He would meet many a friend and business partner in this bar; a welcoming space to tourist, gangster and mafia lord of Bombay; a center point for planning anything from drug deals to fake passport distribution. Eventually, Roberts managed to make himself invisible to the CIA, Interpol, and the Australian Federal Police by joining the passport manufacturing/trading sector of the most powerful mafia in Bombay. He was the true gangster of times long past, when Bombay's mafia dealt more with money and gold than the vices of drug trading. By the time the authorities finally caught up with him, he had gained a deep, heartfelt connection with India and its people. He gave life and opportunity to the poor by starting a medical clinic in a slum. He became closely tied with a Maharathi village for 6 months, learning the language to a fluent level. India's people loved him with their massive hearts, and so did he love them. Yet responsibility with the mafia pulled him into darker trades in his 8 years of freedom from Australia. Gun running to Afganistan brought him to the front line of the mujaheddin. Yet his stay was short, as he was wounded in action. Slipping back through Pakistan back to his safe haven of Bombay, he began to work on the higher ends of the passport trading business and eventually solo missions in the drug trade. But the latter were soiled business opportunities, and eventually exposed him in Frankfurt.

Photographer - Francoise Sturdza
Roberts served the rest of his time for his original sentence, performing armed robbery in Australia with a toy pistol. During this time back in prison, he spent 14 years writing Shantaram. He handwrote the book 3 times, due to the fact that the correctional officers found the document and destroyed the first two copies. Once printed, the story came out to over 900 pages.

Though several parts of the story are fictional, all that is mentioned above and more are factual. It is an incredible read that I highly recommend, whether you're looking to further your understanding of India, or just  to read an unforgettable journey of a man who became anything but a feared, armed robber to the powerful and impoverished of Bombay.

Nuff said.
Standing in front of Leopold's in the modernized Mumbai, I immediately realized that times had changed. No longer was the classic Indian gangster in his swagger on the Causeway. Now McDonalds, Dominoes Pizza, and Subway screamed for business with illuminated signs. Fasion botiques and fancy, overpriced souvenirs clogged the narrow sidewalk draped by overdeveloped buildings above. Tourists crammed their way down this route, many eager to soak up the atmosphere of this 140 year old bar recently popularized by Roberts' novel. Ah, and massive army vehicles were permanently stationed on the adjacent street corner.

As I sat down for breakfast, I took time to examine the decor. Only two years ago, during the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, two men entered spraying fully automatic weapons in every direction. 10 people were hit, and several bullets were showered into the windows, walls and columns. Today the bullet holes can still be seen, with hanging portraits of Classic American actors and actresses barely dodging the damages. My observations were interrupted suddenly by a waiter. This man, a Maharthi by blood, turned out to be a very good friend of Roberts and recieved the first Maharthi version of Shantaram from the man himself only a few days before (he whipped out his iPhone to show me visual proof). After a quick breakfast, I left Leopold's towards the Chowpatty Walkway.

Chopatty Walkway is a place for Indians, local foreigners, and tourists alike to admire endless expanse of the Arabian Sea and discuss, adore, or laugh amongst one another. What began as a peaceful walk to the ocean breeze quickly became a dark moment of silence.

There in front of me a man lay dead. Only a small cloth covered his face, and his pale hands flopped on either side of his lifeless body. The cloth displayed the truth; a dark red dot from the fatal wound soaked the linen. He had been shot directly in the forehead. A group of Indians sat and stared at the fair skin of this dead man. I wondered: was it organized crime? A personal quarrel? I would never know. I took a moment to soak in the possible scenarios, possible mishaps that had caused the man to get wrapped in the death cloak of a Bombay mobster's bad deals, and life moved on as I moved on down the walkway.

One word: FANTASTISCRUMPULICIOUS. Watermellon chunky sweetness can only begin to describe the taste.
I walked for hours as the city breathed its pungent aromas of delicious food and unkempt sewage systems, of freshly cut roses and cow patties.  But one thing stood in plain sight through all these smells: imbalance. Out there on the skyscraper line lay the most expensive house in the world, built for a total of $1 billion and constructed against all restrictions of Bombay's legislation. More shameful than all, however, is the view through the permanent smog line on the 26th floor. Dharavi Slum.

1$ billion dollar, cozy lil' home. This is exactly what it looks like.

Dharavi, occupying just 1.75 square kilometers (~1 square mile) squeezed between two of Mumbai's largest rail lines, is home to more than 1 million residents. Mukesh Ambani's skyscraper, home to a family of 4 and requiring a staff of 600 to maintain, gazes upon thousands of 20 square foot homes for 6 person families. Surprisingly, the thick of the slum brought my attention far from the imbalances of Mumbai's wealth. Instead, it was the narrowing streets in front of me. On I tread into the labyrinth of alleyways only a bicycle could navigate. All the while, the sun began to disappear to a cement canopy above. By the time I stopped, I was in darkness with the sun directly overhead. Never again would I experience a place where the sun was blotted by those desperate for shelter. Weren't these people miserable, in a place where even the sun would never shine? How could they have any hope for their progression out of this dark little alley that they called home?

I was mistaken in my observation. In a place where I thought I might see impoverished families toiling away at miserable chores simply to stay alive, I saw a beautiful community and a wide range of wealth. Some people who originally began in these miniature homesteads still live in the slum even with the affordable choice of a lavish northern suburb apartment flat. Warm welcomes came from many, but most gazed, boring their eyes into my soul. Well-fed, fully clothed children played a street cricket match. Mothers and grandmothers diligently removed the stains from soiled clothing with small buckets of soap water. A man rushed past my slow wandering step to deliver milk, barely dodging a dhobi rushing the other way carrying a massive bag of clothes. Though people were impoverished and lived in the tightest of spaces, few were actually desperate. Of all the people I met or greeted were very much happy in appearance and energy. The slum was alive with hope for a better day for all, and all made sure that this day would come for each and every one of them. It is then that I understood: Dharavi is a massive organism of 1 million beautiful people, all working together to make their neighbors and themselves feel like this is a home they could never leave.

Following my day at Ajanta Caves would be a test of patience. My train ride would turn quickly into a disaster, the worst of my train experiences. A train in India seats a maximum of 3,000. It usually ends up seating around 4,000. On my train ride home, there were 8,000. I was "Wait Listed" on my ticket, which means that so few tickets were available for the ride home (even booking months in advance) that I had to be wait listed for potential cancellations for those with seats. This never came. Instead, I sat in a space 1 square foot in size. Sleeping with snoring Indian men on every inch of seating available was the most ridiculous of sights, but one that would make me more miserable than the shits of Jaisalmer. But this was India.

A test of patience from a sleepless night on an 8 hour train. This was India. Half of the steps I have taken here have taught me a profound quality of this subcontinent, that with every corner turned, there is something that could make things not work out as planned. And that works both ways, completely. Within 4 hours, I was certain I would be in my little square foot spot for longer than 8 hours. The train would be delayed. It would take 10 hours. No one would give up a seat. I was hopeless. So there was only one thing I could imagine doing. Surrender to the situation, and let life flow to what could not be expected. And that's how I met Fazal.

"Sir?" My impatient side came first; No, please, anything but another basic English conversation. "Hello, sir?" Surrender. And I did, to the same conversation I had made hundreds of times in the past 3 months. The regular questions, where I was from, where I was going, what I was doing in India, if I was married, if I had a girlfriend, if I was going to have a girlfriend, if I was going to get married soon, and so on. But Fazal, after our short, generic conversation, stood up. "Please sit, please!" I couldn't resist. He had opened his seat to me, this peaceful Muslim boy, simply because I had talked to him for a mere 5 minutes. 

I had not relished the comfort of Fazal's little niche on the bench of the train before it was taken by the fat, thoughtless, bureaucratic lard that is the law of India. A police man came by and took the entire bench from 8 Indians, including a mother and her baby. Gluttony flopped its body across the bench and began to snore immediately. The pendulum swings both ways with your luck in this country, and misfortunes come faster than could ever be expected. And sure enough, there I was back on the square foot space, except with Fazal now accompanying me. He would have let me sit there in comfort on the soiled metal floor as long as I wanted had I not insisted on switching off every once in a while. So there we sat and stood, sharing our compassion in our misfortune as the roar of passing trains and noses startled us awake. 6 hours later (the train was indeed 2 hours late), we rolled into Mumbai's central train station.

I was physically and spiritually defeated.  Anyone could have seen it in my drooping eyes and dragging feet. Fazal insisted that I stay at his family's home in the Muslim slum. "Collins. Collins please, just come for a short whiles, sleep a whiles." Sleep. Comfort. Yes. So I hopped in a bus to the Muslim slum, and upon arrival plopped on his couch to instantaneous unconsciousness.

I awoke 4 hours later though it only seemed minutes. "Collins, hello. My family is here to meet you." I turned, still slightly groggy, to find 10 people staring at me. I wouldn't be surprised if they had sat there the whole 4 hours of my slumber, staring at every inch of my sleeping body. They had made lunch for me, and within an hour I was well fed and featured in 40 pictures with each family member individually, as a group, and at every angle.

Later that afternoon, Fazal escorted me to the train station to catch a ride into the downtown area near Colaba. As tracks began to rumble, so did the rampant crowd, pushing and scrambling in front of one another for a position to board the train. "This is it Fazal! Allah haffiz! We will meet again, inshallah." "Yes, Collins, Inshallah." The train came to a stop, and without any movement of my own feet, I was swept onto the train by the frantic crowd.

There's something beautiful about an emergence into a new level of peace and patience, that being the greater understanding of what brings one a feeling of happiness and love. Especially in India, where at any moment a terrible situation could bloom elation from the kindness of an Indian heart. This I have learned, and this I share with you as Gregory David Roberts, Fazal, and the people of Dharavi have all shared with me.