I step out of the air-conditioned office. The Bombay air hits me. It’s heavy and damp. I’m ushered in to the cab and we pull out of the driveway. We bounce around as the car lurches, stopping suddenly to avoid pot holes, rickshaws and people. I’m traveling with two colleague’s, Lalit and Ramin, both from Mumbai. Lalit tells me it will take one hour to “reach”.
It’s a dark afternoon as dense black clouds hang heavy threatening to dump monsoon rains onto the surrounding tin roofs. I stare out the window from the flyover at the slum that lies beneath. Small brick shacks with improvised roofs sprawl out across the city. Most are covered in bright blue tarpaulins in a desperate attempt to defend them against the monsoon rains. Small walkways zigzag throughout the slum, slicing it in to messy uneven pieces as street vendors sit on the wet footpath selling everything from shoes and jewellery to fruit, toys and other random items.
The car picks up speed and we lift off the seat as we fly over a rise in the road. The driver beeps the horn as we weave between trucks with no respect for lane discipline. We are heading to Dadar West, a heavily populated market area near the heart of residential Mumbai. I want to buy a lens for my camera and Lalit has found a camera store that has the lens in stock. Lalit sits next to me, his phone rings every few minutes and he answers with “hullo?” before breaking in to Hindi interspersed with English. I pick up key words and can follow most of the conversation. He hangs up and begins to hum a tune to himself. An enchanting Indian tune hummed in perfect pitch resonates throughout the car and provides the perfect soundtrack to the surrounding scenery.
Lalit tells me we will reach in five minutes. Not long after we exit from the flyover and continue down smaller residential streets. The streets are heavily crowded. Outside is a buzz of activity. I stare out the window at the chaos beyond the air-conditioned car. I expected to be taken to a shopping mall, but now find myself in what appears like a very local market. It starts to rain as I step out of the car. Again the air hits me as large drops of monsoon rain fall on my head. I look around the street and all of a sudden I do not feel well at all. I jump as someone honks behind me, before a motorbike passes me with inches to spare. There are so many people around me I didn’t even realise I was standing on a road.
I begin to feel very dizzy as I look around trying to take everything in. Something doesn’t feel right. I begin to panic. I’ve gotten sick twice in India before. However this feels different. I’m overwhelmed. My vision changes and begins to darken around the edges and I wonder if I might faint. I’ve never fainted before so I don’t know if this is what it feels like. Lalit turns to me and says “come, we’ll go”. I follow him as we make our way through the mass of people on their way home. I try to calm myself down and walk slowly. My head feels heavy, like there is pressure inside. I feel as if the Bombay air has got inside my head. We turn a corner and I glance up. I see a tall old English colonial building that stands at the end of the narrow street we are on it looks, different. It seems vivid, moody and dark. It’s as if I can ‘feel’ the building. There is a mess of people, cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, cows and street vendors. The scene is too much to take in. I glance up again at the buildings and the giant tops seem to lean in on each other, as if in response to my awareness, creating a dome above me… I begin to feel worse… What is happening? I have been to India twice before and been overwhelmed many many times by the flurry of people, colour, sounds and smells, but never have I felt like this.
We enter the camera store. The “AC” is cool. The staff stare at me as I walk in. It’s a tiny shop, no more than 2 meters wide with high shelves and many draws lining the walls. The shelves are packed with cameras, lenses and other accessories. I lean on the counter and try to calm myself. I try to slow my breathing and calm my nerves. I then remember that I have Valium in my bag. I don’t like flying so the doctor gave it to me before I left. I place my bag on the small glass counter and try to discreetly reach in to the front pocket for the bottle. I feel it and manage to unscrew the lid with one hand. I pull out a small tablet and place it in my mouth. I’m embarrassed by this and try to make it look like a mint as I throw it in my mouth and begin to chew. The tablet dissolves into a pasty consistency as I try to swallow it down. I’m desperate. The salesman comes over and Ramin asks for the lens I want. The guy wobbles his head sideways. I’m still not sure if this means yes or no until I see him reach in to a glass cabinet and pull out the lens. He places it on the glass counter and says “2 year warranty”. The salesman walks back to the cupboard the lens came from and closes it. It slams shut with a loud bang and I jump like a school girl. I look at Lalit and Ramin to gauge their reaction and see if they saw me over react to this situation, however they are chatting between themselves in Hindi and haven’t been watching.
I want to leave so I don’t say much, but just hand over my credit card. The salesman then leaves to get me my “bill”. We wait some time for this and the Valium begins to take effect. I don’t feel as panicked now but still feel not quite right. The pressure is still in my head and I just want to leave. I glance outside beyond the small door of the shop and see the surge of bodies passing in the street. I panic again and wonder how I’ll feel once I step back on the hot dusty street from this tiny AC oasis.
I place the lens in my backpack. Ramin pushes the door open, turns to me, smiles and says “no rain”. The rain has stopped by the sky is still dark. Steam rises from brown puddles on the ground. We walk back to the main street. This place has a strange feel. I begin to wish that I hadn’t decided to go shopping. I think of the hotel in my mind with it’s cool air-conditioned foyer, smell of sweet fragrant oils and enchanting hangings and music drifting through in to the dining hall. How I wish I was there now. Lalit stops at one of the street vendors. He joins a long queue, turns to me and says “you have to try this”. This is a phrase I’ve heard many times on my trip and to be honest I’m really not in the mood to try another Indian sweet. Everywhere we go I stand on hot street corners, trying to blend in as Lalit, Ramin or someone else queues to get me a snack. I always smile politely as I grab the sticky rice with my hands, pinching it with my three fingers and thumb like I’ve been shown, before reluctantly placing it in my mouth. Not today. I want to leave.
Finally we make it back to the main street and I see the cab on the side of the road waiting for us. I begin to relax as soon as I see the car. As soon as I know we can leave, I feel better. Ramin stops on the corner and lights up a cigarette, Lalit winces at him and shouts “nay”. I say “it’s ok, finish your cigarette” we are standing beside the cab now so I feel ok. Over the road is a bus stop, crowded with people waiting to jump on the moving buses as they slow down but not stop. People hang out the sides, grabbing on as they lurch in to motion, other people jump off ‘alighting’ from the moving bus as they awkwardly shuffle, and stumble still carrying the vehicles momentum with them.
Ramin points next to the bus stop and says
“there’s a place… Over there, where they feed birds”
I smile and say “oh.”
Ramin smiles back and says “you want to go to that place?”
I really just want to leave. I smile awkwardly at Ramin not knowing what to say.
“they feed birds?” I say, trying not to answer the question.
Again he says “you want to go?”
I say “no, thats ok ”
Ramin throws his cigarette in to one of the muddy puddles and I’m ushered back into he cab. Lalit sits next to me on the back seat. He leans forward to the driver and shouts “phoenix la” (the name of a mall we’re now going to) gesturing in a forward motion.
We lurch off in to the medley of movement and slowly weave our way down the street. I look out the window at the bus stop and the place where they ‘feed birds’. I stare at the street vendors sitting in the dirty gutters with their plastic sheets sprawled out in front of them upon which they sell their merchandise. In between parked cars they sit, trying to get the attention of passing people to sell their wares. Finally the traffic moves again and within ten minutes we reach a large modern shopping mall, very different to the surge of bodies, sweat, sweets and rickshaws of Dada West. We enter a large car park and make our way down a windy roadway before we are ushered in to a parking spot by an attendant with a loud whistle who blows with unnecessary vigour.
We enter the mall and it’s cool, fresh, modern and seems familiar. I’m relaxed now. I no longer feel any of the previous anxiety. The pressure and Bombay air in my head has been replaced by the AC of this giant mall as well dressed locals make their way through the brand name shops. Lacoste, Adidas, Reebok, Armani form a strip which is obviously the expensive level of the mall.
Ramin turns to me and asks if I want to go to a ‘Sports Bar’. In my time here I’ve learnt that any bar with a TV in India is classified as a sports bar. Usually filled with waiters in smart yet odd uniforms trying to replicate the plastic exuberance of American diners, but in turn creating a very different experience that can only be had in India. This bar is called ‘Manchester’. It’s filled with soccer memorabilia as soccer balls and jerseys hang from the roof. There are 3 giant TV screens and all of them are showing cricket. We sit at a table and order our two for one happy hour beers, as two waiters usher over bowls of snacks for us. I turn to face the giant TV’s when suddenly the picture changes.
All three screens change to red with white scrolling text ‘Breaking News’. The rest is in Hindi so I don’t know what’s going on. I turn to Ramin who has suddenly gone pale. He grabs his phone and begins texting madly. He glances up and says ‘there’s been a bomb blast, three explosions’
‘Really? Where?” I ask. Ramin pauses for a minute then says
‘The place where they feed the birds’ I turn to Lalit who looks uncomfortable. He glances up to me
‘we were just there… It’s ok Ben, we’re safe here’.
Ramin swigs his beer and says
‘No we’re not. This isn’t a safe place’. I begin to panic again. The same feeling of dread and anxiety descends upon me.
‘should we leave?’ I ask.
‘No’ Lalit says ‘we should stay here.’
Ramin tells me there has been three blasts. One in Dadar West, one in Colaba and one in some place I haven’t heard of before. I glance up at the screens. There’s now a map up. I recognize the geography of Mumbai with it’s town centre detached like an island. Animated blasts flash up on the screen indicating the three locations. Ramin tells me people are dead. A car bomb parked at the bus stop where I watched the surge of bodies, where I stood with Ramin why he finished his cigarette, where the street vendors sat in the gutter… A car bomb exploded killing people and injuring many. The small camera store with it’s high walls of shelves and draws, now gone. The bustling streets, now a different type of chaos.
Later I saw pictures of dismembered bloodied body’s strewn over the streets of Dadar West. Twisted metal relics of motorbikes and rickshaws littered the street. I thank God I felt unwell and declined the snack that Lalit wanted to line up for, and declined Ramin’s offer to see where they ‘feed birds’. This experience has taught me that no matter what… ALWAYS follow your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, leave. I’m thankful for whatever it was that made me unwell and heightened my desire to leave that one afternoon on the damp hot, now destroyed streets of Dadar West.