Passage to India – Monday – Mumbai & South

Landing in Mumbai, the airport (this time) seems like any other. What hits you as you emerge is the oppressive warm blanket of of heat, the crazy chaos of cars and the unrelenting politeness. Suitcases are whisked into cars, doors are opened, and deference is dispensed, with no fuss, no sulkiness and no attitude; other than a desire to serve and be of service.

I have written in previous blogs about the whole Indian deference issue – and the line which crosses from service into servitude. Suffice to say that today I have witnessed only the good side, from hotel receptionists to drivers, from potential business partners to saluting security guards. It is the Indian ambition to do a good job well, to protect your name and family honour and to bring about your own advancement in the next life. I read all about that on the plane …

So I was greeted in Mumbai by my colleague – and his driver – and we scooted quickly around the city. A complete rag bag of poverty and wealth, rubbing shoulders with no sign of discomfort. We saw both the Slumdog Millionaire slums and the Bollywood mansions by the sea.Teh film industry has a lot to answer for at bothe ends of the scale.

We witnessed ramshackled hives of industry alongside tall concrete financial institutions. Honest industrious shopkeepers and a large concrete hospital where the trustees have allegedly been stealing the money. There is no welfare state here. Employment is high – most people can get a job at some level, even the homeless. And at the risk of turning into a Daily Mail columnist (you have my permission to shoot me if I do) one can see that with no other options, people will take any work going, however menial. We had a look at the sea, the reclaimed areas, the flooded areas, the river, the elevated walkways built to provide an escape route. Mumbai has quite an ambivalent relationship with water.

Lunch was at a lovely tastefully decorated hotel, with everything in marble or cane, delicious real Indian food (not the western baby-food equivalent) and a central water feature which looked like a shower for a person 6 stories tall. You should have seen the soap dish.

Then arriving at the wrong airport for our transfer to Trivandrum (typical Indian administrative mix up), we dashed back across to the right airport, my Indian colleague’s perfect record for travel arrangements looking decidedly shaky. But not as shaky as our car hurtling dementedly over the bumpy roads. In the UK these bumps would have been classified as traffic calming features.

We made it onto the plane – all memories of business class banished as we mixed it with the budget airline travellers of Air India. Despite setting off 45 minutes late we arrived on time – having flown down the left-hand coast of India to the southern tip. Next point due south is Antartica.

Here it was even hotter and very tropical. Palm trees and rain forest vegetation edged the roads. We were met by our prospective business partners, keen to make a good impression and dropped into the air conditioned car like warm slabs of cheese into a cold fridge. Suitably chilled we were greeted at our plush hotel with necklaces of shells, coconuts with a straw (memories of free school milk) and comfy chairs whilst the nice unrelentingly polite lady helped us to fill in a form. I was booked in as Mr David, which I quite liked. I may drop the Bottomley – I’m not sure it adds much. And I may adopt that name at work, in the vain hope of getting some respect.

My spacious room overlooks the sea – unfortunately it was dark when we arrived, so I could only really hear it, with a flash of white as the waves break on the shore. Yet another glorious Indian hotel room – but no real point in unpacking or settling in, as tomorrow evening is another jaunt, back through Bangalore and up to Pune. We had dinner round the pool, serenaded by an Indian in multicoloured ceremonial costume making a range of sounds approximating to music. And all perfectly reflected in the still pool. A night for reflection indeed.

India is saturated in history and tradition and culture – and all the better for it. We give things up too easilly in the west with our craving for change and modernisation, as if such things are de facto to be welcomed. I felt incongruous checking my blackberry for emails. Even having a camera seemed rather indecently western.

Later I took a warm walk down to the beach – to hear and smell the waves. Somehow managing to deny my life-long snake phobia, feeling altogether rather peaceful amongst the peaceful Indians.

There has been a ban on selling or serving alcohol down here on account of the local elections. Some said this was to ensure people vote in a sober frame of mind, others said to quash any outlandish celebrations. Either way, it was pleasant to sip fresh fruit juice and aromatic water. Although – is that a Corona I see in the mini-bar? Some things are the same all over the world, thankfully.

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