September 26, 2008 – Elephanta and leaving India
I awoke on Friday morning with a vision for a very long last day in India. I had asked my driver to pick me up at 11, so that I could sleep in, get packed and enjoy breakfast before checking out of the hotel and heading out for a last sightseeing adventure with Selvam the Reticent. After another delicious breakfast, which included a spicy treat called “chilly idli” (I think they meant “chile”), I met Selvam out at the car and began the long journey down toward Mumbai Harbour. I wasn’t really in the mood to make pained small talk with him, so I sat quietly in the back and made notes about my trip in my notebook (I’ll post those shortly).
As we were stuck in traffic near the Haij Ali Durgha, a breathtaking mosque that appears to float on the water, Selvam’s phone rang. He answered, then handed it to me. It was Gurunath, who works in my client’s Mumbai office. He just wanted to make sure I was ok and see if I needed anything. When I told him that I was planning to go to Elephanta Island, he asked if I’d like some company.
“If you’d like to come, I’d love to have you come along,” I said.
“I’ll meet you at the launch,” he replied.
When we finally reached the Colaba area, Selvam pulled up in front of a different shop and again told me that he could park for free if I popped into the shop for a few minutes. I told him I didn’t want to do that, but complied anyway. Once inside the shop, I immediately regretted it. They had absolutely beautiful stuff, and the salesman was very congenial, but I was just tired of dealing with salesmen. However, he pulled out something that I hadn’t yet seen – some painstakingly crafted and painted enamel elephants. They were tiny, but beautifully detailed. I was captivated by them, but tried not to show it.
“How much are they?” I asked.
“4000 rupees,” the salesman responded with a sphinx-like expression on his face. I laughed out loud.
“4000 rupees?” I asked, incredulous.
“How much would you like to spend?” he asked, ever the enigma. I told him that I would think about it, but that I was late to meet a friend. As I hurried out of his shop, he followed me, still asking how much I’d like to pay. I could still hear him talking to me as I stepped onto the street and wove aggressively through traffic, a skill I’d picked up by then.
I got down to the boat launch and saw no sign of Guru among the hucksters and tourists. Not wanting to miss him, and knowing that he was a man of his word, I finally decided to suck up the $2-per-minute charge and call him on my cell phone, and good thing. Guru was waiting for me at the kiosk where one buys tickets for the Elephanta Island ferries, about a block away from where I was. I quickly found him, we bought our tickets (he insisted on paying), and headed back to the launch, where men were hustling people onto the next ferry. By this time, it was after 1 p.m.
Of course, few things (other than the trains, I’m told) run on a strict timetable in India, so Guru and I sat on the deck of the ferry for nearly 30 minutes before it finally pulled away from the dock and began its 10-kilometer journey out to Elephanta Island. The ferry ride was beautiful, giving perspective on how the Gateway of India was meant to be seen (from the sea) and affording glimpses of Mumbai’s skyline that many tourists and residents never see. In fact, Guru had lived most of his life in Mumbai and never ventured out into the harbour. The journey took about an hour, enough time for Guru – famously economical in his speech – and I to get to know each other a bit better. Unfortunately, we had to struggle to be heard at times because a young man sitting across from us kept playing contemporary Indian pop music loudly on his cell phone.
When we finally arrived at Elephanta Island, Mumbai was no longer visible on the horizon. The ferry pulled up to a long jetty and we scurried off. We chose walking the jetty over the narrow gauge train that runs about a quarter mile. As we walked, we were approached by various hucksters, trying to sell books about the island or their services as guides. When we reached the end of the jetty, we were surprised to find another ticket window, charging a few rupees to continue on. Guru paid (he paid for everything) and we proceeded up a seemingly interminable flight of stairs that led us deeper into the jungle.
Lining both sides of the stairs were vendors hawking all manner of souvenirs and goods, from beautiful jewelry and ornate sculptures to tacky t-shirts and embarrassing geegaws. As we panted our way up the stairs – Guru and I are both in good shape, but were winded long before the stairs came to an end – I thought about the temples to Shiva that we were about to see, and a sentence kept repeating through my head: “I came for Shiva, not for shopping.”
When we finally reached the end of the cramp-inducing stairs, we were greeted by more vendors, this time selling palanquin rides up the trail to the cave temples themselves. We were also welcomed to the island proper by a posse of wild monkeys. This is the first time in my life that I have seen monkeys running around, loose and free to indulge their every whim. To be honest, I was both frightened and fascinated. But this was nothing compared to the awe and amazement I experienced when we spotted the main temple.
As near (or as far) as anyone can tell, the cave temples of Elephanta Island (named by the Portuguese for a crumbling elephant statue they found there) were dug out of the island’s basalt and granite hills during the 7th Century C.E. They’re scale and solemnity is positively breathtaking. Not only are the caves themselves impressive, but the pillars and larger-than-life sculptures of Hindu gods are, in the purest sense of the world, incredible. One can only imagine, given the limited tools available and the shorter lifespan of people at the time, that it must have taken entire lifetimes for the creators to complete this stunningly holy and wholly man-made wonder.
As we strolled through the various chambers – all the while dodging bats, monkeys and gigantic puddles – I couldn’t believe that Guru, a lifelong Mumbai resident and Hindu, had never been to this magical place, and neither could he. For him, it was an even more spiritual and meaningful experience than it was for me. He kept thanking me and telling me that I’d made his day by bringing him along. He’s such a sincere and earnest guy. I was delighted to have someone with me who could appreciate the experience as much as I did.
We climbed up above the temples, following a steep trail that led to Cannon Hill, a place high atop the island where a gigantic cannon rests. I don’t really know the story, and we didn’t make it because we were both worn out from the endless stairs. We paused for a breath near a vendor of cold drinks. As we stood and decided whether to keep climbing or to head back down, we watched an Indian woman purchase a cold juice from the vendor. The moment the plastic bottle was in her hand, a monkey pounced on her, grabbed the bottle, and scurried away. Her startled scream was still echoing as the monkey sunk his teeth into the bottom of the bottle and began greedily sucking out the sweet, cold liquid. At no point did the monkey have any interest in harming the woman. In fact, I just imagined that he (or she – but doesn’t a monkey always seem like a he?) stakes out that same juice stand every day and takes advantage of unsuspecting tourists.
Not surprisingly, Guru and I decided that we’d rather start descending. After the transcendent beauty of the cave temples, the prospect of climbing higher to see something as terrestrial and mundane as a cannon was rather uninspiring, so we walked back down to the ferry and began the long, soothing sail back to Mumbai. On the way, Guru spoke with Rahul and arranged to have him meet us back at my hotel. Upon arriving back in the city, however, we first strolled over to Delhi Darbar for a bit of a snack, in anticipation of a very long rush-hour journey back to the northern part of the city. We enjoyed chicken samosas and a spicy, Chinese-style chicken-and-chile dish. Well, they call it Chinese, but it’s definitely an Indian take on what Chinese cuisine might be like. Either way, delicious.
Once we were done with our snack, Selvam met us out in front of the restaurant and we began the long, slow crawl to the north. By the time we reached the hotel, Rahul was already there waiting for us. We bid a final, unceremonious adieu to Selvam, loaded my luggage into the back of Rahul’s car, and set off in search of dinner. Yes, we were ready to eat again. We went to a beautiful Juhu restaurant called On Toes (I have no idea why it’s called that) and ate several courses of Rahul’s choosing. After I told Rahul that I never eat any animal that lives in the water because it tastes like poison to me, he insisted that I try tandoori-style pomfret. I’m always willing to try, and it turned out this was actually remarkably good. For the most part, it tastes like tandoori spices, and it didn’t taste like poison (or poisson) at all. I was amazed, and he was pleased.
We still had some time before I needed to get to the airport, so Rahul drove us over to a nearby roadside paan stall, where men were rolling various tasty, digestive fillings into betel leaves. It’s quite common to eat these after meals in India, to freshen the breath and ensure proper digestion of the food. The men were seated on the ground with a shared work surface in front of them, and the walls around them were covered in jars of various unidentified substances. Rahul gave very specific orders to the guy who appeared to be in charge. In a few minutes, we each held a conical leaf, filled with, well, I really have no idea. We popped the packets into our mouths all at once and chewed. I was a bit squeamish about it, especially because I hadn’t eaten any food from a street stall in my entire visit and didn’t want to get sick during my 27-hour trip back to the States. However, it was absolutely delicious, freshened my breath, and left my gut feeling perfectly healthy. In some ways, it was the perfect last moment with my friends in India.
As Rahul dropped me off at the airport at 11 p.m., there were throngs of people in the departures area, apparently bidding farewell to some revered religious leader. I had to push my way through the crowds with my bag. When I neared a doorway, a man with a badge around his neck asked if I was traveling business class. I told him yes, though it wasn’t quite true, and he led me past the waiting crowds and directly to the guard who was checking tickets and passports at the door. He ushered me through quickly and, once we were in the terminal, told me we needed to tip the guy at the door for expediting. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a 100-rupee bill. “200,” the man said. I was now beginning to doubt his value to me and told him that was all I had, though it wasn’t true. He brusquely shoved the bill into his own pocket and led me to the check-in area for my airline. Yeah, I pretty much gave away 100 rupees. This also seemed fitting for my final few hours in India.
I got through security with relative ease and had hours before my plane departed, so I browsed through the airport shops, flirted with sales clerks and drank coffee from tiny cups, trying to remember what it all felt like. The airport was teeming with people, even though it was after two in the morning when my fully-booked plane to London finally departed. Crowded, like everywhere else I’d been in India.