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Guns only please…

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Mumbai, Bombay, whatever you’d like to call it: The largest city in the world, slums bigger than anything in Asia, 7.2 of the city’s 18 million people live in them, the size of a small nation, 40% of India’s income spread across a tiny section of the population. Bollywood, the stock exchange, the gateway to India immersed in a sea of people, all intricately linked, both rich and poor

How can you come here and not be shocked into disbelief? The contrasts are more than you can take. You wake up in your nice, western hotel, have a light breakfast, some cereal, a cup of coffee and you venture out into the streets. Several doormen try to guide you to a waiting cab, one of half a dozen hoping to make fifty, maybe a hundred rupees double charging you, but you decide to go for a walk. You turn the corner

into a side street off Bombay Hospital. A waft of garbage, that familiar sun-drenched, rain-drenched rotting smell, and then it’s gone, in its stead a whiff from a street cart, fresh dumpling deep fried. The sidewalks are covered with blue plastic attached to the wall, the other side pulled down by ropes, kept in place by heavy stones. Underneath, bodies sleeping, children, half naked stumble out, rubbing the sleep from their eyes, they stare at you

a few blocks further and you’re in the markets of the Fort area, but it’s still too early, it’s a Sunday, it’s only 9 o’clock and the shutters are down, but the market’s not empty, it’s crowded, the sleeping crowd everywhere they fill the sidewalks, men, women, elderly, children, by the dozen, the hundred, some are cooking over a small fire, others line up for the one drain that’s working, washing their clothed bodies, a little while longer and the supply will be shut down for the remainder of the day

you’re at a loss and you jump into a passing taxi, driving north out of this scene as the city wakes up around you, soon the streets are filled with ox-carts, carts pushed by men, pulled by men, overburdened, chugging along in the morning cool, carrying god knows what. The car takes you away from the alleyways, and soon you hit a street, well-paved, a boulevard, palm trees appear, villas protected by 7-feet walls, shopping centers, Adidas, Nike, Reebok, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Baskin Robbins. A Mercedes dealership

you stop in front of a traffic light and they approach, hawkers selling gigantic balloons, fake flowers, bootleg copies of a Thousand Splendid Suns, you ignore them, try waving them away. The light hits green, the car lurches forward, stops again, more people come at you, beggars, a boy carrying a baby in a plastic bag, a man with horrific burns all across his chest, a mother her arms covered in scabs: two rupees, please sir, sir, sir, sir, two rupees, sir, an arm enters the window, a hand touches your face and you roll up the window, and as you do it, you hate this city for making you, but what else can you do

ten minutes later and you get out at a Hindu temple, you take off your shoes, and walk bare-feet up the dusty step, surrounded by a gentle mass of human beings, small bowls of flowers and coconuts in their hands, upstairs they are blessed by the priests, everything is calm and serene, as friendly as a crowd can be. Then as you walk down the stairs a drop falls from the suddenly darkened sky, a minute later it’s as if a huge bucket has been emptied over the city, visibility brought down to a few meters, the rain hammers the ground, drowning out all sound, causing torrents in the streets

you hop back in a car, further north along the coast you go, passing slums, malls, more slums, more malls, it never stops, and all through it the rain keeps coming back, slowly tearing down the buildings, rotting the city as it waits by the sea, and yet mumbai has what only a few cities in the world have, a unique energy that you can’t define, but when you visit the city you feel it and remember it and will want to come back for it, until once again you can take no more

Each year on the second Saturday of August thousands of tourists from all over India flock down to southern Kerala to see gigantic boats, manned by 120+ oarsmen, compete for the Nehru Trophy. It started off as a small competition between villagers, but has developed into a wild celebration full of singing, dancing and drinking.

We found ourself hemmed in between dozens of ships teeming with spectators (almost all male) for a long day of waterside fun. Enjoy the pictures and if you do, you can find lots more on my webalbum.

Villagers rowing their boat to the start

A boat of the largest class turning in the canal

Two helmsmen trying to keep the boat going straight

A sea of houseboats lines the finish

The party begins next door with strangely Gypsy-sounding tunes

A boat sinks during a qualification run

Kids watching the race (and me) from the water

The crowd gets livelier as the day goes by

Highly targeted advertising for the male onlookers

One of the finals

Too much alcohol for this one. He kept trying to take his clothes off, but the medic is restraining him :-)

As soon as the race finished, everyone scrambled

Driving back from Pondichery to Chennai our way was suddenly blocked by a crowd of people surrounding a truck. Our taxi driver slowed down and made his way carefully through the throng, when suddenly in a gap we saw what the people were so excited about.

Two men were pulling the truck with hooks that went into their backs ! They were leaning forwards, putting all their weight into it, their flesh stretched to the point of breaking.


Photo courtesy of PvB

It was a religious ceremony. A proof of spiritual powers by the local guru’s. And the bigger their power, the more donations they will receive.

Some in India believe that these display are only used to swindle the poor out of their money. To prove this these so-called guru-busters perform similar tricks to show no special powers are needed. If you’re interested check out this video of a student subjecting himself to what appears to be pure torture or check out the website of the Indian Science and Rationalists’ Association.

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