Mumbai Express II: Letters from a Semester in India

Dear Family

Although almost every moment in India is spectacular because of how different it is from the West, during the past two days I have had two particularly experiences that I suspect are unforgettable.

On Sunday afternoon, Kevin, Ben and I went to see the Haji Ali Mosque located on a small rocky island off the cost of Bombay in the Arabian Sea. Walking out to the mosque is a rather remarkable experience since hundreds of Mumbai Muslims are walking to the mosque or returning along the pathway and you are shoulder to shoulder, twenty abreast in each direction as you traverse the walkway. A dozen vendors are set up hawking food and religious artifacts for the first hundred feet.

Beggars dot the rest of way. The mosque is small, white, about the size of one of our house’s floor plan and almost two hundred years old. Overall it’s in rather deplorable conditions, clearly ravaged by the sea air although its triangle turrets lend it a touch of elegance. The walkway out to the mosque is about half a mile long, twenty feet wide and is level concrete on top of huge rocks. At high tide, the path to the mosque is covered, which means that the water level must rise by a good ten to fifteen feet. As you walk out, if you look back you can see the curve of the Mumbai shoreline. Since we went at nightfall, we could see the lights of the city stretched in either direction, nothing like the skyline of a US city since there were no clusters of skyscrapers nearby but still beautiful.

Walking back to the shore was a sobering experience. Young and old, men and women, healthy and disabled and deformed beggars were seated about every five feet on our left. We passed at least 150 beggars. Many stacked their day’s collection nearly in coin piles. Some even seemed to have had astonishingly good days, receiving perhaps four to five hundred rupees, about 9 or 10 dollars. I doubt there are too many prime begging spots in the city that would top those situated by Muslims after they have prayed. One of the beliefs of Islam is that it is generally good to give to beggars although I do not know the specifics.

In truth, poverty permeates every area of Mumbai that I have visited. Around the corner from our hostel, each evening as we return from our excellent meal that cost 5 dollars, about twenty homeless people have bedded down in front of the corner store businesses after they have closed down for the night. Some have a blanket that they lay on. Others just sprawl, children huddled against their mothers on the dusty broken tiles that pass for pavement. I suspect that except in the very best of neighborhoods, it is impossible to walk a couple of blocks without encountering homeless individuals sleeping out in the open. Frequently during the day, you see individuals collapsed sleeping not in some nook but next to a street vendor or in the public right of way on the pavement. I suppose that is because they’d be chased off the pavement in front of individual properties. Despite the innumerable beggars, I am more surprised by how few people ask for anything. Each evening some of the homeless individuals who we pass, just open their eyes and stare up at us without saying anything.

We arrived in Mumbai in good time to observe the city’s most important holiday. For the past ten days, Mumbai Hindu population has celebrated what I can very inadequately describe as the return of Ganesh to the sea. Ganesh is a god of wisdom and good luck and is represented as a man with an Elephant’s head. The holiday is thousands of years old but its current incarnation is recent. In the 1940s, when India was fighting (nonviolently of course) to free itself from the British things were pretty touché after 20,000 Indians were massacred. The British prohibited social and political gatherings. Gandhi, or some other leader, decided that the India resistance would not become violent. Instead, they planned a religious gathering to show their force.

For each of the past ten days, groups of 20 to 100 people have appeared on the street re-enacting the original protest with a representation of Ganesh made of clay and painted beautifully that they have purchased on a cart or flatbed truck. The Ganesh statue is adorned with flowers and incense burns in front of the statue. The group, lead by a small troupe of impromptu musicians with pans and kettledrums walk singing and setting off small noisemaker firecrackers filled with red powder. Each evening, we can hear the drums beating as groups march to the sea to immerse Ganesh.

Yesterday was the culmination of the holiday, a reenactment of the process of expelling the British and claiming glory and self determination for a cause all Indians could agree was just. Hundreds of thousands or more probably, millions of Mumbai residents lined the streets to see the Ganesh groups march to the sea. By two o’clock, there was little traffic on the roads as pedestrians took over the city. The National Guard came out to ensure the procession stays organized. Kevin, Ben, Prashant and I joined the procession that was seemingly never ending. We were as much a part of the spectacle as any Ganesh group. People waived to us and asked Kevin to take their picture with his digital camera. They threw red and blue powder at us from the trucks, probably to hit the Americans, but at the very least they ensured that we had the same religious markings as everyone else on the route.

After walking for an hour, we came to Shivaji beach. We arrived at the early hour of about 7pm before it was completely dark to the smallest of Mumbai’s five beaches. The streets along the way were packed but the beach was literally a sea of humanity. It was fifty-feet wide and perhaps three miles long and contained nothing short of 100,000 people. And the other beaches have even more massive gatherings! You could see the litter and garbage from the city lining the tidal line in between the masses of legs. This was no sanitized beached. Heck, if you thought about it too much before eventually becoming numb, the stench of sewage from the sea was overpowering. On arrival many people walked straight into the sea. Those who were in groups took their Ganesh statues ranging in size from 1 to 10 feet and carried them on to the beach. They did some rituals and then walked out into the bay (even a hundred feet from shore the water was only five feet deep) carrying their Ganeshes before dropping them in the water. The larger Ganesh statutes, those over four feet tall, were walked out to wooden boats to be brought farther out to sea. We stuck around until a few were taken several hundred feet from shore and tilted into the sea. Returning on foot to the hostel, the flatbeds full of Ganesh trailed ahead of us for at least a couple miles. The noise and fireworks raged throughout the city until 3am. The whole experience was so beautiful and so democratic. No priest or holy men could be seen anywhere. People know the traditional songs by heart and they leave home with their Ganeshes whenever they feel like it. In the streets they are having fun and enjoying the festive atmosphere. I can imagine that kids wait all year to stay up late dancing their way to the beach to swim in the sea.

Despite what it may seem, life in Mumbai is pretty tranquil and we are feeling very much at home. Mom, if you could print a copy for Grandmom, that’d be great.

Until next time,


~ by Admin on September 30, 2003.

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