Captain Jack materializes as I’m rubbing sunscreen on my neck. I’m sitting on a concrete ledge in Southern Mumbai on a muggy day in March, when a weather-beaten man sits down next to me. He looks like he has just washed ashore from the rocks below. Shooting me a toothless grin he starts a conversation: “My friends call me Jack. As in Captain Jack.”
His real name is Terence and he does look like a pirate; his body is all stringy limbs, and his long hair needs a bandana. After five minutes of innocuous conversation, he poses a plan. For cash, he will show me around the city. I like the idea − the Shiv Sena, a local nationalist group, has been causing problems, and I feel safer having a local with me. In February, on Valentine’s Day, the Sena accosted a boy who was caught kissing his girlfriend. They kidnapped him and married him off to a donkey in an animalistic protest of western love. Much like my previous trip to this country, the whole thing seems a little contrived.
Three years ago, I saw a different India when I was here on business. Back then I worked for Lehman Brothers, pre-seismic, heading a technology team in New York. I had a couple of guys in Mumbai, and I was one of the first managers to make the trip who didn’t carry a full suitcase of bottled water.
When Wall Street collapsed and I became a casualty of the crisis, I was set free, able to wander about on the rolling hills of my savings. I decided to see the India I hadn’t seen, the one outside the bubble of business travel. I gave up my apartment, booked a one-way ticket to Mumbai, and exchanged my sense of normalcy for Rupees at a rate of 50:1. I didn’t know when I was coming back, just that the economy was floundering, and in New York, so was I.
Terence tells me he specializes in taking people into the underbelly of Mumbai, including Dharvi, the biggest slum in Asia. I cut a deal with him, and we head to the massive slum together by auto-rickshaw. Slums like these don’t come cheap. Mumbai regularly makes the top ten list of the most expensive cities in the world, and a slum can start at $10,000.
As we drive, corrugated shacks start to appear. Exposed electrical wires slant down from the roofs at lazy angles that seem to mirror the lethargy of the country − the hot weather makes every activity a slow-motion movie. The filthy alleys run with what looks like muddy chai, and the smells of human and animal waste quickly burst my olfactory dam.
We get out and duck through narrow passages while Terence volunteers information to me. “No one will beg for your money here, all they want is for you to take a picture”. Sure enough, children are playing, and for the most part leaving us alone. Curtains contain open spaces, front doors into the lives of over half of the Mumbaikers who live in the slums.
As we get back in the rickshaw, Terence points ceremoniously in a different direction. “I’m thirsty, let’s go for a drink.” We drive to a bar named, appropriately, New York, near the ex-pat neighborhood of Mumbai. “I love American music,” Terence proclaims, popping Zeppelin onto the jukebox. He leans back in his chair and continues. “You know, I’m a bit of a sadist.” I nod automatically trying to digest his statement as two attractive Indian women enter. One has dark eyes, and a tattoo of a snake on the back of her neck. Terence leans in. “You know, I’ve seen some stuff that no one should ever have to see. I’ve got blood on my hands.” I lean forward in interest. Like most touts here, I can’t tell where the truth stops and starts.
With every sip of his drink, Terence gets more emotional. “You know how cows are sacred in India? My mother is sacred. My mother carried me for nine months in her stomach.” His gastro-confessional devolves into a tale of a brutal spat, beginning with a maternal insult, and ending with Terence pummeling four men, all witnessed and noted by an Australian tourist in Terence’s book of tour comments. Sure enough, next to “Excellent guide” and “Really knows his Indian history,” there is a “My god, this man is insane. I just saw the battle of a lifetime. Best tour ever!” I put the book down and manage a nervous smile.
Zeppelin is playing again − Terence has put the same song on twice. He excuses himself to the toilet, and I start talking to the two girls. The one with the tattoo asks playfully, “Who’s your friend?” I smile and tell her that he isn’t exactly my friend. Terence scurries back to the table and immediately confronts me.
“Those girls are talking about me aren’t they?” I deny their culpability, and try changing the subject, but Terence isn’t having it. “Gujaratis, those girls are trash!” Mumbai is part of Maharashtra state, while Gujurat is the state directly north, but my hunch is that Terence just has an issue with women.
We leave abruptly, Terence skulking past the girls, who return nasty glares. Back in another rickshaw we make our way to one of the many outdoor electronics stands lining the bazaars. I’ve been trying to get a cell phone for the past week, but with no success. Ever since the terrorist attacks last November, or as the locals refer to it, 26/11, security is extremely tight and getting a cell phone is akin to securing a mortgage. Most electronics shops won’t sell a cell to you unless you can prove you have local residency.
I’m hoping this time will be different − I have documentation from my hotel that shows I’m staying in the city.
“Sorry sir, we are no longer accepting hotel documentation.” The owner rigidly defends a rule that has apparently been ratified overnight. I sigh, and retreat from the shop.
A short white man with droopy blue eyes comes up to me. “I saw you trying to get a phone. I’m returning mine. If you want it, it’s yours for $100.” He unveils a used cell, that doesn’t look much different than the $30 flips back home. He continues. “I’m from Uganda, come here every year for medical work.” He tells me he’s getting his vision corrected by laser for $200 an eye, roughly the same price as the jeans I’m wearing. I jot his contact info on a piece of scrap, and leave him flipping his phone on the corner.
I hop back in the rick, where Terence is waiting. He insists on checking out my camera. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I just ran off with this? You would never be able to find me.” I laugh nervously, wondering when the tour is going to end. We drive through a maze of streets to the Dhobi Ghats, a massive sprawl of shirts, pants, and saris. The Ghats are where most hotels and residences send their clothes to be washed. They have a 99% success rate, which means they hardly lose any clothes. If my technology team had that kind of success rate, I would have had the number one team on Wall Street.
My clothes are being washed at my hotel. They are probably out here somewhere, one shirt among thousands in the middle of Mumbai. I look back at Terence. He is one of fourteen million people trying to make a living here. He hates Gujuratis. He likes American music. In New York, he’d be complaining about the neighbors from Jersey, listening to classic rock, and having issues with women.
We leave and I drop Terence off at his hostel, a $4 per night special that hosts a monster room with twenty other cots. I retreat to my own guesthouse in North Mumbai. I am away from the luxury hotels and the slums, and so is Terence; we are in our own bubbles, rising and falling at opposite ends of the city. A cell phone goes off somewhere in the hotel, and I think of New York for an Indian second before falling asleep.