On Tuesday evenings I teach a class on the Navi (Books of the Prophets). This week we covered chapter 9 of Melachim Alef, where King Solomon finishes the inauguration ceremonies for the Temple, and we begin exploring the taxation and enslavement processes through which he funds the construction and operations of the Temple. To contrast the traditional text, I also like to bring in some more contemporary texts. This week we also looked at the concept of hiddur mitzvah, which means to beautify our fulfilling of commandments both aesthetically and within the intention, as well as at the writings of A.D. Gordon, early Zionist thinker, and advocate for Jews getting work done themselves. All very fun.
Since I have to work so late on Tuesdays, I come in a bit later in the mornings, which has been giving me some time to go out and explore the city. I’m getting settled into my life here and finding my routines, which is nice but also means that walking home from work isn’t always the crazy adventure it was when I first got here. Going out (and sometimes getting lost) has been a great way to continue to get to know the city and form my experience here.
I thought I would share some of the fun places I’ve been with you:
First stop was Dhobi Ghat, a large open-air laundry facility. Rows of concrete basins full of washing water are filled with men (and a few women) beating old sheets and scrubbing down work uniforms. The narrow pathways that surround the washing areas are full of the families of the laundry workers, children playing in the soapy residue and filling out the answers to their homework, men getting dressed and brushing their teeth right out in the open, and women crouching over small gas stoves boiling pots of dahl and vegetables. Rows and rows of clotheslines obscure my path as I duck under the clothes drying in the sun. The people are very friendly, and many even encourage me to take their photograph. Despite my guidebook listing this as one of the top sights in Mumbai, I don’t see a single tourist the whole time I’m there.
Next stop was the Haji Ali Mosque. The mosque was built in 1431 to commemorate a wealthy Muslim merchant who gave up all of his belongings to travel to Mecca. It’s a mid-sized white mosque complex, built out into the bay and connected to the mainland by a narrow concrete walkway. Apparently at high tide you can’t cross, and could get stuck on the island. The walkway to the mosque was lined with beggars with graphic amputations on one side, and by vendors with electric scales on the other, who weighed you for a small fee. I was also the only tourist here. As I entered the mausoleum portion of the complex, I covered my hair with a scarf, and left my Israeli backpacker sandals in the pile of rubber flip flops belonging to the locals. The mausoleum itself wasn’t actually all that interesting, but the complex around it was full of Muslim families out on picnics. They had climbed the concrete wall surrounding the complex, and were stretched out on the rocks leading down to the Arabian Sea. Many had brought platters of different curries and vegetables, and were sharing amongst large extended families. There were a surprising number of people there for early on a Tuesday morning. I sat for a while, and made my way back, thankfully not trapped by the tide.
From the Haji Ali, it was a short walk to the Mahalaxmi Temple compound. I had seen the pointed dome of the temple from the seashore near the mosque, but the area around it was so built up I could hardly make out its shape. Stalls selling offerings and incense, smaller temple complexes, and multi-level apartment blocks were crammed together, so that all I could see as I approached was a large staircase and a holding area full of stanchions leading up to several metal detectors. There were several women on the ground near the entrance to the stairs. One offered me a small plastic chip with a number in exchange for my shoes. After a bag check I proceeded through the women’s gate into a lineup of women clutching baskets of coconut shells, loose rice kernels, and colourful flower garlands. The woman in front was holding a newborn baby, and she held it out to the priest, who smeared red powder on the baby’s forehead and sprinkled some oil from a jar. I made my way back down the stairs (barefooted), and reclaimed my shoes from the woman who kept them for me.
The next site I visited was Crawford Market. Built in 1869 by the British the main building is an impending stone structure, and full of packaged and imported jam-and-cracker type products. I made my way past it and spent a good 10 minutes photographing a pack of goats picking rotten banana peels out of a massive pile of garbage that was dumped in the corner. As per usual, I was the only foreigner and the only woman around, and most of the passing vendors pointed and laughed at the silly tourist crouching in the trash to get a good angle of the goat herd. This section of the market was primarily dedicated to wholesale fruits and vegetables. One vendor would have hundreds of pineapples, the next one had hundreds of custard apples, and so on. Other vendors would come through, buy a selection, and re-sell them in other markets across the city. A man approached me and tried to lure me away to his spice shop. I ignored him and continued on with the wholesale fruits. He followed me to the alley that backs onto the chicken shops, and seemed less than impressed that I hung around in the stench photographing the piles of assorted chicken parts for 20 minutes. The men made a show of it, holding chicken bodies up to their mouths and pretending to eat them, and slitting the chicken’s throats in a way that I could get a good view. Some chicken blood splashed onto my sandals. Good thing I wore my Tevas and not my Birkenstocks.
The next area was the wholesale fish market. Most places in Mumbai are crazy and exciting and busy but this place was truly overwhelming. A constant stream of people were making their way up and down a tiny crumbling concrete stairwell. I managed to shove myself in between fishmongers balancing massive baskets of frozen fish on their heads. Inside was a warehouse lined with endless makeshift stalls set up on the ground, huge piles of frozen fish lying straight on the muddy tile. People were rushing up and down every aisle, and between the commotion and the piles of fish everywhere, I found it quite difficult to find places to stand and take it in. Down another crumbling concrete staircase was the retail (if you can call fish retail) fish market. Here the vendors were all women, as opposed to the market upstairs which was all men. The women sat on the counters with the fish they were selling, their bare feet covered in blood and fish juice. Here people were buying small amounts of shrimps and other fish, which the women cut up with their machetes. Unlike the upstairs market, which smelled surprisingly alright for a fish market, this room had a fishy feel to it so I made my way back across the street to the meat area. Hindus consider the cow to be a sacred animal, a giver of life, and in many provinces in India the slaughter of cows is illegal. So I asked one of the vendors what animals these were if they weren’t cows, and he said they were buffalos. I asked him if they do the actual slaughtering of the buffalos here, but he said it’s done in a slaughterhouse north of the city. In search of a nice place to wash the market fluid off of my feet, I headed back to the train.
Which brings us to this past Tuesday. I took the train to Charni Road (a whole 10 rupees) and had a nice stroll around Girgaum Chowpatty, one of the main beaches in the city. Early on a Tuesday morning it was filled with school boys stopping on their way to class, and several young couples enjoying the view. This beach was considerably cleaner than many of the beaches I’ve experienced here, but still quite different than what I’m used to in Vancouver. My beach stroll turned into a sweaty uphill trek as the sun rose and I headed up to Malabar Hill, one of the more upscale neighbourhoods in the city. I walked all the way up to the Residence of the Private Secretary to the Governor of Maharashtra (the province that Mumbai is in), and then turned down a gravel lane and down a steep staircase to the Banganga Tank. The Banganga Tank is essentially a large rectangular pool of water, filled with a variety of different sized fish. The pool is surrounded by bleacher-like steps on all sides, and as I made my way around I encountered all sorts of remnants from Hindu rituals, interspersed with flocks of geese and diseased kittens. The tank was built in the year 1127, and legend holds that the water comes from a spring created by the Hindu lord Rama’s brother’s arrow which he shot into the ground there. Several priests were leading offering ceremonies on the far side of the pool, alternating between sprinkling holy water and blowing into conch shells. I lingered for a while, and then took to exploring the alleyways and slum complexes surrounding the tank.
It’s nice to be able to explore the city in small chunks, to spend the morning adventuring and then to come to work and have my routine and my clean apartment to come home to. Work is going really well, I’m getting settled into all of my classes and thinking up lots of new ideas to put into action. All in all, everything is great here in Mumbai, and after being here almost one month, I’m excited to see what the next months will bring.