Sunday 7 October 2018

Mumbai stories - 2 The Lives Of Others

One of the great things about travel is the opportunity it offers to meet and hear the stories of people whose lives are different to our own. During my recent time in India I met many people who were happy to give me a little of their time, to tell me about themselves and who in turn wanted to know about me. Several times I was struck by people's attitudes to their lives, accepting what had been dealt to them and displaying a generous heart to a stranger who they are unlikely to meet again. I was to witness this approach to life throughout my visit but perhaps no more so than in a few days I spent in the streets and bazaars of Mumbai, often thought of as one of India's most modern cities but which still has many neighbourhoods in which the old India can still be found.

Samuel, Gates of Mercy Synagogue "I am happy here"
Masjid Bunder is one such place. Mumbai is home to the last numerically significant Jewish community of India. About 3,000 Jews remain in a city of more than 20 million people. There are still a number of working houses of prayer but attendance dwindles as the community becomes smaller. The Gates of Mercy synagogue is tucked away behind a wall in Masjid Bunder. Masjid generally means mosque but was also the local term for synagogue. Bunder means port. I was welcomed to the building by the keeper, former print worker Samuel aged 72. He told me a little about the history of the building and invited me to light a candle whilst he said a blessing. He said that there are no longer enough congregants for a daily minyan (prayers) but that he receives many visitors from overseas as well as from community members. He went on to explain that although he might be better off in Israel where several of his friends and relatives now live, he is too attached to his neighbourhood to leave. "When I close the doors of the synagogue I know I will meet friends in the street and we will stop to talk for a while. I would miss that. I am happy here".

Water carrier
Outside the chai shop
Still in Masjid Bunder, a short walk from the synagogue there is a street in which all day long porters carry water from a well to local restaurants and temples. It is easy to identify these workers. They carry large metal jugs and trail backwards and forwards to the well possibly hundreds of times during their working day. Although water is available inside the buildings, temples prefer water from the well for rituals and ceremonies and some of the businesses may only have access to running water for a limited number of hours each day. There is also an excellent chai shop in this street and as I waited for my drink I was able to watch the continuous procession of water carriers as well as to exchange a few words with some of them as they took a short break for chai. Some sat in groups, others alone, seemingly lost in thought. One man with startlingly white hair. He is pictured above. His fatigue is obvious and his hair colour and white stubble make him appear older than he may be, but his eyes shine and his face carries a hint of a smile. 

It was whilst drinking my chai that I noticed Manjula. A tiny woman with vivid hennaed hair, she smiled and stopped to talk. She carried a heavy bag full of snacks that she had made to sell from door to door. Looking tired and older than her 62 years she told me that her son had some problems that made it difficult for him to work and so she tries to make a little money in order to get by. She had hennaed her hair a few weeks earlier so that she would look her best at a relative's wedding, She smiled at the memory of that happy day. I wanted to buy a chai for her or to purchase some of the snacks. She refused saying that she believes her life is difficult because of something she did in a previous incarnation. She does not wish to build up debts for a future life and believes that if she makes amends now things will be better next time. She shed a tear whilst talking and my guide hugged her calling her aunty. And off she went. The lives of others.

Manjula offered to share an apple with me. She was not the only person to display such generosity that morning. An older man sitting amongst a group of porters said that he was looking for a job. Also a porter he explained that he gets less work now than when he was younger and asked if I knew of anywhere he could find permanent employment. He said that he would even come to London with me if I could find work for him. Despite this, he wanted to buy tea for me, an offer I had to decline.

Porter in Masjid Bunder
The Bhendi Bazaar is a sprawling market in South Mumbai. It is said that its name originates from colonial times when the British referred to it as behind the bazaar in reference to its close proximity to Crawford Market. Residents of the area are primarily Muslim although the traders are drawn from various faiths. Shoppers can buy meat, fruit, vegetables and spices here as well as household goods and the services of various repairers. 

Suleiman is 72 years old. He was born in Zanzibar into a Gujarati family that had lived there for a couple of generations. They were forced to leave in the 1970's when many Asian families were expelled from East Africa. He works in one of the narrow lanes of the bazaar and keeps the tools of his trade in a cupboard that he unlocks every morning. He was repairing an iron when I met him but he told me I can repair anything. Like Manjula he said that he accepts what life has given him and is thankful for the good things. Before we parted he asked me to come and see him again. I would like that.

Just around the corner from Suleiman's stall there are several small restaurants and food stalls selling meat based dishes. The meat is prepared from early morning in massive cooking pots and then served in the evening when the area is flooded with hungry locals. One stall was operated by a man called Mehmood. He said he was cooking beef which in India means buffalo since it is forbidden to kill and eat cows. I told him I am a vegetarian. I was not sure he believed me as this seemed to provoke some mirth and a cry of take my picture I'm famous, I've been on television and in the newspaper. So I did.

Suleiman "I can repair anything"
Mehmood "take my picture, I'm famous"
Opposite Mehmood's stall there are several small shops selling a range of foodstuffs. Luckily for me, the wooden doors of one shop had been pulled closed to display a brightly coloured advertisement for surma, a cosmetic worn around the eyes and which many people believe protects the wearer from the evil eye. It is also known as kohl. I could not resist this stunning backdrop particularly when the papaya vendor sitting in front of it signalled his agreement to be photographed.

The Pydhonie neighbourhood is close to the Bhendi bazaar, on the opposite side of traffic clogged Mohammed Ali Road. The name is derived from two Marathi words - py meaning feet and dhonie, which means to wash.  When the city was still a collection of islands, a small creek would form here at high tide which may explain the how the name came about. It was in Pydhonie that I met Mr. Shah. A Jain businessman, he has an ayuverdic medicine shop, established more than 60 years ago. I noticed his friendly smile and crisp orange shirt whilst he was serving a steady stream of customers, who were requesting his advice before making purchases. During a short lull in trade he  sent one of his workers to buy tea for me, explaining that he wanted me to go away with good memories of our encounter so that he will not have bad karma for having neglected me. Respect for and reverence of guests is strongly ingrained in Indian culture. It is even codified in Hindu scripture as well as being observed by other communities.

Mr. Shah's is one of several ayuverdic medicine shops in Pydhonie. Mohanbhai is one of his close neighbours. Aged 62, he explained that his family originally came from Karachi, but left during partition, going first to Gujarat before eventually settling in Mumbai and opening the business. This is a place where everyone has a story.

Papaya seller and Surma advertisement
Mr. Shah and his ayuverdic medicine shop
Mumbai is a city that wakes up early. Thousands of people begin work in the early hours of the morning, many of them coming in by train from surrounding towns and villages, beginning their journey the night before. These include the people who work at the city's flower market which operates 24 hours a day and includes less formal traders in addition to those that have shops. Whilst walking through the market I noticed several small groups sitting together, selling cut flowers, marigolds and jasmine. Several of these people live outside of Mumbai and at first were a little shy about being photographed. To my surprise, one of the slightly older women, sitting alone, indicated to my guide that she would like me to take her picture. This seemed to smooth the way with some of the neighbouring vendors and I soon had a number of willing participants.

The flower seller who asked to be photographed
...and one of those who followed her
The flower sellers are not the only people out early in Mumbai. Across the road from the Chhatrapati Shivaji station, dozens of men sit sorting the day's newspapers for delivery to shops, offices and homes. Many of the sorters are unable to read and write yet are still able to sort the papers into seven different languages without making mistakes. Some of them work independently whilst others work with groups of friends or family like the man pictured below who works with his two sons. Some of the sorters work on the road whilst others work underneath the canopies of shops and stores that will open in a few hours' time. It is also possible to see people sleeping between the piles of papers and the sorters. Some may be the families of sorters. Others are people who have nowhere else to live. 

Mumbai offers many visual delights. I love the colours of this city - the brilliant combinations and hundreds of shades of green, red, blue and yellow that feature on the city's buildings and act as a backdrop to the activities of its residents and visitors. It can also be a city of visual shocks. Mumbaikers consume thousands of chickens every day. They are delivered to various points in the city via trucks from which they are carried to the slaughterer, suspended on rope and wrapped around the necks of the workers transporting them. It is an odd site. From a distance the chickens look like a strange garment wrapped around the waist of the porter. The fowl are strangely quiet, perhaps aware of their fate. One of the porters, a young man, stopped, offered me a half smile and allowed me to photograph him. I was surprised to learn that visitors may enter the abattoir and to witness the slaughter. I decided against it, preferring instead to press on to the flower market. 

Newspaper sorter near Chhatrapati Shivaji station
The chicken man
You can see more pictures from India here

You might also like Mumbai Stories 1 - The Koli of Worli Village

Thank you to Ranjana Jain who led me through Masjid Bunder, Bhendi Bazaar and Pydhonie and who made it possible for me to speak to Manjula, Mr. Shah, Mohanbhai and several others. She can be contacted at

The newspaper sorters and flower sellers can be seen as part of the Mumbai By Dawn tour offered by No Footprints.

1 comment:

  1. A tour day well told. Thank you for introducing so many persons and their lives to us. Some of them are still stuck in our minds. Like the young man who posed proudly for you with chickens hanging around his waist. An interesting portrait at work.