Arriving back in Mumbai this time feels like the welcome embrace of a dear friend. To start with, there’s Mehtab to meet us at the airport, despite the late hour, and we’re staying with Cindy and Guy, whose flat in Bandra is now more like a museum filled with objets from the Chor Bazaar.
First things first, though: its Ross’s birthday on Saturday, so we take him on a whirlwind tour of Mumbai. First stop the Gateway to India, where we are mobbed by kids all dying to be photographed. We take Guy and Cindy’s Christmas card shot for them (here’s a sneak preview).
While brandishing my iPhone, an annoying German man quips, ‘Ach, I see you don’t like your phone’. Seeing me looking very puzzled, he continues, ‘It will be stolen if you don’t put it away’. Stunned by Mr Busybody all I can muster is Smartass, as loudly as I can. For the record, I have had absolutely no trouble on the streets of Mumbai, despite wandering around the Chor (Thieves) Bazaar with £250 of Rupees in my handbag!
It’s a holiday atmosphere, the weekend sandwiched between Diwali and Muhurram (Hindu and Muslim New Year respectively). The crowds are vibrant and surging, massive balloons pepper the maidan, all manner of children’s toys and trinkets are laid out on the ground, and food stalls are doing a roaring trade. Overcome with all this busy-ness, we repair to the cool bar of the Taj, showing Ross the memorial to the terrorist attack on the way.
But what is this? Big excitement, Prince Charles is also in town and staying right here! Cindy bumps into a mate who’s on the consular staff and he tips us off to a photo opportunity in 20 minutes when HRH leaves the hotel…we are the only people here apart from security, but my photos unfortunately are not that good (the downside of only using an iPhone for this blog!).
No visit is complete without scouring the Chor Bazaar. Our haul includes two heads: a 3-headed Vishnu from Karnataka, ‘600 years old’ – yeah right, Ifram; a serene Buddha from Uttar Pradesh and a lovely bronze bull, cast using the lost-wax technique.
Sunday we become wannabee watchers at the Four Seasons brunch – the Veuve flows freely and we certainly get our money’s worth. Delicious assorted Asian cuisine too.
The highlight of the trip is, undoubtedly, becoming Cindy’s teaching assistant for her weekly session at a charity in the red light district, providing a safe haven and educational stimulus to the daughters of prostitutes. We spend all morning preparing our two sets of activities, one for little ones 6-12; and the other, the over 13s. Cindy has come up with a basic mobile for the younger group, so we cut, colour, stick and decorate our prototypes; and a much more elaborate photo frame, made out of ice lolly sticks, for the older girls.
We arrive in the heart of the brothel area, passing several ladies getting ready for their evening. A woman will be kidnapped or trafficked, held in a half-way house, gang-raped and taught in her job until subservient, and then sold to a brothel in Mumbai, owned by a man but run by a former prostitute. For two years she will not be allowed out, but kept in a cage; later she gets some freedom, by which time she has nowhere to go.
The average age of a working girl in Mumbai is 14; she earns R20 (20p) per John and probably sees 20 a day. She has to pay for everything – bed, food, laundry, water, using the loo…not to mention her purchase fee, so she can never repay and be free. HIV is rife, as is glue sniffing and drug taking. Many have children: birth control would seem an obvious ‘investment’ for the owners of the girls, but it seems that unprotected sex, despite the unwanted results, adds a premium…Interesting that Ifram, the Chor Bazaar shop owner said, ‘You should tell those girls to have safe sex…all this disease is no good’. To which we replied: ‘But it’s the guys who want the unsafe sex….’. He just waggled his head in that very Indian way.
The charity is a tiny two-story room, filled with the sound of piping voices and girlish laughter. Namaste Teeecher! greets us as we arrive. Upstairs we squat on the floor in a room where you can’t even stand up, and the girls crowd around, eagerly grabbing the ‘ones we made earlier,’ while we try and explain what to do. English is rudimentary, but the gist is communicated through other helpers.
Cindy has warned me that all the glitter and sparkles will be in hot demand, and indeed it’s fascinating to see little strips of diamanté bobbles being secreted under toes! Nothing has prepared me for these delightful girls, all clean and brightly dressed, polite until their enthusiasm erupts into avaricious hoarding of crayons and sparkles – a little fight breaks out in one corner, scissors are banned so we have a lot of work to do!
But the overriding take-away is of enthusiasm and attention to detail: the concentration of the colouring in, the precision of choosing the sticker that’s just right, applying the flowers and glitter to the frames, all punctuated by the high-pitched screeching of Teeecher! Teeecher! to get our attention. Every finished item has to be admired and photographed, until honour and pride are satisfied.
As we leave we are accosted by a Nepalese prostitute, with a small Buddha-like baby, shaven-head with a big red bhindi. The Nepalese are at the bottom of the pecking order, and she is off her head: staggering about, exhorting us to take her baby, while smiling beatifically. It’s a sad reminder of the reality of the streets.
Taking photos is frowned on and mine are checked…this is in case the girls can be identified in the schools they attend. The stigma of their origins would put an end to any hopes of betterment. So the majority of the shots make it impossible to identify individual girls and I have kept the charity’s name secret. If anyone wants to donate or volunteer, contact me privately and I will put you in touch.
So the four days pass quickly; Cindy’s street cat – you might remember her from the last blog – Chorty Billie (meaning little cat) has now become a sleek madam; she has been joined by another little chap, Dizzy ‘Rascal’ Thomas, who is equally naughty and has one blue and one green eye!
Mumbai remains an enigma of a city: so much poverty, but so much energy, activity and striving for betterment, even if only to survive the life on the streets. And humour. Where else can you drive past a street vendor twice in 15 minutes and have a conversation in sign language, explaining why you’re going round in circles? It’s a complete juxtaposition to Singapore and a reminder, as we watch the devastation of the Philippines (the island we dived on in August, Malapasqua has been devastated), that SE Asia is a continent of many cultures, faces and diversity.