Thought we needed to see Pickle again – where else but on my lap?
The past 10 days have been rather depressing, waiting for things to happen. I feel like I’m in a waiting room – for death. Morbid I know but limbo land is no fun. Two weeks for radiotherapy to start and another three months until the first scan, which will indicate whether the cancer has spread. And in trying to maintain a brave and smiling outward face while struggling with inner fears, the bigger things can be put in perspective but it’s the little things that get blown out of proportion and are very upsetting. So if I ever explode at something minor, it’s not that thing that is the problem, it’s the wider challenges I am facing.
On the plus side, I have been doing some nutritious cooking (Tom Yam soup, steamed chicken, fish curry, and now about to go Japanese) and have been to the movies twice (12 Years a Slave and The Railway Man – see what I thought on http://www.vickyatthemovies.net). I also had a moment of inspiration and exchanged my lovely red-hot mini for a slightly newer, automatic mini cooper. But black and not so dashing. Today I drove to the hairdressers at the O2 centre, where I had some good therapy: thank you Joe and Eli! Mani/pedi next week!
The metallic black mini Cooper 1.6
My friend Cindy in Mumbai has sent me a book on yoga for cancer, and I am determined to learn how to meditate and do some simple poses. I think it will help. My physiotherapy – Pilates – is energising and I now have my own wobble board and special exercises to add to my sit-ups and weights. It’s quite hard work though; Tommy was most amused when he took this picture.
On the wobble board!
My mobility is improving daily and the pain is diminishing, so I have almost stopped taking the tramadol and paracetamol, only taking any when I feel pain. But for some reason this week I have been getting exhausted and energy levels are low. My weight seems to be going down and then regaining the 55kgs, whatever I eat. I find this worrying. Of course I am angsting about the impending radiotherapy, and now the little insidious niggle of the histology results and the mental picture of those nasty little cancer cells whizzing round my body. It’s all about keeping my immune system high so I continue with the healthy diet and exercise; I’m sure feeling down doesn’t help though. I am learning it takes (too much?) energy to be upbeat, cheerful and superwoman. My new resolution is not to let anything or anyone annoy me. Challenging!
Two appointments at the Marsden this week to make the cast for the radiotherapy and then to do the scan and make the aligning tattoo marks on my leg. The cast is necessary to keep the leg in place so that the rays can be directed to the exact sites for treatment. I go into the ‘mould room’ and lie on a flat operating table; I feel like a fakir on a bed of nails! Then my leg is elevated but only supported by the ankle, and they heat up a large sheet of plastic in a bain marie, which emerges like a giant gelatine leaf, and which the technicians then press round my leg until it is a snug fit. All sorts of adjustments are made and then a wait for it to harden. Meanwhile my leg is in agony as there is no support for it and of course I have no calf muscles so the quads are in overtime. They make a small spongey cushion to place just above the knee to help, but it’s not terribly effective. Sadly I am not allowed to photograph.
Back the next day for the scan. By the way all these appointments run on time. Another cheery bunch of staff. Back on the bed of nails, but with a large scanning machine and my instrument of torture is fitted. Oh dear, it needs adjusting! I am dreading they may have to re-make it but, no, they can heat it up and stretch it. It is then stuck down by Velcro to the plastic sheet with an outline of my measly leg drawn on it; more Velcro has been attached to hold the mould in place. Simple but clever. But all this fiddling around is taking its toll and my leg feels on fire, and we haven’t even begun the scan. By this time, I am wracking my memory for my yoga breathing (alternate nostrils) and counting and observing my breath to try and make the pain go away. It passes the time at least.
It’s not over yet though, as they have to make a couple of tattoo marks to align the cast. Blob of black ink followed by some scratches – not at all painful, although they have to re-do one of them. At last, it’s all over, 45 minutes later. I’m told that the treatment won’t be as long. I hope not, as I don’t think I could take that pain daily for 6 ½ weeks!
My pin-prick tattoo, with remnants of marking pen
To add insult to my injuries I get ripped off by the cab home; and when I go on the C11 to my physio, no one gives me a seat! Wah!
On a positive note, to counter all this misery, I have booked myself to go to Cyprus for 5 days – air miles in business class – to stay with lovely friends Penny and Mike, who will pamper me and cheer me up. She has been through it all – surgery, radio and chemo – so knows where I’m coming from.
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.
Diwali flowers at Cindy and Guy’s flat
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).
Christmas card for Mr and Mrs Thomas
Posing rather against her will…
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!
Fresh fruit stall at the Bombay Gateway
Bustling crowds at the Gateway
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.
Cindy with her British High Commission deep throat in the Taj foyer
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!).
Aha – here is HRH at last
This is as close as we get – but its pretty close although he dashes past us on the wrong side of the flower arrangement!
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.
Our new three-headed Vishnu
Cindy and her new billy goat friend
Stripping a car down to its component parts in Chor Bazaar
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.
Cindy before we had several bottles of Veuve Cliquot…
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.
Doing our prep…
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.
Cindy getting down to work, kids looking on with rapt attention
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.
I never knew I could still cut and colour…
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!
Photo frames made by the older girls
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.
Very proud little girl
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.
The red light area as we leave our teaching session
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.
Chorty Billie almost too grown up to play with mice..
Master Dizzy Rascal Thomas, check those eyes….
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.
Off to the mosque in Chor Bazaar
The Bell Temple in Bandra
Detail of the bells
Posing kids, they simply love it!
Guy sitting it out at Ifram’s shop…
Old man feeding the goats
Denim/indigo dying shop
Goats will eat anything
Cindy feeding her dogs
Street people receiving a free meal courtesy of benefactors
The middle class take their Sunday morning exercise while the poor wash their clothes
trousers laid out to dry…what commercial business has its stuff washed in THIS water???
Cindy and Ross in the Bollywood Walk of Fame
Ross with a new mentor
Cutting into the biryani – its encased in pastry
unwrapping the perfect biryani
Chorty showing off
A fine cow takes to the centre of the road…
Madame la vache takes centre stage
Queuing up at the vet for DIzzy’s first jabs
we are queuing outside…
Roadside stall with lovely fresh veg – until we saw a dog pee on them!
Master Dizzy nThomas
Ross, Cindy and Guy at Bombay Gateway
A rat in Chor Bazaar – alive! we saw loads of dead ones too
Little and large
The older girls concentrating on their picture frames
Mumbai is certainly a city of contrasts. From the moment I arrived and saw Katherine Boo’s airport slum as described in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, it was impossible to escape all the pavement dwellers and beggars. The wretched of the earth, Frantz Fanon called them. It is heartbreaking to see hundreds of people camping on the streets, cooking, eating, sleeping, playing, and even laughing and joking. And yet a recent survey shows that Mumbai is ranked 6th in the world’s billionaire cities, with 26. Probably the richest of these is Amitabh Bachan or ‘AB’ as he is fondly known, who has built the most expensive tower block in the city – just to live in.
AB’s monster billion dollar apartment dwarfs everything around it
Then there’s the Bollywood aspect. Everyone is star-struck: queues of people mob Shah Ruck Khan’s house (just below where I stayed at Bandra); he is the most popular star in the world – his fans run into billions, as does his fortune!
extras – or starlets? – on set
When we came across a film crew on the sea front, the traffic (including us naturally) stopped to see who was there. ‘Ah that’s Abhay Diol – not a big star yet’ observed driver Mehtab, as we were chased away by officious security guards. I think he meant on Shah Ruck Khan scale as his bio reads as a major success story for a 37 year-old!
the sewer that features in Slumdog Millionaire, running out of Dharavi
My week in Mumbai would not have been complete without a visit to Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia and where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. We went with an NGO Reality Gives (www.realitygives.org), who invest 80% of the fees charged into projects to help women and children in particular, to provide schools, medical advice and care (especially on childbirth, birth control and disease). We are allowed into the slum only because we are with the charity – as a result there is a strict no photo policy although friend Cindy as a three-tour veteran is allowed to take surreptitious shots so long as she doesn’t look through the viewfinder…so some of the photos here are taken from waist height and through pot luck!
Our 19-year-old guide, Deya has his own sad tale: mother desperately ill and he was being laid off the next week, prior to the monsoon. Life is tough in India.
After an early breakfast at Leopold’s, made famous by Shantaram, we met our fellow visitors, a South African couple, the Butcher of Hermanus and his wife, both died-in-the-wool Afrikaners; totally uneducated and therefore interesting they had chosen to come. Many comparisons all day to Khayelitsha…of a rather superficial nature it has to be said.
the dhobi ghats
Our route to the slum took us via the dhobi ghats where the city’s laundry is done by 5000 migrant men in tiny booths, earning $3 a day; and the red light district where we craned our necks for prostitutes, obvious through their fancy clothes and heavily-made-up faces. 9 am is a little early for a working girl, however, and those we did see were camera shy.
We learned that a girl is bought for Rupees 30-40,000 and then spends her life trying to repay her buyer with her work. With a fee of as little as Rupees 250 a time it can take forever, and their forever is now about 39 years old. HIV ad AIDS is endemic; we learned from a Canadian woman, who works with their children, that they have had to give up on the mothers as they are simply not interested or able to be helped.
snapped these two shy prostitutes
But their kids at least have a chance, although once the stigma of being a prostitute’s child is known, they often have to change school.
Deya knew his stuff all right and the facts are incredible. Dharavi is over 170 years old and was built on a mangrove swamp; it covers an area o175 sq km and is home to over 1m people. As 55% of people in Mumbai live in a slum it is not surprising that Dharavi contributes $665m to Mumbai’s productivity a year, thorough 10,000 businesses. How? You might well ask.
Plastic being sorted on the roof ready for melting down and being made into tiny beads for re-selling
If you have read Boo’s fascinating account of life in the airport slum (Beyond the Beautiful Forevers) you will know that recycling is the key to it all. It seems all Mumbai’s waste (in fact 80% is recycled) arrives in Dharavi – bottle tops and aluminum for smelting in giant vats; plastic – not just bottles, but chairs and large items are made into tiny beads and are put in enormous sacks; paint tins are painstakingly stripped of labels and scrubbed; iron is put in cauldrons over a furnace and is made into ingots. All of this is carried out in dingy, airless rooms, with toxic fumes and no mind to health and safety.
sorting the aluminium
Sitting in a sea of plastic recycling
The workers are peasant farmers from Uttar Pradesh who migrate to the slum for 9 months of the year, returning only during the monsoon for planting. They work 12 hours a day, eat and sleep in these cells, leaving only to defecate, either in one of the disgusting public loos, or in the ‘air-conditioned’ toilet in the mangrove swamps. Plastic workers earn $2-3 per day; the iron crushers $4. But with 2012 seeing the worst drought of recent years, these men have little choice if they are to support their families and buy seeds for the planting season. The rate of suicides in agrarian communities caused by debt has never been higher.
There are other industries too – cloth dyers, potters, tailors and tanners – the largest leather works in India is in Dharavi.
Leaving the industrial area for the domestic quarters seemed like a relief – at least we were not being roasted by open fires and by the sun, which was burning in the high 30s. First we entered the Muslim area, where there were home industries such as bakeries (supplying the whole of India and even exported!) and a disgusting black soap made from unmentionable ingredients judging from the smell. But the streets were narrow, over open sewers and, in some cases, completely dark. Kids were everywhere, including a smiling but severely handicapped boy who reminded us of ET, with bulging eyes and shrivelled legs. He was being lovingly cared for by his older sister.
The elder siblings are often the carers
On the odd street corner there was a tiny shop, its plastic glittering in the dark. We wound round and round until we came to an open area – which was in effect a rubbish tip of smouldering, stinking detritus, with young boys playing a boisterous game of cricket and some even younger kids playing shop, making little pies out of dust and piling them high. Facing on to this nightmare were the public loos; the smell was stomach turning.
Kids playing ‘shop’ on the stinking rubbish heap
On, on we went, stopping to step over two dead rats, over open sewers, alleys awash with rubbish and stagnant water, pausing by the slaughter house which even the Butcher declined to enter – the smell of rotting and recently killed meat proving too much for him. ‘I don’t actually kill the animals – I only cut them up’, he told us.
Muslim boys on their way to Friday prayers
Now we were in the Hindu area, houses slightly larger – these are the homes of the millionaires we were told. Larger than the standard 10sq meters, which rent at $60 pm or can be bought for the equivalent of R1m (£12,000), some had several floors. ‘The millionaires are happy here as the authorities don’t come; they don’t pay tax, and they choose to live here because of the sense of community; many have lived here for generations,’ Deya told us. In fact only 4% of the population pays tax, but some of these guys probably should!
Bicycles are about all that can pass in the streets
The Hindu women’s home industry is papadom-making, rolling them out after expertly snipping just the right amount from the long dough sausage using a toe, one hand and some string. Then they are put out to dry in the sun. While we watched a small girl decided to squat over an open drain and do her business, right next to the drying papadoms; father then came to rinse her off – meanwhile she started helping herself to some of the drying condiments. ‘These are sold all over India’. Yikes! Never will I eat one again without ascertaining where it is made. We were all rather revolted by this episode it has to be said. But it is normal life in Dharavi…
Pots drying in the Gujerati area
Ironing is a profession
From there we made our way through the Tamil area, which was mostly shops, including those selling alcohol and, finally, to the Gujarati potters, who are churning out earthenware water and milk containers on their wheels, which are then baked in extremely hot kilns. Again a cottage industry.
It’s hard to describe the vibrancy of it all – the people milling around, the naughty children giving you high fives: ‘Hi, Hi,’ they all shout and wave as we wander by. The women, whether in Shalwar Khameez or sari, looking colourful, but most appear careworn and tired, either thin or with the obesity of poverty. I am not surprised – a woman’s life is very hard, whether on the street or in the slum. They are hugely outnumbered by men, and seem to have an endless supply of children who all need looking after, and all of this in addition to their work.
goats are everywhere; ghee tins on right ready for recycling
Animals are everywhere – goats, chickens, cats, rats – dead and alive; the occasional vicious dog rushing at us. Satellite dishes abound, and many houses have TV blaring out at us. In modern India it is a must-have for family life, and brightens the lives of the generations who share one small room, complete with a washing area and a cooking area, leaving room only for nose to tail sleeping.
Dharavi is an extraordinary place, a city within a city, self-sufficient in all ways, with no need for its dwellers to leave. But it is unsanitary and filthy, a poisonous hive of activity, however much its inhabitants purport to love it.
PS I added a few of Cindy’s nice shots into the Gallery – thanks Cindy for letting me use some of your photos for this blog. It would have been dull without it. And thank you for being such a good hostess!
outskirts of Dharavi
a rather wider slum street
narrow streets – Cindy
narrow streets – Cindy
great sacks of plastic waiting for recycling
incoming plastic for recycling
hello you old goat!
burning rubbish on the outskirts of Dharavi
Kids playing ‘shop’ on the stinking open rubbish dump
The Butcher of Hermanus and me listening to Deya explaining recycling on a rooftop
A common sight on the busy Mumbai streets
Sunset overlooking the Haji Ali Mosque
Sunset at Chowpatty beach
Koli ladies in their colourful saris arriving from Elephanta island
Yes, here I am in Bandra, overlooking the homes to the stars. Shah Rukh Khan – ‘the world’s biggest movie star’, according to the LA Times – has a house just below me, Sachin Tendulkar is to the right, and just there is young John Abraham’s swanky revamped ‘bungalow’ as they call houses here, facing on to the Bandra Bandstand and ‘Walk of the Stars’. We even saw a film in action -m see photo gallery!
But the real Bollywood star is Chorti Billi Chomal of Bombay – my hostess Cindy’s rescued street kitty who is as bewitching and beguiling as any Indian actress. As Cindy says ‘She is the story of how a little bit of love and affection can make a huge difference.’
Cindy is animal-mad and she has a pack of regular stray dogs we feed on Bandra beach.
Cindy with her street gang
This solo trip has been a bit of a cheat, as I have been staying in a gorgeous –internally anyway as the exterior is swathed in bamboo scaffolding precariously erected by men with no harnesses before our very eyes – Bandra apartment with sea views, thanks to Cindy and Guy who have moved here for three years.
Having a driver here is compulsory, so Cindy and I have been whizzing round, visiting the sights – South Mumbai and the Gateway to India, the Taj Hotel where the bombers massacred so many people; Leopold’s café of Shantaram fame, Chowpatty beach, Chor Bazaar (Thieves Market) with its hotch potch of looted temple antiques, knick knacks and fine furniture and, of course, the shops to stock up on kurtas and, in a fit of impending domesticity, some table mats, napkins and dishcloths for our new Singapore apartment!
Cindy at the Gateway to India
old houses in the Chor Bazaar
Aladdin’s Cave – Chor Bazaar the shrine we were ejected from, brined fish in foreground, what a pong
sorting the fish
The highlight of my excursions (apart from the visit to Dharavi slum which is the subject of the next blog) was a visit to Versova beach and its Koli fishing community. Waiting for Cindy, who had an appointment, and with a couple of hours to kill, Metab took me, first, to an Islamic shrine, where we were expelled, amusingly, for him entering a women-only area! Ironic really – and he is a Muslim!
Then we happened upon some women sorting and flaying brined fish, ready for drying. They need the fish during the monsoon when no fishing is possible. The smell of the rotten fish was quite overpowering, yet these women seemed immune, as did their children. Welcoming smiles, but the pretty girls were abashed at being photographed.
two shy girls
Next stop Versova port itself, accessed through winding alleys, which we would never had found without the help of the local bobby. Charming and helpful, he observed to Metab that not all policemen in India deserve their terrible reputation. I have to agree in this case; at first he even refused the 100 rupee tip I slipped into his had as we left.
Metab with the friendly policeman
We were lucky: the larger fishing vessels, which travel for 3-4 days into richer waters, had just returned to port. Skinny, strong men were carrying plastic buckets overflowing with fish, several varieties of prawns, squid and crabs off the boats and up the beach where they were transferred into waiting lorries. Not a block of ice in sight – and again the stench of the fish in the midday sun, combining with rank sewage and general beach detritus was overwhelming. Not sure I would rush to eat seafood in Mumbai…nor papadoms after I saw how they are made in the slums, but more of that in the next blog….