Excerpt from "I am called Ranjit"
We stared out the window as the aircraft banked to the left over the Arabian Sea, and the lights and the beauty that is Bombay by night came into view. The Queen’s necklace, so called because of the shimmering lights which hug the curve of the coastline of the Arabian Sea, brought back long forgotten memories. Tonight she looked resplendent. Every jewel sparkled. We were once again close to setting foot in that mysterious land with which we had a love-hate relationship. We loved Bombay for its treasures, its hustle and bustle and most of all, its friendly people; but we hated the poverty, the homelessness, the many beggars, the cripples and the street children, their little bodies horribly distorted just to make a few rupees. The stench, the heat and the odours clinging to our skins and hair, would almost bring us to the point of suffocation.
To me Bombay is like a wart. It doesn’t belong on the skin, but seeing and feeling it on a daily basis, it becomes a part of you. I had gotten used to her, just as I had gotten used to the red splotches of spittle on the sidewalks which I tried to avoid. One could always tell the source of those red stains on the street, by the colour of the peoples’ teeth, because those who chewed paan, the betel nut and tobacco mixture, all had teeth and gums which were dyed a deep red colour.
However, the hospitality of the people, especially the store owners and shopkeepers is unparalleled, even though sometimes what you are told isn’t necessarily the complete truth. Of course whenever one spends money, one expects to be treated with courtesy and politeness and in Bombay, this is not taken for granted. There’s always a cool drink or a cup of tea waiting for the potential customer.
It seemed like eons since we had first set foot in that land of great fascination. Land of the gods and goddesses! Shiva, Krishna, Vishnu, Lakshmi and Ganesh! It was twenty five years ago to be precise, and tonight as the aircraft door opened and the humidity wrapped itself around us, and the odours assaulted our nostrils, we knew we were once again in that land of mystery.
My friend Billie McPherson and I looked at each other and smiled. The unspoken question lingered on our lips.
‘What the hell are we doing back in Bombay?’
Billie could cry at the drop of a hat, but she had an adventurous soul. Go to a theatre comedy together and she will find something to cry about while other patrons are howling with gut-wrenching laughter. When I decided to make the return trip to India, Billie was the first person to flash across my mind. We had previously been based together in Bombay as stewardesses and had invaded the streets of the city on our off days searching for bargains and back then everything in India was a bargain. We do not know if this has changed, but we will soon find out. We loved those shopping expeditions which took us to the Portuguese colonies of Goa and Diu in search of whatever we could find; and if there was something which we discovered in a back alley, regardless of the sanitary conditions, we would jump on it. The city of Cochin which lay to the southwest had been highly recommended because of its antiques and spices, but unfortunately we never did make it there. This time it is high on our list of places to discover in India.
We now live in different parts of Canada, but we still keep in touch and when I am in need of a good laugh, I will always call on Billie.
It is two o’clock in the morning and we are again on the tarmac in Bombay or Mumbai as it is now called, and we wait patiently to disembark the aircraft. A feud has started between the heat and the air conditioning, and vapour pours from the air vents bringing with it the smells of the city; Curry, urine and sweat. It’s a fierce battle, but the heat is quickly winning as it creeps into the aircraft through the open doors. We long to escape and once inside the terminal, which hadn’t changed much, we marched along like little wooden soldiers behind the procession into passport control and waited in line. The wait was long and I shifted from one leg to the other while my weary body cried out for rest. Finally it was my turn to face the Indian officials, and I handed my passport over to the immigration officer. Our eyes met for a brief moment.
“Madam, it says here you were born in nineteen fifty seven,” he said perusing my document. “Are you sure this is your passport?”
“Of course it’s my passport,” I replied feeling a little flustered.
“You look very young for someone born in nineteen fifty seven,” he said with jerking head movements and a smile which was partially hidden behind his handle-bar moustache.
He was obviously displaying a sense of humour which at first I didn’t realise. I smiled and thanked him for the compliment. He found the visa in my passport. Bang! Bang! He stamped one of the pages and looking past me, called out to Billie.
“Next please,” he said his eyes glued to her blonde locks.
She cheerfully struck up a conversation with him and I heard him ask in halting English and rolling movements of the head, the words I hadn’t heard for over twenty five years.
“Is this your first visit to India Madam?”
“Heavens no,” she replied. “I spent a year here back in the eighties.”
“Welcome back to India and have a pleasant stay Madam,” he said handing her back her passport and still devouring her with his eyes.
We moved on to the customs area, where the world now seemed to be moving in slow motion. No one hurried. I had the impression that the hands of the clock were now moving backward. Pencil-thin women with sad eyes, dressed in brightly coloured saris sauntered around in a comatose-like state with brooms and dustpans. Crouching down, they would gather up bits and pieces of rubbish that lay on the floor, occasionally stopping to observe the passengers patiently awaiting their luggage. What could they be thinking? Could it be that they envied those who could travel back and forth and they couldn’t? They manoeuvred their little brooms around mountains of clothing and the regurgitated insides of suitcases which were strewn across the floor, while customs officials slowly emptied bags and suitcases, occasionally stopping to chat with each other while the tired and patient passengers waited. Boxes were hammered open and heated exchanges were going on between the officials and some of the Indian passengers who still had the energy and temperament to put up a fight.
The smell of urine hung in the air like a cloud waiting to burst into rain. Caustic, strong and pungent! It was a lengthy wait for our luggage and when it finally arrived along with four or five porters, each one vying to grab them, we politely declined the assistance much to their annoyance. Then with great trepidation, we approached the custom’s officer hoping that he wouldn’t open our cases, for I pictured my undergarments displayed across the counter much to his delight, and my freshly laundered clothing scattered across the floor, and there was nothing I could do about it.
For the Indian traveller, customs inspection is truly an exercise in patience, for the officers meticulously peer into every crevice and corner of his luggage, stopping occasionally to chat with each other or just stare at the goings on around them. Goods are then either confiscated or heavy duties are imposed. Do these things happen only to those who aren’t willing to grease their palms, or is it normal procedure? We didn’t know and hoped we wouldn’t find out, for our bottle of gin was secretly hidden away between my clothing. We both lifted our bags onto the wooden table and Billie went to work again with her charm. It worked!