So, I’m sitting in an aeroplane, heading to one of the great cradles of humanity, a country whose arts and sciences stretch into the grubby backwaters of Western prehistory – home of the zero and the kama sutra, chicken tikka and aloo gobi, Aishwarya Rai and Sachin Tendulkar (some of which go better together than others). India, I have always thought, had a lot of good stuff going on. It was left to the Calcuttan businessman on my left to suggest that perhaps I had the wrong itinerary. Peering bespectacled over his paperback Jeffrey Archer, he wobbled his head sagaciously and declared, “India is a disappointment, my friend, you will see. The Indian is lazy. No discipline. Actually,” he whispered, leaning closer, “I have always thought the English race is cleverest in the world.” Not wanting to offend, I tell him I have always found Jeffrey Archer the cleverest and most disciplined of his race, and get back to my sudoku.
India was still many hours away.
Given that I am still repaying my therapist for all the work she put in to help me recover from the trauma of Morocco, there was a certain school of thought that said I was better off avoiding the developing world. But Turkey had been a delight, and many of the mistakes of my North African escapade could be avoided with the benefit of experience (for example – when people say “don’t eat the meat” you are actually better off not eating the meat. Secondly, cars are safer with seatbelts than without, and finally – and most importantly perhaps – one should always ask your massage therapist where he got his qualifications before allowing him to exfoliate your genitals with a steel wool loofah.)
It’s nearly midnight when I arrive in the World’s Largest Democracy. It must be easy to get lost in Bombay, a city whose metropolitan population nearly exceeds all of Australia’s, but Sanjay the driver is waiting with my name on a card. He smiles, takes my bag, and whisks me quickly to the car, long enough to gargle my first thick gulps of Indian air, and to start affecting the cool indifference one must sometimes adopt to avoid being consumed by the beggars and their children, hoping for change. They lunge at the car and tap feebly at the windows, knowing I will ignore them. I do exactly that, and we escape through the city.
By day and night unsleeping, Bombay is a machine that swelters and heaves, choking on human fuel, visibly crushing the weak in its gears to produce the gold that sparkles in amongst the mountains of coal and lead. A drive through the city is like a drive through the history of the world, stripped of the sanity and hygiene of modern living. My driver prefers pointing proudly to shopping malls more than anything else, “Look sir! Look!” as if they embody everything the Bombay streets are not, and everything an Australian might miss of home.
The city is what everyone warned me to expect, and people live and die before my eyes. Babies eat on the roadside, grey flower-covered corpses are pushed by in groups of solemn mourners, rickshaw drivers coagulate around customers like manic antibodies, sideswiping beggars and businessmen, as pristine school children in Madeline outfits wend their way to grammar schools. All of the above presided over by the gods of Bollywood – Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Preity Zinta – whose complexions glow beatifically from the billboard Olympuses that stretch high above Bombay, burning like UFOs above the slums.
For my first days in Bombay, I feel rather like that four-legged fish must have felt the first time it flopped clumsily onto land – a little weak, more than a little intrigued, and not entirely convinced that being a fish wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Yet Bombay is fantastic, if you’re on the right side of her often tangled tracks, and my kind hosts ensure that I feel at home as much as plunged into the dark. The food is great too, and even at its most infuriating – think three hour traffic jams in a taxi with faulty ignition – the perpetual theatre of mankind played out on a stage with perhaps a few too many performers to be anything other than a Theatre of Cruelty, Bombay is never boring, and offered an unforgettable introduction to the subcontinent.
It can only ever be your first time once.