Tired, hungry and riddled with parasites, the ravages of an overnight train were all too apparent across our faces. God only knows how we were even let into the Novotel, but despite our ragged appearance we were welcomed as Sir, Sir and Madame and directed by way of the breakfast cart. We perched ourselves by the hotel pool and perused the menu while we debated whether to wait for our friends who were actual hotel guests, before trying to get in on their complimentary breakfast. Seated several tables over, a couple who appeared the quintessential picture of burgeoning upper middle class India caught my attention. Inspecting her polished, Ferrari red nails while he checked the time on an oversized gold Rolex, they discussed the day’s potential shopping expeditions while surrounded by the spoils of the day before and I realised they were the first people I had seen since arriving in India who looked as though they had more than 50 Rs to their name. Interrupting this train of thought, a waiter made his way over to take our order. Feeling a little timid and also not enthusiastic about the prospect of breakfast causing me more discomfort later in the day, I kept my fare simple and ordered a coffee while my companions took the opportunity to fuel up for the day’s excursions. After confirming our order, the waiter made his way back to the kitchen while a boyish grin swept across Pat’s face content in the knowledge that we had definitely managed to score ourselves a free meal.
With an enthusiasm directly inverse to our current levels of energy, our names were called out across the courtyard by the ever-boisterous Oxana, mother of one of our absent best friends Andre. Leading half the wedding party and international guests in tow, we began an exchange usually reserved for soldiers returning from long service. There’s something about a familiar face in an unfamiliar country that exacerbates a feeling of connectedness you wouldn’t otherwise feel if you had encountered one another on home soil. Some, like us, had been making their way across India before landing in Mumbai and others had only just arrived. In the midst of a cacophony of travel stories, I caught the gaze of brother of the groom, Adam. Like looking into a mirror, we knew instantaneously what each other’s countenance was telling. There was no mistaking that Adam was deep in the throes of the dreaded Delhi Belly. We exchanged sympathies and war stories and got advice on where we should go to purchase our wedding garb and decided that the sooner we got that done the sooner we could rest. Sleep would have to come later.
Indian public transport is chaotic. The train system however is surprisingly efficient, moving in Mumbai alone what I’m sure is hundreds of thousands of commuters daily. Despite this efficiency though, the thought of having to navigate the inner city rail network is still a daunting one especially after our failed encounter with the bus ticketing system earlier in Pondicherry. The one saving grace is that almost everyone here speaks English as the task of trying to ascertain any kind of logic to how things operate in India by sheer observation is an impossible one. Nevertheless, we dive right in and get swallowed by the sea of people that surround you like ants, each independent in their directive but moving as a seamless whole through a network of predetermined channels that will get them to their destination. One thing I learned very quickly was that if you wanted to survive in India, you needed to abandon any sense of normal Western courtesies and let yourself be taken with the masses. As always, our direction was reliant on Pat’s infallible navigation skills and we soon found our way to the right platform just in time to catch the next train. We must have boarded at the start of the line as there were still plenty of seats available but by the fourth stop the number of new passengers was on a steady incline. Sensing that this may have been our first experience with Mumbai trains, the man opposite us gave very clear directives as to what we should do before disembarking at our stop. Standing with our backs flat up against the sides of the entrance, I wondered if this may have been a little overkill as the previous stations’ experience was relatively orderly. I received a stern warning from our locomotive travel guide to keep my camera very close to my person which I was happy to oblige but was sure i was about to miss something special. As the train pulled into the stop, I couldn’t help but get my camera to the ready. When the doors opened, the man’s arm pinned me back to the sides of the entrance saving me from a stampede of Indian men Supermanning their way into the carriage. Had I not been flat up against the entrance, I would certainly have been hurtled into the back of the train like a twelve-foot wave dumping me onto shore. Most excellent. My only regret was not being able to capture this moment outside of the image that is now firmly burned into my memory.
The shopping district we were headed to was just a short walk from the station. In the time it took to get there, we were confronted with more beggars than we had seen at any one time since we began our travels. The beggars here aren’t just beggars and aren’t just poor. They are most often sick, crippled, dying or all of the above. They are women, children, men, elderly, youth in their prime and had it not been for the burden of circumstance, probably very capable, useful and intelligent human beings. One man no older than myself, manoeuvred his way around the city streets on his hands crippled with what appeared to be very severe polio. I can’t remember if we gave him any money, probably not. Not because we coveted the money we had but the task of deciding who to help and who to ignore seemed a decision to enormous to contemplate. Most of the beggars however, despite their dire circumstances, greet and bid you farewell with a defiantly cheerful disposition and wish you a good day with a tone that says they really mean for you all of life’s blessings.
The inside of the first sari shop was awash with a multitude of different colours, patterns and fabrics. A quaint store but no less aggressive in their sales tactics. Pat very quickly hand-balled the task of being Lisa’s sounding board to me given I was the one with retail experience and I wasn’t about to complain given he’d been pretty much carrying me through most of India. Besides, I secretly enjoyed the fact that I had become much more confident with the haggling process and was looking for an excuse to practice this new found skill. The sales strategy here is one of absolute bamboozlement. Before we had the chance to open our mouths, ten previously immaculately folded saris were unfurled onto the bench in a rainbow of different colours as the male sales clerks tried clumsily to affix what was essentially a bra over Lisa’s bust. The frustration in Lisa’s face was palpable as every question she asked was met with the infamous head wobble and a “yes, okay” followed by more fabric in almost the exact opposite of what was asked. Indian salesmen have an unfounded belief that they possess Jedi mind skills, except instead of waving their hand they’ll look you dead in the eye, wobble their heads in a hypnotic sway and tell you “it is same same” despite the fact you asked for a phone and they’ve placed a brick in your hands.
Lisa’s contempt for this sales experience was about to become a lot more vocal and we decided it was probably a good time leave. Luckily the menswear store was directly opposite so we could provide Lisa with some respite while we indulged in playing dress-ups. I still don’t know why they need three salesmen for every customer, but even so, this was a little more relaxed as Pat used his extensive cricket knowledge to get the men on side and have a laugh and banter about something other than the sales pitch. There were no less outfits thrown on the table than the previous store but our brief was simple; show us the cheapest outfits you have. Although we were not terribly fussed about what we were going to wear, we soon found ourselves in the next price bracket as our three salesmen bustled about our acquiescent frames and dressed us up like mannequins. Much to Lisa’s amusement, we were being adorned with an assortment of effeminate hats, Aladdin pixie shoes and glittery scarves with pom-poms on the end. The end result however was surprisingly regal, with Pat fancying himself as the next Sultan of Brunei. I think the sales staff had fun too dressing up a couple of Westerners and making a decent sale in the process.
With Pat and I’s shopping complete and Lisa feeling a little more composed than earlier we headed to the next recommended sari emporium, the creatively titled Friendship. This place is like the Hamleys of saris. Five levels of floor to ceiling, wall to wall saris and just about as many staff. Thank God we had recharged a little because nothing could have prepared us for the all out sales assault we were just about to receive. Smelling foreign money, we were promptly escorted to the top level of the building which unbeknownst to us housed the most expensive garments. Here not one staff member is a woman, which for an exclusively female garments store seemed a little odd, given that the dressing of a sari requires quite a bit of help. We were seated on cushions in front of a multi-coloured wall of saris where a man whose serene smile felt as though it were about to part to flow from it a thousand years of wisdom sat cross-legged. Unfortunately no wisdom was to be found here, just a hoard of eager men waiting to tell us that green was in fact blue and what we really wanted was a Rolls Royce. Once again, the best tactic proved to be meeting their assertiveness with an equal measure of blunt resolve. Once you see the interaction as a game it becomes quite amusing and somewhat liberating knowing you can get away with being a little short and cheeky. By sari number 25, we finally had our demands understood and Lisa had settled on a gorgeous blue outfit which would be altered and delivered to our hotel by morning. It was a little more expensive than we’d planned but hey, this is a game of give and take and we were still a little green in the negotiation department.
Next stop, shoes.