A Break in Mumbai

Slumped like a beached whale on a lounger slurping watermelon and guzzling cold beers day after day is not my idea of fun. You need only a basic level of physical but a high level of emotional fitness for my foreign forays: the perseverance to run in sweltering heat with seconds to spare for the last bus out of tumbleweed; the stamina to climb a few thousand no-turning-back steep and yet steeper steps through increasingly thin air to touch the Buddha’s toe; the calm to cross ravines whilst bugged by bugs above the trees on the oddly long wobbly rope bridge; the grit to gain a glimpse of egrets and goggly-eyed amphibians by wading leaden-footed through marshy mangroves; and the tenacity to spend hours clambering over rubble and across pot holes whilst avoiding blunt booby-traps on terrain laughingly described as pavements in the desperate search for a fix of everyday comforts: coffee, air conditioning and WiFi. Apart from the occasional bruise, scrape, gash and bucket of tears, I survived a great many emotionally challenging, physically exerting and occasionally risky excursions until last night when I managed to fracture my elbow and pelvis on the perfectly flat Marine Drive promenade in Mumbai by tripping over my shoelace whilst gazing at the moon. A crimson moon on Christmas eve, what a thing.

The evening on Chowpatty Beach began beautifully. Illuminated by the surrounding street food outlets, and against the bubbling white rush of sleepy waves, I sat with large gatherings on massive mats following the culinary recommendations of Mumbai locals: a variety of small dishes including sev puri, bhel puri, and papdi chaat. An hour later I watched the bright square ceiling lights speed by in hypnotically regular succession as I was ushered along to the X-ray department on a gurney. I thought about how my life might one day end like this: thrust in one minute from light to dark, lost, frightened and confused, on my back staring at the ceiling, unable to see the faces of strangers discussing my inevitable end.

Oddly enough, on a journey that began earlier that day at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, or Museum, I contemplated the words by which I might be remembered after my death, though in the end I only managed to come up with three letters: WTF, where W stands for Who. This train of thought was triggered by Rudyard Kipling, a man who embodied racism — especially towards the Irish — and literary brilliance in equal measure (a fact not lost on the British ruling elite who employed his literary inventiveness for propaganda purposes). Kipling’s birth certificate was on display at the museum, and knowing something of the child, the young man and the adult that developed, I found myself pondering the handwritten name and the baby that had not yet learned it.

The certificate revealed Kipling had been registered at St. Thomas’, a three hundred-year-old Cathedral in Mumbai, and I followed his trail there towards the afternoon. Around the immaculate church walls thoughtful words were etched in marble plaques for the ‘honourable dead’ — an inscription, incidentally, that was coined by Kipling for the Whitehall Cenotaph — and I read them all: “He had a discerning mind; he discharged his duty with diligence, firmness and integrity; he was blessed with mildness and gentleness of manners; he was a cheerful companion, a benevolent master, and a steady and sincere friend; he was vigilant and accomplished; he was an active and ardent friend; he was most affectionate, dutiful, fond and faithful; he sacrificed his life with zeal…” Doubting my ability to live up to the standards of the dead, it was at this point the three letters were projected onto my imagined headstone. By late evening, rolling along on a trolley through the long corridors of Bhatia Hospital, those letters returned to mind. How easily things change, and how quickly they can end.

A walking cane arrived for me earlier this afternoon but I was unable to use it, and I am now waiting for a pair of crutches. Using a chair to stabilise me — before hitting on this idea I had to crawl across the tiled floor — I manage to push my way forward Zimmer-style to the balcony of my hotel room, where I am now, and where I am building this heap of words under the hot sun to take my mind off the unpleasant fact that the old colonial high-ceilinged Art Deco hotel room, a nice enough place but booked only to drop my bag and bones between exploratory missions, has become my prison cell. This claustrophobic fact is almost as hard to absorb as the injury itself. It is a bright, warm Christmas day, after all, and prior to my accident I was looking forward to spending it in the slum.

My visit to the slum had been agreed with a small, dark, thin man I met quite by chance on a park bench in Horniman (formerly Elphinstone, as it still states on the entrance) Circle. He suggested the idea and offered to be my guide for whatever I saw fit to pay him (evidently you can get a lot for fifty pence in India), subject to us hailing a taxi en route — this, he assured me, would not be a problem even on Christmas morning. Having settled on that plan, no doubt the first of many, he went on to talk at length about his philosophy, and in particular his belief that all people living and dead, all animals, all rocks, all streams, all mountains, the world in fact, and the universe the past and everything, form part of the same energy. I admit to having got muddled a little along the way on how all this energy cobbles together and its point or purpose — language barriers and the heat of the afternoon — but he seemed to be wandering at times along lines reminiscent of Lovelock’s Gaia, and Mary Midgeley’s interpretation of it, or perhaps I just thought this because she had been on my mind a lot lately (funny how you can miss people you’ve never met). Anyway, I had the concierge ring him to let him know I was laid up with broken bits, and he very kindly sent me this note: “I do feel sorry about you falling into sickness. Whatever sensation you are picking up throughout the body, remember that it is constantly changing, so observe all the reality the way it is without being identified by the sickness. Be well and recover very soon. Take care yourself, dear Paul, truly friend, Satya.”

I have never regretted a visit to India. Every chance to learn about the diversity of food, fragrances, landscapes, religions, cultures, history, philosophy, stories, wildlife, home life, pigeons and the people who love them, has been eagerly and very warmly embraced. The Mumbai archipelago offers all that, but my reason for visiting was simply to find the final resting place of the Zoroastrians, a place known as the Towers of Silence, before the towers closed and crumbled owing to the declining vulture population. As it turned out the Towers were shut, as was every Parsi Zoroastrian temple, meeting house and reading room — shut to everyone, in fact, who is not a Parsi. After travelling several thousand miles I got no further than the chained gates to the lush green grounds and woods around the Towers of Silence. I guess I could have checked first, but the journey wasn’t wasted; it was more a milestone mind thing, a pilgrimage of sorts.

There is some speculation about whether the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism is in decline in Mumbai due to the falling birth rate, but there is no doubt that the tradition of excarnation, of exposing dead bodies to vultures in those round roofless stone structures called the Towers of Silence (a final charitable offering to the birds, quite apart from doctrinal considerations), is categorically under threat, and most seriously — a threat that is likely to adversely affect many thousands of human and non-human animals alike. The cause of the vulture crisis was the introduction of the anti-inflammatory cattle drug, diclofenac, in the Indian subcontinent during the 1990s.(1)

The drug, being in the carcasses of cows, poisoned the vulture population and put them on the critically endangered list. According to Dr. Vibhu Prakash, chief scientist over Vulture Conservation at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in Mumbai, diclofenac is 30-60 times more toxic to vultures than cyanide is to rats. The drug was banned for veterinary use in India in 2006, but although the vulture population is all but wiped out — some varieties dropped from around 80 million to a few thousand (2)  — diclofenac has subsequently been cleared for use in Europe at the discretion of the various member states; its introduction in Spain is of particular concern, being the country that is home to around 90% of the European vulture population. The drug is considered useful for those seeking to maximise profits in the dairy industry, where cows commonly develop mastitis in the process of milk production on an industrial level, though it is also injected into ‘livestock’ that have developed other inflammatory disorders.(3)

Vultures get a bad press, and many people may be glad to see the last of them, but they are in truth central to our ecological balance. They can pick a body, human or otherwise, clean to the bone in minutes, and they provide a natural carcass disposal system — one where, somewhat crucially, the pathogens stop dead with them (a design feature lacking in most other scavenging animals). Some carrion birds, and especially dogs and rats, will undoubtedly replace vultures, but they are less efficient and are more likely to carry the pathogens and spread anthrax, rabies and plague. Moreover, the increase in the number of rotting carcasses lying in rivers and streams will contaminate drinking water, furthering the threat to life more generally. (4)

In a review of the work of the BNHS in Mumbai, Ankita Saxena comments: “Vultures are seen as a key species in the ecological chain, and in a country like India, where there is no proper disposal system for dead cattle and slaughterhouse waste, it is the role of these scavengers to feed on it and keep the environment clean and disease free. A continuous decline in their numbers would make way for carcasses rotting in fields…resulting in an increase in the number of vectors of serious transmissible diseases…further disturbing the natural ecological balance.” (5)

Not only is the ecological importance of the vulture undervalued, but so also is their cultural context: vultures tend to be caricatured as demonic, as grasping and gluttonous, predatory and dangerous, yet they have a far wider cultural significance: “In the Hindu epic Ramayana, depicting ancient Indian history, the courageous vulture deity Jatayu sacrificed his life in order to save Goddess Sita from the demon king Ravan. In ancient Egyptian culture, the vulture is a symbol of motherhood and protection. The Zoroastrians (Parsis) believe that being consumed by the scavenger bird liberates the spirits of the dead. In Tibetan culture, vultures are traditionally regarded as angels (Dakinis) who will take the soul into heaven.”(6)

It is all too easy to relegate such beliefs to the realm of ignorance and myth, but consider how commonly non-human species are rendered inferior in the majority of modern cultures, how pigs, rats, occasionally dogs, and frequently vultures, are undeservedly allied with anyone who behaves in ways that disgust us, be it politically or otherwise; we raise our children to see the vulture, albeit metaphorically, as an almost mythical creature synonymous with someone demonically driven to extract everything possible from the weak and vulnerable. In treating non-human species in this way, their sentience, their right to life, and their contribution to ecological balance, is hopelessly obscured.

With some irony, on reading the ingredients of the package of pills I am currently being administered for my cracked pelvis and elbow, I discovered that the anti-inflammatory, diclofenac, is among them. I guess no one will ever be able to accuse me of being a vulture, though if I died now, and they finished off my carcass, they would quickly follow me into the beyond — vultures feed in flocks, and a single contaminated carcass would remove many from our skies. Sad thought, and something that a Parsi Zoroastrian in Mumbai must surely consider.

Boxing Day, and my crutches have arrived. Although they hurt under the arms, I can now get around the hotel room with relative ease. I’m a bit nervous about introducing them to the outside world for a test drive, however: I still receive agonisingly sharp pains around my pelvis at the slightest twist, or when I put my full weight down on both legs to walk, and in any case I don’t think I could get far if I had to push past people on high step crumbling pavements, leap over pot holes, avoid blunt force trauma from inappropriately placed signage, or cross the road in time to beat the mad traffic — it’s a war zone in India if you are slow or unsteady on your feet. What I would give right now to be out of this hotel room, perhaps resting on a lounger, savouring slices of melon, sipping cool drinks and letting the gentle sea breeze cool my skin and flick forward the pages of my book. Funny how the things you dread can become a dream.

Strange that this freak accident should happen on what seemed the safest of surfaces. Tripping forward, I hit the ground with shocking force. Three individuals quickly extended hands to haul me back up, but I decided I would be better on the ground until a damage assessment could be made. Eventually, the three men guided me to the long stone bench on the promenade, and after I assured them I was fine — I experienced no pain sitting down or standing up, and felt confident that all but my embarrassment had subsided — they wandered off on their own separate ways, wishing me good luck and, of all things, prayers. I sat for a few minutes, but almost fell to the ground in excruciating pain on taking my first step. Immediately a man, dressed in white, appeared out of nowhere asking me a multitude of questions about the source and level of pain, whether it hurt when I did this, bent that, lifted the other, questions about my vision, whether I was lightheaded, and numerous questions about how I felt in the moments leading up to the accident. They were the kind of questions one might expect from a doctor, or perhaps an osteopath, but this was India and there were any number of Ayurvedic, yogic and mystic possibilities.

He sat with me for a while talking — he had been walking right behind me when it happened, he said — all the time making sure I was calm and relaxed, then he urged me to attempt some movements once more. Shortly afterwards he quite decisively declared I needed to go to a hospital, and proceeded to give me a long list of immediately forgettable details on why the hospital he was recommending was most suitable.

The man in white gave me his shoulder and full support to hobble to the kerb (it was a long ten yard walk), and at the same time he phoned his wife, presumably to say why he was a bit late. Hindi is a bit like Scottish Gaelic, unguessable gobbledegook to the untrained ear and interspersed with English words like hotel and helicopter. In this case I understood nothing other than the word ‘guest’, which presumably referred to a foreigner in the city, in this case myself, who needed help. Once the long journey to the kerb had been made, I gave him my thanks and prepared to hail a taxi, though privately I hoped he would remain long enough to give the taxi driver instructions. No taxi, he said, I have called for my car, and I quickly learned resistance was futile. I fully expected his wife or perhaps a son to arrive in the family Honda, but a few minutes later a presidential chauffeur-driven Mercedes appeared, and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if six guys in black suits had been running along either side of it. Once inside, the world was silent, and I could swear I was already beginning to heal.

There was no ramp at the front of the hospital, and two men immediately came forward to lift me up over the stone steps. The man in white pushed money into their hands and walked on ahead to explain the emergency at reception, or perhaps to oil the wheels, whereupon a doctor checked out a few things and asked questions before sending me for X-rays; the results were studied by another doctor, who also checked out a few things and asked questions, then both doctors debated and disagreed on the diagnosis before dragging open the cubicle curtain and meeting me face-to-face to explain the possible damage before sending me for further X-rays. On my return to the ward a third doctor appeared, an arbiter — the man in white’s very own family doctor, in fact — who obliged the man in white to appear at the hospital to consider the evidence and to give his expert opinion on my injuries. This was late evening on Christmas Eve — was I dreaming?

I was given assurances and drugs from the hospital doctors, and twenty-four hour contact details from the man in white’s family doctor. The man in white paid for my X-rays, offered to pay for an MRI if I felt I needed more assurance on what was deemed a hairline pelvic fracture — the three doctors stood silently around my bed waiting for my decision on the MRI, which I declined — and then he paid more porters from a bundle of assorted notes that he carried around. I have no idea about payment customs, how much to give porters and so on, but I pleaded with the man in white to let me pay him back for everything, but he would hear none of it. In a moment alone with the family doctor I confessed I didn’t know the man in white, not even his name, though he won my admiration for all his support, and not least for his translation services and hours of input. He told me all there was to know.

All that remained was for the chauffeur to drop off the man in white at his home before taking me to my hotel. As we glided towards the entrance to his home, a brilliantly-lit lower ground level mouth to a tower that might have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, I began to see how little I knew of wealth. I remember a seasoned motoring journalist once remarked on how little he understood the skill of driving after meeting retired racing driver, Stirling Moss. He had arranged to interview and then follow Stirling Moss in his car on what was otherwise an easy cross country drive, but was irretrievably lost on the twists and bends within a matter of minutes. I too was lost, having gained a glimpse in the real world of the wealth previously confined to the realm of my imagination: wealth and power that no doubt has its equivalence in what the sultans possessed when they reigned over India; wealth that is perhaps comparable to those Roman noblemen and noblewomen of antiquity who owned vast stretches of the ‘civilised’ world, and whose ideas and doctrines foreshadowed the psychology of hierarchical relationships, the precepts of desire and acquisitiveness, in the feudal and capitalist epochs that were to follow — a distorted vision that remains with us today, and increasingly, on a global level.

On at least one of the official ratings of the wealthiest people in India, the man in white, Radhakishan Damani, came in at number eight, though elsewhere it said eleven, and to give some idea of what people belonging to that income bracket can afford, his next door neighbour, Mukesh Ambani, whose business provides at least 5% of India’s income, lives in a property valued at $2billion — the most expensive privately owned home in the world, next to Buckingham Palace. It has twenty-seven floors, three helicopter landing pads, and employs six hundred staff to service the entire joint. Family presents tend to be multi-million dollar jets, and armoured cars that can reach speeds in excess of 100 mph in five seconds (how to get excited about a box of striped bamboo socks after that?). His daughter’s wedding, which included Hilary Clinton on the invite list, cost millions. And so on.

There is no evidence of which I am aware to suggest Radhakishan Damani indulges in such blatant displays of opulence, though there is nothing to prevent him if he so desired. A few quick clicks on the internet reveal his net worth to be over $12 billion, and financial index or monitoring bodies rank him 150 of the 500 wealthiest people in the world (7); but there is surprisingly little online about the person: it is noted in some profiles that he shuns media attention — television, newspaper and magazine journalists fall over each other in their bid to gain an interview with him, though his doctor already told me that — and there is some mention of his support for numerous charities, though he declines to acknowledge by how much.

For my part, I can only say that I was surprised that one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, whilst walking alone along Mumbai’s Marine Drive promenade late on Christmas Eve, rolled up his sleeves to help a stranger, and wouldn’t let go until he had seen that job through. Several times I thanked him for his help and said I would take it from here, and each time he insisted on waiting with me: at the kerb when I told him I would hail a taxi, at the entrance to the hospital when he dropped me off, when I was wheeled off for X-rays on the first round and again on the second, whilst waiting for test results, when waiting for the outcome of discussions between doctors, during the wait for my meds to be made up, and at the end when I was wheeled out of the hospital. There is some irony in the fact that this wealthiest of men reminded me of an encounter in my distant past with one of the poorest: a tramp on the road, when I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, who also wouldn’t let go despite all my efforts until he had made sure that he had done all he could to help (8).

If there is anything to be taken from all this, it is that being a decent human being is more important than being a wealthy human being, and also that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Radhakishan Damani’s doctor’s number is in my contacts, should I need him, but I guess there is little to be done but rest. Recovery is slow, but it has forced me to slow down, and at times I feel a bit like James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, looking out over my balcony at the people living their lives below. I can hear their conversations. And I now know the crow that stops by my balcony every morning. I left an almond for her and she flew off with it, then ten minutes later she returned with the almond and bounced it around the wall using her beak, giving me the hint to crush it for her, which I did by rolling a coffee jar over it. Some sparrows followed — good to see them — but I’ve been going a bit Birdman of Alcatraz (9), so I took my sticks out into the world for a trial walk. It took a while and some strenuous effort simply to cross the crazy road over to the promenade (the blisters on my palms from using the crutches are now actually more annoying than the ache and stiffness in my cracked elbow). Once there, it took twenty minutes (all I could manage) to walk 400 metres — going by the guidelines etched into the pavement for runners: normally I would cover two miles by walking in that time, or one mile if I was dawdling — and the speed by which this dreary fact hit me clouded my outlook for a spell; I had to shake myself up and dust myself down.

I sat on the wall by the sea for some time monitoring my thoughts before mustering the strength to negotiate my way into a taxi, and for no reason other than that it was one of several temples to cross from my list, I set off for the Sri Sri Radha Rasabihari ji Temple, otherwise known as ISKCON, in the Juhu area. Lunch in the temple restaurant was massive and varied, and they kept piling on more each time I smiled and gestured to suggest I had had my fill. Though I wasn’t able to get around much, I could see that it is a beautiful place, and a magnificent temple. One of the many wonderful things about India is that you can visit stills from history such as this, as one might enter a time portal, sit with people from that time, and have a conversation in English. I had visited several temples like this one, in character if not in appearance, prior to my accident, including the Zoroastrian temple — though I didn’t get past the front door — and the Jain temple.

The vegetarian Jains abandon all violent activity, maintaining that all religious behaviour is otherwise worthless. I imagine they would have to be vegan for that to be entirely true, since dairy production is as brutal as any processes involved in meat. That apart, their belief that non-violence (ahimsa) is one’s highest religious duty, regardless of how correct or defensible the violence may seem, puts hypocrisy at the very heart of most other religions across the world, particularly those that happened to have the largest followings. Just imagine if some of the Jainist ideas caught on: if every person within opposing populations refused to go to war or bear arms, if they refused to lift a finger against one another, refused to kill a cow, or a goat or a lamb or a chicken or a child, directly or indirectly. Just imagine if each and every one of us decided right now to work vigorously within ourselves and with each other to uphold non-violence in every form, including speech and thought. Imagine the future was not the cruel, dark, dystopian, toxic cesspool that the harbingers of a new leviathan promise to deliver us into, but one shaped by the qualities of love. Imagine we were vegan.