Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Haji Ali's Mosque

Today, in the company of our first visitors, we’re tourists. We go to Haji Ali’s mosque and Mahalaxmi Temple. As we climb out of the car, Monu, who considers all Muslims “very danger people”, says, “Go see temple. No talk to anyone. Just looking.” So I promise to keep my lip zipped.
The mosque - shrine of Muslim saint Haji Ali - is at the end of a pier. He died on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the casket containing his body floated back to this spot on Mumbai's coast. We pass dozens of stalls selling everything from garlands of flowers to boxer shorts. The flowers are not yellow and orange, for a change, but red roses and slender tubes of white blossom. We watch the stall-holder, sitting on his stall, not behind it, twisting the blooms together with white cotton. He’s so nimble-fingered, he barely needs to look at what he’s doing, like an old lady, with her knitting. Goats are chewing and jockeying for position at the water’s edge, and small naked boys are diving and splashing each other, as small boys are wont. On the pier itself, more vendors line up, selling lacework and CDs and glass bangles. Beggars, with stumps where a hand or foot should be, sit by their begging bowls. A tiny girl, cross-legged, pulls the apron of her dress taut, rolling a rupee around. A man sits under an umbrella, by an upturned crate, loaded with stacks of rupees. A woman gives him a ten-rupee note, accepts the change, and slips another coin into the child’s lap. The woman gives away all her rupees, one at a time, as she passes along the line of beggars. Some of them aren’t even begging, but lie curled in the sun, asleep.
The mosque's very striking, but the ranks of deformed beggars somehow overshadow its magnificence. The sun’s exhausting, and on the way back along the pier, we’re glad of the breeze coming off the sea.
At the traffic lights, a small girl walks round the car, giving it a perfunctory swipe with the rag in her hand. Monu lowers his window a crack, and gives her a rupee. She’s not thrilled, and patently asks for more. I ask Monu what she’s saying. “This say, money for new cloth.” This could mean a new blouse, or a new cleaning-rag, in Monu-speak, I’m not sure. The lights seem glued on red. The little girl’s laughing and waving. She’s now joined by an even smaller girl, so alike, they have to be sisters. Monu says, “This now say, ‘Welcome to Mumbai!’” I ask him not to tell me anything else, I’ll be putting in adoption papers before the lights turn green. The smaller child’s waving her arms about like a windmill, and accidentally socks her big sister in the eye. This wipes the smile of her face fairly pronto, and she starts to cry in good earnest, big juicy tears, breaking off momentarily to administer a retaliatory clout, to make her feel better. Then the lights change, and we pull away, leaving them wailing and squabbling by the roadside.
Since we’re unashamedly tourists, today, we also do the Dhobi Ghats. It’s a huge open-air laundry by the river. From the bridge, it looks like a shanty town, with row upon row of concrete pens containing tanks, filled with what looks to be dirty water. The dhobi wallahs work barefoot, standing in the water, soaking the dirty linen one piece at a time, then thrashing it on the concrete flogging-stone. Not the sort of laundry you could set up any old where – it’d certainly be too parky in Gomersal, for instance. The washing’s then thrown into vats of boiling starch, and finally hung up to dry. The view from the bridge is different every day, as the linen changes. They process half a million items a day, each piece marked with symbols decipherable only by the dhobi wallahs, so the clean clothes can find their way home again, beautifully pressed and folded in newspaper, tied with cotton string.