There was nothing but consternation among the M/V Tahitian Princess’s pianists when a tuner from Singapore came on board and left three hours later with more cash in his pocket than he’d earned in one day’s work. He also left our three pianos sounding worse than when he first came to tune them. Our ship was on a world cruise, and when the complaints started coming in, not least mine, it was too late to call back the errant tuner. I know that many pianists refuse to play a piano even if just one key is off. Playing an out of tune piano is such an excruciating experience that some pianists will do it only under threat of being fired. Fortunately the ship’s pianists had to play under such a threat so the shows went on.
It was with a sense of urgency that I asked our cruise director to call our head office to schedule an emergency remedial piano tuning in Mumbai, our next port of call after Singapore. This was how I met the father and son team of Mistry and Son. Beginning with this gentle duo, I started to get a feel for India as a people and as a nation.
In India, crafts are passed from father to son and kept within the family. Amritlal Mistry was the latest in three generations of piano tuners in the same family. Amritlal was in his early thirties and trained in Germany. Mistry Sr. came along to help him out and give advice. Under their hands, the piano strings were stretched and pulled to the tensions that enabled Chopin’s or Elton John’s songs to sound full, sonorous, and not honky-tonk caricatures of themselves. Thanks to them, the M/V Tahitian Princess was able to exorcise, for the time being at least, the ghost of that Singaporean huckster masquerading as a piano tuner.
I’ve always known and heard of Mumbai since I was a small boy growing up in the Philippines. There was then, as there is still now, a very influential and rich group of people in our hometown who were Indian. Together with the Chinese, they owned many commercial establishments in our hometown, mostly dry-goods stores. We called them Bombay. We didn’t really regard them as different, just richer. Some sons and daughters of the Bombay were my classmates at school, and they were as Filipino as could be. In time, we even forgot that they had Indian forebears. They were just part of the community.
The reason for our town’s open-mindedness was because, for centuries it had lain in a trade route in the Philippine archipelago that was constantly visited by traders from China and India. Some of these traders came and went, but some stayed and married local women, contributing to the racial mix in our town and indeed, in the whole of the Central Visayas region of the Philippines.
I was now, as it were, returning that favor. I was visiting Mumbai for the very first time, the teeming city that had a population greater than New York’s or Manila’s. I would also be visiting the country that saw the rise of one of the greatest and oldest civilizations on earth, the mother country of such world religious movements as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. India’s cultural influence on the rest of Asia, and the world for that matter, is inestimable. Most languages in the so-called Indo-European group are said to have their roots in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. It is mind-boggling to consider that one language gave rise to a host of others, but hey, weren’t we all descended from a common, African ancestor? At the most basic, molecular level, we are all Africans, and at the deepest cultural level, we are all Indians.
It was with some excitement that I went up to the topmost deck of the M/V Tahitian Princess on the morning that we docked at Mumbai to view its skyline. The cruise ship terminal was a rundown industrial building with a corrugated iron roof. A faded sign said: INCREDIBLE INDIA. The sign featured peeling paintings of ski slopes, tigers, the Taj Mahal and other scenes from the Indian hinterlands. Domes and cupolas glinted in the morning sun. It was hot and humid and a faint but unmistakable fecal odor seemed to hover over the smoggy air. Great.
Prior to our arrival to Mumbai, I had been assiduously reading Paul Theroux’s “Elephanta Suite”, a book of novelettes about Westerners visiting and being transformed or in the process of being swallowed up by India. The title came from the name of an island off Mumbai where ancient Hindu temples had been dug and carved out from the hillsides. The Portuguese had found a huge statue there of an elephant (hence the name) as well as caves containing scenes from the life of the god Shiva carved out from the rock. The Portuguese inflicted grievous damage on these statues by making them the object of target practice. The statues survived, barely. Elephanta Island is now a UNESCO heritage site and one of the prime tourist attractions of Mumbai. In order to visit the caves, you had to ride across the bay of Mumbai and, once there, walk up one hundred twenty steps to the top of a hill where the caves where. I was going to visit these caves today.
Across the square, the elaborate Taj Mahal hotel stands, restored and operating after the horrific and senseless massacre of guests and employees by Pakistani terrorists in April of 2008. When that happened, I was on the M/V Coral Princess in Central America. Distressed by the absolute evil of the act, I painted an abstract reaction of it in black and red acrylic. That was all I could do as an artist.
|My Painting in reaction to the Mumbai Massacre|
|The Taj Mahal Hotel. On a subsequent visit to Mumbai, I finally had lunch at the Taj.|
Without artificial illumination, the caves were presented as they were hundreds of years ago. As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I saw the Trimurti - a gigantic carving of Shiva as a three headed deity: Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. This was an image familiar to me from my days when I collected stamps from exotic places, India being one of them.
The quality of the sculptures was astonishing. A major artist was at work here whose knowledge of the anatomy of the human body was keen and superb. There were floor to ceiling carved panels depicting events in the life of Shiva, many of them defaced. There was Shiva as man-woman, Shiva as a dancer, Shiva as Warrior. Columns supporting the cave ceiling were in the shape of sensuously carved guardian deities, similar in function to the Greek caryatids.
His name was Vernon from Vermont, USA. He was in his fifties. He was an itinerant magician. He had just come in from Nepal, entertaining kids there. He had been to the caves before. He was back just to look and meditate on the Trimurti which he found beautiful and wonderfully calming. He had a kindly face and looked grizzled from travel. He was happy with what he was doing. There was not much, if any money in it, because the areas he visited were quite poor, so he paid his own way most of the time. He loved to travel, and doing magic acts for kids was one way he could indulge in this passion. He was going to other places after this: Thailand, Cambodia, other parts of India. There was a calmness and tranquility about him that belied the image of the ugly American. Somehow he seemed to fit in with the surroundings.
I tried to visit the other caves, but they did not have anything comparable to the main cave, so I decided to return back to Mumbai and took the 5:00 PM launch. Despite the fact that I paid roundtrip on my first launch, I decided to go on another, more decent-looking two-story boat with a viewing deck. It even had lifeboats in it.
The sun was setting when I arrived back at the Gateway of India. Just as before, the passengers had to clamber up into another boat in order to get to the pier. This was a bit more risky because we were going to transfer from the second deck of the boat to the other. I lifted my foot from the ledge of one boat and placed it on that of the other, praying I wouldn’t slip into the filthy waters below. I felt sorry for the old women and children who had no choice but negotiate this patently dangerous maneuver Ah, Incredible India.
I started walking along the sea wall promenade from a point slightly past the Gate of India. One thing must be said about India: it is a very colorful country and its citizens love to dress accordingly. All Mumbai was out this afternoon in all manner of garb and finery: men clothed in white dhotis and caps, women in bright multi-colored saris, Muslim women swathed from head to foot in black hijabs and sometimes in blue burkhas, little children dressed in traditional ethnic costumes. Purples, reds, tangerines, greens and saffron greeted my eyes as I walked slowly down the unkempt promenade. Silver carriages with caparisoned horses rolled about seeking rides. In front of the Taj Hotel, I saw tall turbaned doormen in Sikh uniforms. At the end of the promenade, I turned right and found myself on a busy street lined on either side by stores, hotels and restaurants. A perfume shop lured me in with its flagons of perfume lining illuminated glass cases. I bought a small bottle of a patchouli scent for 250 rupees.
I saw a crippled woman crawling on the ground, rubber slippers protecting her hands. A man was peeling and selling sugar cane stalks. Emaciated cows roamed about, a sight that is startling at first to a first-time visitor to Mumbai or any part of India, but which one gets used to after a while. I have yet to step on a cow pie. I heard they were used as fuel by the poor people. I also heard that it was used, not just by poor people, but by certain cooks who liked to flavor their food with the ordure of cow manure. Everywhere there were sellers of every imaginable merchandise. The sidewalks were crowded with shoppers. It was bedlam. The heedless traffic compounded the hot sweaty chaos. Cars and buses tried to maneuver into every little corner they could steal from one another. The smell of gasoline exhaust was insufferable. The heat, even at this hour, was stifling.
I stopped by a sidewalk stall, attracted by little booklets and book markers made of handmade paper. I am a sucker for handmade paper.
The seller’s name was Shamir. He was from Kashmir and looked thirtyish. He was thin, wore horn-rimmed glasses and sported a Trotsky goatee. In his store he sold colored glass lamps, jewelry boxes made of stamped silver, and those cards and bookmarkers made of handmade paper. He wore the usual Indian white dhoti and had a fez on his head.
I paused to admire a jewelry box with a star design. He called inside the shop and had other boxes sent out. I liked one with a double-elephant design.
“190 rupees,” he intoned.
“150?” I countered.
“Sir, all our prices are fixed. There is no bargaining.”
190 rupees was around four dollars, a steal even without a discount.
“OK, I’ll take it,” I agreed.
“Where are you from sir?” Shamir asked me.
“ Philippines,” I replied.
“Ah,” Shamir exclaimed, his face brightening. “I was in Manila in 1978. I remember looking down from the plane and seeing everything so blue.”
Shamir probably meant Cebu, but, compared to Mumbai Harbor, Manila Bay was a pristine body of water, so maybe he was in Manila after all.
“I liked Manila. I think Marcos was still your president then. I went on a harbor cruise to an island. I stayed three days in Manila. I’m sorry, my memory is hazy, and it was a long time ago.”
“There are many Indians in the Philippines,” I said.
“Yes, "he said, "the Indian shopkeepers were quite happy to see us.”
I admired some boxes with etched marble lids depicting houris in Paradise.
“Beautiful. They must be expensive,” I said.
“Sir,” said Shamir, “if you don’t need it and you’ve bought what you wanted, you don’t have to buy anything anymore.”
“Really?” I said. “No hard sell?”
“I know you probably think it strange for me to say this, but I always advise my friends to safeguard their money and watch what they’re spending. We’re in an economic crisis right now, not just in Mumbai but all over the world.”
I took a second look at white garbed Shamir, unable to believe what I just heard from a shop keeper who should be strong-arming me, a tourist, to buy more! More! More! At that moment I sense that I was in the presence of a swami, a wise man posing as a seller of silver jewelry boxes and paper book markers.In the chaos of that street, among the beggars, the sacred cows, the peddlers and the chaotic traffic, with my brief spellbinding encounter with the carved gods in Elephanta Island still fresh in my mind, I found the India I was looking for in bespectacled, bearded Shamir: no-nonsense, dignified and wise.