First Day in Mumbai

26 February 2007

The drilling next door made the whole of my hotel room vibrate. I immediately regretted not buying the long, deep earplugs I saw at the airport. I had slept for three hours and I knew now that that was my lot. And yet, I didn’t know where to go next. Fortunately, Sunita, an organiser from the Kitab festival phoned me and we were taken by cab to the first event of the festival. Sunita had grown up in the South East but was now living in Bombay doing all sorts of things: writing, running festivals, working in bookshops and avoiding her Indian relatives. I can’t tell them that I’m here because I’d have to visit everyone: they’d be offended if I didn’t stay with them. My life would be one long journey from relative to relative.’

We have breakfast with the journalists from the Times Of India, who only seem interested in Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal: they want him to talk about his glamorous wife who he writes about so candidly. At the first event in the Asiatic centre, a woman in the audience reads out some of Nirpal’s comments about women: in particular that it’s important for a man to be good in the sack because he can use his sex appeal to gain the upper hand in a relationship. On the panel, there is a big divide between the Indian and British writers. Toby Litt and Nirpal clearly feel empowered to write about any aspect of sex, but the Indian writers are attacked for even saying the blandest of things. One famous glamorous Indian novelist, Shobhaade (pronounced Shobaday), India’s equivalent to Jackie Collins, talks about how she’s been attacked for saying that housewives sometimes find sex with their husbands boring. Another writer, Raj Rao, says he’s had to pay the police 5,000 rupees for being caught in a cottaging haunt: homosexuality is still illegal in India. Although most people are not brought to court, they are frequently expected to bribe officials to avoid a conviction.

After the talk, Toby, an Indian friend of his and I all go out into Mumbai. We are assailed by beggars. There are tiny children covered in dirt lying in the street, lots of mutilated men hunkering in the shadows, and hawkers everywhere. A number of women clutching babies chase after me so that I will buy them a month’s supply of milk and rice. I do this once, but then find many others following me. I decide to hasten away, with my head bowed.

On another street, an eight year old hits me because I don’t give her any money. By this time, I’m a little unnerved: there is too much poverty to get my head around. The amazing sites I am seeing: the basalt colonial arch of triumph, the Gateway of India, seems hollow against the backdrop of suffering.

And yet life goes on. I go to the Oxford bookstore for a book launch, and onto the Taj for the Kitab Festival’s launch party.

Tomorrow, it’s my event: the identity of the writer, something which I have been thinking a lot about recently.’

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