Ant Smith

All stories

A day in Mumbai

When I woke up that morning I didn't know that at some point in the day my life would be at stake.

It was a typical morning, what with the neighbour's elephant trumpeting me awake as he prepared for the journey to work. I rose and checked my shoes for lizard shit and spiders. A habit I'm still romantically attached to, although these days in Essex it's mostly a case of checking for flecks of cat vomit. At least there's relatively few cockroaches in the pantry. Horrid scurrying scrabbling things, occasionally squishing beneath bare feet. A feeling more sickening than the picking of insects from beneath your skin. In case you were wondering. A typical day on Mumbai's mainland in voluntary exile, age 29 and 3/4.

I'd done 3 months and was in for 3 more. With it being a Saturday I opened my care package and carefully inspected the various wrappings. News from home, impelling me to do something interesting so I can write back with fervour and panache. Friends and family resolutely being not dead yet demanding I give them tales for the grand kids. The goddam cosy England cosseted bastards. S'pose I'd better head out into the heat, see what kind of craziness I can find with these wearied feet.

The hovercraft is phenomenal. Seating 12 in a tiny plastic encapsulated bubble. And thankfully everybody smokes. We're adrift and lost in a choking mist of bidi fumes and harbour stinks. Alien behemoths lurk all around. Wooden cadavers of proud prows bobbing on the swell as we snake in and out. Sometimes a man can feel very small. And at that moment we dock at a wall.

A hundred feet or so of green mossed brick with a tender filament of sea-washed steps leading up beyond your peripheral vision. You don't look up. You don't look down. You don't grab madly for the banister rail that isn't there. You don't stop and wonder how many have plunged and gone irrecoverably under. You just keep out of the way of the others and inch your self to the top of this precarious rock face.

Finally your eyes draw level with the street and you peek over the harbour wall, between cluster bombs of rubbish and trailing trains of feet, mostly bare. You peek across the wide open square and you're astonished to see not India's India Gate but rather the Gateway to India. Quite different things, it seems. Plonked inconsequentially out of place, due to lack of funds no approach road has ever been built to it. No discernible sign that any great journey started or ended there. Except, on that day, for mine. And the other 11 passengers of my tiny craft even now jostling and pushing and barging to be past. I scramble the last few steps to clear the way. Then I stop and for a moment I attempt to hold my breath.

But that's kind of tough with a hundred thousand couple o'million tiny little fingers grasping at your feet. Worse than cockroaches as it's strictly not cool to stand on these. I knew the routine, but the numbers overwhelmed me. As ever I had a pocket full of change for fending off occasional beggars. Having given one or two out I was making little impression on the thronging mass. Needs must. I scooped deep into my cavernous pockets, rounded up a full fist of coins and flung them as hard and as far as I could manage. Fortunately not into the sea. The sight of all those little bodies tumbling over the harbour wall to a certain, albeit cheap, death would have defeated even me. But my way was almost clear, barring scraps and racklings.

I didn't count on the snake charmer or the behaviour of the eunuch however.

The snake charmer was your average tout with a cobra. Now I've ridden elephants and ran from rhinos. Brushed tarantulas from my pants and stood in awe a front of tigers. But I've never seen as sorry a living specimen as that snake in that snake basket. The whole performance took no more than 5 toots on a flute between lifting the lid and then using it as a wicker shield to cram the angry creature back in it's place. Just long enough for me to take a single shot, as I was clearly obliged to do. And that unrequested deal wiped out the rest of my change. At least I wasn't bitten.

The eunuch was a different matter and would hapilly have bitten me if id ever gotten a little bit closer. Tall and fierce. I never expected eunuchs to be fierce, but I guess it makes a kind of sense. You may be wondering how I knee for sure it was a eunuch haranguing me. It wasn't so much the lack of bulge in the skirts as the skirts themselves. Certainly not a transvestism fashion. Never before have I seen a man dressed as a woman looking so unabashedly a man. Possibly the greatest of India's famed contradictions. But what concerned me more was not the lack of dick or balls but more the infernal spitting. This wasn't begging. This wasn't touting. This was demanding money with menaces. As if and as though this person had a right to expect payment in respect of their condition. Perhaps they did. But it was unclear to me what my role in the arrangement should be. I mean, my own dick isn't exactly of Jeff Stryker proportions but I don't expect a hand out on the strength of it. Perhaps I miss the point. Perhaps the eunuch missed the point too. But it wasn't a time for cock philosophy. After two steadfast hours of being followed round the city, spat upon and abused in a language I could just about comprehend I blundered into a saviour.

A simple guy who understood enough to simply hand over some small quantity of cash. He assured me all of the major curses would be lifted. I'd made some bad calls. Sometimes a man can feel very small.

By now it was late afternoon. I'd crossed wide seas on a perilous craft. Climbed a dangerous busy wet path. Avoided a host of gaggling kids. Kept clear of the bite of an angry cobra and avoided the worse of the eunuch's curses. But I still didn't know my life was in peril.

It had been a typical afternoon. Torrential rain that seemed on the verge of washing me down a storm drain. Streets were rivers and people were gasping fish. The bank clerk looked sniffy, until I withdrew my twenty thousand rupee allowance for the month. God I was hoping there'd be no more eunuchs dogging me.

With that kind of cash there was only one thing to do.

The bar was one of my regulars. All lassi and dosa in the respectable frontage but with a back room that housed a blues reggae ska grunge refugee combo. Often we would belt out summertime with my unique vocal stylings. Perhaps that was even the trigger.

But it wasn't the trigger. The trigger was the small piece of metal gripped by the finger of the unto now demure soldier in the corner, sat about two feet from me. Funny, I thought, that they get to take their guns home with them.

I was particularly conscious of my thoughts as the room had turned a deathly, post apocalyptic, quiet. The demure soldier was slowly taking us each in turn in his sights. I looked the rifle barrel full on from a distance of some two to three inches. I was thinking remarkably little at that point.

Then he fired.

The bullet went well wide of me, but took my hearing with it. The bullet went less well wide of the man opposite who had some kind of unacceptable relationship with some member of the demure soldier's family, it seems.

Everybody else had already filed out. The brave bastards. I was sitting so quietly thinking that if I didn't move he couldn't see me. It worked and at least meant I got to see the Indian police diplomats talk him down. Well, that is to say, I got to see a dozen or so poorly dressed coppers rush the room and play all pile on, on the basis he couldn't wield a rifle beneath such a mound if flesh. It worked. They carted him off for a beating.

I sat and finished my drink. When the waiters finally returned so that I could order another they were somewhat astonished. I explained that I felt I was in the safest joint in all Mumbai. After all, what can be the chances of two gun sieges in the same bar on the same night?

It remained one of my regulars, but it was a while before I sang again.