3am. Bombay International Airport. I'd just landed and this was my introduction to travel outside Europe and America. I had no guidebook, no idea what to do, where to go or how to get there and was, ahem, totally unprepared. I sat down to ponder my options and this was when she introduced herself; an overseas student returning home.
"They all think I"m a prostitute" she said, nodding towards other Indians who were glaring in our general direction.
"No way. What at 3am in the airport? They must be mad." I laughed.
"Would you like to share a taxi into the city?" she asked.
It seemed like a sensible idea and I had no better plan. After an hour or so of bouncing along dusty rutted roads dawn was attempting to cut through the gloom. We arrived at some apartment buildings.
"Where are you going to stay?" she said. "I've no idea yet. I'll find somewhere."
"Come up and wait until it's light at least" she said. I had no idea where I was or where to go. I don't know what I was thinking.
We wound up some stairs and she let herself in to a non-descript apartment. No family here ... my alarm bells were beginning to sound ...
"I'm just going to change into something more comfortable." she said as she drifted off into the bathroom.
I can still hear it in my head all these years later. Such a cliché. I grabbed my rucksac and bounded out and down the stairs. I still have no idea how I actually got from wherever that was to the centre of Bombay, but somehow I did.
That was in 1989.
While it's a harmless and humourous memory of a naieve 24 year old traveller, it could so easily have dropped the other side of that life line and turned deadly. I reckon the minute she had my clothes off, some sabre wielding titan would have burst in screaming to know why I was in bed with his wife. Or worse. India has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.
Now I've returned, this time with a family firmly attached, and despite all the news about the vast economic growth of recent times, this is obviously a very Indian style boom: piles of rubbish litter the dusty streets where the buildings are still decaying, the air pollution is so bad you can't see to the end of the street let alone see the sky or the stars and raw sewerage runs down open drains into the Arabian Sea leaving the beach positively toxic.
And this is Mumbai, supposedly the financial heart of the Indian subcontinent.
On a more positive note though, while there are still the inevitable beggars here and there, these seem to be a mere fraction of the number that I remember. While they haven't all become middle class overnight, it's probably the difference between absolute poverty and earning a few dollars a day: it's the barest margin to survive. The new middle class are also much more visible and exercising their newfound spending power on everything from fashion to iced cream, movies and travel. Being very family oriented you see family groups out together having a good time, which is one thing I can't recall in China where everyone is so busy making money.
"Brrrrup" went the metal detector. The man you had set it off just sauntered on. "Brrrrup" it went again as I passed through. Nothing. Nobody raised so much as an eyebrow. We had wandered down to the famous Gate of India, the scene of the recent terrorist attack; security should have been tight. There were police and army around, and they had this metal detector set up for anyone going into the area. But being India they had one lonely army soldier trying to screen a veritable army of the great unwashed, all queuing and pushing and shoving forwards to get in and have a peek. He had no chance, but nor did he seem particularly concerned either.
It's all so very Indian.
'Slumdog Millionaire' is a vibrant movie that somehow represents Mumbai, not in what you see, hear or feel in this weird city, but for the representation of the sheer optimism and resilience of these people. I was reading that Indian people are some of the most optimistic in the world, which is quite incredible really given that they have little or no reason to be!