1 Police station: I have been there just once, when I got called in for (of all the god-damn things) opening a single, top button of the man of the house’s pants (the only man I actually have a government licence to undress). They won’t arrest scores of men who publicly unbutton, unzip, pull out their dangly bits and then proceed to urinate on a wall right outside the police station, but for reasons unknown to me, mine was the crime of the century! So the rules of going to the police station are simple: Smile at everyone, converse in Marathi and be grateful that you are hopefully not going to jail today.
2 Passport office: Be prepared to spend the entire day in a closed, smelly area. You will see bureaucrats walking very, very, slowly, picking up papers even slower, taking 18 bathroom breaks each half hour and trying their best not to exceed their self-imposed quota of stamping two passports a day. Survival tip: Carry a few books, a lunch box, sanitiser and a pillow to snooze on and you will be fine.
3 Hospitals: Be geared to wait in yet another smelly area and you will meet doctors of a remarkable quality. At nine months pregnant and looking like I was going to give birth any second, I went to see a senior doctor there and asked him if there were any exercises I could do, as my back was really beginning to hurt. He gave me a particular exercise, which consisted of me lying ON MY STOMACH and doing the cobra pose. When I gently reminded him that I was nine months pregnant (since I assumed he was legally blind) and didn’t think I should put pressure on my stomach, he insisted it was fine till the last stages of pregnancy, when I again gently reminded him that nine months is pretty much the last stage, he simply and wisely shut up. So, by all means visit the hospital and take the doctors advice but hold on to your common sense.
4 Public pools: A very important destination, (the most famous one is at Shivaji Park) these are locally called magical ponds. Legend has it that If you dive into them you would come out with lighter skin (a highly coveted trait in India). These pools are so crammed with fungus, that our little brown-skinned boys would plunge in and come out with white patches all over. (A little splotchy, a little diseased but as promised, magically fairer!) Survival tip: Carry sun block, strong fungicide, anti-bacterial lotion, tetanus injections and don’t bother using the restroom before getting into the pool, no one else does!
5 Railway station: It is 1989 and I am boarding the train to reach Charni Road (I was working as an interior-designers assistant/slave back in those days). I scramble on-board, while a horde of women are getting down and somehow the shoulder strap of my purse gets entangled around a thin Maharashtrian lady’s neck and as my purse slips off my shoulder when she gets down, I hold onto the bottom bit for dear life. The train is moving and she’s running alongside, as the purse strap has now become a noose around her neck and I am in a terrible dilemma.
Should I hold on to my purse and thereby strangle her or get her thrown under the train? Or should I let go, release my grip and let the purse fall on the platform and be on the train with no money, no Id, no handy mobile phone in the back pocket (mobiles didn’t exist!) since I am not in a cell for homicidal maniacs, you can probably guess what I did next. So my advice is, if you’re looking for adventure and smelling unwashed armpits, do visit our extremely unhygienic place of public transport but beware of pickpockets and swarms of hurried women.
6 Traffic signal: A great opportunity to meet people of all sizes, colours and genders (male, female and fantastically both). But you can’t meet them from your sealed, insulated, air-conditioned car. You have to be in the chariot that allows you to intermingle, inhale common air (carbon monoxide) and interact — the glorious rickshaw! I happen to love rickshaw rides and when my driver doesn’t turn up, I often sit in one of these. Survival tip: Go with the flow! One day, at the signal just before my office, a beggar lady came up to our rickshaw and said something to the driver, all I heard him saying was ‘hain maji’ when I interrogated him, I found out that she owns this rickshaw and two others and was giving him instructions to park under her shed.
This is the real magic of Mumbai — where beggars can be entrepreneurs, doctors can be silly, a train ride can be fatal and nothing is as it seems. The ultimate survival tip: Just enjoy the ride!