12/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The King of Morocco and a Little Girl in Bombay (xvii)

The idea of spending my last night in India in Mumbai frightened me so much, I had spent weeks worrying which hotel to stay in, what friend to see, so as to protect myself from having the same horrific experience--and last impression of India--that I had had in Delhi, five years back: brown dirty slums, dusty arms, beggars in such states of misery that all of Hindu mythology would suddenly seem like delusion, opiate for the masses.

Mumbai turned out to be amazing.

I picked the Gordon House Hotel out of a fluke -- it just happened to pop up on some website -- and as soon as I arrived in Mumbai, cabbing up to the ritzy Colaba area, I knew it was the hotel of choice. A spark chic white marble entryway, with slatted wooden doors, led to a reception area that was a minor miracle of design: all pure white, desk and lamps, including the receptionist's suit and his small Apple laptop.

As a place to stay in Mumbai---contemporary, clever, chic--the hotel verges on aesthetic genius as it does not even try to be historical or Indian, refusing all competition with the celebrated Taj Mahal Palace right next door. The owner, Mr. Sanjay Narang, bought the hotel 7 years ago and remodeled, with the help of his sister, a Harvard MBA, the old building (with no natural light) into three stories of hyper-clean rooms, each with a different theme: Scandinavian (with light oak slatted beds), Mediterranean (tiled with blue and yellow), and Country (natural wood)--the postmodern surrealness, emphasized by the fake tulips lining the pure white entry, as much a boon as the teal-blue tiled bathrooms with stone-glass showers.

The only downside was that Mr. Narang's sideline is food and discos: so on the lower floor, clients can hear the disco, if they happen to be on the eastern side.

Perhaps it was a bit decadent to be staying in the cutting edge of hotels while in Mumbai, the home of some of the worst slums in the world, but it felt just as decadent to walk around Mumbai, and enjoy the sea-side leafy warm feel, with wide boulevards and the charm of dilapidated old buildings, alongside the dozens of zooming cabs.

And perhaps even more decadent to go have one last massage and pedicure, to "clean up" the two months of grime.

I apologized for my feet to the man who kneeled before me with a towel.

"They are a bit disgusting," I said, pointing at the scabs, cuts, Ganges-dirt caked nails, and sand embedded in the blistered skin.

"No worry," the man said.

While he went to work -- rather like a sculptor with a piece of marble, taking out all his equipment -- while the woman Leela, who had just given me a massage (the best ever), told me to sip my Masala tea.

"Sip," she would say, ever so often, standing beside me.

The man finished with the pedicure and now -- with a stroke of ingenuity -- he took out a sanding file and began to FILE my feet, literally remove months of scabs and crust, avoiding ever so often the more painful blisters. Then came the oils and, of course, the nearly too sensuous massage, with his hands going up to the knees (India, I concluded, is, perhaps because of its strict gender rules, a far more erotically alert country than most I have visited).

The man asked me to feel the feet after he was done: soft as a baby's. He was quite proud of his final product.

The moment came for tipping, which for me, is always a curious decision. I wonder why I per force tip l5 percent in New York -- to a distant, cold, perfunctory, watch-gazing alien -- amounting to perhaps 10 dollars, and here in India, I, using the same calculation, would tip a man who lovingly went beyond the call of pedicure duty to actually see "the whole picture" (the feet not the nails were the problem), who relished his work as a shared accomplishment (the difference between alienated first world cultures and third world cultures), a total of 30 cents.

It seems an unfair calculation. I think when it comes to tipping, the amount should be as high as it is back home, beyond percentage.

From the "Touch of Joy," I treated myself to a last drink in the Taj Mahal hotel, on the twentieth floor, in the Lebanese restaurant surrounded by glass, with a nighttime vista of Bombay and the Gateway to India.

The waiter -- a very handsome happy young man -- explained to me that yes the Taj Palace gets many renowned guests, such as Bill Clinton, whose autograph he had himself. As for Gandhi (also a famed former guest), he didn't know about that, before his time, he said, but he did meet the King of Morocco.

Indeed he was the king's personal valet for l5 days.

"For fifteen days!" I said. "You must know him well."

The man smiled. "Yes, very well. As a personal valet, one knows every whim. What they want at each moment. What they eat..."

"Did he like the food here?" I said.

"No, he said it was too spicy. Of course," the man smiled. "It was before this Lebanese restaurant was built."

"So what was the king like?"

The young man beamed. "Oh I liked the king! Very professional. Curious about history. I took him to the caves -- over on the water -- and he asked questions and told me about his own interest in ancient things, like the pyramids back in Egypt--very near to Morocco, you know. It was the wife who was more difficult..."


"She never left the hotel room. For fifteen days! I don't think she much cared for India. She just stayed inside the room and watched television, and complained to the king. For fifteen days!'

"She watched television for fifteen days in her room?"

"Like a prison! Fifteen days. While the king -- he was curious, always wanting to talk to everyone, not like he was a king"

He smiled: he really liked the king.

"She sounds like she was depressed." 2008-10-30-TajHotellastdrinkxxxy.jpg

"Yes," the man nodded. "Depression, must be it."

We had a jolly conversation, the waiter and I, about what it means to "make it" in Mumbai, and what it means to "not" make it, and end up in the northern slums--all the while I enjoying the flash of candle-light on the glass table, next to my hummus made by a Saudi Arabian chef, and the tiny white tray of English cucumbers with orange slices and truffle.

So it was quite a contrast when I left the Taj Palace for the street.

I passed a group of street women sprawled with their babies, and they pointed at my blue (fake) pashmina shawl.

"Shawl want," one woman pointed, with one of the random babies stuck in her lap.

I draped the shawl around the baby. "Sure," I said. "On condition you tell me the baby's name."

The entire begging situation is so dehumanizing -- for everyone involved -- this was my stab in the dark.

"Arti," one woman said, and then I walked away.

But not for long. Now the other woman carrying a sickly tiny infant (his face a scrawl of tears) ran behind me and hit my back with her forearm "Me, me." She said.

I waved my hand "no."

She followed, a close body watch, and said, "why not listen to me!"

She told me her story, that this was her brother (twenty years younger?) and she needed milk for him, couldn't I understand?

"So let's buy the milk," I said.

"And rice too."

"Rice too."

She led me up a market street of stores open in the nighttime, booths of men selling cigarettes and tea, and we found one place which had concentrated milk.

The rice cost l0 euros a bag.

"Ten euros!" I said.

The man explained: "This is special imported balsamic rice."

"We'll find another store," I said.

So we walked along, me, this woman (who was very pretty), and her "brother, from store to store, not finding rice, so I finally said, exasperated: "how about I buy you vegetables?"

"No, me no home. Can't cook."
"How do you eat the rice?"


We continued looking for the rice, and were suddenly joined by another young woman who said she knew a rice shop, and we walked down a few blocks, now back into the gaudy tourist bauble area.

"Look," I said. "This is my last night in Mumbai -- how far are we going?"

"Very far!" said one woman.

The two consulted in Hindi.

"Actually store closed," said the first woman, with a bit of chagrin.

I felt sorry for her, as we had indeed tried four shops in good faith together, and pulled out my wallet and began pulling out rupees for rice -- ten rupees, twenty rupees--but then the second woman, with an avaricious bird stare at my purse, hit my hand.

"More!" she said.

I lost my temper.

"Don't hit me!" I said "It's not polite! Do you have any consideration of the people you are actually begging from? Do you ever try to see the other person's point of view?" I stared at her. " Do you realize that every moment, walking down the street, there are a hundred THOUSAND of you, hitting and following tourists! Do you realize how unpleasant that must be? At least try to be a little gentle!"

The woman nodded. "Sorry, sorry," she mumbled. Then she added, with a wiping gesture at my neck.

"Give me necklace!"

I jerked my hand at her, abandoned the rupee giving (feeling a bit sorry for woman number one), and said, in sharp tone, that must have settled things: "Get away from me."

My favorite necklace!!! 2008-10-30-ganeshxx.jpg

From there, shaken and not a little angry, I went to a street by my hotel and watched a Ganesh festival, the men beating drums and chanting down the street, a bit odd for me to see, as unlike in the villages, the men and women were in western clothes.

A hand hit my back.

"Me hungry."

There was a small girl in a brown dunlap dress with her hand to her mouth.

"You're hungry!" I said, a bit brutally. "Then we go to a restaurant and we eat properly like two human beings!"

A bit startled by the violence of my invitation, the girl came along anyway -- with a baffled shrug to her family on the sidewalk near us.

I asked the manager of his spiffy white restaurant if he would not mind if the street-girl sat with me, and ordered her some fried rice.

He nodded kindly (although later a man with a large white turban reprimanded him), and the girl and I sat in a booth, she all shy bashful smiles, staring around at her, at the men in other booths, and ever so often waving out the glass plate window at her family in the street, with surprise and delight -- as if this was all very exciting, at the same time she was, I could tell, excruciatingly embarrassed, as it was new to her, an actual conversation with a stranger -- difficult, especially since she did not speak English.

Her eyes moved, and she squirmed, and she waved to her family, and ever so often, her eyes would meet mine, in a warm conspiratorial glance, and she would give me the most beautiful smile.

If it wasn't for her knotted hair, she would be just like one of my future nieces, a charming bright little girl.

She had such a warm presence, in awe of the whole restaurant procedure: her eyes shooting, with squirming smiles, at the passing scurrying waiters, at the other diners in their booths.

They in turn were all staring at us. Either because of her, or because I was the only woman in the restaurant and it was midnight.

The rice came.

"Thank you," she said, with a sweet childish whisper, with a little incline of her chin. Then I gestured to her and we walked out, she worried I had not finished my tea.

She had ordered take-out, at the end, in order to share with her family, who all greeted her like a movie star when we walked out.

Back in the Gordon House Hotel, I appreciated it all the more--this palace of whiteness for my final night in Mumbai. And to make it last even longer, I took myself down for a final meal of stirfried vegetables in their "Searise" restaurant, featuring a fusion cuisine of wok-fried food, behind a glass kitchen, and many long wooden tables by two bright tv sets.

The waiter was very concerned that I liked the food -- that it was not too spicy for me -- and he came and offered me, as a treat, a handful of three Chinese fortune cookies.

"A fortune cookie!" I said. "On my last night in India!"

So of course, before opening, I, who always ask questions of fortune cookies, asked the obvious.

What I said, of this entire trip to India, can I take back with me to the West that will last?

I opened the crunchy Chinese pastry.

"Your happiness," it said. "Is intertwined with your outlook on life."


When I got to the airport the next morning, not even worried about whether I would have a chance to sleep on the l3 hour journey, late as I was for a window seat, the manager of Fin Air suddenly came to the ticket counter, interrupted the young lady servicing me and ripped up my ticket.

"I am upgrading you to business class," he said, with no explanation. "But with economy service."

When I got to the plane, however, the flight attendant scratched at my business class ticket and said she had another seat for me.

Remembering the "outlook" philosophy, I took it all in stride, but did momentarily protest.

"No, we are upgrading you again!" she said, again with no explanation. "To business class with first class service."
The first thing I did on the plane, as we flew over the Mumbai skyline, feeling perhaps like the street-girl surprised in the restaurant, and all the more thrilled that I had "earned" this myself, without more conventional means (money!), was sip a glass of champagne.


I thought my trip to India ended in India, but on the five hour lay-over in Finland, when I fell asleep on the bus to the city (first noting that the Finnish seemed extremely pale, compared to Indians, and the skyline astonishingly gray), I woke up and found a smiling man next to me.

"Will you show me the city?" I asked, and so we walked off down the city boulevards to the Helsinki market (past many stuffed reindeer) and sampled some red berries before the wharf.
Karin in Helsinki

He was (coincidence of coincidences) an American, who worked on orphanages around the world -- Finland, Russia, Austria -- and now was going to build his own log cabin in the north. Smiling, he told me his theory of God: no religion, he said, but the idea that God is a personal friend, who makes you tingle like a combination of water and electricity.

He believed, he said, that light attracts light.


continued from: