Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Bombay, baby!!!

It's my last evening here in Mumbai. Tomorrow, I fly back to London at lunchtime. This is my first trip to India and it has been a bit of a whistle stop tour as I just arrived in India five days ago. Even though it is a common thing for first time visitors to India to feel like being here is an assault on one's senses - the air, thick with exotic scents, and at times, pollution and repulsive odours, the overwhelming taste of the wide array of spices that flavour every local dish, the vivid colours of the beautiful saris that the local women wear, regardless of their socioeconomic status, the musicality of Hindi and over a dozen other regional languages - there is no doubt that I have just experienced a minutiae of what this grand country has to offer. Of course, you could spend a year traveling all corners of the country and still not feel like you have adequately experienced the vast arrays of cultures, cuisine, geography, etc. India is a country of almost 3.3 million sq km with a population of over 1.2 billion. Meanwhile, I have only spent a couple of days in two parts of it - the provincial Central India city Indore and the metropolis that is still called Bombay by the locals. All I can do is accept that I am only getting a tiny taster of India and be grateful for that.
The main purpose of my trip was to attend my oldest friend's wedding. A British-born Indian who is almost as unacquainted with Indian culture as her non-Indian guests, my friend married her Belgian husband last summer and was only having this Indian wedding to please her parents who wanted to celebrated their daughter's marriage as much as they wanted to celebrate their Indian heritage with their countless relatives and friends in India. It was a lovely affair and I couldn't have been more thrilled that I could have been a part of it.
After the wedding, I decided that I wanted to spend a couple of nights in Mumbai before returning to England. Although I, like millions of people around the world, had seen 'Slumdog Millionaire' when it came out in 2008, I knew that that there had to be more than just slums and squalor in this city by the sea (the Arabian Sea). I visited many of the iconic sites and places of Mumbai, including the Gateway of India (an archway that was erected to commemorate George V and Queen Mary's visit to India in 1911), Mani Bhavan (a house where Mahatma Gandhi lived for many years, whenever he was in Mumbai) and the majestic central rail station here, Victoria Terminus (although, officially, it is now called Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, an example of the renaming of key building and institutions to reflect the end of British rule).

My favourite place was Mani Bhavan, which now houses a modest but compelling museum to the Father of India. It is pretty hard not to be inspired by the man and I know that I'm not the only one. US President Barack Obama visited India in 2010, he was so moved by the man whose legacy Mani Bhavan represents that he subsequently sent a piece of stone from the Martin Luther King. Jr. Memorial, as a token of friendship between the two nations.
To use a rather common phrase that every city or country likes to use to describe itself, Mumbai is a city of contrasts; the old with the new, the religious and the secular, the rich and the poor, the last of which is more pronounced than anything else. You see people sleeping on the street and kids selling things as they weave in and out of the traffic. Meanwhile, there are billionaires living in ostentatious 27-level mansions towering the rest of the city. Of course, I am not one to judge since here I am staying in my 5-star hotel and taking a private city with my own driver and a separate English-speaking tour guide. The money that I'm spending in my short time here could probably be better spent by a few families living in the various slums that we drove by today. The picture below, by the way, is of the city's Dhobi Ghat - open air laundrette. It is where the middle class take their clothes to be washed by the poorer people who live in the surrounding slums for a small fee. Like Jenny from the Block once sang (using a line stolen from 20th Century Steel Band's 'Heaven and Hell Is on Earth'), 'everyone's got to make a living'!
I am staying at Trident Nariman Point in the affluent South Mumbai area, right by the sea. It is ranked third in the top hotels in Mumbai on Tripadvisor. The top two hotels are The Oberoi, followed by the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Both of these hotels were attacked by terrorists in 2008. Many people, locals and foreigners, were taken hostage and killed. I felt uneasy about sleeping in these hotels as I felt like they were the sites of some shocking violence and I did not want to absorb any of that energy. Little did I know that Trident Nariman Point is adjacent to the Oberoi! Oh, well...I'm leaving in 12 hours so what does it matter now?

Security is extremely tight getting into my hotel or any other 5-star hotel in this city (I experienced the same thing at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai on my first night here). This is a direct consequence of what happened in 2008. You are confronted by the sight of guards using car bomb detectors before you are even let through the gate and once inside, you have to put all bags through a bag scanner and walk through a metal detector. I don't enjoy this at the airport and I certainly don't enjoy this upon checking in at my luxury hotel when I'm on vacation but after what happened in 2008, this is definitely a necessary evil!

These past few days in India have been interesting and memorable. I'm not sure if or when I will be back again but if I do return, I will hopefully be a bit more prepared for it all and it is fair to say that there will always be an infinite amount of new experiences to be had!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

We are on our way...

Yesterday was a significant day; the UK's House of Commons passed a key vote proposing same sex marriage in England and Wales. While this measure does not automatically mean that this bill has passed into law, the overwhelming majority that voted in favour (a majority of 225 votes) pretty much guarantees its passage in the House of Lords, where the bill now goes. After all, it is highly unlikely that the unelected house would overrule a clear decision made by the elected house. If, as we expect it to, this bill gets enacted by the summer, as Prime Minister David Cameron plans to do, England and Wales will follow in the footsteps of less than a dozen countries around the world where there is same sex marriage. By this, I don't mean civil unions or partnerships or PACS (as they're called in France); I mean marriage in the traditional sense of the word, redefined as an institution to be more inclusive and encompassing of the social values of our constantly evolving world.

Even though this was the Conservative government's initiative, they faced a great deal of dissent from their backbenchers (with 136 Tory MPs opposing the bill), many of whom protested that such a proposal undermines the very essence of being the Conservative Party. However, I think that it's fairly obvious what Cameron's strategy with this is; it is to show younger voters, who might not be inclined to vote Conservative, that they are in touch with modern society and are prepared to evolve with it. It also demonstrates that the government is capable of working with the opposition on a social issue (with most Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs supporting the bill), one that is, arguably, even in 2013, still fairly divisive. Whatever the political motivations, I applaud them for carrying on the legacy of the Labour party who brought in civil partnerships less than a decade ago and going the full monty with what is the cornerstone of the struggle for gay rights equality. It's a step in the right direction. With no disrespect to the 11 pioneering countries that brought in same sex marriage before us (including Netherlands, Canda, Spain, South Africa and Argentina), the rest of the world will take notice of this. The UK will be the example that they may, one day, follow.

In the meantime, let's enjoy the music video below from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for their moving pro-same sex marriage song 'Same Love'.