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Wednesday
Dec122007

Trunk Space

12427-1210599-thumbnail.jpgIn many places around the city, you'll see political graffiti covering walls and fences. Much of the hand-painted art is quite attractive and shows great care in its production. Take this elephant, for example. Love it! Given the number of them around town, it's clear that at least one person in Mumbai has developed quite a knack for painting elephants.

These blue elephants - the majority of this political graphiti art we've seen - promote the Bahujan Samaj Party (Hindi: बहुजन समाज पार्टी), or "BSP". The BSP is a national political party in India with socialist leanings. Apparently, it was formed initially to represent "Dalits", those historically at the bottom of the Indian caste system known as "untouchables", but has since worked hard to broaden its base of support.

The BSP was founded by a charismatic leader in 1984; since that time, the party has met with considerable success. In May 2007, for example, the BSP won a clear majority in India's most populated state, Uttar Pradesh - no small feat in the democratic country with over 700 registered political parties!

I can't help thinking there's a lesson in this for the American Republican party. Given its success in India, perhaps this cute graffiti elephant could make an impact in 2008. (Hmm, I wonder if I can find that artist and secure the copyrights?)

Wednesday
Dec122007

Rare Air

12427-1209701-thumbnail.jpgOver the last few nights, we've noticed the cumulative effects of Mumbai's terrible air quality. Often, I feel like a two-pack-a-day smoker when I get back to the hotel.

The air starts relatively clear in the morning, but gives way quickly to a building blanket of smog by noon. By late evening, the air quality is so bad in some parts of the city that car headlights reveal a veritable fog of noxious stuff on its way to your lungs.

It's no wonder that Mumbai has a very high incidence of chronic respiratory problems. Estimates place the percentage of the population suffering at around 10%.

The causes of pollution are straight-forward and all stem from the city's extreme population size: industrial output from factories located in the eastern suburbs, massive garbage burning at the city dump and wholly uncontrolled vehicle emissions from the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that crowd the streets day and night.

The most visible contributor to the problem is traffic exhaust. It's not uncommon to see an open auto rik parked inches from a truck's tail pipe such that the cloud of diesel exhaust obscures its patrons from view!

Perhaps the most insidious contributor, however, is the nightly burning of garbage at the Municipal Garbage Dump. One environmental health organization here claims that the level of air-born particulate matter in the neighborhoods around the dump is about 2000 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organization (WHO), by contrast, defines the upper acceptable limit at 150.

Asthmatic visitors to Mumbai be warned: don't forget your puffer!

Wednesday
Dec122007

Traffic Signal

1.jpgBollywood, India's movie industry, is Mumbai's biggest business. Many here are involved with the industry; millions more are enthralled.

Bollywood's staple fare is escapist fantasies of love and adventure, complete with songs and dance. The formula has generated hundreds of successful releases and created numerous international stars. Not every movie, however, takes you away. Some movies, like this year's Traffic Signal, bring you very close to home.

At the heart of the movie's plot is the plight and exploitation of Mumbai's homeless children. Unfortunately, such children are legion in Mumbai. At almost every traffic signal in the city, we've encountered child beggars waiting for the red light. At the light, they come into traffic looking into auto riks and tapping on car windows begging for alms. The sorrow and dejection in the small, defeated eyes are enough to inspire even the hardest heart to action.

That said, Mumbai citizens have hardened considerably since the release of Traffic Signal. In the film, the main character - a young homeless boy - is just one cog in a hidden industry perched above the poverty and despair. The film depicts each signal having a "manager" who organizes the labor and collects a percentage of the day’s revenue from each beggar. The collection is part of a larger pyramid scheme, flowing up through a regional manager and city Mafioso to a king pin, who, at least in the movie, lives off shore.

From a social perspective, it's interesting to hear that the release of one Bollywood film may be responsible for choking off the flow of alms to street kids. Our friends here report that the revelations in the movie have indeed led to a major reduction in individual charity. "Giving to the street just encourages exploitation," says the new reality. The question that arises, of course, is whether truth has inspired fiction or whether fiction has created a new truth.

Tuesday
Dec112007

So Sari

12427-1208508-thumbnail.jpg
Photo: Gareth Hacker
The recurring theme for us on this trip is "contrast". Everywhere you look in Mumbai you find them.

It struck me that one reason contrast seems ever-present here is the Sari - India's traditional Hindu female attire. While the predominant color of Mumbai is tan, saris are colored anything but. Against this backdrop, the bright, intricate detail, flattering shape and elegant flow of these garments is quite eye-catching and nothing short of beautiful.

At it's core, a sari is one long strip of unstitched cloth, ranging I understand from four to as much as nine meters in length. Women wrap this cloth around the body to form various styles. The most common style is for the sari to be wrapped around the waist, with one end draped over the shoulder, however that's just the beginning. Trained eyes are supposed to be a able to tell where a woman is from just by how their sari is draped.

12427-1208083-thumbnail.jpgSari shops, incidentally, are equally beautiful to view. In order to attract passers-by, shops try their best to display their wares in a way that maximizes the visual impact of the size, color and diversity of their fabrics. Put it this way: there's certainly no doubt what's being sold if you're passing a sari shop.

I'd imagine sari shopping would be quite a fun outing for women visiting the city.

Tuesday
Dec112007

Haggle School

Night%20Bazaar.jpgThis evening, one of our friends was kind enough to take us to a bazaar for some genuine Indian shopping. We walked along packed streets and alleyways among all of the small, busy shops. It was one of our most cherished experiences thus far.

While I can't share what we purchased (Christmas is coming after all), I can point out how we purchased. In a word, we did so only after haggling.

For haggling, our friend took us to the right place. Once we found stores with items we wanted, he pointed out the do's and don'ts of shopping in Indian markets. Despite the coaching, however, we decided it would be best for him to take over and he did so with suave and aplomb.

Here are the basic rules for haggling success we learned from this experience:

1. Don't be foreign - Sorry tourists: no discount for you. These shop keepers know you're a foreigner just by the way you open the door, and, by the way, if you do that too slowly, they'll have the tags switched to even higher prices before you get to the counter!

2. Do be local - Haggling in the bazaar has its own vocabulary and body language. It's like professional poker: if you don't know the lingo or the tells, your chances of winning drop to zero. Mumbaians, on the other hand, do it every day for the things they need and want. This hones the skills. If you're breaking rule #1, find someone who plays by rule #2 to stand in your stead.

3. Shop around - No matter who's buying, you can always vote with your feet. Trust me: with 13 million people in Mumbai, there's more than one store selling what you're after. In fact, checking right next door will often bear fruit. If your friend can't get the right price, move on. After all, even if you pay the same in another shop, you'll have imbibed that much more deeply of the bazaar's intoxicating environment (and diesel fumes, but that's a subject for another post).

That's about all I gathered. After these tips, you're on your own.

To be honest, I didn't really learn that much given the fact our friend handled the negotiations. All I can tell you is that I left the bazaar with what I wanted and, through haggling, saved about 1.75%.

On the way back to the car, I asked my friend, "How much would you have saved if I were not along?" In the most matter-of-fact way, he replied: "oh, about 15%".