We are ejected from the train at the ungodly time of 6.30am. Even cities like Mumbai are only waking up at that hour. It’s grim murky morning out there and everything is in shades of grey. Grey beggars, pallid phantom faces appearing in crumpled blankets, black Ambassadors creeping around, white steam rising from chai stalls. I take a step back to see what I’ve just emerged from and to get some orientation. In this light, Victoria Terminus is towering and almost gothic in proportions. Like the House of Usher it and its gargoyle carvings could crumble at any moment.
In keeping with the Edgar Allan Poe theme, the first hotel offers me a windowless coffin with no bathroom for 750RS – double what I’ve been paying and half the quality. I eventually get a room where I am stung for the outrageous sum of 2,200RS ($AUD70)!
I need good coffee to recover a modicum of positive attitude and there ain’t none. Am I dreaming or have I just spent the last however many weeks gazing at a veritable sea of the stuff? And yet so far, Mumbai appears to be awash with Nes-shité. Coffee coffee everywhere but not a drop to freakin’ drink! Sigh. Well they say in Australia that us Aussies never get to taste our best quality beef unless we go overseas…
After a shower and some tea I’m approaching human again and I wander out for another look. I didn’t expect to like Mumbai, but I do. Its tall blocky European buildings and organised streets breath a cosmopolitan atmosphere of bars and cafes (some of which I find do serve good coffee) and thanks to its relatively warmer latitude and access to sea breezes, it is not as polluted as Delhi (having said that, by the end of my second day my rattly unproductive cough had made a menacing reappearance).
It is still early morning and I’m surrounded by the Mumbaikar suit crowd, with their mobiles close to their ears and their briefcases swinging. The wafting air is still cool, intermingled with the incense from morning pujahs. I finally emerge at the edge of Mumbai’s crab claw harbour. The other tip of the claw is maybe twice as far as the view from Cremorne Point to Double Bay in Sydney Harbour but the early morning smog clouds my view of the distant apartment buildings.
The do-not-miss activity in this city is catching a boat for the four-kilometre trip to Elephanta Island to see the rock cut tombs there. The boat trip is long and we pass many waiting container ships and naval vessels along the way. After running the gauntlet of a thousand shops up the hill, the tombs are very impressive. They are cut deep into the rock and have beautifully carved supporting columns within. There is nothing elephantine to see despite the name, although there was once. The Portuguese renamed it Elephanta because of a large stone statue of an elephant near the shore. This collapsed in 1814 and the British moved it and reassembled the statue’s remaining pieces at Victoria Gardens.
On the boat trip back a young man with glasses and prominent front teeth, in a mustard and cream jumper-and-slacks ensemble, opens up a conversation with me.
‘I see you are from Turkey,’ he says eyeing my Gallipoli 79th anniversary commemoration T-shirt.
‘Ah, no; Australian actually. This shirt comes from ANZAC House at Cannakkale,’ I explain.
‘Oh! I am going to your beautiful country to live in June this year.’
‘Really? What will you do there and why did you choose Australia? Have you been before?’
‘I have not been before. I like the laid-back attitude of the Australian people I meet – they are so friendly. I work as a government interpreter for tourists. As well as English and a few Indian languages I speak Spanish, Russian and Japanese. I have all the major languages of the world’s population covered,’ he says confidently.
‘Oh my word. That’s impressive. You might think this ironic, but I suspect you will find your Indian language skills the most in demand Australia. India is growing in trade importance everywhere and given that we are in the same region…’
‘Yes, yes, thankyou. I am hoping so.’ He briefly turns around to his left to speak in Spanish to an elderly couple he is sitting with.
‘I’m not distracting you from your work?’
‘No, no, my day is over with these people. I told them I have found an Australian to quiz about my trip and they said it was fine.’
‘If you are trying to cover off the major languages in the world why didn’t you learn Mandarin?’ I ask, thinking this is likely to be the most sought-after language skill required in Australia in the next 10-50 years.
‘I don’t like Chinese so much. I can still read the characters though, as it has many in common with Japanese.’
Fair enough. We talk for some time about the differing personalities of various Sydney suburbs and where he might like to live, the tight rental market in Sydney and the costs there and in Mumbai, what he would like to see in Australia and where I have been in India.
‘I have saved $US50,000 because I have been working like a dog. I would like to travel for a few months before I start working.’
‘Have you read up much on Australia yet?’
‘This job is very long hours. At the end of a long day you are too tired to read and there is no time.’
I’m more than just a little concerned that he is planning to stay in Australia ‘forever’ when he has never been there and not had time to read much about it either. His opinions are based largely on Australians he has met in his own country. I feel I need to gently hint at some of the realities he might face. ‘People are far more open and approachable when they themselves are travelling. The social scene in Sydney can be very hard to break into when you don’t know anybody, Magesh. It can be very hard for single people who do have a circle of friends.’
‘Ah, but I hear there is a shortage of single men in Sydney,’ he says, his eyes gleaming.
‘Well I think that is true for my age range, but I believe it may be the opposite for yours.’ I can’t help smiling at his confidence.
‘But I like older women. I think it is better to be with an older woman.’ He smiles at me suavely.
Yarr, I’m reading you like a cheap detective novel, Sonny Jim.
‘They have more money and they look after you more like a child.’
‘Personally, I would have a baby if I had a need for a child,’ I quip, somewhat acerbically.
He laughs. ‘But what is wrong if that is what they want? Everybody is different.’ He continues, ‘I have been to South Africa and Brazil. Both times at the invitation of women I have worked for here in India. They liked me and they said “Magesh, you must come and visit me and I will look after you and show you around my country”.’
Magesh is certainly in the right job. Flattery is like breathing for him and he manages (barely) not to lay it on too thick.
Surprisingly, I find out that Magesh is not just the only son his parents have, but that he is an only child as well.
‘How do your parents feel about you going all the way to Australia to live? Are they worried you might marry a non-Indian girl?’
‘Not at all. My mother she says, “Australian, English, American, doesn’t matter”.’
‘Your family are very liberal minded then. What does your mother do?’
‘She is a university professor in maths and science. My father is a businessman.’
‘So they haven’t tried to arrange a marriage for you? Thirty seems relatively old for a man to still be single in India?’
‘No at all. People are getting married later and later. I was living with my girlfriend for two years.’
‘Is that so? Can she not go with you?’
‘No, she wouldn’t leave her family. This is important to me, so I had to make this hard decision.’
‘Oh, that’s sad Magesh. Will it be hard for her to marry now after living with someone?’
‘No, no. Her parents are very relaxed like my parents.’
‘They must be, compared to what you normally hear. Does she work?’
‘No, her father is a wealthy businessman. She has plenty of money.’
Ah. And money helps buy flexibility.
Our conversation goes on for the best part of the hour-long boat ride. Nearing the dock Magesh says, ‘I am finished work for the day. Would you like to have some tea with me?’
I’m thinking that we may have already exhausted just about every conversational possibility. I manage to disentangle myself from his naked ambition regarding older women and avoid more specific topics arising by saying, ‘that would have been lovely thankyou, but I only have two half days to see Mumbai and there’s so much more I’d like to see.’
I thought quite a bit about Magesh that evening, hoping he will not be disillusioned by Australia and that it will live up to his dreams. Australia certainly needs all the smart hard-working Mageshs it can get right now…and maybe there are some older single women out there who would resoundingly agree.