Back to my Roots – A Bombay Slum

Indian Street Scene

Meeting the family

“No, that’s mine!”  I pleaded, as I clutched desperately to the black leather covered cassette player with a shoulder strap.  Mum kicked my shin and whispered, “Give it to him.  I’ll get you another one.”

I was hot and tired.  It had been a long trip from Ireland to Bombay.  Especially as we’d taken the scenic route – Dublin, Heathrow, Munich, Damascus, Dubai and Bombay.  Granny hadn’t been back in India or seen her family in almost forty years.  She arrived in Plymouth on a boat at the tail end of the war with her young soldier husband, and a baby who is my Uncle Peter.  Daddy wasn’t born until 1945.  Granny was a real bargain hunter and loved to haggle.  She taught me to drive a very hard bargain.  That’s why we went the scenic route even though mum was paying.  Mum liked to travel and decided the trip would be good for me too.  I was fourteen years old.

“Thank you Auntie,” said Alan, clutching a bottle of whiskey and MY cassette player to his chest.  Alan was Granny’s nephew.  He’d arrived at our hotel on Juhu Beach moments after we entered the room.  His head bobbled from side to side when he spoke and he sported an out of date moustache.  He wore flares and a tight shirt.  He looked totally out of fashion.  He was short.  Mum showed him the lovely drainpipe jeans she’d brought with her as a gift.  Alan looked at them and quickly put them back into her suitcase.  It seemed that the fashion in India was a few years behind ours.

Mum asked for Cousin Clive’s address and persuaded Alan to leave as we needed some sleep.  Clive was Alan’s younger brother.

The following morning, a concierge hailed a Taxi.  Mum took charge and sat up front.  She had the address safely in her handbag along with her smokes, sun cream and a stash of cash.  The smell of singeing dust burned my nostrils and the black plastic seat stuck to my bare legs.  I wore very short shorts and a T-shirt. It was 1981 and I’d never been abroad.  The blasting of horns drilled through my head.  Cars drove anywhere there was space, weaving around carts, people and so called sacred cows.  A train jammed to bursting crossed in front of us.  People were spilling out from the windows.  I began to sweat even more as beggars tapped the car windows looking for money, their beseeching faces almost touching the glass.  I’d never seen so many crippled people or poor hungry beggars in my life.  Actually I’d never seen a beggar.

“Mum, please give them money…”

“We can’t, there are too many.  Keep your window closed.”

I began to sob and felt really guilty over making a fuss about the cassette player.

We crossed a river where the stench of something awful made me gag.  The roadside was lined with temporary shelters made from tattered plastic, wood and metal scraps.  They were even more makeshift than hideouts I’d made with my brother.  Granny said it would be monsoon season soon.

Despite the gloom and poverty, it was a colourful place and the bright fluttering saris looked like butterflies and flowers floating on the breeze.

The taxi stopped at what I suppose was a village of sorts.  Mum got out and told the driver to wait.  I thought she was going to be robbed as crowds of men and children appeared form nowhere and surrounded her.  She seemed to drift away, carried along by the throng.  Granny and I waited in the car.

At last, Mum returned, she was smiling and crying at the same time.  Granny and I got out and the taxi driver was paid to wait.  An Indian man said something to the driver which I’m sure was a warning not to leave.

Cousin Clive had been found.  Mum had simply said, “Clive”.  The word went around faster than a plague of cholera and he came to collect us from the car.  When I began to move between the dwellings, I was glad I’d had all my injections even though the smallpox jab left a lump on my bottom for weeks.  I walked with my legs wide apart straddling the open sewer that ran between the mud huts.  Chickens pecked in the dirt and squawked as we shuffled past.  Clive was tall and willowy with beautiful bright white teeth.  We turned right, left, left, right and left.  I had no idea where I was.  The crowd following us grew.  Screeching to each other what I can only imagine was the announcement of the arrival of Clive’s family – from England (even though we lived in Ireland).

Clive’s wife greeted us outside the house.

“Come. come Auntie,” she beckoned.

I soon learned that we were all called Auntie.  I said “hello”, and found my head bobbling in time with hers.  I had a love of mimickery.  She was as beautiful as any Miss India and very shy.  Clive and his wife were dressed in their best for our arrival.

The house was a simple one roomed hut made from cow dung.  Curtains screened a small sleeping area. A single light bulb dangled from a dodgy cable slung from corner to corner.  Layers of folded saris rested on a shelf and a few pots and pans were stacked in a corner.  It was tidy and as clean as you can make a mud and dung hut.  I could see there was nothing more and desperately wanted to ask my mum how they could live like this.  Granny had not lived like this when she lived in Bangalore.

Clive didn’t speak English as well as Alan, but he was a kind, generous and good man.  He’d sent one of his children off into the slum for some tea.

I went outside to breathe a little and was met by the chai wallah carrying a wire rack of chai.  Children ran up to me and touched and pulled my long golden hair, giggling as they did so.  I towered above all of them except Clive.  Granny always called tea cha so I was looking forward to a lovely cup of tea even though it was in a glass.  I put the glass to my lips.  It smelt odd.  I decided it was probably goat’s milk or the strange water.  It was thick, almost caramelised and not my cup of tea.  Mum gave me the look.  I drank it.  I felt queasy.  Clive paid the chai wallah and I smiled in fake gratitude.  The heat and the conditions were beginning to overpower the three of us so we bid our farewells.  Mum invited Clive and his family to join us for dinner in the five star hotel that night.  Alan and his family were coming too.  It was going to be one very interesting ‘bit of a do’.


A special thank you to Sanjay Gupta for supplying me with this wonderful image.

Meraid Griffin

Freelance writer, adventurer and public speaker. Descibed in the Sunday Times as a ‘modest explorer’. Nothing modest about me.

One Comment:

  1. What a great story – looking forward to next episode…

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