I found this lying on a backup drive recently. Long since forgetten. But, with the end of the Bush era approaching and dark recent days in Mumbai, I thought it appropriate to post it. It tells the brief tale of a week in Mumbai when I met one of the richest men in the world and George Bush got elected.
I did get to go back to Mumbai after this. Still loved it. Still very sad what happened.
As a wiser man than I once said, it was the summer of 2000, what else was I going to be doing?
A daft boy from Wester Hailes and a dafter one from the rough side of Belfast sit down in First Class of a French jet heading for Mumbai, India. On the plane they were greeted by a very well appointed private hostess who handed them a pair of slippers and 100% cotton pyjamas. Like good working class boys, the quickly stuff them into their bags in case anyone decides to take them back. The plane takes off and leaves Paris behind, Concordes look tiny on the ground, imperious and safe. It was before one crashed.
It was a nine hour flight and they settled down and were relaxed by a seemingly endless supply of 10 year old Champagne. Then the food came. Quails eggs, lots of dainty stuff and finished off with a cheese board and a wide selection of wines, red and white. By this time, the 4 other passengers were sitting back to relax. Our intrepid heroes, meanwhile, were a wee bit jaked and proceeded to have great fun making the powered chairs go up and down with a press of a button. These were to come in handy on the way back. Completely horizontal, the seats are perfect beds, especially with duvet and pillow.
The long haul over Iran, watched a few films on the personal TV set and then the right turn over Pakistan, heading South for Mumbai. Running down the side of the many islands that make up the long needle peninsula of Mumbai, the sky was dark and the moon bright. Banking sharply over the bay, the hills in the centre of the city could be seen, lit of beautifully. It was Divali, the festival of lights. Every house seemed to have something alight or glowing.
The planes lands and our boys are let off first while the poor souls in cattle class press against the stewardess holding them back. In the airport, two trolleys are waiting next to the carousel, reserved, with name tags, for our first class heroes. It’s now late at night, it’s been a long day since the 4am start in Edinburgh. A dark and frightening ride through the helter-skelter streets of Mumbai and they are at the hotel. They have been before so it is pleasingly familiar. They know the routine and their specially appointed guest liaison girls are as efficient as they are beautiful.
A very short sleep, disturbed by changing timezones and they are up. They are collected by Suhas. A very gentle Indian who wears checked shirts and can’t turn his head because of a previous car crash. Reassuring. A bright Mumbai morning. All the world is on the street. People are showering, shaving, pissing at the side of the road. The normal traffic rules apply. Bike beats pedestrian, auto-rickshaw beats bike, car beats auto-rickshaw, bus beats car, lorry beats bus. It all beats me. At every junction, this full size game of Top Trumps is played out with a wild soundtrack of loudly blown horns. The cows play their jokers. They beat everything on the road and everything swerves to avoid them.
They arrive at the office having been outside in the open so far, for about 3.4 seconds. Another 5.2 seconds between car and office and they are back in the air-conditioned cool. Warm greetings. Off to the boss’ office. A small boy is summoned and coffee is brought in china cups. They remember the rules ‘let him do it, best not to offend’. The plan for the day is made. They are told of important visitors from Japan. Luckily, they had been tipped off and had put ties into bags. With Europeans and Japanese in the office, the Indians could not and would not resist an introduction. And so it happened. Everything they had been taught about Japanese culture disappeared from their heads. ‘This is the Professor from Waseda University.’ He offers his card and it duly taken with one hand, read and stuck in pocket. All no-nos. You should take it with two hands and NEVER put it away. They ask for cards in return. They were left in our hereos office on the 3rd floor. No card. ‘No card!’ exclaim the Japanese. It’s a major cultural incident but it is quickly sorted out.
The rest of the day goes by. The Japanese are due to meet Mukesh Ambani, a billionaire, head of the largest company in India, friend of American Presidents and other glitterati. The boys are here to do work. So they set about it with all the energy they have left after the long journey. The Japanese look tired too, they had only just arrived too but flew East->West, harder on the jet lag.
The day passes. The gauntlet of the canteen was run. Scott remembers his last visit there. It was a small concert. Out of the blue had been asked to sing. He played a sing into the Mumbai night sky, the guitar and his voice out of tune. 200 Indians went wild. It was a nice memory. The lunch wasn’t. They ate very little. After lunch they sneaked into the office and ate Mars Bars.
3.30 came and Alistair appears. ‘Get your bag, we’re off.’
‘To see Mukesh!’
They had blagged their way into the meeting. The ties would come in very handy.
A convoy of cars leave the office for the 90 minute car journey to the south of the city. As always in Mumbai, it is never boring – driving about watching the crazy world go by. As always, crossing the open sewer of a river is less pleasant. As they approach Nariman Point, they pass places Scott remembers. The Mosque out in the bay where he visited before and saw so many unfortunates collecting alms with whichever limbs they had remaining. The Gateway of India where he had boarded a boat to Elephanta and the Buddhist Temple. And then to the Reliance building.
The boardroom of one of the richest men in the world. The Indian hosts buzz about nervously. Mukesh is late. We find out later he is being briefed about the Japanese so he can have a sensible conversation with them. The Professor is an expert in communications and video compression. Mukesh isn’t. But you never would have known.
And then he comes in, no tie, a plain white shirt, open necked. Smiling. The other Indians visibly lose height. Our heroes are introduced. Few words, handshake.
The meeting passes, it is dull. Just sitting, listening, saying nothing.
And then he leaves and his Indian entourage follow. It’s only our heroes and the Japanese. It’s nearly 7pm by this time. They are all tired and hungry.
‘What about these Indian’s time keeping?’ asks the ever bold Irishman.
The Japanese don’t know what to say. It would appear he is slagging the host and a very rich one at that. It doesn’t compute. They fall about in hysterics. The Indian’s come back in. Talk, talk blether. “Food! We need food!” is the unspoken cry.
‘OK, we have table booked at a restaurant.’
It is North of here, probably 45 minutes drive. They realise that this isn’t so good. Our boss and lady MD goes out.
Scott goes to the loo. It’s late in office hours. Still the building is busy, people just hanging about waiting to be told to do something. So they were told to get food. It wasn’t looking good. What were they going to bring? And then it arrived. Cheese toasties! It was manna from heaven. They were scoffed in an instant.
Back in the cars and heading north. Dark now but still busy. Long drive to the Jewel of India, one of the best places in Mumbai. They get their table, 2 Indians, 3 Japanese, and Irishman and Scotsman. The Indian insist on ordering. The starters come and are unfeasibly hot. Hunger compelled eating. Burning mouth compelled beer. More food, more beer. Timezones, tiredness, hunger, heat, beer. This was going to be interesting. The chat got faster in more languages than was sensible. Alistair tells a long story. To his left, the old Japanese Professor is asleep at the table sitting up. It’s all a bit too much.
Eventually, approaching midnight, the night ends and it’s off back to hotel. What day is it? What country am I in?
The rest of the week passes. By Wednesday lunchtime, it all catches up. They can’t eat in the canteen and, summoning a driver, head back to the hotel, their white faces attracting attention as well as lepers. At the hotel, the eat fish and chips. It’s a saviour. But Alistair’s guts have gone. He disappears for the rest of the day. Scott watches a DVD on his laptop. Orders room service. Prawns, he’s getting brave. And then to watch CNN. It’s the Presidential election. They are recounting Florida, it’s quite entertaining. But Bush wins. Mmmm….
For the rest of the week, nothing gets done. Europeans are tokens, magic wands that can get applied to anything. Scott consults on Indian tax returns down town. He has lunch in a swanky restaurant but this time orders his own. The Indians seem insulted but he doesn’t care. On the way to the car, he is followed by a woman with a sick child, she nearly gets into the car but his Indian hosts stop her. A fight has broken out nearby, car doesn’t beat car, they just bend each other.
The week ends with the final run back to the hotel. Vasant finally wins and gets to drive them back through the busy Friday night darkness. He’s a big Kenny Rogers fans. Heaving population, cows in the street and men mending bikes next to eye-laser clinics, people selling shoes in the street outside Internet cafes.
‘Oh Ruby, don’t take your love to town.’
It’s a strange feeling. I’d love to go back.