Thursday, June 26, 2014

Two faces of Mumbai

I passed through Mumbai twice in my young life. I had a different experience each time. It had something to do with how I stepped into Mumbai. I am pretty sure about that.

The first time I stepped down at Mumbai, I was a 13 year old girl, accompanied by my 15 year old brother. This was May 1973. We were traveling from Jamnagar to Bangalore (where we lived) by train. We had to switch trains in Mumbai. Our connecting train was to arrive late in the night. My father had written down the address of a friend of his where we could spend the time.

It was the 70s and telephones were a rare thing. Our only option was to just get to the place where the friend lived. We went outside the railway station, and my brother tried to get directions to the place we were to go to, by asking some people passing by. They kept walking on, throwing a cursory glance at the paper where the address was written, and not saying a thing. We got no help at all.

He tried to talk to a taxi driver about getting to the place. The taxi driver quoted a big sum. My brother backed off, thinking it better not to visit the friend after all. The taxi driver raised a hue and cry about being looted of his fare, though my brother had just asked about the fare. A lot of people jumped in, siding with the taxi driver, and my brother had to shell out some money to appease him.

We opted to spend the time on the platform. We visited the bathroom in turns, one person remaining behind to guard the luggage. I had just been gifted a big white go-go bag (that is what large bags were called in 70s) by my cousin. I had stuffed it full of some treasures - photographs, some certificates and a little empty scent bottle that had once belonged to my mother. No money. I left the bag on top of the suitcases and went to the loo. When I returned, my brother was loitering rather far from the luggage, and there was no sign of the bag. I had lost my treasure.

Later in the night, we were lounging near our luggage, when a policeman came and asked us to go outside the Railway Station and wait there. That scared my brother. We were looking around for help and saw a group of Army men waiting to travel by the same train. A kindly officer of the group asked us to sit close to them and said the policemen would not harass us if we were with them. We were able to wait unmolested and carried on with our journey without a hitch. I really don't know what would have happened if we had been forced to wait outside the Railway Station.

By August 1973, our family moved north for good. My older brother was already in Jamnagar. I was set to travel with my parents up to Mumbai by air. From there, I was take a flight to Jamnagar and my parents were to take a flight to Delhi. Again, we were to reach Mumbai by late evening and stay overnight in a hotel on the airport and take our separate flights the next morning. We reached Mumbai and wanted most of all to get to our room and rest.

We went to check in at the hotel where we were booked. The clerk asked us to wait in the lounge. From the waiting lounge I could see how everything was lit up, clean and shiny everywhere. What a lovely place Mumbai is from this angle, I thought. It had been grimy and dirty and insolent when I had been there from the Railway Station. This is how the rich feel, all sanitized and glittery. They get used to people kowtowing to them. For us, taking a flight was necessitated by the fact that I was to travel alone from Mumbai to Jamnagar, and also that my younger brother was a babe-in-arms.

An hour passed and the hotel clerk showed no signs of showing us to our room. My father went to the hotel desk to inquire why there was a delay. The room we were to be shown into, had no soap, the clerk told us. He had sent an attendant to get a bar of soap for us. This was the reason for the delay. My father said, we have soap and wanted the room right away. It seemed so different from the reception I got when I visited Mumbai first. Then people would not attend to us or tried to browbeat us because they thought we were not rich. Now, a room was not supposed to be good enough for us because it had no soap!

I do not wish to blame only Mumbai for this attitude. It is just that being from a laid back place like Bangalore, or being raised in a small town like Jamnagar, I was not used to the hustling ways of big city. Now that I have lived a bit, I know all cities have these two faces. One is a smooth shiny, courteous one it shows to the moneybags. The other face gets stonier and ruder and angrier, the lower you are on the poverty scales.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A visit to NASA - 2013

My memory of our world's forays into Outer Space date back to July 1969.  We were given a day off in school at midday when it was announced that Man had landed on the Moon.  I thought of that as a some far fetched notion that older people were always trotting out to children.  Later, my father sent me and my brother couple of beautifully illustrated books about the space mission and the Moon.  He was in the USA at that time. My brother also got a toy model of the spacecraft that had to be assembled. We were not able to get it together because the glue required to paste the model together was not available in India.

Much later I kept hearing about Houston as the place where all the space missions were controlled.  "Houston, we've had a problem here" is a famous quote.

Even before I was to visit Houston, I looked up some places I could visit locally, and found the NASA tour as a tourist attraction. I just had to visit the place.

From where we were living, Johnson Space Center was barely a 10 minute drive away.  On a clear sunny day, which are plentiful in Houston, we made our way to NASA. 

For the visitors, NASA has rides and games for little children.  A trip through a scaled down model of the spacecraft.  A film about the first landing, a muesum of space artefacts (spacesuits, moonrock, pictures, actual vehicle used on moon for scouting, etc), and a tour around the NASA campus.  The area is highly classified and no one may wander except on the tour bus.

We saw the film, went around the muesum, checked out the spacecraft model, went on the campus tour.  The campus tour is mostly just pointing out to various buildings where no one is admitted.  We did get to peek into one building where brainstroming takes place.  It was littered with desktop computers, and was empty as it was a Saturday.  We got ourselves photographed against parts of Apollo 13 rocket that are housed in a large warehouse.  We even visited the souvenir shop and bought some fridge magnets and tiny stuff like that.

Just before we embarked on the campus tour, we were photographed against a blue screen.  We thought these were security measures.  I was  amused when we were handed some pictures of us against various backdrops, a rocket etc, and given an option of buying them.  These were photoshopped versions of our picture taken earlier.  It was almost like we were back in Jaipur, being urged to buy prints of our pictures photoshopped against various monuments.  The price was steep, so we refused the prints. 

Later, my daughter was able to download a stamped version of that picture from the NASA site.  

That evening we were to go and see "Gravity" in the local IMAX.  Watching simulated Space in 3D for the second time in the day was quite eerie.  The children were not very kicked about the film, as little happens during it.  But I liked it, even if it was rather claustrophobia-inducing to see poor Sandra Bullock trapped in space.