This is it?”
It is an awkward moment when the cousin from out of town, on a weekend trip to Mumbai stands outside the Gateway of India, squinting in the sun, and says that.
Optimistic Mumbaikar that I am, even I am beginning to feel a little uneasy. The cousin looks around, walks up to the wall and looks at the bubbling sea beneath. The water shimmers emerald green due to suspended sewage and floating domestic waste. He looks up at me, bewildered.
If only he was a starry-eyed firang. They are easy to handle. So eager are they to see “India” that any little ploy impresses them.
Firang: “Oh my, this is extremely bootiful! I want to see more!”
You: “Excellent! Now if you will see this next traffic island...”
Firang: “Ooh, culture...ooh, heritage...”
But when it comes to those diversion-hungry relatives from New Delhi, Nashik, Sangli or even Kochi, Mumbai suddenly seems woefully short of things to keep people occupied.
There was another time. When the beaches, buildings, roads and even the street food kept visitors mesmerized. The kids could easily be satisfied with cotton candy, ice gola and pani puriwhile the elders gazed at the Queen’s Necklace with awe. Even weeks later, while the kids moaned with explosive diarrhoea, the elders would still share their thoughts on the excellent buildings of Mumbai.
And there’s today:
Beaches? They have those in Kochi, you know.
Burger? French fries? No, thanks. The McDonald’s in Ahmedabad will do.
Tall buildings? Mama, mami and the cousins live on the 32nd floor of a spanking new building in Nashik.
So much so that the last bastion of emergency sightseeing, the retail outlet, has been brought down ingloriously with a thump. Shopping malls and supermarkets, once the pride and joy of only the best metros in India, today pockmark every reasonably sized city and town. Today, you take your relative from Sangli to Phoenix Mills at your own risk. “I bet you don’t have this in Sangli?” you ask.
“No, we don’t. We have more parking, better lighting and you don’t get any Brie or Edam here. Only boring Mozzarella. You people eat poor, poor cheese.”
The local trains, bane for the natives and erstwhile amusement for visitors, have long been overshadowed by the Metro in New Delhi. Dilliwalas can barely get through a sentence without making some mention of this recent addition to their city:
Normal person: “Ayyo! I have been hit by a car!”
New Delhi person: “Oho! I have been hit by a car which is such an inferior mode of transport compared with the Metro we have in New Delhi!”
And don’t even get me started on the parks and museums here. The Prince of Wales is passable, and the National Gallery of Modern Art is truly a showcase of outstanding air conditioning. ‘The sights and sounds of Sanjay Gandhi National Park’ would make an excellent headline for a humorous essay.
Which leaves us with pitifully little to impress. Therefore, after some research, I have resorted to two little tricks to keep my visitors occupied.
First, I take all of them to the wonderful lobby of the Taj hotel near the Gateway and lounge around in the armchairs. When someone comes around to inspect the dozen Mallus chattering away, I speak up: “I can’t seem to find my third cellphone. Did anyone see me leaving it in the Mercedes? My Merc! No the blue one! The convertible! Without the fridge!” I overdo it sometimes.
Alternately, I take my friends outside great looking buildings in Bandra and tell them a celebrity lives inside.
“And this impressive building is where Anil Kapoor lives and breathes, as we speak!” I say triumphantly.
“But it says Domino’s Pizza here on this board...” my doubting cousin, of Gateway fame, retorts.
“Aha! That is to keep the paparazzi out!”
He looks like he’s buying it. Until the pizza guy drives out on his scooter with a 14-inch pepperoni.
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