A stroll to the post office…

My first few days in India, I told Kate and Tom that one of the top things on my list of things to do was to buy picture postcards to mail back home to my old-fashioned friends. Wait — it’s not just the old-fashioned who like that, but even people who themselves never resort to paper correspondence or postage stamps are normally more than glad to discover a postcard from a faraway place in their mailboxes.

Neither of them had noticed postcards for sale anywhere during the many months they’ve been in India, but we read online that the huge General Post Office has them; you might have read in a previous post about my failure to find any there. But Tom did buy stamps that day.

Last week a visitor to our new baby suggested The Bombay Store closer to home, so a few days ago Kate and I took the baby in the car and spent a long while shopping there, but they didn’t sell postcards, either. They told us to go to the local post office, which we actually tried to do immediately after, but couldn’t locate it where the driver remembered it had been….

So Friday Kate suggested we go and check out the post office on foot; Tom had the car and driver on business. She had found a different such office on her phone and it looked like a short walk. Since it would be such a brief outing we left fed-and-sleeping Raj with Kareena. It was the hottest time of day, and temperate winter weather for these parts, i.e. about 90 degrees. We felt it.

We maneuvered in traffic and squeezed between parked motorcycles. We picked our way over broken sidewalks and walked alongside the moving rickshaws and buses in places where the sidewalk was missing. Early afternoon, the sidewalks were crowded with people, including schoolchildren like these in pink uniforms who were about to enter the gate of the convent school down the block.

The post office was pretty easy to find. We walked up to the window that said Stamps and Stationary [sic]. The woman behind the grille said, No, they did not have postcards. She asked another patron nearby whose English was better to help us, and he gave us vague directions, waving with his arm, to a bookstore down the street “on this side,” where he assured us we would find what we were searching for.

I decided to buy stamps while we were there, on faith that I would eventually have something to stick them on. I laid rupees enough for ten stamps on the green marble counter, and was handed three bills in change. Then we waited. The postal lady was eating her lunch.

When she had eaten the last bite, she cleaned up her desk and had one more swig from her pink water bottle. After another few minutes she passed my stamps through, with instructions to put “one of these, and four of these, on each postcard.”

 

On we went to look for the bookshop. Kate was also on the lookout for a chemist to see if they had diapers. We did find a chemist on the way, where the packages contained too few diapers, but I bought four shrink-wrapped pills for 12 rupees. A rupee is worth about one and a half American cents.

Oh, and the ATM: we stopped by the little room off the main bank building, staffed by two attendants/guards, and used our U.S. debit cards to pull out rupees, a limit of 5,000 rupees per transaction. Along every sidewalk I saw sights that made me glad I had my camera ready.

Now, where was that bookshop? Crossing back and forth through busy intersections — there were some helpful traffic lights on this street! — and with Kate following her Google map, we finally found it, and entered. Why of course, the bookseller had postcards; a new supply had just arrived in the shop the morning before. His business is to make his customers happy, he emphasized, as he took a few packets from a small stack behind the counter.

Kate deliberated with me over which collections to choose, based on the subjects listed on the back of the package, and not able to see any of the actual cards. I wanted pictures of everyday scenes such as I have actually experienced, and not the big tourist spots, most of which I won’t see.

It seemed clear from the brief text and the covers that these were the sort of postcards I was looking for, and I bought two packs of 20 each, Wallahs (merchants) and Mumbai Buzz, just to be sure that I would find a few that I actually wanted to send, once I saw them.  I noticed then that the name of the shop printed on the bag was The Happy Book Stall.

When at home we all examined all the cards, we were amazed at the “vintage” quality. The photos appear to have been taken about 25 years ago, and the print quality is worse than that. The word art would not be associated with most of the pictures in any way, except of the sort of interesting framing that can randomly happen when you give a camera to a five-year-old.

But I’m very pleased! I’d still like to see if any others exist in town, so I will keep my eyes open, but now I’m ready to start my picture postcard correspondence. And I saw so many sights on this short outing; if I had my printer and my card stock paper, etc. I would make my own postcards. But then I would be missing something I can’t put my finger or my words on — because there’s no doubt this collection I have acquired is accidentally telling a story about India.

 

 

Food for the mind, feasts for the eyes.

If I have trouble putting together a Real blog post, it’s not because I haven’t been soaking up the sights and thinking about so many things. Now that I am actually here, I have been reading about and discussing with Kate and Tom Indian history, language, politics, slums, and religion.

The night before Baby Raj was born, Tom projected maps of India on the big screen and gave a little talk on various of these topics — it was the best sort of lesson for me, the map presentation helping me to tie bits of knowledge together in my mind. Perhaps there’s a chance I will retain more than a smidgen.

My “studies” are interspersed with or carried on in the midst of Baby Immersion. Just being in a home where a newborn baby lives and breathes and will stare back at you with no feeling of awkwardness — it’s too sweet.

This baby will have Indian nannies as long as he lives here, so some of the first words impressed on his pliable mind will be from Indian languages. But which ones? Hindi is not the primary language spoken in these parts, and India has designated 30 languages as “official” languages of the nation. According to Census of India of 2001, India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages.

20% of Indians speak Dravidian languages, which are not even related to Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi. These and other non-Hindi speakers have fought against proposals to impose the Hindi language in southern India. The Indian constitution does not give any language the status of national language, but the authorized version of laws is required to be in English, and the business of the Supreme Court is conducted in English.

I’ve learned very few Indian words, mostly names of food. But I didn’t learn the name of the Diwali festival treat above before eating the last one in the house. Almost everyone I encounter seems to speak at least a little English, but sometimes I can’t understand one word in a whole sentence by the most fluent speakers, because of their accent.

Everywhere we go I feast on colors, and feel myself to be somewhat ghostly in appearance in contrast to the Indian women in their rich attire. I’m sure I will come home with a few new and bright, concrete items to go with the images on my computer and the imprints on my mind. New dishes are constantly being set out on this banquet table.

An afternoon in South Mumbai.

I’m staying with Kate and Tom in the Suburban District of Mumbai, which is the larger part of the city and brimming with things to see and do. After spending my first ten days here, I had my first brief experience of the downtown hub of South Mumbai one afternoon when Tom and I made the trip with a few small goals in mind. The excursion was fun for me even though it was somewhat unsuccessful in the first stages.

We thought we’d visit the tip of the island, where in 1858 the British consecrated the Church of St. John the Evangelist as a memorial to soldiers slain in the First Afghan War of 1838. I had seen it on a list of The Ten Most Architecturally Interesting Churches in Mumbai. It is known as The Afghan Church

The church sits in the middle of an area of military buildings, a little remote from the busiest part of the city. Tom hadn’t yet been this far south. In this photo I found online, you can see the two towers of the Mumbai World Trade Centre in the background with the church spire in front. As we approached, a couple of British hippies were leaving, and they told us that it was locked, and “spooky.”

We walked around the building and noticed the wall stones stained black, unkempt landscape, and old signs lying randomly around, and could well believe that it was locked and never used. How sad, that no one, or at least no one who had the means to do anything about it, cared about this church that had a beautiful design and holy purpose. I took a picture of the detail on the base of a large stone cross in front of the church, which is my favorite image from my visit.

As we were walking out the gate again a small boy wandered over to us from a little house nearby and told Tom that he had the key to the church. I at least was not interested enough to take him seriously; I had given up on the Afghan Church at that point. We read online later that “Visitors may obtain access to view the historic church interior from the [lax] on-site custodian.” The website also said that a small congregation there holds services.

We stopped by another venerable building, the General Post Office, because we’d heard that they sold postcards, but no. Whether they normally sell them or not we never learned. We visited a room where several people seemed to be at work, but they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell us anything but that they were closed. I haven’t given up hope that I will find some postcards in time to mail them before I go home — maybe when I visit a more touristy spot?

Our last stop was exciting and satisfying, the iconic Victoria Terminus of Bombay, known simply as CST now, for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus of Mumbai. Over 1,000 trains come and go every day from 18 platforms in this huge building, and for a watching companion I had my son-in-law who is the best guide possible, fascinated as he is — and knowledgeable about — railways all over the world. We enjoyed taking videos in both slow-motion and time-lapse modes, of the swarms of people flowing into and hopping out of the cars. Two million passengers pass through daily! I could have stared at that scene for hours.

 
This station was planned as a commemoration the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and took ten years to build from the beginning of the project in 1848. It is said to be “a fusion of influences from Victorian Italianate Gothic Revival architecture and classical Indian architecture.” It is so grand, it is often mistaken for a palace or a cathedral.
 
The lights that have been installed on the exterior seem to me to contribute to an ongoing fusion of style. 16 million lights in different colors are available to create an ever-changing display according to the different festivals throughout the calendar. As we were driving away at dusk, I was surprised to see lavender hues that hadn’t been there in my first photos, and the next day I read about the lights and found examples of the most brilliant displays to show Kate.

Since our visit I’ve also seen unbelievable and scary train scenes from Tom’s phone, that he recorded previously and of the sort I’ll never have the opportunity to witness firsthand. My acquaintance with Indian railways and trains is certainly minuscule at this point; I hope to actually ride a train before I’m done, and afterward I should have more to tell.

Here’s a car with the picture on the side showing that it is reserved for women. I won’t be riding in one of those, because if I go, it won’t be without my competent male guide along. For now, if any of you has a tale to tell of Indian train rides, I’d love to hear!