Mumbai – Part 2: Laxmi The Flower Girl

The calculator said 2400 rupees and I got the feeling that something wasn’t right. Was I being conned? The quantity was high after all, but the price seemed too steep. What do I do now, just pay up? Ask them if there is some monkey business going on?

Six hours earlier, having finally found the right hotel, I felt a bit peckish so I stepped into Café Model, next door. A charming, old-fashioned establishment with good biryani; a good place to sit down for a moment and plot out the rest of the day.

When asking people what the must-see’s of Mumbai are, most mention the Gateway of India as the first one. And I was going to see it, but it wasn’t topmost on my list; the sights I saw from the overpass earlier, crossing over the bazaar, were still with me and I knew I had to go there. So I told the cabbie let’s go to Bhendi Bazaar, and, a surprising breath of fresh air, no negotiations about fares were had. You see, in Mumbai the cabbies almost always go by meter. Everywhere else in India you have to haggle over the price before the vehicle goes anywhere.

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I asked the cabbie to stop a couple of blocks before the center of the bazaar area, as I wanted to approach it from the perimeter, through the side streets. As I stepped out, a chicken was scooting around and we both had to do a bit of dodging in order to not collide. The street was more crowded than the typical ones in Pune, and everything had a little bit more texture; surfaces had a bit more grime and odors packed a bit more punch.

I picked a side street that went at a tangent to the big one I was on and headed in. It was lined with shops, bakeries, fruit stands and other kinds of small businesses. Vibrant and gritty, it was quite a lot to take in. Outside a butcher shop a pile of bloody chicken feathers and miscellaneous leftovers stood one meter high. On the other side a man was sitting in front of a mosque, next to him a few sheep lay and slept, the reason for their presence unknown to me. I got a few curious looks but most didn’t seem that interested in me being there.

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The bazaar area sprawled over several blocks, and the next two hours I spent walking around them. But it was getting late, and I wanted to catch the gateway before sundown. There was probably still a lot to see of the bazaar, but at that point I was feeling quite saturated with all the sights and smells – it would be a good thing to get going anyway.

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The drive to the gateway went at a defined flat rate. A way to milk tourists for money or not, I don’t know, but 30 minutes later I stood on the gateway square, looking at this colossal basalt monument erected to commemorate the Brits landfall in 1911. Lots of locals selling brochures, trips, photography service and whatnot were wandering around. Other than that the square was filled with people looking lost, peering at the gateway and the Taj hotels close by. The harbor was filled with boats, many of which were bringing back the last tourists from Elephant Island. With the sun inching toward the horizon the golden hour was approaching. I whipped out my camera and was about to take a few photos when the crazyness started.

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A couple of guys approached me. Hi, where are you from?

I didn’t see them carrying any brochures so at least they’re not trying to sell me anything. After exchaning a few words their intentions became clear: they wanted me to pose in a photo with them. I’d heard about this, that this is something Indians do – pictures with white people bring good luck or something. So I figured why the hell not. I did a few group photos and wished them a good evening. Right after that the next couple of guys turn up, and I posed with them as well.

Uh oh. As people were noticing that I was willing to pose in pictures with them, many wanted to get one taken.

I shit you not, I actually had a line form up. Easily over 20 photos. Handshakes, brofists, peace signs, group hugs, with sunglasses and without, the works. It was actually a lot of fun, I haven’t felt that randomly and unjustifiably popular in ages.

As the photoshoot came to an end mine had yet to begin; the light orange now, I still had to photographically explore the monument. As I was eyeing it through the viewfinder a couple of flower girls come up. Oh hi, you want photos too? I asked. Nope, they were there just to chat. Oh, cool, I said and continued snapping shots. They sold flowers by the square. One of them introduced herself as Laxmi as she tied a jasmine flower bracelet on my right wrist. I’m not sure if it’s a way to mark tourists that is showing promise to be tricked, but I decided to take it as a nice gesture, nothing more.

I asked them what there was to see in the vicinity, except the gateway and the Taj. Laxmi pointed me to Café Leopold, popular among expats and one of the places targeted in the terrorist attack five years earlier. The best light was gone by now so I figured I might as well head there and check it out. She proposed a deal; she showes me around some places, according to my interests, and in exchange I buy her some food. That sounded fair enough, having a guide can give me access to places I’d otherwise miss. And she seemed trustworthy; even though the square had a lot of swindlers, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. A small leap of faith, if you will.

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So she led me to the market street behind the Taj, lined with stands filled with overpriced trinkets. In the middle of that block was Café Leopold. It was charming in it’s own way, but had a touristy vibe which I wasn’t too enthusiastic about. Inside, in a niche in the wall, underneath a Budweiser sign, the bullet holes remain untouched. Meanwhile huge beer pitchers were being served to thirsty patrons, to the sound of loud chatter.

We grabbed a quick bite to eat and had a chat. Turns out Laxmi has been selling flowers for the last ten years, since she was eight. Originally from Chennai, she had a less than ideal childhood, and a problematic relationship with her mother. They don’t keep in touch anymore. She usually helps out tourists close to the gateway, shows them some places and gives a bit of local insight. In exchange they buy her food, like I promised to do.

Back outside we are again greeted by sellers of drums, pan flutes, cloth and leather bracelets. Pushy sellers. No thanks, I don’t need a drum. Thanks but I don’t need a pan flute either. Yes that is nice cloth but I’m not interested in buying.

Laxmi asked me if I’m interested in museums. Not really, I’m more into local stuff, something away from the tourists, I said. So we headed to a bazaar some blocks away. It had a very authentic feel; purely locals doing their everyday grocery shopping. She showed me the fish market, vegetable stands and other sections of the bazaar.

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The sun had set long ago and she needed to get going – she lives quite a way North so it takes her about one hour to get there. We stop by a shop which sells miscellaneous food ingredients. I’m unsure if she was familiar with it or not, but this was when I got the sense of being tricked. She selects a bag of rice – five kilos of basmati – and a five litre can of milk. The shopkeeper runs the numbers and punches them into his calculator. 2400 rupees. My initial reaction is that that really is a lot – maybe twice as much as I had expected it to be. Laxmi asked me if I felt it was too much, she could return it if I felt like it. I took a long look at her, and at the shopkeeper, and did a judgement call.

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Because here’s the thing: 2400 rupees is not that much for me. Back home it’s something I can put down on food in a single day. For her it was food for a solid two weeks – for her and siblings. Even if the price was steep, it was still food. Unless, of course, she had a deal with the shopkeeper that she could return the food for most of the money, but that might be a bit farfetched.

I need to trust people every now and then, including new acquaintances. If I don’t, I might miss out on something; a location, an event or even friendship. So I let it slide and paid the shopkeeper.

It was getting late and staying around these parts wasn’t recommended, so I headed back to the hotel. Before hopping into the cab I told Laxmi I’d be around the gateway the next day as well, since I didn’t have time to really take it in that day. We agreed to meet at noon.

I had some dinner close to Ballard Estate and walked around in Bora Bazaar. Kids were playing cricket on the less busy streets. At ten I decided to call it a day – I was exhausted.