The paint peeled forlornly from the ceiling and the ancient fan groaned, barely budging the stale damp air. I lay on the top bunk and peered out of the barred window into the Mumbai night.
‘There’s no rats’ reported the backpacker with the air of an eternal optimist who has scoured the building in search of its one and only redeeming feature. The toilet refused to flush and the sink tap revolved uselessly but there were no rats.
Through the bars of the window I could see the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel across the road at an angle and the line of expensive cars parked outside. A few chauffeurs stood nearby sharing cigarettes and gossip.
The Taj Hotel looks defiantly across the Arabian Sea. The dream of Jamserji Tata, with its Moorish, Oriental and Florentine architecture, it is packed with onyx columns, silk carpets and crystal chandeliers. Sadly this was all rather beyond the means of my modest budget.
Instead I had turned up at the doors of the Salvation Army hostel with its well-deserved reputation of being the cheapest place in town.
‘We have no room’ said the man at the front desk, shaking his head, but I went up the stairs anyway. An older man, more gentle and understanding, found me a bunk. I met him again as I went out.
‘Were you here when the Taj was attacked by terrorists?’ I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. ‘I was at my sisters, I missed everything.’
I stepped into the warm night and made my way down the tree-lined avenue that skirts the Taj. I passed the two armoured vehicles crammed with a crack paramilitary unit parked permanently and discretely just in case the terrorists should return. And then past the lavish entrance of the Taj with its two Sikh doormen, turbaned, bearded and huge, who guarded the comings and goings.
Past the Taj stands the ‘Gateway to India’, the basalt archway, built to welcome King George V in 1924 and which bade farewell to the last British troops in 1948. Now Indian families congregate in the evening and buy balloons, trinkets and ice-cream. Darkness had fallen quickly and I felt vulnerable and alone despite the crowds. I hunched my shoulders, no longer absorbing the atmosphere of the city but rather trying to protect myself. I crossed the square in front of the Gateway, the reflection of an almost full moon dancing on the dirty bay below. A young lady in sari walked alongside me. She looked up and I glimpsed her innocent eyes in the lamplight.
‘Sir, you want?’ She could earn thirty pence a time satisfying the sweaty hungers of truck-drivers but she would expect more from a tourist like me. I replied brusquely and she left me alone. With my passport, money and train ticket in my pocket I felt more vulnerable now and headed back to the lights of the main street.
Coloba has thrown up an array of continental boutiques, patisseries and cafes, cashing in on the newfound wealth of the district. Unashamedly I took refuge in one such place, a heavenly air-conditioned cafe with piped western music and cappuccino at one pound a cup that threatened my budget but who cares when you can escape the city for just a moment.
And then back to the hostel and my dormitory top bunk. Five English backpackers, fresh out of university, sat studying their Lonely Planet guide books, swapping notes and discussing the intricacies of poverty. They had been on a guided tour of the slums. They had opinions.
An enigmatic Yorkshire-man came over to talk to me. He had been mining in South Africa. He spoke with a lowered voice. ‘I have precious stones that need cutting’ he said. Head to Jaipur was my advice and he nodded and went back to his bunk.
A Frenchman sat rolling a spliff and then disappeared discretely.
The dormitory began to settle down for the night. The man with the stones slept nervously. I peered once more into the night. The side of the Taj Hotel was less lit up now but on the top floor a curtain was thrown open and a plump middle-aged Indian lady dressed in a turquoise blue sari stepped onto the balcony. Without thinking, I put my hand through the bars of the window and waved. And just for one mad moment, one sublime moment, I thought she saw me and waved back. Then she returned through the curtain and the light went out.
The next day I would catch the Ranakpur Express headed for Rajasthan. I would be glad to leave Mumbai with its tenements the colour of drab and its rude and cheating ways. But that night as my eyes closed I was just glad that there were no rats.