Look out for grapes

I’ve returned to Australia permanently. My husband and I are living with my parents in a suburb on the outer edges of Sydney, still made up of small farms and market gardens but with the tide of the expanding city lapping up against it.  It’s where I grew up. A major supermarket opened a branch here a few years ago. Even though I could see the size of the site when it was being built, I was still surprised when the completed supermarket was a huge barn of a thing –  not the petite glorified shop that I had been expecting.

In the fruit and vegetable section (which soon put paid to the greengrocers that had been in the area for as long as I could remember), there are signs warning customers to ‘look out for grapes’. They’re not just by the apparently insidious grapes, but dotted throughout. I can only imagine there was a costly slip and fall incident. I couldn’t help but think of our local supermarket in Mumbai, which during its many months of renovations had a floor covering that was largely composed of cardboard boxes irregularly duct-taped together, over a rockier topography of wires and power cables.  No signs. I guess the risks are lower when almost everyone wears flat sandals of some kind and is used to streets and sidewalks pitted with hazards.

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25 random things about life in Mumbai

…that I’m worried I’ll forget now I’m not there.

  1. Small change is almost always an issue. You’ll find life a little easier if you have a separate coin purse (or manly coin wallet) for ten and twenty rupee notes and small coins, particularly for catching autorickshaws.
  2. Ordering a whisky sour, even in a fancy bar, will not give you a delicious lemony frothy thing. It will be whisky and lime juice. Enjoyable for what it is, but not a proper whisky sour.
  3. Many Indians assume that non-vegetarian foreigners do not just eat meat, they eat nothing BUT meat. More than once, a well-meaning waiter ‘corrected’ my restaurant order from vegetarian to non-veg.
  4. It is completely usual to a) give your bag to a security person when you enter a store, and b) have your receipt stamped when you leave. It is not a comment on you. I have been told that the receipt-stamping was originally VAT-related and designed to make sure that each individual item in your bag had been rung through, but now it’s just one stamp.
  5. Even if you’ve not done it before, using some kind of face wash each day will pay off. Mumbai is very, very polluted and even if your skin is normally clear the combo of pollution and sweat is likely to lead to pimply results. Himalaya, Biotique and VLCC brands are all good, cheap and available in supermarkets.
  6. Not to be indelicate, but talc is also a good idea. Particularly during monsoon.
  7. I lost some lovely and expensive clothes to moths, and one leather bag to damp. Buy a lot of mothballs, and use them. Also use dessicant or damp-rid.
  8. When you first arrive in Mumbai, if you are there long term, you will have completed a mountain of paperwork and there will be another mountain to come. You may be tempted not to get a local bank account. Resist this temptation. It is a giant pain in the ass to have a ‘foreign’ bank account, as many Indian e-commerce websites won’t accept your credit card and paying bills is very difficult. Cash withdrawals from ATMs are also generally capped at Rs 10, 000 (approx AUD$200).
  9. On the ATM theme, ATMs are not infrequently out of order or out of cash. To the extent that it’s secure and sensible, stock up on cash when you can.
  10. Locally-brewed Indian beer is…variable in quality. Budweiser, however, is one of the few brands that is not sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup and is generally pretty good. I also liked the Indian Pride spice-flavoured beers, but I have been told that this is weird.
  11. Stock cubes are very hard to find and for some reason insanely expensive if you do find them. Stock up (boom tish!) if you can before you arrive. Olive oil and coffee (the Indian brand Karma is perfectly ok) are readily available. However,  I also had some trouble finding reliable bakers’ yeast.
  12. During monsoon, carry an umbrella at all times. Sure, it’s not raining right now. It will be.
  13. That said, if you are in the city or in a crowded area and it isn’t raining very hard, suck it up and go without. You won’t get very wet and you won’t poke people in the eye or have to maneuver an umbrella around obstacles.
  14. If you are at a monument or a museum (particularly the Prince of Wales Museum) and they have photo passes, get one if you want to take photos. You’re likely to be caught by one of umpteen security guards otherwise.
  15.  It is customary to give a bonus at Diwali (in November). The usual bonus is one month (although you can pro-rate this if you have been there less than a year). In my experience gifts other than cash are received with a bit of confusion.
  16. I found it quite hard to get used to the number of people that would come to the door without notice (let alone scheduled deliveries). I worked from home, and started to feel a little bit hunted. Male or female, you’ll find it useful to have a robe or kaftan that you can throw on and answer the door in without startling the populace.
  17. Flipkart.com is an excellent, reliable source of electronics and cheap books.
  18. Do not bother trying to order online from overseas. 70% of my parcels did not arrive, and I had to pay 30% duty on one of the parcels that did.
  19. In all but the most expensive and Western-friendly hotel restaurants, if a restaurant says ‘steak’ on the menu, they mean buffalo.
  20. It took me almost 8 months to figure this out, but fresh lime soda – one of the best things about India, I love it so – can be ordered sweet, salted, or MIXED, ie both sweet and salted. Mixed is delicious and tastes a bit like a cocktail in the best possible way.
  21. When you first move to Mumbai, schedule a weekend away (or longer) in the first couple of months. Just so you can take a breath and regroup.
  22. I didn’t really enjoy India, or Mumbai, when I first moved there. I came to enjoy it, but I will say that if you are having a hard time in the first few months (or longer) – accept it. Try to fix it, but accept it. Often, you’re finding things difficult because they are difficult.  It does get easier, but you’re neither a heathen nor a snob if you get frustrated. Just find ways to deal with and get around the frustration.  I exercised a lot. And drank cocktails!
  23. Keep your boarding pass and passport with you when you go through airport security (you will be frisked). They stamp the pass to verify that you have been through different stages of security. Although there are separate checkpoints for men and women, you often need to put your hand luggage through one central conveyor belt.
  24. Use anti-bacterial liquid soap. I have always thought it was a bit of overkill, but particularly if your bathroom tap has no hot water (and it is likely that it won’t), it makes a difference. Try to buy the sensitive skin version if you have dry skin like mine, as otherwise your hands will get red and chapped. I could never remember to both take and use hand sanitiser, but many expats do.
  25. Finally – it goes without saying that poverty and disadvantage are pandemic in Mumbai. My own view is that, as a foreigner, you need to decide what you think is an ethical and generous response – and do that. Being paralysed by distress is no more ethical than deliberate disregard.   We decided to make a monthly donation to Operation Shanti. Others I know volunteered. Accept that any response you have is by nature partial and made to some extent in the dark. By the same token, it is likely that you will be approached by people in your life (eg building or domestic staff, although I was asked by an auto driver one morning) more than once and asked to give money for something like medical bills.  Constantly being suspicious is corrosive. Decide that there are some people that you are going to trust. Take that leap. Don’t give money to everyone who asks, but don’t assume that everything is a scam.

Colaba graffiti

colaba graffiti


Taken May 2013, near the Taj hotel in Colaba.

Before you wow him

C and I went to see the excellent Silver Linings Playbook last night (although I haven’t seen Lincoln, I wish Silver Linings had beat it for best picture as it was a lot more original than yet another Watch Daniel Day Lewis Be Commanding And Win All Awards movie). Also I want to be Jennifer Lawrence.

The ladies’ loos at R City Mall cinema were plastered with ads, for two uniquely feminine products. The first was ovulation strips. The second, the ‘rejuvenation’ cream 18 Again. The slogan on the bathroom ads for 18 Again? ‘Surprise yourself before you wow him’.   18 Again is a vaginal ‘rejuvenation’ cream (link probably NSFW). This cream claims to ‘tone’ muscles, addressing women’s ‘intimate feminine concerns’. One of the quoted medical experts says ‘This gel is for all age groups who have attained puberty and is approved by the expert gynaecologists.’ Let’s just go over that again. If you are a woman, as soon as you reach puberty, your genitals need fixing up.  And if you don’t , you could suffer from ‘lax vagina’. What does a lax vagina lead to? ‘Loss of self-confidence, and stress and irritability’, apparently. (Ironically, many of the active ingredients are simply those that increase blood flow, like many, er, ‘love’ creams – in this case, use it in good health!).



Evening falls over Powai.

What to wear: Mumbai

Some of these will not apply to you if you are a man. Also, I am tall, pale, fair-haired and busty; and my suggestions are coloured by that. You may be more or less sensitive to staring than I am; but I’d preface all of the below by saying a) you are likely to be stared at, and b) India is a highly conservative country.  Cultural considerations aside; Mumbai is hot, dirty, and crowded.

In no particular order:

  • a lightweight, fairly voluminous scarf. Useful for covering up cleavage, covering your head, putting between you and a dirty seat, and generally as a bit of a security blanket. You don’t really want pure cotton as it will get too damp. Something polycotton would be ideal. I have bought a few nice scarves from the Indian site Done By None (prompt COD service in India).
  • Flat shoes. Many pairs of flat or low-heeled shoes, especially sandals. They should have soles and heels with a little grip. If I see a woman wearing high heels in Mumbai, I know she’s only walking to meet her driver. You’ll be more comfortable in something that breathes a little, whether because of holes or fabric. Pavement (where it exists) is bumpy. Streets are dusty (or wet). There is a lot of shit.
  • A long skirt, or long pants. I don’t wear anything that isn’t below the knee. If you fit standard sizes, you can buy pants or shalwar kameez easily and cheaply once you get here. Make sure you don’t buy a sari petticoat and wear it as a skirt (tip from this article at Enjoying India, which has a lot of other good advice).  I often wear a long polycotton knit skirt. Maxi skirts in general can be more comfortable than pants when it is very hot and humid.
  • Sunglasses. Sunglasses help you to avoid eye contact. Sometimes, leaving harassment out of it, you just want to hide a little. Sunglasses (ideally reflective) help.
  • Loose, long tunic tops. 
  • Dri-fit or other wicking fabric tops. (Even if buying something from Nike smites at your former student activist heart). Mumbai is sweaty. I find cotton t-shirts a bit damp, especially if I am at the gym or working out at home.
  • Bras. Particularly if you are an unusual size, stock up before you come. Not a huge range here, and ordering things online from overseas is likely to mean a visit to customs to retrieve the parcel (if you are lucky enough that it actually appears).
  • A light raincoat or poncho, if you will be here during monsoon. Particularly on crowded streets, umbrellas can be a bit of a hassle to manage. Or bring a small umbrella. You will need one with you all the time if you are here during monsoon.

What not to wear:

  • Anything tight, sleeveless, strappy, or above the knee. 
  • Anything so delicate it can’t survive a stain or a wash.
  • This should be obvious, but anything that, shall we say, co-opts sincerely held religious beliefs into kitsch. Leave your Krishna t-shirts at home.

Wages and bargains

C and I employ two people, a driver (Sagar) and a housekeeper (Asha). Asha cooks and cleans. We apparently pay them way more than the going rate. This doesn’t particularly worry me (except perhaps with Sagar, who gets *a lot* more than most drivers but gives us a lot less). I don’t see anything fundamentally unethical about employing people to work in your home. Domestic work is work. (And the chances of me having my lunch cooked for me 6 days a week once I return to Australia are slim indeed…). There’s a lot of talk on expat lists (and among middle-class Indians) about the ‘right’ wages for maids in particular, and making sure you’re not paying too much.  To give some facts before I get going with the polemic, maids’ wages are worked out per task, per month. So, washing dishes, for instance, is one task.  The various tasks are totted up, and then you agree on a monthly wage. Asha works for us part-time, but some maids work full time (and may live in or out).

What I’m about to say is restricted to expats. It’s really easy to be beguiled by the labour arbitrage concept. The fact that ‘arbitrage’ is commonly used on the share market makes it easy to think that you’re simply lucky, living overseas with the income of your home country and the expenses of your temporary home. But with labour, you’re not exchanging one thing for another as you might with shares or currency. The people that are working for you have a lower standard of living than someone doing the same work in your home country. Don’t, to put it bluntly, be a dick. Pay well. Pay over the odds. Pay on time. Expect the agreed work to be done, but give reasonable time off. I’m not saying that you should make ex gratia payments out of affluenza guilt, but when you make your bargain, be generous. Don’t you want someone who will be in your home almost every day to be happy with the bargain they’ve made with you? 

This Economist blog entry is worth a read, and by way of contrast have a look at this article from the tabloid Mumbai Mirror (the comments indicate that it is satire, but I’m not sure from the article itself).  

My mehndi


I had mehndi done last weekend at the annual family day for our ‘society’ (block of flats).  It cured to a very dark brown in the first couple of days, then began to flake off. It’s now faded in a way that makes my hand look shabby chic.


The sound of Asha’s bangles clicking as she makes chapatti.

Being woken by the sounds of a march outside one Sunday, assuming it was a protest and then finding out it was a real canary in the coalmine indicator of India’s growing middle class — an awareness-raising fun run.

The pigeons constantly woo, woo, woo-ing outside my study window.

A little boy, who must have been about two, sitting on his father’s knees on a motorbike and holding on to the handlebars gingerly as they went over a speed-bump.

Red stains from gouts of betel-spit on the tarmac.


Sit down for…

I do wonder whether I should rename this blog ‘Indian advertising for beginners’.  When I was in Australia,  a friend mentioned that she had made up a song to sing to her new baby based on the infernally catchy I hate the chip chip. This ad, ‘Sit down for…’, for the cafe chain Cafe Coffee Day is from the same devil’s workshop and will stay firmly planted in your head. The ad also seems unusual to me in that it shows real Indians, albeit Indians from a pretty particular social class, rather than Bollywood stars.  By my reckoning the ad started to screen on English-language tv in early December 2012, in heavy rotation. It now doesn’t screen at all, and I wonder whether that has something to do with the backlash against it (visible in the YouTube comments) after the protests that followed the Delhi rape and murder.