Barefoot Traveller



Everyone says India is a land of contrast.

And in a beautiful, down to earth way, those contrasts may appear almost immediately.

My choice of abode was on the bay, facing the Gate of India, in a room in the old wing of the country’s famed Taj Mahal Hotel. Checking into the high-ceilinged, antique-furnished room (not to be confused with the comfortable but hardly exciting rooms of the newer, high-rise hotel wing) one night, I’d thought, “this is India.” I felt that even more after a late dinner at the hotel’s colorful, superb Tanjore restaurant.

And then, jet lag being what it is, I woke up about five in the morning, dressed and made my way downstairs, where I awakened a reluctant cab driver. “Take me,” I said, “to the Sasoon Dock.”

The Sasoon Dock is a large, raised concrete quay in a tiny, sheltered harbor carved out of the coast. It is partially roofed, wet and slippery and amazingly packed with humanity.

But those words don’t begin to describe the scene, because the Sasoon Dock is where fish buyers of Mumbai gather in the early morning hours. Thousands of them, with scarcely room to move sideways in the humid, colorful mass. The women are in saris of greens and oranges, blues and magentas, saffrons and grays. The buyers--mostly women--are housewives and servants and restaurant operators, making a tremendous din, buying and selling and arguing and bidding and pushing and pulling, passing handfuls of bills back and forth.

The objects of all this are the hundreds of boats tied up in the water at the foot of the quay. Bow to bow, stern to stern they crowd together, their heavy wooden planked bows and wide, high sterns bumping one another. They’ve brought in squid and shrimp, sardines and skate, snapper and tuna--every sort of life that comes out of the Arabian Sea.

A hazy, orange sun edges out of the eastern horizon and, for a moment, the eyes of nearly everyone move to the east before swinging back to the woven baskets of sea life being passed up from the boats.

Their purchases made, the women balance the baskets on their heads and squeeze back through he crowd, past huge piles of small shrimp where women and children sit shelling, jostling past wooden carts being pushed to nearby trucks.

It is a sight like no other, exotic and wonderful. But it’s just a bit of a relief to leave and make my way back to the comfort and luxury of the Taj Mahal. To step into a hot shower before facing the rest of a humid Mumbai day.