A little anxiously, we ventured out into the streets again. An hour or so more of maniacal taxi driving takes us to Breach Candy Hospital, the Mumbai landmark where we are to meet Rajesh. He is a tallish man in his 40s with a happy, clean-shaven face, thick glasses and massive hands that he uses to hug both of us hello. He is a karate instructor and former international competitor. There is a great calm and peacefulness about him that it totally opposite to the mad city in which he has lived his whole life. He drives slowly and never honks his horn, he lets other drivers into gaps and you feel 100 percent safe with him, something you never do in a taxi or rickshaw.
We talk about our mutual friend Evie, our plans and what we need his help with in Mumbai. He takes us to a very flash restaurant for lunch, where there are dozens of people waiting outside. "This is a very popular restaurant", he tells us. "These people will be waiting for one hour or more. Please, sit". We take a seat, preparing ourselves for a long wait and Rajesh disappears for a moment, returning with the maitre'd. "This way, please", says the maitre'd, leading us inside and to a nice table. "This is my friend's restaurant", Rajesh explains without the slightest hint of a boast. Rajesh has many friends, as we learn over the next 24 hours, and they are all happy to help him when needed because he is the sort of person who likes to help people too.
After lunch he drives us around the major sights of Mumbai and takes us to his apartment to meet his wife, daughter and two nieces. They are all lovely people and, as in Japan, it is so great to be able to spend time with the people of a new culture, in their own homes.
Back at the hotel, things on the street are beginning to get noisy as
the New Year draws closer. At around 11:45pm we venture down to the street, with our bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice. Just outside the hotel lobby, a rag-tag bunch of men, including a policeman, are preparing a large stuffed doll, somewhat like a scarecrow, for his midnight death by explosion. The build-up is a string of firecrackers on the ground that is supposed to crackle its way up to the scarecrow and set off the main explosion. At the 10 second countdown to midnight, the string is lit and the firecrackers start to go off. Just at the stroke of midnight, as the small crowd, including us, cheers, the string fizzles out and stops, about a foot before the scarecrow. Everyone is happy though, dancing around, shaking hands and shouting "Happy New Year!" Jane and I are as big an attraction as anything else for the local and we are constantly approached by groups of kids and adults wishing us happy new year with enthusiastic handshakes and enquiring "what country is your country?"
I shake up our bottle of sparkling grape juice as a mini-crowd circles me to see what kind of amazing magic the white man can conjour up. Despite my vigorous shaking, the cork pops out and flies about two metres but no fizz accompanies it. The crowd groans in disappointment and returns their attention to the scarecrow.
The police-endorsed effigy crew has lit the doll on fire and then backs away as the flame heads towards the detonation point. Suddenly the doll is blown to smithereens in a massive explosion, accompanied by an enormous bang. It feels for a moment like we are in a happier version of downtown Baghdad, as bits of doll are sprayed all around the street and the night is lit up by the flash. Sparks fly everywhere including, I later find out, onto my trousers, creating another little hole to go with the larger one I created with the Japanese table heater.
New Year's Eve, in Mumbai. Cool.