Juliet Rowan is a reporter for Bay of Plenty Times Weekend

India blog, day 1: The chaos, beauty and horror

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Bay of Plenty Times journalist Juliet Rowan is one of four New Zealand journalists on an Asia New Zealand Foundation media trip to India. She writes about her first day in Mumbai.
Bay of Plenty Times reporter Juliet Rowan takes a selfie with Miss India 2015 runner-up and former New Zealand's Next Top Model contestant Aafreen Vaz while in India. Photo/supplied
Bay of Plenty Times reporter Juliet Rowan takes a selfie with Miss India 2015 runner-up and former New Zealand's Next Top Model contestant Aafreen Vaz while in India. Photo/supplied

It is 21 years since I was last in India and I'm excited to be back.

My first trip as a 22-year-old was three months backpacking across northern India and Nepal.

India is called the land of contrasts and that journey delivered it all - colour, chaos, beauty, horror and spectacle.

After two decades away, I'm fascinated to see how much the subcontinent has changed in the face of the vast social and technological developments of the 21st century.

India is now an IT powerhouse and set to overtake China as the world's most populous nation, with a staggering 1.31 billion people to China's 1.38 billion.

New Zealand's population of 4.6 million is a blip on the radar by comparison, but nonetheless ties between our two countries are burgeoning in the export sector, tourism and education, including in the Bay.

My first impression of Mumbai is that little has improved for India's poorest, who appear to be reaping few benefits of technology. For them, life is purely about survival.

Flying into Mumbai early morning is flying across a sea of blue - but not the blue of the coastal city's ocean. Instead, it is the blue of tarpaulins used to shield millions of slum dwellings from the monsoon rains.

Flying into Mumbai, there is a sea of blue tarpaulins. Photo/Juliet Rowan
Flying into Mumbai, there is a sea of blue tarpaulins. Photo/Juliet Rowan

The shanties stretch for miles across the landscape to the very edge of the airport. Our plane flies so low, you can see the teeming life inside the narrow alleys - people, vehicles, animals, dirt, commotion - you can all but hear the hubbub.

The noise from the planes for those below must be deafening but, according to locals, noise is a fact of life in Mumbai.

One Indian New Zealander we meet says it is maddening and inescapable, even in his apartment several flights up, in the dead of night.

We hear for ourselves the relentless tooting horns on the drive to our hotel. We pass rows of makeshift dwellings set against a backdrop of huge apartment towers and office blocks.

Everywhere there is construction and half-finished concrete shells. Rickety wooden scaffolding clings to buildings and the architecture is eccentric. Bulbous balconies protrude off one tower in a strange futuristic statement, while others are so tall and skinny, they have an air of fragility.

Our driver tells us Mumbai suffers from the same problem as Auckland and Tauranga - an overheated property market, making it the country's most expensive city. The driver is forced to live 60km away, commuting more than an hour each way to work and sleeping in the hotel staff room on days he finishes too late to make it home to his wife and daughter.

Wooden scaffolding would be a safety inspector's nightmare in New Zealand.
Wooden scaffolding would be a safety inspector's nightmare in New Zealand.

He says high rental prices have driven many to leave the centre of Mumbai or to live in the illegal slums. But the problem with taking refuge in the slums is the authorities can clear them without warning. Think Slumdog Millionaire.

As we roll up to the hotel, our van is given a security check, the guard running a mirror under the bottom to look for bombs. Our bags are put through an X-ray at the door - measures no doubt in place at all Mumbai's big hotels since the 2008 terrorist attacks killed 164 people, including guests at the waterfront Taj Hotel.

At our hotel, the opulent Trident Bandra Kurla, an Indian wedding is in full swing. It is Day 3 of festivities and there are women in glamorous saris and high heels mingling in the lobby.

A sign near reception says it is the wedding of Adilya and Chandni, the coiffed appearance of the wealthy guests contrasting to the poverty we see as we walk out on the streets.

The heat is intense and there is a cack, cack, cack of jackdaws while children beg for money. I give one boy 100 rupees ($2) after checking to see there is no pimp lurking nearby waiting to pocket the cash.

After some searching, we find a hip design store called Kulture Shop where we bask in bottles of water and air conditioning while admiring cool Indian prints. Then it's back to the streets and into auto rickshaws for a hair-raising ride in the melee. Somehow the driver avoids the multitude of buses, trucks, cars, rickshaws, animals and pedestrians that come within centimetres of the open sides.

At one point, I see a rickshaw tipped on its side and wonder if ours will do the same. There are three of us squashed in the back and we pass a crazy panorama.

It's hard to take it all in but there on the edge of the slums I see a goat tethered among trash, a woman carrying an ancient TV on her shoulder, and a man getting a shave in the street. Life literally spills out of the miniscule spaces in which they live and nowhere is there privacy or a sense of personal space.

The heat is intense and there is a cack, cack, cack of jackdaws while children beg for money. I give one boy 100 rupees ($2) after checking to see there is no pimp lurking nearby waiting to pocket the cash.
Juliet Rowan

Later in the evening, we go to Masala Library, one of Mumbai's top restaurants, with three bright young Indian talents educated in New Zealand.

Vinny Lohan is a graduate of Auckland University's Engineering School and was named one of three upcoming entrepreneurs in the world by General Electric (GE).

Vinny is founder of OneBeep (onebeep.org), which develops technology to help educate children in developing countries. He has created software that uses radio frequencies to send digital information to remote areas without mobile and broadband networks, saying free laptops for children are nothing without the infrastructure to use them.

But despite Vinny's efforts, the Indian Government is resistant to his ideas and he remains in India to continue lobbying.

In 2012, he was named one of the 25 most influential people in New Zealand business and on his Twitter account, he says he is "manufactured in New Zealand, designed in India".

Rikky Minocha is a lawyer by trade and has written of India that "everything is maximum and minimum, overt and covert, visible and invisible, ugly and beautiful, love and hate, at the same time".

In New Zealand, he worked for the Ministry of Primary Industries and now in India, he is at Control Risks, a global risk consultancy specialising in helping organisations manage political, security and integrity risks.

Crazy architecture is everywhere in Mumbai. Photo/Juliet Rowan
Crazy architecture is everywhere in Mumbai. Photo/Juliet Rowan

Like Vinny, Rikky is a member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation's leadership network, his Twitter profile saying he likes clean business and social justice (and in a Kiwi touch, condensed milk).

He tells me he loves exposing corruption.

Aafreen Vaz studied at Otago University but has returned to India to do medicine and break into Bollywood. A former competitor on New Zealand's Next Top Model, she came runner-up in Miss India last year, her New Zealand passport deeming her ineligible to win the top title.

The pageant is massive in India and has launched Aafreen into Mumbai's celebrity elite. She still studies medicine and dreams of one day becoming a doctor, but for now is concentrating on making her first Bollywood film.

Wearing a cream mini-dress and looking very different to the sari-clad women I saw two decades ago, Aafreen says India is still a conservative place where it would be considered inappropriate for a single woman to go flatting with male friends like she did at Otago.

She, Vinnie and Rikky are great company and it is cool hearing how much they value their connections to New Zealand.

All still have family there and Aafreen says her New Zealand self helps her stay grounded in a world where she was given a butler and two-storey penthouse during her reign as Miss India Supranational, as her runner-up title is known.

The dinner ends an overwhelming first day back in India and I can't wait for Day 2.

* The Asia New Zealand Foundation is funding Juliet's travel to India. See her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts for more images of the trip.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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