Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Beginning of a Long Story

At the end of January, I fell asleep in the biggest city on the continent and awoke in the biggest city on the subcontinent. The miracle of the red-eye, as performed by Air India. The true populations of both Shanghai and Mumbai are hard to count, but it's not the figures that impress, or the rankings. Either place contains more than enough individuals to overwhelm all sense of proportion.

Although I know nothing about fashion, I went to Mumbai to watch two American designers prepare their collection for Paris. (More on that in posts to come.)

I also walked around a bit, sometimes with a destination in mind, sometimes without. The crowds in Mumbai seemed very different from those in Shanghai: more dense, more vivid, more intractable.

On a Sunday afternoon, the causeway to the Haji Ali shrine seethed with a relentless parade of humanity: babies with Kohl-rimmed eyes, frail men leaning on their middle-aged sons, black-veiled women, and women in bright scarves—saffron or pomegranate or lime—each new color turning your head like a greeting.

Built in 1431, the white-domed mosque occupies the rocky islet where Haji Ali distributed his worldly wealth to the poor. Or where he drowned on his way to Mecca. Or possibly where his casket washed ashore after drifting all the way from what is now Pakistan. I don't know the real story, but I do know that the causeway is submerged at high tide, and at the hour I visited, it was dry.

One group of maimed men had linked themselves together in a sort of collapsed circle. They chanted, faces pressed to the stone, stumps in the air, waving in unison like some ruined troupe of synchronized swimmers, bereft even of water.

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