Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Bombay/Mumbai Remembered

Last week's murderous terrorist attacks in Mumbai revived memories of my month's stay in that fascinating Indian city as an American soldier during the late winter of 1944. (I still find it hard to accept that the city was renamed from Bombay in 1996 in order to shed colonial Portugese and British influences and to restore the city's Hindu origins.)

I arrived there in mid-February aboard the HMS Empress of Scotland, a British passenger ship that had been converted into a troopship. The vessel carried about 5,000 U.S. troops, virtually all of whom would eventually wind up in eastern India, Burma or China, closer to where the battle against Japan was being waged.

I landed shortly after Japan's army had captured much of Manipur, a state in northeastern India. The Japanese were pushed back into Burma only about a week after our arrival. I cannot claim, of course, that my shipmates and I had an impact on the Japanese retreat.

We were greeted in the Bombay harbor by a U.S. Army tugboat blaring Artie Shaw's popular recording of "Begin the Beguine." As we neared the dock, scores of fishermen on flimsy boats surrounded our ship, shouting "baksheesh" at the soldiers lined up on the vessel's deck. This phrase is the universal plea of beggars and bribe-seekers in the Middle East and Near East for a tip or gift--a term, I believe, derived from the Persian phrase for "give me."

We interpreted the expression as a request for "boxes." Quickly, empty fruit crates from the ship's mess hall were retrieved and thrown overboard. The Bombay harbor was soon littered with gifts that were undoubtedly not what the locals had expected.

As we struggled off the troopship's gangplank, loaded down with barracks bags over our shoulders, a pack of peddlers awaited us. They were selling photographs of naked Oriental young women with their legs spread apart. The photos were airbrushed to show that the women's vaginas were horizontally shaped.

The picture depicted a myth, popular with some GIs, that the genitalia of Oriental females were shaped differently from Western women. Some of my shipmates obviously believed the myth. They rushed to buy copies of the altered photo to satisfy their naive belief about Oriental ladies.

After we landed, my outfit was sent by truck to a Royal Air Force base in Worli, a part of southern Mumbai. Our group was made up of men like myself who had been shipped overseas unassigned to any regular Army unit. In military jargon, we were designated as "casuals."

I remained at the RAF's Worli base until mid-March while awaiting an assignment. I was eventually shipped to an Army base outside the city of Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, hundreds of miles to the northeast of Mumbai.

Worli was originally one of seven islands that were consolidated in past centuries through a series of reclamation projects to create the modern city of Mumbai. It contains the Towers of Silence, a structure on which the Parsis, one of India's many ethnic/religious minority groups, deposit their dead to be consumed by vultures. Worli also is the site of a popular race track where, much to my surprise, the horses run clockwise.

Every few days I was allowed to go into the heart of the city by train, where I had the unusual privilege of being a soldier-tourist. Mumbai offers extraordinary contrasts--far more extreme than any city I have ever known. Tall skyscrapers, speedy commuter railroad trains, theaters, night clubs, luxurious hotels, palatial suburban homes, and other features of a prosperous metropolis were matched by the starkest signs of poverty I have ever seen.

A teeming sea of humanity filled the streets. Diseased, malnourished beggars clad in rags were everywhere. Hordes of people made their homes on the sidewalks with no access to fresh water and toilets. Cows, sacred to the Hindus, wandered undisturbed
through the streets. Corpses were a frequent sight along the street curbs, vultures hovering above the dead.

I was to see similar scenes in Calcutta, in Bengal province, where I was primarily stationed during my two years of military service in India.

Sixty-four years have passed since I was in Mumbai. From what I've read, the contrasts have been magnified as India has become a more modernized industrial and commercial power, and Mumbai has become the site of a hugely successful movie industry.

During last week's three-day terrorist siege, a sense of the city's rousing and bustling atmosphere was vividly captured on TV as reporters described the horrific attack.

I don't know what the city's population was in 1944, but it now is close to 19 million people, making Mumbai one of the world's largest metropolitan areas.

It is noteworthy that Mumbai's population is bigger than the world's Jewish population--a fact that comes to mind because of the terrorists' selection of the Chabad-Lubovitch Jewish community center as a special target in last week's terrorist assault.

There are probably only about 5,000 Jews who live in Mumbai, most of them members of the Bene Israel or the Baghdadi Jewish communities. The former are descendants of Jews who settled in India during the Biblical era. The Baghdadis arrived in India several centuries ago from Arab countries.

During my 1944 stay in Mumbai, there were also a handful of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria living in the city. I particularly remember a store owned by one of them that featured Viennese pastries and chocolates. I am confident that it was the only store of its kind in all of India.

As it was for all troops stationed overseas during wartime, our outgoing mail was heavily censored. For about a year, we were not even allowed to reveal to our families back home that we were in India.

I was accidentally able to violate the restriction because of a visit I made to a local synagogue. While there, a British Jewish army sergeant invited me to play Ping Pong with him in the synagogue's community center. He was stationed in Mumbai after having been severely wounded in the British retreat from Burma two years before.

When he recovered, he was assigned as a drill instructor for Indian troops at a local military installation. We became friends and usually met when I had a pass to leave the Worli RAF base.

I complained to him about my inability to inform my parents where I was. He told me that his outgoing mail was not censored, and he volunteered to write to my family back in the States disclosing my presence in India. My parents quickly developed an intense interest in that huge exotic land about which they knew very little.

More than a half-century later, I also have that same intense interest in India and particularly in the city of Mumbai, where I had such memorable experiences as a soldier-tourist and which sadly became the focus of last week's news about the brutal terrorist attack by Islamist extremists.

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