Saturday 15 September 2012

Is Mumbai making me old?

Here’s a thought... at the age of 46 does the ageing process suddenly pick up speed or am I beginning to look so much older because I live in Mumbai? Or is it, as I suspect, a terrible combination of the two?

This hasn’t just occurred to me today. I have been noticing things for a while. A cluster of brown spots have appeared on my calf, they are slowing forming a relief map of India. There is a general puffiness of the face, a slackness of the jaw and a weariness of the body.

I have just found a photograph of Mick and me in Goa three and a half years ago and compared it to one taken last month. I can hardly believe how much we have both changed in that time so I’m going to analyze what went wrong and attempt a counter-attack on Mumbai’s ageing elements and the march of time (well, I like a challenge!)

So what is it about Mumbai life that is making me old? Firstly, walking is not really an option (if you value your life!) At home in Kent I used to walk my dog over the fields in the fresh air for a couple of hours every day. There are two factors here: walking and fresh air and I’m getting neither. I went to collect Polly from school in a rickshaw yesterday and, as I sat in the traffic I could almost see the pollution gently creeping into my pores. And, as I gulped down the exhaust fumes, I thought of my little dog and our long walks together in the early morning mist and how rosy my cheeks would be when I came home. There’s not much I can do about the pollution but there is a swimming pool down stairs which I rarely use and a gym with a treadmill. It’s time to draw up a new exercise routine. But hang on a minute! I already do three  yoga classes, three Zumba (Bollywood-stylie) classes, four weight-lifting sessions a week and a 10 km run on Saturdays! Also, since coming to Mumbai I have run a full Marathon and several half Marathons. What’s going on? Three and a half years ago I weighed 60 kilos and thought I was fat. Today I weigh 70 kilos and cannot fit into any of the clothes in Zara in spite of my crazy exercising.  When I went to get my nails done yesterday, the manicurist (a man) greeted me with a cheerful: “Hello Madam, you’ve put on weight!”

So this situation has not come about through lack of exercise it must be the food. It is no secret that since arriving in Mumbai, like most ex-pats, I enjoy the all-you-can-eat-and-drink Sunday Brunches at the fancy hotels. After a week of curry and rice, it’s nice to have a blow-out on some lovely European-style nosh washed down with a bucket of Sula Brut. Aha! here's the problem!

 So, it’s out with the five star brunches and in with the, er what? I have decided to do a whole separate piece on the state of the supermarkets in Mumbai (see below) because I have a lot to say on the subject. It’s not that easy to pop out and buy a fresh avocado and some lean beef because it just isn’t available. In fact, thinking of healthy things to cook and sourcing all the ingredients here is a real challenge. (We did employ a cook for a while but that didn’t work out because of her limited repertoire of curry or dhal)

I was in Phoenix Market City in Kurla last week and suddenly realized I was hungry. I didn’t have time to go for a sit down meal as I had to get back for school so I began to look around for a quick snack. From what I could see, I had two choices:  ‘Mad Over Donuts’ or ‘McDonalds.’ All I wanted was a lovely crayfish and rocket sandwich on whole meal bread and a freshly-squeezed orange juice but I might as well have wished for the moon! With my stomach grumbling I went into the new Reliance hypermarket and rushed about looking for something quick and healthy to eat. Look, fresh orange juice! But on closer inspection of the label, I noted several grams of added sugar. “But I don’t want sugar!” I told the guy at the, ahem, ‘deli’ who looked at me as if I were a crazy lady and told me it “wasn’t possible” to have freshly squeezed juice without sugar. I came out with the sickly sweet juice, a packet of dates and some digestive biscuits, not exactly the ‘Meal Deal’ I was lusting after. And this is what is making me fat!  I am never going to get anywhere unless I prepare in advance. I can get hold of nuts, oats, pulses, vegetables, fruit and chicken, so I’m going to buy that lot in bulk and eat the same things every day until I am 60 kilos once again. Watch this space!

Primping and preening are all part of the expat’s life, should she choose it, as Mumbai is full of beauty salons and health spas. I do have regular manis, pedis and facials, something I rarely did at home, but each time I go they try to flog me things I didn’t think I needed. “Do you want your arms waxing, madam? Shall I thread your moustache also?” No and no! I do not have hairy arms or a moustache and yet, as soon as I get home, you can bet yout bottom dollar I’ll be inspecting myself in a magnifying mirror, insecure and fearful of finding new and horrendous flaws. Perhaps it’s a case of the more you dig, the more you find!

All of this, of course, comes hurtling back into perspective when you see disfigured beggars at the roadside.  I may have the odd hair on my upper lip BUT THAT MAN HAS NO LEGS! India, you may be making me old, but you also make me grateful for what I do have.

Like Cher and most other self-obsessed women past their prime ‘I wish I could turn back time’ but I can’t so instead, I’m going to try to make Mumbai work for me. The fact that I have a maid to do all the housework frees me up to go for a run on the beach every morning and try to shop for healthy foods (which she will chop and make into soup) I have just booked a holiday in Goa for a dose of fresh air and will try to remember my factor 50 every day. Finally I’ve signed up for some weird Indian Ayurvedic fat melting treatments at Dr Bhavana’s Fitness Highway (check the ads in the Mumbai Mirror) My wobbly bits will be coated in a funny-smelling paste and magically massaged away. I know there is no obvious science to this but I quite like the mysteriousness of it. They also made me swear to give up alcohol for 50 days. Hmmmmmm

There are many things I love about living in India (yoga, coconuts, and my strange Bollywood Zumba class) but food shopping isn’t one of them. I used to be a Happy Shopper, but now I’m a sad one. Going to the supermarket is a miserable experience, I hate it.  I know, I know, I should be grateful that I CAN shop in supermarkets (there are plenty out there who can’t) it’s just that they should be so much better than they actually are. This economy is steaming ahead; the supermarkets need to catch up!

I reserve my most vitriolic criticism for Nature’s Basket in Lokhandwala which reminds me of one of the obstacle courses my brother and I used to make in the garden after watching “It’s a Knockout.” It’s actually a combination of an obstacle course and a maze for really thin people; a labyrinth blocked at every twist and turn by unruly gangs of empty (dirty) trolleys. Ok, you can get Heinz Beans here and Coco Pops (at a price!) but why is everything coated in thick, black dust? Why are all the tins dented? Any pasta product that does not have an inner wrapping of foil or plastic will almost certainly be infested with weevils. C’mon Goodrej’s Nature’s Basket, you can do better than this! You can start by eliminating whatever is causing that foul smell which greets the shopper at the threshold. I could go on and on. Why, when an item is scanned, does the cashier then have to enter the product into the till manually? (And seemingly read the whole of the label) It can take up to 30 minutes to pay if you have more than one basket. Also some sort of queuing system wouldn’t go amiss, rather than everybody milling about amongst the cardboard boxes and chaos near the till, hoping to catch the eye of an assistant so they can pay and leave. Hey, I’m only saying!  And yes, I have asked to speak to the manager and each time he has smiled politely, obviously not understood what I was saying and then quietly backed away from me as if I were a dangerous care-in-the-community patient.

Ok, Hypercity, it’s your turn now. Filthy trolleys, the smell in your meat hall makes me gag, your fruit and veg is often past-it (bought two melons last week, both rotten inside) and your million-decibel sound system makes my ears bleed. Plus, when I pointed out to an assistant that the spaghetti was crawling with weevils, he just took the packet from me and returned it to the shelf, offering me another one. Finally, your idea of filling the conveyor belts at the checkout with products on special offer sucks. The 50 bottles of sunflower oil you had lined up on every belt meant there was hardly any space for the shopper to unload the shopping. Sack the brainiac who ‘thunk’ that one up!

I have tried shopping at the Mom and Pop shops, I really have, but the stock is so limited and it’s massively time-consuming.

My local supermarket, Star Bazaar, is affectionately known as Shit Bazaar in our house. A large family of cockroaches live in the space vacated by a damaged floor tile. I watch them busying about each time I wait in the queue to pay. Come on Star Bazaar, clean it up!

The thing that gets me most is not the bad smells, the filth or even the weevil/ cockroach infestations, it’s the Lack of Choice. Meat choices are chicken or anonymous offal (I think I’ll take the chicken) Milk - long life or dodgy unpasteurized stuff tied up in a plastic bag; Cheese - processed slices or seriously expensive imported Cheddar which will not have been stored properly and will almost certainly be off. You could have blown me down with a feather when I saw a little box of blueberries in Hypercity the other day. It didn’t matter that they were half mouldy, I was having them. I don’t care if they did cost me a fiver; it was like finding hidden treasure!

Great news this week! After months of dithering about the government finally allowed 51 per cent Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in multi-brand retail. This paves the way for retail giants like Wal-Mart and Carrefour to open in India. I am sure a bit of healthy competition will be good for the likes of Hypercity, Nature’s Basket et al. Bring it on!

I noticed that the boss of Wal-Mart arrived in India this week (in the papers because he breezed in with an expired visa –sack the PA!) I am really hoping he was here to start building a massive Wal-Mart right next door to my building. My life would then be complete and I would never moan again…honest!


  1. Hello MCM
    I have been here only three months and I feel that I have aged drastically. I used to look under my age (41) and now I feel like I look well over my age. I am sure it must be the aircon and the constant going from cold to hot and sleeping in a room whilst the moisture is sucked out of the air. And then there is the inability to go for an actual walk ass gets bigger by the day as I refuse to use the gym downstairs. Even if you wanted to go for a walk the air is filthy - all those pollutants sticking to your lungs and skin like clingfilm. I really could do with some Yorkshire or Highland air...may have to pack those bags back to England soon!

    The lack of salad does my head in - I'm not brave to buy anything off the market yet and I don't want to wash it it in chemicals anyway and I am fed up with Nature's Basket and the stupid small aisles. I try to avoid the Sunday brunches as I hear those are even worse for putting on weight but probably the only place to get salad.

    I don't miss England...but I am definitely scared of ageing! Gonna have to stay out of that sun when it finally appears!

  2. by the way, just in case you haven't discovered it, Joseph's is the best western style butcher in Bandra. I wrote something about it here: Nice beef, pork and chicken.

  3. Thanks for your comment Jules. I meant to write a whole other para about the air con sucking the life out of me but forgot, so wrapped up was I in ranting about the bloody supermarkets.I did go to Josephs once but was appalled by all the flies on the meat.Also, I have seen some of those wild pigs eating from the rubbish tips in Aaery Colony so I'm right off pork! That was a couple of years ago now, perhaps it got better.I will check out your blog.Thanks, MCM x

  4. Hehe, oh my, I'm so sorry! I just had to have a HUGE laugh about this... I came across your blog quite on accident-I'm an expat in Hyderabad... and I thought our Hypercity was the only disgusting one in the world! ;) Plus, I also cannot walk past the horrific ear-drum exploding music without wanting to kill someone! I go in there only for the one small wall of Waitrose products. Even then, I'm not sure it's worth it. I will pass your blog along to all my Hyderabad expat friends. We won't feel so awful that even Mumbai has it "bad" ;)


    1. Thankyou ellegeorgina, sorry to hear the HyperShitty in Hyderbad is just as bad. I just got back from the UK last night with a 37 kilo suitcase full of bacon and sausages so we are alright for a bit!