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Squaring the circle



I've never really understood the phrase 'squaring the circle'. I guess it means trying to do the impossible; but why would anyone want to turn a circle into a square in the first place? When Giotto was asked to demonstrate his artistic genius, he drew, not a square, but a beautiful freehand 'O'. Like us, circles are organic, as natural to nature as an orange or the full moon. I think I'm right in saying that squares and cubes are only found naturally in crystals and the molecular structure of minerals. When I think of squares I think of enforced regimentation: of square-bashing or the imposition of a 'square meal'.


I have returned to stay in Mumbai for five days. It is 41 years and four months (almost to the day) since I was last here. That was when Mumbai was still Bombay, before the smart phone, before bottled mineral water was available in India. In 1983, I arrived at what was then called Santa Cruz Airport, flying in over some of the worst slums in the city; shacks of cardboard and corrugated iron held down with bricks, built haphazardly and immediately adjacent to the runway. I still remember the pervasive smell of untreated sewage mixed with aviation fuel as my introduction to India.


I didn't even have a copy of the Lonely Planet guide which had been published two years previously. I sought out a copy at the Taj Hotel bookshop, although of course I wasn't staying there. With only 300 pounds in traveller's cheques to last me for three months I could only dream of such luxury. It would have made me feel uncomfortable, anyway. Exiting the Taj I saw a wealthy western tourist, perhaps she was American. She was waving a hundred rupee note above the heads of a group of street kids, just as a circus performer might wave a fish for a seal lion to jump up and catch.


Back then, on my first visit, I stayed at the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House where I met other western tourists, all of them armed with the Lonely Planet. I had my own room from where I ventured out to explore the Colaba district of downtown Mumbai. Timidly at first, and easily shocked, I gave a few rupees to a blind man, being led along the busy pavement. "Lata, lata" is what I remember him repeating as he shuffled along. Perhaps it was "Daan" दान meaning charity. It was all a long time ago.


Anyway, I'm back now and, as chance would have it, staying just a couple of blocks away from the Salvation Army Red Shield Guesthouse, where prices are just as reasonable as they were 41 years ago. Colaba, with its grand villas, leafy streets, trendy cocktail bars and restaurants seems more like West Kensington in high summer to me now. Lots of cars and even some one-way streets. Cats languishing on the pavements, residents feeding pigeons. Today's tourists can sign up for a Slum Dog Millionaire walk around the poorest areas of Mumbai and meet the smiling locals. Or do a Film City tour at Bollywood Park. For me, it's just nice to be here again for a few days at the completion of my circular Indian journey.


Happier than I look ... the only photo I have taken of me in India in 1983



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