Following a week that carried us from the treetops to Mysore to the seashore city of Mangalore, and which provided glimpses of wild elephants by the roadside in the Western Ghats range and huge crowds of black-clad pilgrims, coming into Mumbai was almost like landing in Europe; slums and smog notwithstanding. Even with the crowds, the British buildings and roundabout fountains of India's most cosmopolitan seem vaguely familiar, though elements such as ornate friezes piling monkeys on gargoyles atop martial scenes show that the colonizers were not just actors but acted upon. Were I inclined to an urban existence, Mumbai-formerly-Bombay is actually a city I would consider calling home -- if they could just solve to pollution problem. And the poverty problem, marked by the largest slums in Asia.

Which is ironic, because for Western travelers the city by the sea (India's answer to Santa Monica or Miami, perhaps) is also one of the most expensive stopovers in South Asia. We were there for just a couple of days, soaking up the urban atmosphere, inhaling the smog-chocked air, dishing off loose change to beggars young and old, and checking out the Chor Bazaar, or "Thieves Market" in a largely Muslim neighborhood. With Mom still in tow, shopping was unavoidable, but it provided glimpses into life beyond the main tourist draws. With Ramadan ending and goat feasts on the menu, there was a definite exoticness to wandering streets crowded with big Rajasthani goats being fattened throughout the district. "There were 2 crore (200,000) killed yesterday," one nearly toothless fakir informed us. "Today there are only about 2,000 left. Tomorrow, they will all be gone."

(It didn't occur to us until too late to work the angle for an invite to Biryani and kebabs, so we relied on a neighborhood cafe for our mutton.)

A certain amount of cultural splashback is inevitable if you spend enough time in a foreign country, I concluded after a couple of days. This was hammered home by a tremendous sold-out concert by the band Remember Shakti, an incarnation of the longtime collaboration between British guitar god John McLaughlin and tabla king Zakir Hussain. Jazz fusion has never done much for me, but with the addition of Indian instrumentation, including indigenous Southern percussion from V. Selvaganesh, and the Sanskrit-inflected scat of Bollywood vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, the music was both as timeless and modern as any I have had the pleasure to listen to. Impeccable polyrhythmic combinations boosted by amplification shook the night air.

Scoring tickets was not as easy I would have hoped; although nor was it as big a challenge as might have been expected given the band's apparent popularity. I had been tipped off to the reunion while still in the South, but we arrived the day of the concert and were unable to score seats before the show started. I expected scalpers, but the crowds of ticketless fans and lack of personal contacts left me doubting our chances as evening fell.

The concert took place out of doors, in front of the historic Gateway to India -- a triumphal arch which the British completed in the 1920s, and then were marched back through in the '40s -- so we just settled along the fence to peak at the video screens and listen from outside the venue. Shortly, though, a grey-haired fan who had been nearby just minutes earlier arrived at the fence: "They're selling tickets at the other gate." Sitting beneath a neem tree, beneath the three-quarters full moon, in a park in Bombay, we were then transported. A rousing tambourine (!!!) solo by Selvaganesh closed the set, a display of virtuosity that transcends words. Splashback happens.

We arrived back in Delhi on Monday, and I didn't leave the tickets for Tuesday's Remember Shakti show to chance. We splashed out for the best seats we could find, and were happily surprised by a combination of now familiar compositions and new numbers, including an apparent classic "Lotus Feet." Unlike Bombay, I don't feel like I could live in Delhi, but the city is gaining a lively edge that I think most India short-timers can't appreciate. After just a couple of days here, C had to leave for the mountains this morning, while research will keep me in the capital city another week.

It won't be nearly as entertaining without my best girl, but I figure we can dine out on the shows (and our new Remember Shakti CD) in the coming weeks. Though the Himalayas got belted with snow while we were down South enjoying our midwinter vacation, springtime waits just around the bend.


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