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Around the World in 80 Days

Day 26: 20 October

Michael Palin - Around the World in 80 DaysPassepartout is more interested in the mongoose and snake attraction next door, but as soon as the presence of the camera is detected, the snakes are popped back in their baskets and a furious row ensues. It seems their owner knows all about world television rights and he negotiates with a single-mindedness that would assure him of a vice-president's job in any Hollywood studio. A man with a hooded cobra in one hand has to be listened to. The 'fight' itself is a pathetic and ugly affair. The mongoose, looking terrified throughout, is not only chained to a stone, but has its front legs tethered so that it couldn't kill the snake even if it wanted to. The snake-man tries to introduce a note of danger by continually ordering back the flyblown street children who are his chief audience. But the mongoose is clearly not interested in exterminating any snakes today and has to be forcibly yanked upwards to simulate aggression. Of the five snakes kept in baskets, only the cobra looks fit; the rest are dry and docile. This whole grubby spectacle takes place only a hundred yards from the be-whiskered bust of Lord Elphinstone and his fellow Victorians whose idea of civilising India was to build massive public buildings in the architectural style of a continent five thousand miles away.

The oldest surviving English building in Bombay is a more modest affair than the Victoria Terminal. It's a church, with a simple perpendicular tower, completed in 1718 and full of sad memorials to those who, by and large, died young and far away from home. Of 'cholera, aged 32', of 'wounds received at Lucknow, in the mutiny, aged 23'. Now it is St Thomas's Cathedral, the main Christian church of Bombay. I assume wrongly that it is frequented by the English community, but the priest in charge tells me that the congregation consists entirely of native Christians, and that Christianity, far from being a relic of the Raj, is the third most popular religion in India, after Hinduism and Islam.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day: 26
  • Date: 20 October
  • Country/sea: India
  • Place: Bombay
  • Book page no: 92

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