From the India archives: Mumbai
The following post is the first entry copied from the journal I kept during my India trip. I’ll post more as I have time to transcribe.
“So what do you think of India?” Vasumathi asked us as we sat sipping coffee in her Mumbai apartment. Vasumathi is my uncle’s sister, a statuesque, middle-aged, sari-ed South Indian with long, flowing peppery hair. We went to visit her with my cousin in the top floor of a building they own in the north of the city, and she welcomed us with a tray full of snacks and thick, sweet South Indian coffee so good I’m still thinking about it. She told us about her children, one of whom lives in Mumbai and the other who is a doctor in Pasadena. Her granddaughter, Siya, was there, telling stories about what she liked when she visited America (“I liked, ummm, cheeeeese, macaroni and cheeeeese, cheez wiz, and… oh, just cheese!”) with a sweet bubbly voice and a sophisticated British/Indian-accented English. And in turn, she asked us what we thought of her home.
It was an innocent, and quite standard, question. But it was our second day in Bombay, with as many in India, and it left me shamefully speechless. When I arrived in India and started to walk around the streets I felt like my head had exploded and at that point in the trip I was only two days into the putting-back-together of all the pieces. I stumbled through some generic answer, hoping I had been specific and positive enough to not offend my hostess, and that she couldn’t (or perhaps that she could) see through my attempt at poise into all of the sensations swimming furiously around in my head. Looking back, I wish I could have visited her on the tail end of the trip, where I was more capable of conversation, instead of the beginning, when I was fresh off the plane and drowning in the blinding sensory overload and desperate attempts at acclimatization that was my first days in India. I’m sure she got a kick out of us, and after I thanked her and hugged her goodbye I thought, even then, that’d I’d be back someday and that next time, I wouldn’t be such a dull conversationalist.
It wasn’t until we settled into the van for the long drive to Pune that my head started settling into place and I could begin to process the wondrousness that is Mumbai, India.
Mumbai. The city formerly known as Bombay. It is at once the Los Angeles and the Manhattan of India. It is the financial hub, headquarters of so many businesses and banks, and boasts, without hyperbole, the most expensive real estate in the world. It is the home of Bollywood, a film industry more successful financially than all of Hollywood and whose viewership represents one sixth of the world’s population. (I read that a full 67,000 Bollywood movies have been produced since 1931. That’s over 800 films a year, and more than two a day!) In the midst of all its opulence, Mumbai is also home to the largest slums in India, made famous in Slumdog Millioinaire, and teems with people.
Mumbai struck me as more European than I had imagined. It’s so cosmopolitan, comparatively, that there are lots of fancy stores and street markets that reminded me of New York (think Canal Street). Skyscrapers line the coast and taxicabs cart young people in western clothes all over the place. The European buildings, the ornate colonial architecture, and the statue water fountains are covered in the grime of the monsoons and the sprawling plants of the jungle. Indians from all walks of life pack the streets, as do signs for Indian stores and movies. It looks as though all of the Indians came to settle in the ruins of a glamorous old European city and not the other way around. (I guess that’s what it feels like to visit one’s first truly post-colonial city. It was a strange sensation.)
And there are all kinds of people milling about, everywhere. Walking around in Mumbai (and most places in India, it seems), you are in the midst of people, cars, rickshaws, bikes, scooters, taxis. Everyone is honking and weaving in and around one another in a complicated yet successful system of transportation on the bustling streets. There are some people in American-style jeans and some people sleeping under tarps but most people in Mumbai seem to be middle-class working people and most speak at least a little English. They wear slacks and collared shirts and carry backpacks on one shoulder instead of briefcases.
The other thing that is striking about India is how alive everything feels. There is movement everywhere – people walking, riding, laughing, roasting nuts, riding carriages, washing clothes, cutting coconut, shining shoes, selling jewelry, making paan (a street snack of spices and jellies rolled in a betel leaf), squeezing juice, stringing flowers, inflating balloons, carving sticks, feeding children, stirring food, taking photos, praying to Ganesh figures, and carrying things on their head. There is so much going on in every frame of your vision it’s like life is on fast-forward.
And the smell. You can’t write about India without writing about the smell. The thick, hot, humid air holds the smell of millions of people and thousands of years right in front of your face, all the time. It’s a sweet, sweaty smell. As you walk around town it gets more or less foul depending on the area but there is always a distinct flavor in the air, which I for the most part found quite pleasant. (That is, when it leaned towards incense and curry as opposed to trash and sewage..) It adds a sensory experience to the place that helps to color it in your mind. It’s India, in all of it’s glory, and I loved it. Right away I knew I’d miss it when I left, and that has already proven to be true.
My favorite thing about Mumbai, aesthetically, at least, was the taxi cabs. They were all black and yellow fiats, with all kinds of colored signs and stickers decorating the sides and back window. The back seats were all covered in a vintage velvety fabric (like a 70’s paisley print, for example), and the cab drivers smoke beadies as they speed you to your destination. One of my best memories is cruising along the luxurious Marine drive in a taxi with my cousin, looking out at the ocean and the lights along the water that form the “Queen’s necklace,” feeling the sweet humid air cool the sweat on my skin, holding an Indian cigarette out the window. It was like stepping back into an old Bollywood movie and I think I fell in love with Mumbai right then and there, in my first taxi cab, on night #2 in India. It didn’t take much, I guess…