Archive for August 2008

Oh My Mumbai by Diane

August 31, 2008

It’s been over a month since I spent three days in India and every memory teases my every sense.  You hear about it, you imagine it, you read about it, yet nothing prepares you for the assault on your psyche.

Dreamy illusions are shattered upon arrival at the Mumbai airport.  Think of the seven seas, full of people.  Churning crowds making carpets of color, restless and roving fields of families and dark, exotic faces full of hope, adventure, hunger, purpose. It seemed, in the space of a few minutes, that everywhere I looked I was seeing something I’d never seen before.  Clearly, ordinary life in India is extraordinary to outsiders.

We left the terminal and walked through a massive muddy field that is the airport parking lot.  (Photos would support the similarity to Woodstock….) It was 11pm and the place was teeming with people, though I would quickly learn that India overflows itself 24/7.  Our driver un-wedged our car and as we exited the airport I saw a well-dressed man drinking from a puddle while another man stood proudly in his underpants, bathing in the same muddy puddle.  I thought “ok, there’s my Nat Geo moment, I’m good with this,” while I unconsciously squeezed my purse and took comfort in my 32 oz. stash of bottled water. 

To get an idea of the scale of what you see, imagine a stadium full of people.  Flatten it, wrap it in saris of every hue and acres of white cloth.  Throw dust on it, raise the temperature to 100F, add an ark of animals and a caravan of chaos and start walking into this textural landscape.  What’s that smell?  What’s THAT smell?  Nothing smells like India.  And this was just Wednesday night, July 9th,2008. I asked my colleagues the next day what everyone was doing on the streets the night before.  “Huh?  What kind of question is that?”  I quietly scolded myself with the current travel promotion slogan “Incredible India.”  Those massive crowds of people on the streets at night were just living their lives. Heaving heaps of humanity.  I had felt sure they were waiting for something.  I’m sure they’re still there.

As a true first-timer, I knew goal #1 was to avoid the dreaded Delhi-Belly.  This pretty much means fruits and veggies and anything uncooked is off-limits.  It’s kind of unfortunate because the array of fresh foods is mind-boggling but I learned quickly the variety of curries and kormas and steamy towers of naan certainly made for three heavenly days of saucing and sloshing.  Yum. The Indian food I ate in India was nothing short of divine. Never have I been so blissfully unaware of what I was eating yet delightfully aware of the festivity of flavours in my mouth!

Mumbai is a city that works, clearly with the aid of daily miracles.  My colleagues travel almost 2hrs each way to work every day.  The site of their new office is in a neighborhood that looks forgotten by technological progress. They cannot bring their lunch or pc’s or carry anything on the trains because it is too crowded.  10-12 people die every day on trains in Mumbai.  Every day. This apparently is just an unfortunate fact when you deal with numbers so large.  A small section in the daily paper lists the train fatalities in this city of 18 million. Everywhere you look you see signs of growth and decay.  Buildings are being erected next to crumbling offices and stores.  People in business attire are doing deals with men herding goats and disfigured women selling fabric or chillies.  The air is laced with passion – I close my eyes now as I write and I see smiling faces full of fervor.

Cows, indulgent in their protected status, wander east to west across the visual landscape, looking healthier than the people who part in their path. Truly, I have never been to a place where the voice in my head kept saying “close your mouth, don’t stare, smile, don’t look surprised.” I had to keep censoring myself or I might have started levitating from the magic of the madness around me.   

There is squalor everywhere but it is vibrant and alive with frenzy.  I did not feel any sense of stillness. Of course Yoga originated here  – necessity is the mother of invention.  There are slums that are so vast they are on the map.  They are permanent residences for hundreds of thousands of people – shanty-towns many, many square miles large. They are cities unto themselves and it’s hard to believe that there is anything on earth unavailable here.  (If you have ANY interest in India, please read Shantaram.  The Australian author has hero status in Mumbai.  He has captured life in India as well as any Westerner could hope to.) There is unimaginable traffic.  It took us four hours to go less than 40 miles and at least two of those hours were spent crawling through jam-packed city life.  There can be five or six lanes of traffic flow, going in as many directions. It appears congenial, somehow, as it trickles along. But the magnitude of this traffic is hard to comprehend.  It is not unusual to see cars perfectly perpendicular to each other, engines running, drivers talking on the phone, moving only inches per hour. Games are played on the hoods of cars, meals are cooked and consumed in the midst of all this and everywhere, wherever one can turn their back to the crowd, there are men peeing.  I have never seen so many men standing in the position – I started to call them X-men, for the shape the back of their bodies create while emptying their bladders. I wondered where the women let loose.  

July was the middle of Monsoon season and I cannot possibly explain the strength and suddenness of this kind of rain.  It’s glorious.  It’s a shower of relief on a nation of need.  It pounds for hours and then disappears without warning.  I could barely focus on my work when it was raining.  I felt giggly and stimulated and utterly in awe. You see it, smell it, hear it, feel it – no longer are the words “it’s only rain” in my vocabulary. My colleagues were delighted that I appreciated the rain, because they too rhapsodize about it.  And their country.  They seem fiercely patriotic and proud of their diversity.  British colonization brought a degree of western civilization and India seems to have integrated the best practices of that time.  Never in so short a visit to any country have I felt I had been transported to a culture so rich in traditions, history, and tribe upon tribe of related but distinct people.  The diversity is as staggering as the whole of it.  My colleagues from Mumbai, 6 men and two women, were from 7 Indian “countries” and collectively they spoke 28 different languages.  Indians do everything with gusto, except making decisions. There is always something else to consider.   The famous Indian “head wag” must be seen to be believed. They wag for yes and for no.  In disagreement and agreement they shake their heads to and fro, up and down, ever subtly. Men and women wag, and it’s done so often that you forget you are observing it.  To Westerners, the meaning is often unclear.  I decided the wag was a cultural trait – a kind of readying of the head to speak and conspire. It was the only way I could focus on what was being said. I had to keep explaining India to myself, just to keep my moorings.

Bound for the airport, I had been in the car for four hours and I was physically exhausted from keeping my thoughts to myself.   My final meeting was at the airport Hyatt and I admit that walking into that hotel lobby felt like crossing to safety.  The air-con washed over me and I realized I was experiencing the euphoria of relief. From what?  Just observing Mumbai city life?  I spent a few minutes deconstructing my thoughts and impressions.  Then I ordered a glass of wine and a hamburger, to feel the full American-ness of my appetite.  My colleague fidgeted a bit and then said “you do know that won’t be a beef burger, right?”  Oh that’s right, I was still in India, despite the fresh familiarity of all things Hyatt.  We split the veggie pizza, he being Hindu, me just religiously hungry.

If you’ve read this far, it’s clear impressions of India are embroidered in my mind.  I have omitted almost as much as I’ve included, because it’s just not possible to say it all, and say it well. A visit to India is a glimpse into another world.  I’ve written only a fraction of what I remember from only a three-day visit to one city.  Put simply, there is not another place on our planet like India.  Incredible India.