Everything Becomes Us
The stink of the West may hang heavy in the air, but there is no denying the distinctly Eastern flavor of this place. Walking around Bombay, I am taken by the notion that perhaps the British Empire constructed an armature, a skeletal frame for this city, and the Indians built the sculptural form around it that has come to be known as “Bombay,” and in more recent years “Mumbai,”
It is ugliness incarnate, if that is what you choose to see. There is filth, and poverty, and a swarming mass of human population that is dizzying and disorienting all at once. But there is beauty as well...an order wrought of chaos that is evident in the motions of this massive city and her inhabitants at every turn.
There are crumbling remnants of the British reign in every corner of the city. These remnants are clearly such, as their stained and ruined facades are the indicators of their age and wear. They seem tired, and quaint, like the desperate pleas of a doddering old woman who really just wants those pesky kids playing outside her window to pipe down. And Bombay will not pipe down. No, pesky Bombay will keep spewing filth into the hazy sky, and pouring shit into its rivers, and drawing rural dwellers from outlaying areas into its seductive, economically promising fold. And those rigid old British structures must simply stand there and take it, because their enfant terrible has outgrown them, and is free now to do what it wants.
The city is a recycling bin, everyone tossing their wrappers and cast-off bits and bobs out windows and out of train cars, into the streets and canals at will. If you observe closely, you may notice that there are men and women, bedecked with magnificently enormous burlap sacks and such, who comb every inch of the city, each culling their particular brand of waste from the bounty of the streets. Each kilo of waste paper, of plastic, of cloth and whatever else is absorbed by one industry or another, eventually. One man’s trash has perhaps never been so completely another man’s treasure as it is here in Bombay.
By day, the sidewalks are awash in a multitude of hawkers selling fresh fruit, vegetables, stationary, incense, jasmine garlands, saris, and any other number of needful things. The other day while walking through Bandra, the strap of my sandal snapped. I limped along for a few blocks until I came to one of the shoe repairmen who are ubiquitous on the streets here. For 10 cents, he fixed my sandal on the spot! A few blocks later, smitten with a pair of Rajastani shoes, I purchased a pair for no more than 8 dollars.
Not that it is all ease and convenience. No. The train is an exercise in tolerance, as rush hour means that an ocean of human bodies surge towards and away from the cars, flowing up and down the station stairs at a rate that is both unstoppable and unfathomable. You could pass out cold during these high-volume moments and likely be carried back to the entrance by the pressure exerted via the walls of flesh enclosing you on all sides. You couldn’t stop your trajectory if you wanted to.
The train cars themselves are unreal, packed to the gills with human bodies. If you are fortunate enough to find a seat on the train, you may find yourself relaxing a bit. At this point, the train’s gently undulating rhythm will make your head wobble from side to side, performing the Indian equivalent of a head nod. “Yes,” your head says as the train moves you towards your cause. “Yes, Okay.” The train makes you somehow more Indian with this one small mechanism. You need not even try. You need not fight it, because you cannot, so don’t waste your time. It is, like so many things here--effortless.
What is an effort is breathing. The air quality is nonexistent. Your nose is subjected to every olfactory injustice imaginable, and when you blow your nose at night, a sooty black mess is the evidence of a day spent in the city. The mark, I imagine, of a proper Mumbaiker.
I will never be a proper Mumbaiker, as I have no desire to. Yes, there is much more to tell, but I fear I’ve rambled on too much already.
For now, simply know that I miss my cat, and my bed, and my marvelous boyfriend. The adventure is perfect, and I am not unhappy, but there is, you know, no place like home.
And home is wherever in the world my cat and my man happen to be at the time.
Good night, and all my love,