What’s it like, being in India?

23 Apr


Well, mainly, chaotic for the mind. This place simply disbelieves time. Walking around in Mumbai, you’d think Alice has put the gold key in the lock.

Perhaps if you walked around on your own, you would have time to digest and pass on to others in a coherent manner what you are experiencing. But, and let me add thankfully, we are being hosted by my wonderful cousin Eli and her family. Expats here since last year, the stories they tell are just as mind-boggling as the sights and smells in the streets.

If I were to tell you everything that has happened since last Friday, we’d spend hours here. But I have India on my doorstep and you have, I assume, lots to do as well. I am therefore going to simply write down whatever comes to mind over the next few minutes. It is bound to be messy, but at least I get to scribble down some thoughts and keep friends and family a bit updated.

So, here goes:

We’re in a high-rise apartment building. On the TV, “You can’t escape the sun, but you can reverse the tan”.There is a swimming pool downstairs, a garden with palm trees, a fence to the shacks. In the shadow of the luxury building, a handful crooked, one-room huts that cost so much to rent that forty people shackshare. Twenty sleep at night, twenty come in the morning to sleep during the day.

We pull out with the car. There is a sikh with a blue turban in the front seat. Past the children waiting at the entrance, children of the construction workers nearby, waiting to get breakfast from the rich man who lives in the building. He feeds them every day. Karma.

In the city, Leopold Cafe of Shantaram, with bullet holes from when terror shock the city in 2008. And the best butter chicken I have ever had. Three strawberry cocktails. We head for the Gateway of India, where children line up to have their photo taken with the pale giants. Men sell giant balloons. Again, into the air-conditioned car, hiding from the 40 degree heat, and onwards to the local tailors. Layers of colourful fabric lining the walls. Tailors bent over small, black sewing machines. Again, I see India through books I have read. A thin line. Two tailors leave their village and the caste violence. I order two linen trousers and buy two kurtas. A maze of shops.

Into the air-conditioned car. To malls, frequented by the middle class and the wealthy. Emporio Armani, Hugo Boss. One has a roller coaster on the top floor. Eli’s daughter and I join an Indian flash mob. We laugh, when in India. People take more photos of me than I take of them. We go to Starbucks, where we meet an Indian college professor who has returned to Mumbai after 18 years in the US. She speaks of gender roles. Of how men speak to her son, her husband, and not to her, and how women here have an uncertain future. We talk about our travels, which we now see as a loop from Mumbai and up north. Who knows, maybe Dalai Lama is home?

The view of Mumbai, the highrises, which makes us compare it to New York. That passes quickly. In the sea, small children swimming. They are not looking for fish, but for plastic, our guide says. They sell it in Dharavi, the slum from Slumdog millionaire. A small boy waves to my camera, he is far out in the sea. Young men demand photos. I decline. I pose for women and children. Our cheerful guide points to people who are standing next to us with scales. You know, we Indians don’t like to watch our weight, she laughs. So, we don’t have scales at home. If we are in the mood and want to know our weight, we come to these. When she weighed herself the last time? A bubbly laughter. Maybe a year ago.

The garbage, the goats, the stench. My stomach churns. A small boy spots my camera and does a little dance. The white, crumbling mosque. Used as a mausoleum, so women are allowed to peek inside. Though not go inside, still inferior. A brush made out of peacock feathers is tapped on my head. Blessed. The temples. I remove my shoes. A six-year old girl looks after them for three rupees. Officious security guards look through my bag. It feels like airport security. I am given a blessed sweet. I give it to a child. I toss the rose from the temple in the ocean and make a wish.

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