Steamy and sensual, a masala of disparate peoples, faiths, and tongues facing the Arabian Sea, Mumbai (still called Bombay by many of its residents) sprawls in languid grandeur like a vine-covered statue of Lakshmi in repose. At once chaotic and laid-back, the city dons the role of its most famous monument as the Gateway of India, riding astraddle its identity as wholly Indian with imported British sensibilities, place names like Chowpatty and Marine Lines only superficially reflecting this duality. If Mumbai’s punctual, if crowded, commuter train lines were more like New York’s subway system, I’d say I spent most of my time trundling the Number 1, between grungy Downtown, simply called “Town” and studded with oxidized colonial jewels such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly “Prince of Wales Museum”) and the imposing Victoria Terminus (also, like the airport and aforementioned museum, named for ancient ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji), and Uptown, a mix of close-in residential suburbs bustling with upscale-to-low-end commercial strips and anchored by the heavily Christian colony of Bandra, where I stayed with friends of Protestant religious affiliation, Goan ancestry, and Portuguese nomenclature.
After a weak Monsoon, resulting in imposed water cuts to the more impoverished areas of the city, the heavens decided to make up for lost time and dump large quantities of precipitation over the country for four days straight; in southern India, hundreds of people were killed and over a million displaced as flood waters washed away their homes. Luckily, I stayed dry in the luxury of my friends’ large concrete home; millions of others, of course, live in make-shift lean-tos along the many waterways and railroad tracks coursing through the city. I will say, however, that the shocking thing about India’s poverty that I glimpsed only briefly in Mumbai, wasn’t the degree of poverty—there was nothing I hadn’t seen after four years of living in and traveling around Latin America—but the magnitude, caused only by sheer overpopulation. And while I am aware of the horrifying child deformity, elucidated in the controversial Slumdog Millionaire (which features a protagonist who, my friends say acidly, speaks English not as if he learned it from touting tourists at the Taj Mahal as suggested, but by having his knuckles rapped more than a few times for mispronunciation by a proper Catholic Mrs. Krabapple), other poverty-stricken burgs, like Rio de Janeiro with its astronomical crime rate and accompanying off-duty police brutality, have their own location-specific monsters to slay. I’m not saying, “See…India’s not the only place with problems!” I’m saying that India’s poverty is the most exoticized, as if the subcontinent is more of a lost cause than any other potential power (though some might say that with nuclear ambitions and plans to build a harbor statue bigger than Lady Liberty, our girl India might want to re-examine her priorities).
While I wouldn’t say that Mumbai has the worst traffic I’ve ever seen in a major developing-world metropolis, I would say that it has the loudest I’ve ever experienced, with incessant high-decible horn honking despite government campaigns encouraging a quieter commute. But that Indian attachment to noise also stems from being a country delightfully smothered in sound: from the cawing of scary crows in the trees to the festive shouts of delivery boys (grown men, really) in Crawford Market to the bangalangalanga of Punjabi percussion and orgiastic hip-and-neck-popping Bollywood production numbers to hip-hop with DJ Candy at Zenzi—don’t nobody know music like Indians know music!
Then there’s the food, slammin’ spicy cuisine with innumerable stews and rice dishes with a whole lotta names I can barely pronounce (plus okra) that tastes like somebody’s Louisiana grandma put her foot in it (a Southern phrase for those who don’t know). And the discourse: at birthday parties and in rickshaw rides, I became engaged in conversations about not just Obama, but black feminism and The Color Purple, spanking as essential to child-rearing, disgust at the continued availability of Pond’s White Beauty cream and its perpetuation of self-hatred, and heated debate over non-violent Ghandi-style protest against oppression versus a more by-any-means-necessary approach (up for a spirited Martin v. Malcolm convo, anyone?). I’m starting to think that Indians are just black folk with straighter hair.
Indeed, even here, I was taken as a son of the subcontinent. Folks looked at me all funny when I didn’t speak a word of Hindi. They said I could easily be from Goa, the former Portuguese stronghold in the South where more than a little mixing took place between colonizer and colonized. I can’t seem to get the Indian head wiggle down, though. To see what I mean, check the bobble of my girl Adèle at the end of this video from Crawford Market on a random Thursday night in the heart of “Town,” then enjoy the photos of my stint in the largest city of a country of 1,150,000,000 people. Thems a lotta zeros.