Wednesday, April 16, 2014

India - Part 3

Our first stop on our first day in India was the Bombay Exposition Centre. The show didn't start until tomorrow, but we wanted to get our booth set up and an idea of where to go before the actual event.  Our driver dropped us off at what I could only hope was the wrong place. It was a warehouse behind another warehouse. The place was crawling with male workers and I think every one of them stopped what they were doing to stare at us the second we stepped out of the car. It was just us and them. They watched us find our booth through the construction dust and noise. They watched us look around. They watched us pretend to prepare our booth by pushing our little desk around, establishing where the metal chair should go, and making halfhearted attempts to arrange where our sign should go. Then we got out of there.

Our cab then proceeded, literally at the pace of a snail, to what felt like a hundred miles south but was actually just the other side of the city. We sat in traffic forever. Once forever finally ended and we started moving, we made it to the Prince of Wales Museum--a museum of artifacts and art, which I'm ashamed to say, I only partially attempted to appreciate. I was hot. I was tired. I was suffering massive culture shock. And I was sick of everyone staring at me. I wanted to get inside asap. Nevertheless, after some brief souvenir shopping, we stood on the street waiting for our cabbie to show up and had to fend off a guy selling what looked like giant inflated bowling pins (their purpose mystified us, but the man was positive we needed at least two), a guy who wanted us to sign a petition in favor of nature (I refused because he bugged me, not to spite nature), and a kid fanning a book of Mumbai postcards relentlessly in our faces.

Finally the car showed up and we headed back. At one busy intersection, I noticed children walking between the stopped cars. I realized they were beggars. They stopped at our windows, tapping and motioning to their mouths for food, their words unenthusiastic from overuse, dull and muted by the glass between us. One was a young girl. Another was a mother with a baby balanced on her hip. I saw the rest of them gathered on the sidewalk. Women and children.  But that wasn't the rest of them, as I would learn in the coming days. They were hundreds, thousands maybe. Populating the underpasses and busiest intersections. They lived there. Their homes were strung up hammocks where the babies slept when they weren't sitting in the gutters. Piles of rubbish, jars, and bins. They crouched in circles when they weren't begging and looked at us, languishing. Rush hour was the worst. They combed through the traffic selling junk or simply begging. The abjectness of their poverty was beyond my scope of understanding heretofore. They were brown all over--the layer of filth on their hair and clothes lent them an almost velveteen appearance. I looked in their eyes and I didn't know what to do. I just didn't know what I was supposed to say. So I said nothing and prayed they wouldn't spot me next time, like a coward cowering. This haunted me every day when we'd pull into our luxury accommodations and eat our fine cuisine and sleep in our crisp sheets, and when we flew home to America on our jumbo jet. In the darkness of our midnight flight home, I cried and cried thinking about them and how helpless they were, and how helpless I felt.

That night, after our first full day, I was done with India. I wanted to get out. I was overwhelmed by the press and rush and pace and reality of life.

And yet by the time we left, I felt the most inexplicable affinity for the place that even I couldn't really understand. But I think it had a lot to do with the people. For three days we stood in our booth and talked to people about silicone baby toothbrushes. Hundreds of people. And they were lovely. There was a warmth, a sincerity, a generosity about them that I absolutely loved. Not everyone was polite, not everyone was sweet or nice, but I think the key to understanding any place is getting to interact with its people, and interact we did; and that's where I felt I saw India. And I loved it. We made friends--with the guy in the booth across from us. He gave us some dresses for our kids. And with the girl working as a model in the booth kitty corner. The guys at the food court could guess I wanted a Diet Coke without saying anything by the last day. I guess we were memorable, being the only Americans there, but they were memorable, too, for me.

Before we left for India, I had a girl who lived there tell me it was, "both terrible and wonderful." And when she'd said it, I didn't know what she meant. But by the end of the week I did. For that week, nothing was normal. I lived so far outside my normal realm--seeing the basest of poverty and thousands of people existing in a way, in a place so foreign from anything I'd seen, all from my luxury car and fine hotel. And then getting to interact with those people. There was something enchanting about it all, as much as that seems like a cliched ending to every movie you ever saw about a white person who went to India.

To sum it up, India doesn't hold back. It is generous with its display of life, in all its shades.

India - Part 2


Each of the five days we stayed in our palatial hotel, we were treated to a buffet breakfast in the grand cafe. There were a hundred young Indian men to pull out your chair for you, to set your napkin on your lap, to refill your drink. They were pleasant and cute, and by our second or third day, Roo didn't even have to ask for his Diet Coke, they already knew that's what he wanted. We were serenaded by a live Indian band playing traditional music--sitar, drums, violin. One wall of windows looked out onto an elegant lawn and swimming pool and the beach beyond. I could see, beyond our hotel walls, the people of Mumbai walking along the beach. It was a thoroughfare of commuters, which was unlike anything I'd seen on an American beach, which is usually reserved for vacationers and picnickers.
 Crowds of people were hurrying along every way across the sand. After breakfast we walked out on that beach, and there I realized that in Mumbai we would never blend in. I felt more noticed than maybe ever in my life. The people stared, unabashedly. We were decidedly not Indian, and that was a novelty, even in this massive city. It was hot and sticky, even at 9 am, so we anxiously returned to our hotel, insulated as it was from the world around us.

Then it was time to go out. We took a cab about 30 minutes through the city and what I'd seen last night was magnified in color and sound and size by the light of day: people everywhere, hurrying in every direction, sitting, crouching, lying on piles of debris, sifting through piles of garbage (which were everywhere), washing themselves with a bucket, peeing. They bought fruit and vegetables from stalls next to the exhaust-caked roadway. They pushed table-like carts full of nuts or popcorn or spices.  They tended their cows next to the city bus stop. They fed their chickens. They hurried to work or school. Some wore traditional Indian clothing, others looked just like every American on their morning commute, studying school notes in the back of the rickshaw, texting, putting on makeup. It was hot and the sun shone through a haze of pollution. The air, like everything else was absolutely filthy. Besides people, the most prevalent feature of Mumbai was the filth. The roads were dusty and broken. The buildings were oozing with grunge. Even the trees seemed to droop under the weight of filthy leaves.

The buildings were one of two things: tall and dripping with mold, or small and squalid. The shops were really just rows of shanties with roofs of tarps and cloths held on by buckets and sheet metal or roped down. The insides were windowless caves--matresses on the floor, fires in buckets, barber chairs where men sat getting their morning shave--all surrounded by debris and rubbish in endless, ugly piles. Then there was the traffic. Cars, auto-rickshaws, and lorries crammed the roads. Imagine Disneyland in the height of summer; imagine the way the crowds move, pushing against each other, a constant negotiation of space and speed. Some people selfishly push through, others graciously give way, some slither through in the wrong direction, some stupidly hold up the rest. This was how traffic worked in Mumbai. It was up to each driver to negotiate his or her way through. No rules, really. Just make sure you honk your horn. And that's what they did, almost like an unconscious reaction simply to being there. There was a constant chorus of horns, like the bleating of sheep, coming from the cruising, pushy, metallic herd.

Our driver successfully negotiated the neighborhood roads of Juhu to the freeway. We cruised in our posh silver Mercedes past billboards of Bollywood films and high-rise glass buildings that had been obviously under construction for quite some time. Then came the slums. They were like an ocean of uneven sheet metal roofs. Dwellings stacked on top of each other in abject squalor, each one with a small satellite dish. One slum was right next to the freeway on a craggy hill. It was like some quaint Italian hill town gone horribly wrong. The buildings clung to the craggy rock, their doors opening dangerously out to a cliff, and below the seeping cliff were piles and piles of rubbish. Goats grazed on garbage, naked children scurried atop the thirty-foot cliff. It was incredible. It was beyond anything I could have imagined. And they were right there for everyone to see. Most cities seem to hide their slums, their unmentionables; they're tucked into the deep parts of the city that you only hear about but never see. Mumbai was so teeming with life and activity, it seemed unwilling, or unable, to hide the parts of it that would shock you. It was all just there to see--the good, the bad, the scary, the beautiful, the unbelievable, the hilarious, the disturbing, the tragic.

Mumbai was unrestrained humanity.

It was at once the most appalling place and the most exciting place I've ever been.


India - Part 1

I was standing outside the men's restroom in the Mumbai International airport waiting for Roo. It was about 10 pm. The airport was brand new, state of the art--more like a piece of art than a standard, functional building. The ceiling looked like lace and the light fixtures were massive metal lotus flowers in various states of bloom. The building was a statement to those entering from the rest of the world that Mumbai was on top, if not yet, then soon. The area where I stood was quiet, and to avoid the blatant stare of the one male airport employee also in the hallway, I studied the new, clean, very loudly patterned carpet until a rush of activity occurred at the end of the hallway. I watched as a middle eastern man and what I assume to be his harem--at least six or seven women of varying ages draped head-to-toe in black flowing gowns and veils herding a small pack of children--clamber onto an airport transport buggy. They bargained and coordinated as to who should sit where, anxiously, urgently, excitedly. Once the seats were sorted amongst the family and their luggage, they cruised away, the women's black veils fluttering in the gentle airport wind like glitter on a parade float. It was a scene at once familiar and yet very, very foreign. I realized I had no idea what to expect from this place.

Upon leaving the airport, we were greeted by our driver, a man from the hotel whose name I couldn't pronounce and had a hard time remembering.  He led us into the parking garage where I could immediately sense that they did things differently in India. It was a buzz with passing scooters and beeping horns and other drivers who did not want to wait for someone to pull out, or for someone to let them out. In terms of parking garages, this one had a markedly more treacherous feel to me. We climbed into the hotel Range Rover and the driver pulled right out without checking to see if the car approaching was going to allow it.

We drove out into the night and Mumbai presented itself to us. We were driving on a large, freeway-like road with big barriers on each side. Suddenly a small herd of guys were climbing over the barriers and strolling out onto the freeway. And within a few minutes as we drove deeper into the city, it seemed like everyone in Mumbai was out and about. Even the six-year-old in her pajamas, riding her bike in the median next to the busy highway. People were everywhere. Herds of them. Groups, masses, gangs. Women in brightly colored fabric wrapped beautifully around their bodies; men in the ubiquitous Indian male uniform of a buttoned-down shirt, sleeves rolled loosely with slacks; children, too. The chaos of it all, late at night, was what struck me first. It was like a party, a festival--but one of ordinariness, of everyday living--and everyone was out to celebrate.

We pulled into our gated hotel where security guards sniffed the car and were led through a metal detector. Recent terrorist activity made this necessary. And once we entered the hotel, it was like going from one wonderland into another of an altogether different kind. The lobby was expansive, with marble and art and high glass windows. Our room was elegant and modern, overlooking the Indian Ocean. Disoriented as our bodies were, we giddily fell into bed.