Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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.
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.