I first traveled out of India in’95. My trip was to Beijing and in all the excitement of new discoveries, I remember missing the Roman script most. My eyes would vainly scour the urban landscape, searching for something that would talk to me. Sixteen years later, things are different and I want to know if I can say the same about Mumbai.
I am in Mumbai for the day. It is years since I last touched down in this city.
Mumbai too has seen some change. Prodded by the right wing, the predominantly English signage has been recast in a bilingual avatar that could have been masterminded from Beijing, so close is the format. But English and Hindi are both written from left to right and this creates a problem. The Hindi sign starts from the left of the board after which there is a no-man’s blank space; thence begins the English signage. I find it disconcerting to move my eyes over this tab-width space to read the English sign. On my effort scale it ranks on par with deciphering Devnaagri, “the celestial script,” used for Sanskrit and Hindi. I do a bit of both.
Most international flights arrive into India in the dead of night, and mine is no exception. The airport is new. The floor is polished to a glossy finish but the cleaning rota has clearly not been assigned. The Bureau of Immigration provides separate queues for club class passengers. Someone mutters angrily, “Where did all the socialism go?” Quick as a flash an official counters, “International travelers do not need socialism miss.” I am struck by how voluble we are. Or maybe I hear better in my homeland.
Airport officials accost weary travelers every step of the way with unsolicited, at times useful information. There is a strong need to appear purposeful. This need for validation has not spurred anyone however, to rationalize the number of security checks. Immigration formalities completed, I have to line up one more time to show my passport (why, why?) to an official. Then there are the forlorn cops at the exit trying to bully mystified visitors: many travelers do not realize that the customs form, a part of the arrival card, is still inside their passport, and needs to be given to these cops. Woe betide those that have misplaced that little slip!
The madness of the pick-up point seamlessly segues into a snails-pace drive through blaring horns and revving engines. Thirty minutes later we have hit the Western Express Highway, which at midnight, is not a bad place to be. I notice for the first time that the residential buildings on either side are pitch-dark just like in interior Shanghai. No giant lamps in the sky here. The fastest growing economies of the world have not taken burgeoning power consumption retail. Not yet.
I race past late night revelers. Ganapati, I speculate. Mount Mary fair, he suggests. Ice broken, we talk of Anna Hazare and cricket. I ask him about digital IDs being issued to citizens. He has not heard of it.
The next morning is a whirl of meetings and now my work is over. I consider my leisure options. My driver asks me if I have seen the movie “Aarakshan”. There is a glint in his eye. I have not I say, maintaining an inscrutable expression. ‘Aarakshan’ is about affirmative action for Dalits, the untouchables of yore. It is called Reservation in India -of jobs, seats in educational institutions etc. I decide to shop.
We make good time. Church signs flash past, competing with messages from Mumbai Traffic Police. “The only waste that cannot be recycled- waste of time,” says the Novena Church board. “Dnt ct shrt ur lfe. Don’t drink and drive,” exhorts Mumbai Police.
The Phoenix Mills Compound resembles a fairground rather than a mall. “I am a safe toy” stickers are displayed prominently. People are beautifully dressed. Fusion-wear has moved west. Prints are bolder and more colorful. I stop and ask for directions, converse with total strangers, give unsolicited fashion advice to fellow customers (which is received and leads to more talk), answer questions directed at others. New York is the only other city where I can speak out of turn, and feel happy after. I have always felt this way in Mumbai. The difference this time is the China complex. Again and again I overhear unflattering comparisons with China. I catch at the same time, a nationalistic fervor.
On my way to lunch, I pass a family on the pavement, crouched under a plastic awning. They catch my eye because this is not a row of shanties or a settled slum. I have not been away so long that I have lost the knack for protecting myself from a ringside view of human misery. Then again maybe I have- the bright blue plastic should have been warning enough. They are darker skinned than the average Mumbaikar, sturdy in a country sort of way. The mother stares grimly into the horizon, her belongings around her in cartons and bundles. One girl - she could be fifteen – relaxes on a mattress placed crossways on the pavement. She lies back, arms folded across her stomach, looking out indifferently. A naked toddler squats next to her, his wondering eyes following the pedestrians as they come and go. The baby has a potbelly but he is fat all around and that confuses me. The father wears a stunned, exhausted expression; sunlight percolates through the awning, highlighting them in blue. The passers-by seem oblivious, yet they never tread on the bit of mattress that sticks out from under the shelter. It is the monsoon season but the mattress is dry.
I know their expression. I have seen it on stranded passengers in airports. Rural migrants from Andhra I muse, as the traffic lights change and we move on. I have a fancy meal with my friend and we ponder our mid-life crises. We shop. Carry bags are low thread-count cotton, with jute drawstrings. Everywhere is thrift, labor, and beauty melded in one. I buy.
It’s time to get back. I squelch my way to the improvised car park cursing my impulse to wear white. The wet and muggy heat does not help. The security guard at the parking lot wants baksheesh. I see beads of sweat on his forehead from the clean and dry, air-conditioned comfort of my car. He too can see my shopping bags. I borrow ten rupees from the driver and hand it to him. He wants fifty. My driver is unsympathetic. “Ma’am, ignore him- he should not be hounding you.” I can’t think. I fumble with my wallet, picking up and putting back a five hundred-rupee note. The guard has seen it though. “Madam give me the note, I can change it for you.”
“Can you?” “Ma’am, don’t trust these thieves.” “Do it in a trice madam.” “Ok…” I am handing over my note to the man, through a two-inch gap when the driver raises the windshield, crushing my finger. The note falls on my side- the guard looks fed up; the driver is completely abashed. It cannot be bad, I think, until I see a bit of flesh hanging out and lose heart immediately. I clutch my hand tight and keep my head down through the throbbing, while the driver apologises profusely. The tears start rolling down as the car pulls off. A few for the bright blue family- the girl surveying the world from her little hospital bed on the pavement, her father, little brother and mother. I see you, as the Na’vi would say. The rest of the tears are for a woman with her head down, flying back to the comfort zone.