Longtime townie Jeff Brunell finally returned to school just before turning thirty. He’s in southern India, completing his graduate field work and taking stock. These are his findings. Follow this link to see all the posts from his journey. The first in the series is titled, Hello Mumbai.
The room smells swampy because the clothes we hung from makeshift lines refuse to dry. I crumple my nose and scratch at my arm absentmindedly, and wonder if these blotches are from mosquito bites. Already halfway through our week in Mumbai, I’m thinking, five months in India will race past.
I am up late with my headlamp, probably looking feverish and weird. Each night, I’ve dreaded and delayed writing, only to dig in finally and relish the process. Now, I’m hunched in the corner of my bed to keep from beaming on my sleeping roommates. Propped on sore elbows, I’m arching my old, sore, lower back.
For the last two hours, I was totally absorbed in cropping pictures on Picasa, a platform new to me and obviously used by many. I found it remarkably satisfying to access that world and see that I can, in fact, doctor a photo into something memorable.
My shower took longer than it should in a country with water shortages, and again I found it grounding to note my reflection; like there’s this thread, however fragile, running through the entirety of my experience, my whole life long. While I rinsed myself, I washed the clothes I’d worn today, which were foul from rain and sweat. After four rinses in the bucket provided, I was leery that the water was still kind of grey. Pumping garments fiercely in my concoction of regular soap and shaving cream, I marveled at the tenacity of folks who hand-wash. I wondered, too, if this weather contributes to India’s love of perfumes, oils, and incense- with the humidity, monsoon, and pollution, I’ve been unable to escape the mortal stinking finality of my body.
Mercifully, we made it most of the way home tonight before I realized that my inner thighs are unbelievably chafed.
I actually woke up first today, so I was the one to call our breakfast order to the front desk. Eating my omelet, I reread the first couple pages of R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience and fell pleasantly into my own world. Lena had worked out the details of Hotel Hello’s Wi-Fi, so I was able to write my safe arrival emails and discover, like the once-dangerous band in a car commercial, that my parents are now using Facebook.
We walked toward the western shore of South Mumbai, past Churchgate train station. A quote from Gandhi is etched in stone outside, in memorial to the victims of Mumbai’s 2008 bombings. It says, approximately, that Peace is the most powerful weapon of all.
Turning south onto Marine Drive, we met the grey expanse of the Arabian Sea, and the rain started up. I dashed to the next corner and bought an umbrella for 150 Rupees, though the man in front of me purchased the same for 100. We paused beneath an overhang to situate our belongings, but recognized that the storm was likely to continue daylong.
It did. The seaside was profound and soon, ridiculous. Rain blew sideways and I held the umbrella over the computer bag at my waist, like Captain America’s shield. Lena suggested a round of Singing in the Rain, and I agreed that the song would provide a morale boost. Afterward, I made whooping sounds in a way not unlike whistling in the dark.
Each of us was a bit cracked from the battering rain, but no one else around appeared to be disturbed, even the many walking without umbrellas. Dozens of young lovers sat nonchalantly along the sea wall, drenched and romantic. The gated campus of an art museum blocked passage south as we reached a rock jetty at the end of the seaside walkway, and we were forced to retrace our steps. A dog, looking the more emaciated for being drenched, made me jumpy as he trailed us. All of the popular cautions have raised challenges for me, but it is a particularly sad feeling to be so suspicious of dogs.
Even through raingear and bags, our stuff was getting wet. Through an extensive financial district without any restaurants visible, we came to a cluster of blue tarps along the sidewalk. Ducking underneath, we entered a network of tent tunnels packed with men eating street food. Rain loudly punctuated the seams between canopies, and I struggled in the close quarters to keep my bag dry without clocking anyone with my open umbrella. With regret, we concluded that our stomachs were still too new to eat here with impunity.
My sandal broke. Puddles were a foot deep in some places, swallowing car tires. Michele was getting worried that the rain would fry her tablet, and we considered just heading back to the hotel. Then, the neighborhood changed for the better and we passed a YMCA and a center for women’s health and empowerment. Finally, a restaurant: we entered the hokey Café Royal, with its mural of American movie stars and life-size portraits of Bill Clinton and Marilyn Monroe on the front wall. They offer French fries and keep ketchup on the tables.
Lena’s guidebook was sodden nearly to the point of disintegration; my gear was damp, but the computer I toted moronically was somehow okay. I fixed the strap of my cheap rubber sandal with a dinner knife after having already resigned myself to its loss. I ordered some kind of passable cheese sandwich and when it arrived, I rolled the dice and ate half the tomatoes. I insisted that we tip, even though I’m completely ignorant of the convention here.
Next-door was a clothing shop, which appeared to be run as a cooperative. Merchants at four different stations shared the space, offering unalike products and hanging back while each other made a pitch. Lena and Michele both purchased long blouses with detailed stitching. At length, I selected a scarf to use as a window shade back home. The prices for Westerners here are a sin, even in the deep tourist zone. Despite my protest, the clerk gave me his undivided attention for ten minutes for a 3 USD sale.
Looking for promised pieces of Bollywood in the Colaba neighborhood, we instead wound up hiding from the rain inside another café. Although the espresso was weak and the shop played awful U.S. pop music, I was delighted when the caffeine hit my withdrawing brain like the drug that it is. With vigor, we traded notes on both our inspiring and deadbeat professors.
Another blue tarp hallway on the sidewalk formed a narrow market, and the wares impressed me at first. Soon, I saw that the available stock entirely repeated every six stalls or so. Several women approached with variations on the same, “no money, just food,” and I had to admire the compelling narrative to this hustle. An elderly woman gave Michele and Lena flower bracelets, then, followed them for blocks. A young man with very red eyes offered me a drum for 15,000 Rupees, saying that his father makes them by hand. I talked with him for a few minutes while Michele and Lena shopped, and he, without my asking, dropped the price to 12,000 Rs., then 1,000 – “because the weather’s so bad today” – 800, 500. With regret, I told him that I had nowhere to carry it; minutes later, another guy with identical drums opened the bidding at 300. Before finally emerging onto the street proper, I was offered weed for the second time, and hash, by a googley-eyed youth who clung to my hand.
A teeming street produce market opened up ahead. The buildings grew more decrepit and services more random, and here, traffic yielded to pedestrians. Michele and Lena bought maps while I took photos and wandered dazed. The rain had slowed.
We finally met the smell as promised. Tiny cats scattered in the street; crows moved everywhere overhead; chickens paced in cages while their peers were skinned feet away; and from a high pile of rubbish, I saw only the protruding foot of an unseen man. Fish heads, fish eyes, fish guts pulled forth and reorganized; savvy and depressed dogs; babies in arms; children again on the ground; people pensive in windows, talking on balconies, calling to the bazaar below; blue crabs on tables.
From animal alley, we turned a corner and the large apartment buildings were behind us. The street narrowed, and the businesses appeared to double as peoples’ homes. The shopkeeper whom I asked for batteries spoke no English at all, or wouldn’t, and the children we walked past giggled like they’d never seen such outsiders. My camera died, and I thought, Damn, just when it’s getting unbelievable and, My God, I can’t believe I’m here and seeing this place. Teetering buildings in lively paint protruded in unlikely, haphazard, and gorgeous ways. More folks were looking directly at us now, and I walked on, truly in a trance, as music tumbled from a window somewhere above.
I was floored by a view of bouncing, Technicolor boats at dock, between shanties crowded against the setting sun. My feet were shuffling forward, compelled to seek a way back along the water, when Lena said, “We’re in a slum – I don’t think we should be here.” As vacant and hypnotized by the carnival as I had been, I felt that this was probably true. We retraced our steps, out onto neon streets in a dripping sunset hour, where bicycles and buses and women in traditional dress rushed home for Friday night.
Not four blocks from the slum, it looked like the richest parts of New Orleans. Huge drowsy houses flanked by fronds and verandas lined the street, along with a series of guarded hotels and a manicured city park. We continued past a university campus and high-end shops on a brick street, and the conspicuous consumption, which shares the city with Asia’s largest slum, jumped back into view.
I winced at the gloaming and my limited talent with cameras, because the light on Mumbai in evening is golden and pulses, and this is not well approximated by the trickery of Picasa. Through wide plazas and circles where Rickshaws, scooters, and bicycles dart in uncanny conversation, we passed monuments in the rain, granite and marble arcades, and ancient trees five-plus stories tall and enormous around. The guidebook called it ‘poetic and dilapidated,’ and that comes pretty close to it.
Twenty bearded men looked up and stared when we entered the restaurant; there wasn’t a woman in the place. Lena and Michele acted naturally as we ordered, and as such, I wondered if we would offend. It did not seem so. The waiter was very kind, and the chef came to our table, intuiting our selections and saying hello.
We were exhausted. Hours earlier, we’d talked of heading in and instead walked several miles farther in the downpour. Finally recognizing that my legs were brutally chafed, I had toddled the last block back to our great hotel. There, we found our room as messy and unmade as we’d left it, and our bags untouched.
In the shower, I was thinking that Mumbai has the rhythm of a living city like I’ve never actually seen before, but associate with what I’d imagine New York used to look like pre 1960’s. Pricey commerce elbows next to cottage industry in storefronts jammed with loud signage, and old people on bicycles carry groceries for miles. Hustlers of all sorts, promise, and insane lack are everywhere. And I wonder if what so freaks out westerners about the ‘developing world’ are qualities like these, which we’ve sanitized out of existence in our own sphere.
I’m shutting off the headlamp and getting some sleep.