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.
Journal Entry Number 4
The manager calls out my name when we return to the Starbucks, and I wish that he wouldn’t. Slinking in, ashamed to be spending my money here and not yet awake for lack of caffeine, I mumble a hello and look at my shoes. Great Northern would find this pocket of fame hilarious: I’m dragging my security blanket halfway around the world, and the cordial staff here won’t let me forget.
The cavernous space is low lit and full of hand carved woodwork. It’s actually kind of pretty, and it smells just like I remember the Norway ride from Disney World. I shudder to recognize how many of my fondest memories and present sources of calm reside among the most capitalized addresses on the planet.
I open the copy of 50 Years’ International Reportage from The New York Review Abroad that Thom gave me before the trip, and turn to Susan Sontag’s ‘Godot Comes to Sarajevo.’ She describes the effort to stage a play in a city under siege, and her conflict around creating artwork while the world burns. I like her gall in boldly linking the waiting of the Bosnians to that of the characters in the play. The piece jumps between eastern European history and politics; authorial misgivings; Beckett’s work in critical context; the human drama of staging a play; tiny daily details of life during wartime. Thom had suggested that if I were going to write about my experience in India, I had better absorb the best work out there, to any degree that I could manage. This is great travel writing, and it’s intimidating.
Michele wonders aloud where she might be able to have candid discussion with another woman in this city so dominated by men. Looking up, I start to venture a response before noting that easily half of the customers around us are women. With a mix of revulsion and amusement at life’s knack for contradiction, I realize that this may be one of the more safely egalitarian spaces around.
As I’m staring into space and attempting to work this possibility into my typically unfavorable view of the brand, Michele and Lena start talking about how it’s make or break time in their relationships. Both are essentially waiting for their men to take ownership of their own lives, beyond, “if it makes you happy, it works for me,” and “if nothing comes through, I’ll sell used cars…but for now, I’m just trying to party with my buddies while I can.”
They ask me if this is a guy thing, and though I generally reject that question on principle, I have to concede that I know this pattern too well. They ask me about Celly, and I stare deeper into the middle distance. I try to explain the present tense, and Lena asks if I’m okay with being the, “unfucked emotional support.” Framed like that, it sounds like I’m being an idiot again. I wonder if she’ll write.
Lena switches gears and mentions that her aunt is dying in Spain. It hits me like cold wind, and I remember the last times I saw my grandmother and uncle. I’ve never known how to say goodbye without feeling like a small and hovering hotel attendant.
A repeat of last night, some fear related to my physical vulnerability is coming up now. I didn’t spring up this morning, but drifted while Michele and Lena ate breakfast. On waking, my lower back really hurt, and the lymph node that puffed up to herald my 2008 brush with death was banging on the door again. I told myself that this was just part of processing Mumbai; Michele suggested that it could be the assault of Malarone, the anti-Malarial I’m taking. As we head for the exit, I meet unreasonable difficulty in lifting the travel bag back over my shoulder.
We take a taxi up to the Worli neighborhood to find a famous mosque set out on an island. The cab is awesome, with pre-1950s detail, and the route takes us past train lines and lots of graffiti, much of it calling for peace and rebuking terrorism. It feels good to see the plumbers’ shops and cell phone billboards, the commuters and herbalists all on top of each other outside of our little corner of the city.
The driver lets us out at the edge of Mumbai’s Back Bay between a wide highway and the water with skyscrapers all around. Directly to the west is Haji Ali Dargah, the mosque and tomb connected to the mainland by a causeway that disappears at high tide. From the city street, we walk down a crowded ramp past huge slabs of tomato and dough, military guys in khaki leaning back in their chairs, goats and drunks and women and babies.
Almost to the causeway and the tide sweeps in, thick with garbage. We’d expected to get wet but not like that, and we quickly reach consensus for turning back. I linger along the sea wall, contrasting the ancient artistry with both the insane poverty and neglect and ultra-modern high-rises. Streams of worshipers continue across the submerged footpath and I think, how much stronger is this faith, undeterred by serious risk to health.
A girl under five is picking through debris on a garbage beach, and the look on her face strikes me as something like outrage at her inheritance. Tarp shacks set on jagged retaining walls skirt the highway overlooking the Back Bay, with smoke from cooking fires peeking over their roofs. More sad dogs are sprawled across the stones and two happy children play in a trash water tributary.
We flag a cab as it starts to rain in earnest, but Lena and Michele think that the driver’s asking too much. I snap that we’re being cheap, and that we should just accept that the driver holds all the cards in this instance. Waiting at a bus stop in pricey Worli, I step back into the downpour for each stopping cab, haggling ineptly and without much love. On the sixth try, I secure a bargain. I’m growing uneasy with hunger as we creep toward Juhu Beach in Mumbai rush hour.
The rain keeps my camera wrapped within my bag of bags, and it’s a shame. Juhu reminds us of Miami Beach, with oceanfront villas, columns and pools and palmy courtyards. At the end of a summery street where residents openly stare, we move past affluence and into a garbage dump; its smells, a dead end, and the sense again that we’re pushing our luck. These neighborhoods feel most vital, but I’m seized with the reality that I have no business here. The formal slum tours, in turn, seem like ghastly voyeurism.
Past bridal shops and automotive supply stores while the rain worsens, we are particularly sore thumbs. Ducking into the first restaurant, we find refuge and the panorama of evening traffic from an L-shaped patio. The bathroom is dimly lit, claustrophobic, and stinking; its memory is poised to ruin my meal. Lena teases and encourages me, saying, “We’re already waste-deep.” The staff is gracious and I take it on faith.
Our meal done and the storm not abating, we discuss our next move. We’re all weary and already entirely soaked. No taxis are passing on the street outside the café, and we conclude, wrongly, that Rickshaws will only fit their driver plus-two. Says Michele, “Let’s get walking.”
Into that same evening-glow quality of light and deep puddles, we hustle. It’s raining in sideways sheets. I say, “This is beautiful,” and Michele says she can’t tell when I’m joking.
I’m in love with splashing through the streets, alongside citizens so romantic and resilient, biking by in raingear and muckalucks like they do it daily. I attempt to wash the grit from my sandals each time we pass a clear puddle on our walk south through Bandra. Past Nike and Benetton and all the neon boutique clothiers from all over the world, the street feels like riches-loving Mumbai wholly in thrall with globalization.
Another tarp market, 10pm Saturday and crowded with twenty-somethings, and I’m amazed how none present seem fazed at the rain. The scene is exuberant, and I wonder how I’ll ever readjust to subdued and half-vacant Baltimore. I wonder, too, why we don’t paint our buses in more lively colors back home. The buses and garbage trucks here are better looking than a lot of public art in the States.
With great flourish, a young man throws his umbrella to the ground and storms away from two women, neither of whom look impressed with the display. Across the street, I hail a cab, but a generous law student intervenes to tell us that we we’re being asked to pay too much. The next cabbie to stop has a choking cough and promises meter only, though he suggests that we take the ‘no traffic’ route for an extra 55 Rupees at the toll gate. We get in.
Maybe the driver spins around and rips us off some, but it’s gorgeous and worth it to see the length of the city from the Hoboken side, if you will. I say, to no one in particular, that it feels like a caught Hail-Mary, an implausible and teetering object of sticks. Along the inky and starless highway, edging a vast harbor with three Manhattans opposite us, I think, India is lapping the U.S. and knows it. And then, how crazy that I still assume the U.S. is some kind of benchmark.
On the narrow shoulder ringing the basin between eight lanes of traffic and black harbor, cars and motorcycles are parked in the downpour. Bodies press against bikes and windows fog inches from the traffic rattling past dozens of couples in lovers’ lane.