It took me an ashamedly long time to realise that India and Indonesia are two completely different countries. Somewhat fitting, then, that India was my next major destination after Indonesia, in the Summer of 2010.
If my internship itself wouldn’t be enough to prove that the two are unrelated, then a whole five hours flying time definitely could. I flew to Mumbai on a Monday evening in mid-August in a state of somewhat nonchalance. On one hand, I was extremely excited to be meeting up with Hannah and Chloe, two of my friends from University who had both been working in India, but I was also still missing Indonesia, and this latest part of my journey represented what I knew deep down would be the start of my ultimate journey back home. And I still wasn’t sure if that was what I really wanted to do. On that Malaysian Airlines flight, I was consumed by an ‘after-party’ mix of emotions, like when the tunes you danced to moments ago are still going round in your head, but there’s nobody out there on the dance-floor with you anymore. The pleasurable moment has passed and it just feels like whatever happens next won’t compare. It can’t compare, right?
But as the orange fairy lights of Mumbai slowly started to emerge in my view out of the plane window, I began to feel more and more excited about disembarking the aircraft to experience a country I never believed I’d ever visit. India had always seemed an intangible entity which was beyond my financial capabilities, its history a topic which featured prominently during my A-Levels, its land the ancestral origin of many of my school friends. But right now, in this moment, India represented a vacation with which I’d catch up with friends in a completely new environment, and I was intrigued. My excitement grew and grew as the plane made its descent.
The Gateway of India
Hannah had prepared me for the fact that when Indians fly anywhere, their whole family accompanies them to the airport. And by Indian families, we’re referring not just to mum, dad and siblings but: aunties, uncles, grandmas, grandads, cousins, 2nd cousins, 3rd cousins, 10th cousins removed, nieces, nephews, and – well, you get the gist. For this reason, to avoid over-cramping, the only people allowed into the airport terminal buildings are people who are actually flying. And this is why it was so difficult to locate Hannah and Chloe when I first arrived. Eventually, two bright white figures emerged from a huge crowd of tanned skin waiting for their loved ones to emerge, and a hollering of “SHWEET’EART!!!” resonated around the airport foyer, followed by lots of tight embraces, before we all piled ourselves into a black and yellow rickshaw and rode through the muddy tracks and carriageways back to Hannah’s flat.
Hannah’s flat, to me, represented a solid modernity immediately adjacent to an archaic jigsaw. On one side of the street: the slums – homes formed from corrugated iron sheets stacked together like playing cards at the foundation of a house of cards, rats weaving between them. Infant voices shrieking from within. On the other side: Hannah’s flat – a three-storey cement building with grid-iron railings against the windows from which hung brightly coloured fashion items, Hannah’s infamous white trousers clearly visible from the ground. It was a building which screamed, Young and Professional…with a hint of solitude and severity. Hannah shared her flat with 4 students from Hong Kong – each of whom was taking part in an AIESEC internship – which is what I had been doing in Indonesia. The bright lights of the flat, and the presence of electricity, seemed to contrast heavily to some of the other things we’d seen during the rickshaw journey: squalor, poverty…and holy cows sitting peacefully on the pavements, seemingly with more space to themselves than those packed in the slums nearby.
I was in Mumbai for two weeks – the first of which was spent suffering with what is lovingly known as the Bombay Bug. It started with a dry throat, which led to a sore throat, which led to weariness and a full-blown cold and headaches, which then led to some kind of acute paralysis feeling which meant that for several of my days in Mumbai, all I wanted to do was sleep. I can safely say, without an ounce of hypochondria intended, that it was the most ill I had ever felt in my life and in my head I had already started contemplating about what it might feel like to actually die. The Bombay Bug was extremely ill-timed, as it seemed to last throughout the majority of Chloe’s one-week stay. We still managed to accumulate a number of adventures though…
Mumbai is a wet place. Granted, it was monsoon season and bouts of heavy rain were to be expected, but the city also lies adjacent to the furious chop-chopping of the majorly polluted Arabian Sea, crashing mightily against its shores and newfound Sea-Link bridge, the Bandra-Worli. One wet and rainy lunchtime, we went to the Leopold Cafe in Colaba. 2 years earlier, in November 2008, the cafe had been one of twelve points around the city at which a series of deadly shootings had taken place. Bullet holes were still visible in the walls and window panes. What, to me, had only been a news feature on television a couple of years ago was now sat at this table with me, sharing a bowl of chicken soup. The world is not so big a place afterall. I was somewhat surprised at how, aside from the scars of guns, there was little else to signify the horrors that had only recently taken place – a good thing too, I guess.
Outside the cafe, masterful street vendors displayed their goods , the most popular of which was jewelry. Indian jewelry is predominantly gold with bright coloured stone, it commands a look and a rummage, and stacked up against the greying buildings and wet pavements, it looked all the more beautiful. I bought an ankle-bracelet with mini bells on, which was very much mocked by Hannah and Chloe and admittedly broke within moments of wear. A man trying to sell some kind of bongo walked alongside us for at least ten minutes, trying to gain our custom, and so too did another man with a human-sized, yellow, almost phallic-shaped balloon with which we would not have been able to do much. I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of said balloon. But this, I soon learned, was the Mumbai method. Traders saw tourists as a means with which to make a fair bit of custom, and the company was to be expected.
It wouldn’t have felt right for the three of us to spend a week together without at least one trip to a bar, and one night, we did just that. Familiar beverages in a not-so-familiar environment. The only time I have ever accepted a lift in a car from a drunk-driver. We journeyed home at racing speeds. It was careless and stupid and not the kind of behaviour I’m proud to have engaged in; something I would not for a moment entertain doing in the UK, but if there’s one mitigating factor it’s that Mumbai is generally a careless place, and that carelessness can have the danger to consume you. There is no strict highway code, no order, no structure, no set of uniform morality: only individual motives, the most illicit of which can be ‘rectified’ through bribery. In a city where you can barely walk along a pavement without stumbling over a decaying body draped peacefully in a tarpaulin, or passing a naked infant defecating into a drain, any sense of regularity goes straight out of the window. A wrought-iron barred window.
To breathe in and absorb that carelessness is inevitable.
One day, Hannah was at work and Chloe and I remained in the flat, unable to find a key which could enable us guests to leave, lock-up, and come back again. The most un-Indian day of all, we sat and had philosophical chats. She told me of her experiences in Nepal, and of her current life in Delhi. I spoke of Indonesia. And then, via many stages of association, I started reading the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears from the internet. “Goldilocks was such a greedy bitch, just going in the house and helping herself to all the food.” opined Chloe. It’s true, India really does manage to extract the most philosophical of thoughts from within…
There was one thing which really (for want of a better word) pissed me off about Mumbai, and that was it’s general battenberg-like arrangement of rich and poor citizens. A lot of people in Mumbai have a lot of money, thousands more don’t, yet there’s nothing unusual about seeing a sea-front multi-storey building being developed – for one family – right next to a set of slums – for hundreds of families. Bollywood meets Bollocks-all. I found myself really questioning the ethics of Mumbai culture; and becoming somewhat disillusioned with humankind. I sensed very little in the way of solidarity. All I could sense were refracted morals and selfishness, and I didn’t like it.
During one rickshaw ride, a withered young girl in a peacock-blue coloured sari, aged about 8, approached the vehicle holding out her hands and wobbling her head from side to side, muttering something in Hindi the intonation of which translated to me as some kind of plea. I started gathering together a collection of rupees, but what she was really after was the remainder of my Pepsi Maxx. An inch of brown carbonated liquid. A leisurely symbol of imperfect teeth in the West, but a luxurious treat in the East. I handed her the bottle, but her face had no time to portray expression before the rickshaw had raced off to a cacophony of irate beeping and furore from the surrounding traffic. A short while later, a lady approached me with a monkey on a leash, holding a stick. It was the first time I’d seen such a thing, and I almost felt as though I was looking at some kind of depiction from a Victorian-age circus. In the hot heat, my illness having not yet completely worn off, I felt overwhelmed by sadness at this sight and gave the lady some Rupees, for which she appeared grateful and let me take a photo. I was naive, I hated what was in front of me and wished that the lady would no longer feel the need to resort to such methods to obtain cash. The irony is that by succumbing to give her the money, I was probably only contributing towards the continuation of this sad practice. I saw her again a short while later, and as she approached me, grinning with hope, I knew that this time I had to keep my Rupees to myself.
On the final night of my stay in Mumbai, Hannah’s flatmates and I went to the top of her building and had a party on the roof, looking out over the city. I was asked about how I’d found Mumbai, and was unable to give a straightforward answer. The truth is, I don’t have much of a desire to go back; and my visit had lacked the kind of spiritual voyage that I had hoped it might provide, but I’m still pleased to have gone there and experienced it, and I’m happy that I was with Chloe and Hannah when I did so. Its fair to say that the Bombay Bug had ruined a significant portion of the trip; but the late night rickshaw rides around the city, the delicious lunches at Candies in Bandra, the roof-top parties and the sense of excitable trepidation that lingered throughout, had meant that this was a visit I’m glad to have made, and a Visa well worth sitting and waiting for against a cockroach-infested wall in the rain outside the Indian Embassy in Jakarta.
But now, home was calling me – via a quick visit to Kuwait….