Hello, Mumbai! As soon as I stepped out of the airport in Mumbai, it felt like no time had passed since my last trip. At first glance, it’s mostly the same as I’d left it 8 years ago. Sounds like: car horns, barking dogs, children yelling as they play, and adults yelling as they bargain at the market. Smells like: petrol, the Indian stores on Lexington Ave in NYC, and unidentifiable smoke all at once. Looks like: cars, rickshaws, buses, buildings, and tan people like me, everywhere! It felt good to be back.
I spent many summers at my grandparents’ flat in Borivali, which is a suburb of Mumbai. It’s far from the hustle and bustle of the main city, but is charming nonetheless. As I walked around the apartment complex in which my grandparents live in, I could remember so clearly back when my brother and I would spend all day playing with the other kids in the complex until it was dark outside. So much has changed since then! The unfinished apartment buildings from years ago are now all complete and inhabited, my brother and I are grown, and I wonder what happened to all those kids from years ago.
A few things that I was quickly reminded of upon my return to India:
Getting around. Forget about looking for the seatbelt in the backseat of cars. You’re probably not going to find it. Twice now I have pulled the seatbelt across me but realized there’s no buckle! I’m sure it’s there somewhere stuffed in the seat, but it appears no one feels the need to buckle up in the back. Which is a complete mystery to me because the driving is ridiculous! My favorite mode of transportation: auto rickshaw, or tuk-tuk as they are called in other parts of Asia. These little three wheeled contraptions are so fun, yet at any moment it feels like you might just fall out of the side of one when driving over potholes. But that’s kinda the fun part. Just when you think you are headed straight into oncoming traffic, the rickshaw driver will veer out of the way. And jay walking in NYC is child’s play compared to in India. Pedestrians walk fearlessly into the road, even across highways and (as far as I’ve seen), no one ever gets hit! Crossing the highway with my grandmother this evening in the dark was one of the most stressful things I’ve done in awhile; I wish I videotaped it.
Pigeons. Ugh, pigeons. My first morning in Mumbai, I woke up and opened the windows to let the beautiful light in. Ten minutes later I heard that flapping of a bird’s wings that I’ve heard one too many times living in NYC. That was a pigeon, and it was posted up above my grandparent’ armoire! This totally surprised me, and but my grandparents barely batted an eyelash. They got out this long stick and gave it to me to coax the pigeon out the window. So I did it, and thought it was a one-time situation, but I realized that these airborne nuisances fly in through all windows and the balcony all the time! My grandmother assured me that Mumbai pigeons are not as dirty as NYC pigeons, to which I told her that is absolutely not true. I’m not that naïve! As much as I love the movie “Home Alone: Lost in New York”, Kevin McCallister will never convince me that pigeons are my friends and that it’s cool to hang out with them. Even when I was taking a nap trying to get over my jet lag, these two pigeons flew into my closed window enough times that it opened slightly, and then they flew in and scared the daylights of me. Maybe I’m sweating the small stuff here, but the sounds of those wings have been haunting me ever since! This turf war is not over. I see the pigeons flashing me their gang signs every time they fly by the balcony. It’s on.
Other things I’ve realized:
Family members have no issues with telling you that you’ve gained weight. It’s normal. “You were so thin at your brother’s wedding. Now you’re…” (grandma puffs up cheeks and clenches fists with arms at her side to indicate that I’m ‘healthier’) “…It’s good! Now eat more curry!” Just smile and nod. Eat that curry. Then suck in your gut and do some yoga.
People you’ve never met before won’t hesitate to comment on your love life and future. “I was married when I was 22. You’re in your mid twenties? You’re getting old. Marry now before you get stuck in your ways.” Just smile and nod. Just smile, Lavi, and nod, “Yes, aunty. Ok, aunty…”. And yes, you do call people you’ve never met before “aunty” and “uncle”.
I’ll be returning to Mumbai four more times throughout my trip, and I’m really looking forward to exploring more of this city!