Making it in Mumbai: My Introduction to India

Photo of Making it in Mumbai: My Introduction to India by Unshod Rover
Photo of Gateway Of India Mumbai, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Unshod Rover

Many prominent people in the past might have had entered the subcontinent through the Gateway of India by the Mumbai harbor, most probably in broad daylight. I instead sneaked in via the Chhatrapati Shivaji airport on a hot, hot Friday evening. In a very same manner, I was introduced to this glorious monument from within, after days of getting my hands dirty and pushing my way through this lovely, lively city that is Mumbai. And so as I was sweating it all out trying to learn how to tread on its social undercurrents, I was also taking it all in in between sporadic, sometimes involuntary gasps for air. I tried to shed off as soon as possible the tourist fat in me and start to fully feel like a local, a desi (but always with a water bottle in hand).

On my very first morning, first day, first thing: a full-on immersion into the Mumbai railway system. And here is where the real action is. There is something about the Mumbai train that screams life, humanity in its most elementary, instinctive form. There is that feeling, while not always comfortable, of being alive and being part of something. Mumbai forces you to dance, to 'freestyle n' trance'. To join in this ritual of sharing sweat and smell. It's in-your-face, abrasive. And you can't help but smile not so much out of a deep sense of pleasure as a basic, purely visceral reflex. And since, you find yourself in a crowd -- you become the crowd -- you've never felt so human, so not a foreigner. Just be sure to wear comfortable and sturdy footwear, a pair that would stand by you when push comes to shove, literally and in a manner of speaking.

Photo of Vile Parle East, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Unshod Rover

I would then pick up the pace entering through a fishing village wherein by sunset women would sweep off the streets the day's fish and shrimps dried and to be sold later. Men preparing milk, women flipping chapattis. The long bus ride and the dizzy mix of turmeric and reality. All in just one day. Yes, as I tried to bobble the Indian way, a newfound friend told me it was just a small part of Mumbai though. And Mumbai, no matter how gigantic a city it is, it remains just a thread in the great Indian loom. Besides, I just had barely gotten to know it through its streets. Its homes and temples still awaited me. And among the many facets of Indian culture and society, one has to know that there is a Ganges river of difference between the pedestrian on the road and the host at home.

Photo of Making it in Mumbai: My Introduction to India by Unshod Rover

I was billeted among foreigners, so taking off one's footwear before entering the house was not the norm. The first time I went unshod was the morning after when I woke up to the chatter of women in the kitchen and offered to help. It is one thing to appreciate Indian cuisine, and yet another to discover it through a mother's cooking. I had to put aside my slippers before I was welcomed in the circle of women sitting on mats in various stages of cooking preparations. Of course, being the novice that I was, I was tasked to slice onions after onions right at the very beginning of the assembly line. That morning, I was introduced to two types of rice, three types of masala, and two important words: let's go and thank you. Chalo and danyawad, that I tried to dabble in pronouncing correctly in between bouts of pending tears and a runny nose.

Then, the day arrived when I came down with diarrhea and fever, not an unusual initiation rite I was warned. Still, somehow I was getting a clearer mental picture of Mumbai, not like the other day when I really felt disoriented, even envious of how a blind man on the train singing, tapping his silver cane at 4/4 measure seemed to have been more secure of where he was going. I also got an Indian shirt as an official welcome gift. As the Italian expression on empathy would go: put oneself in the "clothes" of others. Perhaps, by then, dressing up as a local, I had known better where I was, where I was going. Perhaps, a bit of time, and everything shall too be second skin, I told myself.

Photo of Bandra Bandstand, Bandra West, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Unshod Rover

But the thing is, Mumbai was just indeed my gateway to India as I was actually Bangalore-bound. And so by Bandstand in Bandra, between the fortress and the bridge, on my last day in Mumbai I tried to mark my territory by getting down to the rock formations to touch the water. And a wave came to kiss me on the face and wet my shoes, which I had to take off obviously, a curious reminder to start not getting too attached to them. Anyway, here is a perfect microcosm of India, between an old structure meant to protect and defend, and a modern one designed to connect. A city with rock solid traditions and yet with businesses growing like mushrooms. It is actually basic human instinct: to conserve and to relate. I wondered how Bangalore would be like as I looked at the Arabian Sea for one last time, for now. // 

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