Mad Mad Mumbai
Friends and Russell Peters said India is smelly.
So naturally, when I stepped out of the plane I took a deep breath.
Sure, I know. And multiple times I was told: India is filthy. India is not safe. Men ogle at you like a piece of meat. Women get raped. There are laws. But there is no enforcement.
Once upon a time, somebody must have toppled a jar of magic powder and splashed poufs of red, green, purple, yellow, disgust and delirium all over this wildly, savagely exotic place.
Why would one ever want to go to India?
Weeks before my trip to Mumbai, the GP gave me countless vaccinations and prattled on about a long list of what-not-to-dos. Then I left the clinic, took a 10-hour flight and forgot about everything she said.
I had ice in my drinks, brushed teeth with tap water and devoured street-side, newspaper-wrapped samosas. They were the best samosas I ever had.
From Mumbai international airport to the hotel, I saw people walk across the motorway like they were asserting their last thread of civil rights on zebra crossing. There was a lorry that broke down and stayed stock-still, driverless in the middle of the road. The honking never stopped. Strayed dogs and cats roamed the streets like zombies on earth. Buses spit soot.
I tried my hardest to stay awake from the jet lag, with teary eyes irritated by dust and ears pierced by shouts of incomprehensible dialects. There was a tornado of violent, irrepressible energy going on in this place. I couldn’t not be a part of that.
On the second day, we had breakfast at Café Montegar, an Irani café so old that it was still selling colonialism. The charcoal grilled butter toasts were white, crustless bread slathered with delicious liquid gold. The scrambled eggs suitably runny and the black coffee was strong.
Not far away, there was a scraggy woman in orange saree, lingering at the road behind the 5-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. She has a tooth that juts out of her lips and couldn’t close her mouth properly. While travellers and select Mumbaikars mingled on broad terrace, she was begging for money, walking stark naked with life’s injustices hand in hand.
You see, Mumbai is a rare bird. It is the largest tax contributor in the state of Maharashtra, and Maharashtra pays almost half of India tax. Yet it shelters and starves the second largest slum in Asia. How exhilarating and exasperating is that?
It is as if the 20 million of Mumbaikars live their lives on a bunk bed, with the rich being on top and the poor grapples with public sanitation problem, illiteracy and spousal violence shockingly and widely regarded as norms at the bottom.
To make matters worse, the caste system that stormed into the room thousand years ago cruelly removed the ladder and made it so much harder for the lower group to get to the upper bed.
It was like the big bully who came to the playground and separated the kids based on what their parents do and the toys they have. It’s social stratification, a cricket ball that smashed the Indian society into fragments of broken glass and made one bleed when one tried to pick up the pieces.
On the third day, donned in kurta and linen trousers, we trekked gingerly into Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai. What Dharavi looks like from top is what a spat of mould would look like under the microscope. Revolting. A breathing eyesore. A blown-up, sprawling smear of grey furry funghi, sulphur green scum, communal toilets and exasperation so old and stubborn it’s become a hereditary disease. What Dharavi looks like, however, from within is a happy, happy place. Children run around barefoot, playing hide and seek. Neighbours sit on their doorsteps, drinking tea, sharing a snack, people watching and chatting away. It’s a slow life, a strong sense of community you, me city people would never get.
Dharavi is also a hive of workshops, a community of entrepreneurial elves and human machines, toiling away in their pottery kilns, tanneries, wax printing units and waste recycling factories. A patch of mould it is, it grows exponentially on its own. In 2018, the total annual turnover is estimated at over US$1 billion.
Throughout my time in Mumbai, I didn’t see any familiar faces. Foreign faces that are keen to explore and keen to accept. In a dusty, maddening place like this, the lack of tourists is understandable and self-explicable.
But then again, shouldn’t we travel to see the world as it is, not how we want it to be?
Different places we go, sure they will leave their olfactory traces on our skin. So what if India is smelly? How bad could that be?
Go to India.
Pack your common sense and go.
Trust me, when I say there is no other place like this.