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Posts Tagged ‘Mumbai’

See You In the Final

On Wednesday it was one nation, under cricket.

The government declared a bank holiday and most businesses shut for the afternoon. The streets were empty except for the unlucky few. People crowded around televisions in their homes, in bars, outside of shops and anywhere they could be found. India was playing Pakistan and nothing could have been more important.

We went to a large party for the beginning of the game. Daniel rushed me over in hopes of not missing any part of the first half – India was batting first and he wanted to watch everything. I was not quite as keen to watch the game in its entirety. After all, these matches tended to go on for at least eight hours and even with the added excitement I wasn’t sure my attention span would last that long, especially on a game where the entire first half is one team batting without any knowledge of how that score will compare to the other teams’ in the second half.

I mostly listened with amusement as the commentators tried to fill the immense amount of time:

“Ah, he has a lot of energy. He must have eaten a lot of yogurt for breakfast.”

“The only way Pakistan can get out of jail is wickets.”

“I’ve gotten the feeling that Tendulkar is slowly losing interest.”

It went on and on. After four hours India finished their half with 260 runs. It was not as strong a showing as the people around us would have liked. They could win, but it would be close.

For the first two hours of the second half everyone watched lazily with one eye and chatted as Pakistan batted. There wasn’t much to do but wait and see how the numbers slowly ticked up. But once the more interesting count came up (ie: how many runs Pakistan would need versus the number of balls they had left to potentially hit) it started to get exciting. It seemed like India’s bowling and defense might have done well enough to keep India’s hopes alive.

As the time ticked on everyone started watching more and more intently. With only a few balls left it seemed inevitable – but no one was willing to say a word until the last out came and cheers could be heard from the street below. Fireworks exploded and the city came alive. As I was driving home I tried to capture some of the excitement:

It’s only one game to go and India could have the World Cup in their hands for the first time in almost thirty years. Time to get ready for Saturday

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My motto in Mumbai is to say yes to anything I’m invited to because you just never know what to expect in this city – and it’s almost always a good story.

So in that vein, last night and today I found myself in two scenarios that anyone who knows me would have thought were highly unlikely: at a packed club dancing to a trance techno DJ (I really don’t know the difference between ‘trance’ and ‘techno’, let’s be honest) and at Mumbai’s Fashion Week.

Both were cases of just saying yes: our broker, with whom we’ve kept in touch, mentioned to me that one of her favorite DJs was going to be in town Saturday night. She said it was going to be a really fun night and we should come. So I said yes. Why not? Separately, I was at a drinks event and I met a guy who runs a non-profit that tries to bring the arts into impoverished schools. His organization was partnering with one of the designers at Fashion Week and he had extra tickets – so he invited me to go. Who knew what on earth this event would be? But I said yes.

So last night I found myself in a room full of elegant high-heeled Mumbaikers sipping their overpriced drinks waiting in breathless anticipation for ‘Dash Berlin’, a Dutch DJ who everyone kept reminding me was “rated as the 14th best DJ in the world.” I kept wondering what a DJ would have to do to make it to 13.

When he came out the crowd went absolutely wild. And this guy was working for it- he jumped around, smiled widely while waving his hands in the air, played ‘air drums’, and intermittently held up an iPad with scrolling words saying things such as “Hello Mumbai” or “Make Some Noise”. One time he just held it up with hearts going by. Each time the crowd roared. (See video below – it’s not something I shot, but it gives you the idea!)


I didn’t know whether to enjoy it or laugh at it. My boring old self had the instant reaction of: why is everyone in this room staring at a guy fiddling with a Mac and some turntables? He’s not playing anything. The guy must be on some kind of drug to have that much energy and some members of the crowd were also channeling the same energy source that allowed them to dance with complete abandon.

Models strutting their stuff at Lakme Fashion Week

I had a similar reaction to the Fashion Week show. Was it really fun? Or taking itself too seriously for my taste?

We walked in and it was certainly larger than I had expected. Mumbai Fashion Week (also known as Lakme Fashion Week) had been advertised around town but I didn’t know how big it was. When we walked in it certainly looked like a fashion show (or at least the photos of fashion shows I had seen). It looked professional and I was standing in line to get in behind Fern Mallis, the head of New York Fashion Week, so I supposed this must have some credibility.

But it was just so funny to me – everyone scrambling and haggling to get the best seat they could (a very Indian spin on the concept of a Fashion Week). A hundred photographers stood at the end waiting. But when the lights went down and the music came on, models strutted out it was certainly a bit thrilling – who doesn’t enjoying getting a glimpse of the fashionable life that seems to exist outside of my world? It looked like a New York fashion show but with slightly less impressive models and some very fancy saris mixed into the more traditional fashion. And there I sat, in my Old Navy skinny jeans and H&M top thinking I was an imposter.

In both the club and the fashion show I had the reaction of: this is fun, but is it me?

But that’s a stupid question here – the whole point of coming to Mumbai was to test those boundaries. It’s to walk through the streets of Dharavi one day and then watch an absurd fashion show the next. It’s to breathe in all the wonders and incongruities Mumbai has to offer.

So at the fashion show I just took it all in. And at the club I just let myself dance. I cheered for Dash Berlin, I closed my eyes and let the strobe lighting and bass music carry me for just a little bit. I’m ok with getting swept up in Mumbai. I’m going to keep saying yes.

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Everyone is always telling me that India is full of contradictions – the modern city of Mumbai can quickly morph into the old hierarchical maddening Bombay.  Nothing displays the contradictions in a more quirky way then the city’s nightlife.   From the outfits to the hierarchy to the cost to the location, it’s a completely different side to the city altogether.

The first thing that struck me was that many of Mumbai’s ‘trendiest’ bars are situated in hotels (I have to put trendy in quotations because it seems like nothing stays trendy for long – places that open here one month can be declared ‘over’ by the next. But of course, how would I ever know?).  Last night, for example, we found ourselves driving into a suburban Hyatt, near the domestic airport. It was corporate on the outside and seemingly the last place you’d find young people gathering to spend their evening.

Our car drove up and was stopped. As is standard at every hotel here, the trunk was opened and mirrors on long poles were placed under the car in order to confirm that we were safe to enter.  A petite woman in a security guard uniform with a bindi on her forehead searched through my purse as I made my way through a metal detector.  Even in our suburban enclaves there’s no escaping the realities that Mumbai has faced in recent years.

We walked into an empty bright lobby. We could have been in any generic Western-styled hotel in any part of the world. The vibrant, dirty, humid air of Mumbai had been replaced by a contradictory sterile interior accented by a few Indian-style paintings and pieces of furniture.

We went downstairs to find a line of thirty people trying to get into the bar.  There was no method to the madness, just various people in all kinds of outfits trying to jostle their way to the front of the pack. We moved to the side but soon found ourselves the center of attention for the bouncers, who were eager to let us pay and come in.

I looked back at the sea of faces that didn’t seem fazed or bothered.  No one but me had apparently noticed (or at least reacted to) the white people who were allowed in first.

This particular bar is called China House, and I’d heard quite varying descriptions before we showed up:

“Oh, that place is really fun if you want to dance.” (White expats who are new to the city)

“It’s a cool bar if you want to go out in Bandra and not have to drive all the way to South Bombay” (Indians who grew up in the US but now live in Bandra)

“I hear that a lot of hookers go there since it’s expensive to get into” (South Bombay Indians who dislike anything in the north)

Yes, these are the multitude of testimonies you’ll hear about almost any bar in Bombay – places come and go so quickly that it’s impossible to ever know what to expect. But since I’m not usually a late night person anyway, my expectations are low. As such, I’ve just been open to trying everything new.

And this certainly was new – not only am I clearly not used to being ushered into bars based on the whiteness of my face, but its also always jarring to experience the difference between “inside and ‘outside” – the difference in what people wear.

It’s bizarre to watch  — While you certainly see a variety of clothing on the street (from saris to kurtas to jeans and t-shirts), there’s nothing like what you’ll see INSIDE a bar. Women come into clubs initially covered up  (a scarf will be strategically wrapped around clothes when outside), but once they come in it’s a free for all.  Designer dresses, mini-skirts and tight-fitting clothing surround you – you could quickly forget you’re in Bombay and wonder whether you had somehow wound up in Miami.  And the men fit the bill as well – guys with gelled back hair wear Armani exchange tops underneath blazers while sipping on their overpriced martinis and glasses of scotch.

I stood and watched throughout the night. The crowd and danced cheered when the DJ played Justin Bieber or Usher while others tried to have conversations over the music. But when we finally left we were spit back out into Mumbai. The rain poured down, all the drivers ran red lights, and a Bollywood tune overtook the pop music still running in my head.

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I found myself out dancing last night. Head bopping to Shakira, I looked around the setting. What city were we in? We could have been anywhere. A DJ was at front while the Germany-Uruguay game played behind him. Neon green lights darted across the room, hitting a sleek white bar in the back packed with late night revelers.

I was dancing with new friends, friends of Daniel’s, friends of friends from home, and some people I hadn’t even been properly introduced to yet. It was expat night at the Blue Frog and while we were surrounded by a sea of Indians (dressed very differently on the inside than perhaps many would on the outside) but a little enclave of outsiders had formed in the middle. Here I was, someone who normally hated clubs (even if I love dancing – the two don’t usually get to go together due to the massive crowds in New York clubs) and I was having a great time.  It was my first real night out and I’d been able to wade through it with a little help from the community I now belong to.

While I live in Mumbai and I’m trying to experience it to the fullest, I can’t deny that I live in a second world as well – I’m an expat. The expat community of Mumbai lives in the same city as the native Mumbaikers and the millions of Indians who come from all over the country. Yet they have their own way of flowing through the city while still creating their own space in a crowded metropolis.

Expats are like a venn diagram. Every circle interacts with the Indian circle in its own way – on the street, through their jobs or volunteer work, through slowly learned Hindi – but there’s always going to be a portion of an expat circle that stands alone. And so, they all stick together – giving each other advice, living in the same few locations, and crowding certain bars and restaurants. They establish outposts in the city.

Living in Scotland for four years in college never felt like this – I was part of the University community, I belonged. And I was proud that I tried my hardest to make friends primarily with British people (and not corner myself off into an American clique). That felt important to me then – what was the point of going abroad if you only wanted to hang out with people from home?

In a non-University context and in a culture clearly much more different than that of our neighbors across the pond, I think it’s okay to admit that the situation here is different. Here I’m more of a fish out of water – and while it’s admirable to hope that I can immerse myself into Mumbai and it’s people, it would be naive to think I didn’t need the comfort of the built-in community in front of me.  You can make friends on both sides of the aisle here – but as an expat it would be hard to fight the natural inclination to befriend people who a) understand you but b) also are always happy to have and accept new friends, since theirs are always coming and going.  Young expats here are transient. Most come for months or at most years, so being a new person is part of the natural expat life cycle.

Luckily for me, it’s been hilarious realizing that most of the young expats in Bandra are all connected.  A girl I was put in touch with through an Andover connection happened to be living with one of Daniel’s old friends who was in Mumbai. They invited me out last night with a guy who I’d already been put in touch with through another friend from home. And a friend of Daniel’s from work who is also living here is now temporarily living with a girl who turned out be someone Daniel had known in high school. Just when I thought I didn’t know anyone, everyone I COULD know already knows each other.

It really puts the phrase “It’s a small world”, into a funny context.

The friends issue been one of my larger fears moving here – how can I leave my great life with my great friends to go move somewhere where I don’t know a soul? But it’s the expat openness that makes those fears start to recede, even in these early stages where I’m still pretty much on my own (with Daniel of course).

Listening to American pop music in a bar with my own enclave, even for a night, makes it seem like even when the whole world is in front of me, I’ve got pieces of home standing squarely behind me.

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I made 200 rupees today.  That may sound impressive. And perhaps it is. But you should know that 200 rupees equal a whopping 4 dollars and 28 cents. But I made it from selling something that I formerly considered trash.

Our apparently valuble cardboard boxes

I’ll start at the beginning. Yesterday I said to Nisha and Ray (the manager of all the work going on in our apartment, who today fixed a broken light, our broken toilet and a broken doorbell. There seems to be always something new!) that I needed to find a way to throw out the many furniture boxes we had sitting around. I couldn’t put them outside because of the monsoon but they were just taking up space in the spare bedroom.

“Throw out?” they both responded, looking at me like I had three heads.

I stared back. “Well, we have to get them out of the house eventually,” I said a bit sheepishly. I didn’t know what I’d said that was incorrect but clearly I was in the wrong somehow and I might as well be preemptively embarrassed for my own stupidity.

“No, you get these guys,” Nisha explained in the manner of someone talking to a very nice but very slow child, “they come around every day. They buy cardboard and newspaper from you. You can get money for it.”

“I tell guy at gate if they come by to send them up,” Ray said, as he walked out of the apartment, clearly on a mission to inform my doorman (or “guy at gate”, apparently) to send strangers into my house foraging for heavy-duty paper products.

And as promised, they arrived the next morning. They came in and sternly began evaluating my ‘goods’. They spoke in quick, sharp Hindi to Nisha. She turned to me and said, “They’re offering you 150 rupee. I don’t think that’s enough.”

“Well, tell them that it doesn’t bother me if they sit in the extra room for a few more days.”

“Yes,” she said, “Good. We’ll get them to 200.”  She talked animatedly to the man in charge, clearly rejecting his initial offer. He moved away from her and started to look at the boxes more closely. I wondered what on earth he was trying to find. It clearly was part of his negotiating strategy.

She leaned over to me as he looked away. “Say to me loudly that you don’t need the boxes to go away yet if they don’t give a fair price.”

I just looked at her. “They don’t speak English, I could say anything and they wouldn’t know the difference.”

To make the point, I said some make-believe gibberish about pigs flying in my most stern voice to see if I could get Nisha to laugh. She did, but with her back turned to the men all they heard was my insistence. Clearly I was VERY serious about pigs flying.

But it worked and we had a deal. The men agreed to 200 rupee and began to collapse and take away the boxes. Nisha took the plastic wrapping off some of the boxes.

“Is ok if I take these? My roof is leaking from monsoon and this will help.” I wanted to cry. I wanted to go over to her house and single-handedly fix her roof (as though I could do that without breaking her roof and/or killing myself). I wanted, though, to not embarrass her.

“Yeah of course. Take whatever you need!” I said, as though my enthusiasm for plastic somehow made it all better.  But it’s only ME who is embarrassed. She seems to feel this is a normal question that shouldn’t faze me as it is clearly not fazing her.

It’s a funny thing, the American guilt. It’s clearly one sided and not even recognized here. She’s not upset; she just wants some plastic.  It’s me who is embarrassed, not her.  It’s me who has to get over it because she was never in it or under it. She folded up the plastic without noticing my own pathetic internal Greek tragedy.  And the boxes continued to be collapsed and taken away.

Victory! The newly earned 200 rupee

A moment later, once they finished, I opened my hand and two crisp 100 rupee notes were pressed into it.  Success. It was my very own trash into treasure story, but clearly I could take no credit for the victory.  It marveled in the uniqueness of that experience.

“Some things are very different here,” I said to Nisha.
“Like what?”
“Well, I never knew you could sell cardboard to men who came to your house.”

Just then the monsoon started up again and the noise took over the room.  “And this constant rain is different,” I said.

“You don’t have rain in New York?”
“Well, we have rain, but we have it in short spurts all year.”
“You have rain all year?”
“Yes, but it’s not like this all year. It rains for a day or two then it doesn’t rain for a few weeks. Then it rains some more and then no rain for a bit.”
“Even in winter? Or spring?”  She was clearly shocked at the idea of rain in November or March.

That question, that kind of moment, is when I’m reminded that there’s a whole world whose experience with even the most basic parts of humanity – such as rain – is completely different to my own.  There’s no right or wrong – just a whole new way to see the world.

I had spent a larger portion of my day at a coffee with the American Women’s Club than I did with the boxes or the conversations about rain. But the interaction with the day-to-day life of India stuck with me more than the attempt to find remnants of home here (even if it was nice to be around a bevy of American accents for 2 hours and I will definitely be happy to have those coffee respites while I’m in Mumbai).

What a world of learning I’ve entered into. Today: rain and cardboard. Tomorrow, who knows what’s next.

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It was a moment I’ve been oddly dreading.

At 10am this morning we left our guesthouse and went over to the empty apartment. Waiting for us was Nisha, our new housekeeper, arriving for her first day. She’d been recommended to us through an expat group and we were relieved to have found someone so quickly and someone who didn’t want to live with us (often a requirement here).

I’ve been of two minds about having a housekeeper. One side says: it’s a job for this person, they’re making a fair wage, it’s not that much work compared to larger families. But the other side, the side that has this weird American anti-colonialist guilt keeps saying: how can I pay someone the low amount that they’re asking for? It’s criminal. She’s almost twice your age – she’s supposed to pick up after YOU?  Pick up after yourself.But rationality wins the day. We had accepted the wage she asked for, so it pushed my guilty conscience a bit to the side.

When we stepped out to meet her she took to Phoebe right away, which put me at ease. She and I decided that first up we would go shopping for some household goods.

It turns out that she had previously been working for 12 years in catering, a job that required her to get up at 3:30am every morning to travel down to South Mumbai and begin cooking very early in the morning. She’d gotten sick of it and wanted to be able to spend more time with her two sons. This job will allow her to live at home and keep more normal hours – even if her home is a full 2 hours by train from ours. Guilt for her travel time? Or happiness that a woman who wanted a more manageable job has found one?

She helped me navigate the home store – while every sign and number was in English, the people working IN the store seemed more comfortable and ready to help in Hindi. My early reluctance was beginning to fade. I need this help, I thought.  Then I came up to the register to pay for my odds and ends – cleaning supplies, a few odd dishes to tide us over, an iron – and I looked at the total. I looked at Nisha to see if she saw. She didn’t. The total was only a little bit less than what she was earning in a month. The number blinked at me from the register and I quickly moved to pay.

I met Daniel back at the apartment and I didn’t have time to dwell on the blinking number still burning in my mind.  We had to go get furniture if we ever wanted our empty apartment to turn into our home.

Home Town - India's "Largest Home Making Destination"

We left Nisha with Phoebe and drove out to the aptly named Home Town – an Ikea-esque store in every visible sense. But we found that there was one difference: like every other part of Mumbai, Home Town existed in India Time.

India Time refers to the fact that Indians don’t really seem to suffer from the grips of punctuality. There’s always a traffic jam, always something making everyone late or slower or arriving the next day. And no one here seems to mind because they all live in India time.

Daniel, however, does not. We started inquiring about furniture. “How long until we could have this couch delivered?”

“25 days. It’s not in stock.”
“And this one?”
“25 days as well. Also not in stock.”
“Why don’t you show us things that are IN stock.”
“Ok, this couch here is in stock. 6 days for delivery”
“Why would it take 6 days to deliver something you already have?”

And on and on it went. Our customer service representative, who’d greeted us with a badge that said “Ask me for help!”, was continuously confused by these two gora (aka white people) who didn’t seem to live in the same time zone that they did.  Why ever would we need a mattress quickly? Don’t we understand that things in Mumbai don’t just appear, even if they are in a store only a short drive from our house?

The conversation continued. Daniel asked to speak to the manager. He got them down to two days. It was consensus.

And as a bonus we were going to get voucher for a certain amount off since we bought a bed and mattress set. But the voucher was upstairs. Then it was lost. Then they needed a new one. I looked at Daniel – if he had been a cartoon character steam would have been coming out of his ears as he tried to remain calm. We had to get back to meet an electrician. It would be ok though – they’re all on Indian time too. They expected us to be late.

We came home to a happy Phoebe who looked from Nisha to us and back again. She had given her seal of approval. And as we dropped her off at the train I watched her walk away feeling like the day had gone as well as it could. This is the world we’re living in. Indian time and unfair-seeming wages and all – it was ours now. And now at least we’ll have a guide who can help try to keep us on the right track.

(Just FYI, for anyone who is concerned Nisha is not our housekeeper’s real name. I’ll be using aliases throughout this blog for anyone who specifically hasn’t mentioned that they don’t mind me using their real names)

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I stepped off the plane from Kuala Lumpur and took in the heat and the distinct smell of Bombay. It was time to really sink my teeth into the city. I walked briskly towards immigration with my Residential Permit in hand… and like a car in the back of a traffic jam I halted abruptly.

A young Indian man — also barreling his way towards immigration — had run into an elderly man going towards a flight. The crash sound was perceptible and both men fell back, staring at each other, shocked. I waited for the scolding that the younger man seemed to richly deserve. But instead the elderly man helped his fallen foe up by grasping his elbow and patting him on the back, almost hugging. It was a gesture that said “It’s ok. We all make mistakes.” And then, just like that, they parted.

It’s those small moments that make me feel at home in India so instantly again. There’s a brotherhood and mutual understanding among kinsmen. Mumbaikers number in millions and yet for moments they seem like a small community. I walked into customs and proudly held out my residential permit. Where do I live? Here. I am a resident of Mumbai.

Phoebe in the new, empty, apartment

But by the next morning that little fantasy had been dealt a swift blow.

“We’re just going to leave the apartment unlocked and the workers can come in to finish painting. It’s not like we have anything here yet.”

We were leaving our broker and our landlord’s broker to head to lunch. We’d taken ownership of our apartment and the wheels were in motion. There was painting to be completed and odds and ends to be fixed, but in a few hours some workers would come over and finish.

“You can’t leave the apartment unlocked,” our broker said, matter of factly. “The workers can easily steal your stuff.”

Daniel and I blinked at her, still confused. Nothing had been moved in. “All that’s here is the refrigerator.” Daniel replied.

“Right. They’ll steal that.”
“In broad daylight? A fridge?”
“If you leave anything unlocked – your car, your apartment – big things and small things will be taken. The people downstairs wouldn’t care. Don’t leave anything out.”

Our landlord’s broker nodded enthusiastically. The locksmiths working on changing the locks on our door just carried on without a word. What happened to my trusting, forgiving society?

As I stood bewildered, Daniel silently handed over the box to our new lock that the locksmiths were installing. As if the universe was trying to wipe the smug enjoyment off my face from my stolen moment the previous evening, I looked at the box. Among the ‘Features’ listed (such as Patented Lockable Knob and 3 Heavy Duty Bolts) there was this:

Enables Locking of servants and thieves within your house, it said.

I tried to stifle a laugh. Really? Lock your SERVANTS and THIEVES in. Together? What will they be doing there, I wonder. Locked together the thieves and servants of India are plotting to take over our fridge? Once again, there goes my simplistic romantic view. India is, of course, so much more complex than a few days spent here in its shadows.

I went to lunch and was treated to another piece of home and my past. Catherine Tousignant, my Andover English teacher, was visiting Mumbai on what I wanted to call an “Andover Mission”. They’re working on teaching a more global perspective and as such she and a few teachers are here meeting with students and local teachers to try and find pathways of collaboration. It truly made me a little jealous of current students.

But the day was still dedicated to work. When I returned from lunch there were errands to be had. We have an apartment to fill, after all. The servants and thieves need items to be locked in with.

All the curtains waiting to be purchased

So we started with curtains. Haggling and curtain draping, more haggling and fabrics. Daniel discussed and bargained while I tried to not get in the way. I tried to furtively look the salespeople in the eye – are our prices fair? Or are we always just going to have to accept the foreign price.

“For furnishings, make sure to go to the fixed price stores. There aren’t a lot of them, but you’ll need it,” our broker had said nonchalantly. I find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that we’re going to have to keep proving over and over again that just because we’re foreign doesn’t mean we want to get ripped off.

The heat of day and the errands of the day had wiped us out. We came back to the guesthouse (where we’re still staying until we get furniture) to sit down before dinner. I started looking at emails. I looked at the date.

“Oh my goodness, Daniel”, I said after a minute.

“What?”

“It’s our 6 year anniversary today.” We both laughed. We’d talked about it a few days ago in Kuala Lumpur. But somehow the day had just gotten away from us. There’s so much Mumbai absorption that the days and weeks just ran together and took us over. Our old life is hard to keep track of here. And furniture and curtains await.  Oh well. Tomorrow maybe we can keep our heads on straight.

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