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Posts Tagged ‘south mumbai’

Chaos. Vibrancy. Overstimulation. I’d missed that potent Mumbai blend. I wanted to be thrown right back into it.

So on our way home tonight I asked our driver if we could stop at Muhammed Ali Road. Most people only see it from above the flyover (or raised highway) on the way from South Bombay heading toward Mahalaxmi. It’s one of the Muslim areas of Mumbai and normally not particularly notable. But at night during Ramazan (the way Indian Muslims pronounce what we know as Ramadan) it comes alive.

A view of all the action on the road in the dark

Because Muslims fast all day during Ramazan, at night it’s time to celebrate. And Muhammed Ali Road is the center of Bombay’s Ramazan action. And tonight was the last night before Eid (the celebration of the end of Ramazan) so I knew we’d have to make it a priority today (jetlag be damned!).

Nisha, who is Muslim, had told us this would be a great place for us to go. She thought we would have a lot of fun. Our (Christian) driver was not so convinced.

“Ma’am, they are all gangsters here. They all get together to beat people. Look at the drivers in this area – no discipline. Why do you want to come here?”

“I don’t think it’s that bad in the main areas,” I said, trying to be tactful. I knew plenty of people who had ventured out perfectly safely to eat and celebrate. I had a sense that while there may have been some grain of truth to parts of what he said, it struck me as probably one of the many stereotypes fellow Bombayiites had about other castes and neighborhoods that they probably knew very little about.

People crowding into stalls

Besides, there was nothing but excitement and food and salesmanship surrounding us. Everywhere you looked, food was cooking on indoor and outdoor stoves, men sold bangles and kufis, stilettos and hijabs. Sellers negotiated animatedly with potential buyers. The scene goes on and on like that for miles. You can stay on the main road or venture down side streets where the food can range from typical rice dishes to the more adventurous (brains and tongues and any other animal part you can name). And if you’re driving in, don’t be in a rush. It’s wall to wall traffic as everyone tries to push their way through the crowd.

It’s hard to describe the feeling that was in the air but I guess as a Jewish person I could relate to it somewhat – after all day of fasting on Yom Kippur I’m usually giddy with excitement to eat. If I could multiply that by an entire month of fasting each day I can’t imagine how elated I would be every night just to eat and soak in the energy. It seemed sort of fitting that we were going to see Ramazan’s end right after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year. For us and everyone around us tomorrow is a new beginning.

It was a good welcome back.

One stall with one tiny light

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As our dinner wound down we were warned, “Make sure you leave before midnight. That’s when the bandh will start and you don’t know what kind of protests there will be.”

We’d been lucky enough to be invited to the home of a friend who lives with her family in South Bombay. Being in a home around a family made Mumbai feel like my own safe home. But we had to escape the previously safe roads before the city turned into the proverbial pumpkin at midnight.

No one knew what the scale of the bandh would be – but we didn’t want to be out and about to find out.

A bandh, as I had learned earlier, is the Indian version of a strike. This one was called by the opposition parties over rising fuel prices and the end to some fuel subsidies.

Unlike any strike we see in the US, this bandh was stopping a billion people from working, shopping, going to school or safely traversing their streets. And even more unlike the US, while the opposition parties sponsor the bandh, it doesn’t just effect the supporters who decide to come out and rally– it shuts the whole country down. It would be as if the Republican Party declared a strike against the health care bill and every person across every state in the nation stayed home for an entire day.

It doesn’t mean that the whole country was necessarily in agreement with the bandh or that every part of India was massively affected. Some cities saw much more active protests and riots. Other cities didn’t appear to participate on any large scale. And even on a more individual level, most of the people we spoke to here in Mumbai were closing shop or staying home more out of a fear for safety than a sign of solidarity with the protesters.

News coverage of the bandh in Mumbai

Then again, there were reports of protests turning violent even in Mumbai, so there clearly was anger over the issue for some segments of the population.

We’d been warned that if we did go out, we should wait until the afternoon, since the protests usually were more active in the morning in order to catch the news cycle and get coverage (some things NEVER change wherever you are).

Last night was our final evening in the guesthouse, since our furniture had arrived and we could officially move in – so our plan was to head over to the apartment in the morning. We figured since we live in suburban Bandra (and most of the municipal buildings and transport centers are in South Bombay) the likelihood of the protesters reaching us seemed slim. But as we watched news coverage in the morning of some of the protests across the country and in Mumbai we decided to heed the warning of the native Mumbaikers we’d spoken to and wait until the afternoon to gather our suitcases and make the short 5 minute drive to our apartment.

An empty Turner Rd - one of the main streets near us

When we left the guesthouse, the street was as empty as if it were 3am – but the sunny skies turned the scene upside-down. Shops were closed and very few cars drove in the streets. The frenetic soul of Mumbai seemed to have vanished and all that was left was the city’s shell.

But the emptiness didn’t seem fearful. Our gut instinct about our portion of Bandra not being a target appeared correct, and we made it easily over to our apartment (so much easier than normal, in fact, since we had no insane traffic to contend with).
We lived out the rest of the bandh in our own oblivious unpacking mode. By the evening both the traffic and the monsoon had returned – all was back to normal. It’s yet to be seen whether the bandh has any political impact. But whatever the outcome, I have to admit that I, at least, was impressed by the massive feat of stopping approximately one out of every six people in the world in their tracks for a day.

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I am getting the sense that there’s a theme for me in Mumbai: when I want to do something, India often has other plans. And in the race between me and India, I’m usually not on the winning end.  I wrote last night that Daniel and I were off for vacation.  Unfortunately, we were paid a visit by the notorious Indian bureaucracy. They hadn’t met us yet and they surely wanted a day of our time.

We got to the airport, checked in and then went to exit immigration. I was asked some questions and checked through – a new red 16th of June exit stamp started drying in my passport. But as I prepared for us to continue the immigration officer asked Daniel “Where is both your registration?” We explained that we had been told that we only needed to register for residency once we were going to be here for more than 180 days. Alas, we were wrong.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, immigration has tightened up considerably (similar to the US after 9/11). And niceties that used to fly a year and a half ago are just not so anymore. Instead of falling asleep on Malaysian Air we were taken to Indian customs.

We sat in a room with no windows and nothing on the white walls except constant black scuff marks from years of office chairs leaning against walls. Our captor sat at a desk with only a plain blue Duty Officer sign on the wall to identify him. He made us wait as he thumbed through a worn ledger, uninterested in our plight. When he finally eyed us over his wire rim glasses he said simply, “Sorry, rules are rules. You did not follow the rules.” We tried to reason with him. We were handed a booklet and told, “This pamphlet says you cannot leave until you register.”

Daniel scanned it. “Where does it say that in this pamphlet? I don’t see it.”
“Well, it doesn’t say that directly, but that is the rule.”

We were at a stalemate. Our passports were looked over and discussions were had in Hindi while we sat. One Duty Officer talked on a red phone in the corner. Our officer continued to be disinterested. We tried to reason some more. Surely if we came back and registered it wouldn’t be a problem? Apparently it was.  My passport was taken and a crisp CANCELLED was written across my new red stamp. We were done for the night.

Dejected, we waited by Malaysia Airlines for our bags to come back to us. We sat on the floor like the pathetic losers we had been deemed to be – it was our own fault for believing what we had been told, and that was that.

Our poor driver had had to return to the airport and wait for us to be freed, for our bags to come, and for Daniel to finally be able to rebook our tickets after circling through various parts of the airport with various guides giving us varying instructions.  We got into the car exhausted and hoped to make it back to our guesthouse quickly. Late at night there apparently are no traffic rules in Mumbai and our driver merely honked at red lights as he went through them.

We woke up the next day with a new determination to get our residential permit and so off we went to the Foreign Regional Registration Office. It was a madhouse. Lines were everywhere depending on what your purpose was. Luckily our line was inside the office in air conditioning. Even luckier that we weren’t from Pakistan, where a separate floor altogether awaited nationals from India’s rival who were trying to declare their own detente.

Our room was like a world snapshot. In one corner an Eastern European woman tried to encourage her children to cry louder so there would be an incentive for their name to be called. In another, a woman in a burka searched through her fake Louis Vuitton bag to find her cell phone and start texting. Two older African women, held steady by canes and their feet resting on their bejewelled pink flip flops, kept entertained by whispering to each other and laughing. Daniel immediately made friends initially with some other expats while we waited. I watched a brightly colored 24 hour news channel celebrating its 1 year anniversary while breaking news banners played constantly at the bottom.

Our names were called and I was asked to sign forms. “What is your occupation ma’am?” I was asked. I tried to explain that for my time in India my visa wouldn’t allow me to earn money so I didn’t really have an official occupation at the moment.  “Housewife, then. You should have written housewife!”. And so it was done.

We cut out passport photos and pasted them into various documents- arts and crafts immigration. Every page of our passport was examined. Other documents were needed and sent for. We went in and out, hours spent re-watching the news channel and observing the new people who walked in, wondering why each had come to India to make their life for the time being.

Finally, we were given our Registration Report and Residential Permit. It was official – no turning back now. We are residents of India, perhaps because we have now been given our bureaucracy baptism by fire.  And as residents I would dare say we are now allowed to go on vacation. But I won’t bet on it until I’m out of the country and sure that India has no other imminent plans for me yet.

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“Spitting Spreads TB. Don’t Spit”.

Seeing a bumper sticker with that phrase was the first thing that made me laugh after sitting in 15 minutes of silence leaving the Mumbai airport. I’d been trying to take everything in. Here it was, my new home Mumbai. Madcap, colorful, dirty, amazing. And apparently hilariously straight forward and matter of fact.

After walking out of the airport and losing the ability to see due to the humidity hitting my glasses and fogging them up, I got a reality check. As we drove into our new city, I kept wondering: How can an American raised in South Carolina, used to living in New York, adapt to this environment? I let that marinate as we drove past the construction, the families of 5 crowded onto one scooter and the buses with dozens of faces starting back at my own. We were only on the highway and I was already overstimulated.

But then Daniel pointed out the bumper sticker.  And the feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted from traveling was overtaken by the sheer excitement of living in a place that could be so many contradictions at once.

As we continue driving in, the most glaring thing I notice about Mumbai is that the disparities everyone talks about when India is mentioned are so overt its shocking. It’s not just that some people are wealthy and others are impoverished – it’s that two cities are co-existing and growing together, like two plants in the same pot. The seemingly brand new gleaming glass Price Waterhouse Coopers building is in between two dilapidated buildings. The whole city is one big construction boom with modern towers coming up inside of shaky scaffolding and built by cranes with the paint peeling off.  Mumbai’s modernity fights with it’s past right in front of you.

As I’m thinking this, looking at a sleek highway with a shantytown under it, I am jolted. A young girl has just pressed her face against our car window and she’s staring at me, hoping for money. I look down – everyone I’ve spoken to has warned me that this will be the hardest thing to adapt to. How can anyone say no to helping a child staring at you? “But you have to just say no”, I’ve been told over and over again. “The money won’t go to them”, “It keeps the cycle of poverty” “you’d go broke”. I heard it all from the comfort of Manhattan. Nothing prepares you for it.  So I just don’t look. And when we drive away I look at the window and see there’s a smudge from where her face was – it’s there for the rest of the day, a constant reminder that I’m entering a world that, for an outsider like me, will be infinitely more complicated and difficult than the one I left.

We arrived at our guesthouse in Mumbai’s suburb of Bandra and I was happy to put down my belongings and rest for a moment. Wireless internet. Bottled water. Air conditioning. The city of contradictions had quickly made me a contradiction – one moment you worry about all the difficulties you’re seeing right in front of you. The next you’re thanking your lucky stars that you’ve been allotted the amenities you crave.

We left before we our jetlag coerced us into napping. We drove to South Bombay and stopped at the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s own Statue of Liberty of sorts, the first thing a ship would see from the Harbor. It’s a remnant of the city’s British past but today it is pure India. Indian tourists cram in to take photos while vendors sell food and horse carriage drivers try to recruit passengers.

We finished our day driving through the neighborhoods of the Southern end of the city – I was surprised to see that this area was still just as busy and hectic as the rest. I’d read that the house prices, in relation to per capita income, are the most expensive in the world.  Yet the constant construction, the sleek buildings next to crumbling relics, the new spas next to abandoned unfinished concrete — it was still there even in the mecca of Mumbai real estate. It made me love the city a little more.

We drove back to Bandra over the sea link, which connects the southern part of the city to it’s north. I laughed when I realized it looks just like Charleston’s new Cooper River Bridge. A little piece of home connecting Mumbai together.

It’s a lot for one day. And even that long rambling explanation doesn’t even come close to covering everything I saw. But that’s what you get from one day in India – a lot of observations and not a lot of time to gestate. But I’ve got that time laid out in front of me. I’m excited for the year – still a little overwhelmed, but ready for tomorrow.

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