Interpreting India’s healing touch


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Category: Diaspora 12 Dec 10

“Spread your legs, Bhua” (aunt) said a male voice solicitously. I was at one of many pre-wedding functions held for a relative’s wedding in a villa in Mumbai’s trendy Juhu beach district where my father’s family from all over India had gathered. I didn’t think I heard right. Actually, I was at the time on the phone with my hot cousin, Meher, a 20-something babe from Bhopal with jet black cascading hair and milky skin who works in Bombay and has to her credit refused to get into acting as she “prefers to use her brain.”


Meher, who has been enthralling us with non-stop accounts of partying and “rave” club. “Wear something concerts in Mumbai, was threatening to take me to a hot,” she commanded, conjuring intimidating images of her “gang” of nubile go-getters who must have been born with a cigarette dangling from pretty and cynical mouths. I, thinking like a Trini, of Mumbais underworld, (dons, gangs diamond-smuggling, money-laundering, heroin trade) and of Dharavi, Asia’s second largest slum, located in central Mumbai, were over 800,000 people live. Wouldn’t Meher, a liberated, well-off Western educated girl with a wardrobe that consists almost exclusively of variations of the little black dress be vulnerable to predators from here? I asked her if partying was safe for a single girl in Mumbai.


“It’s the safest city in India, yaar,” she had drawled when we met earlier in Bhopal, taking a deep drag of her cigarette. “See, the slums in Mumbai are the most literate in India with 68 per cent literacy. People are secure in their communities, and work damn hard. Jobs in the booming economy—textile mills, seaport, diamond polishing, healthcare, information technology mean even slum dwellers are now buying flat-screen TVs and everyone has a mobile. People are on their own beat to better their lives.”

She’s right. Mumbai, an Alpha world city, India’s financial capital, home of Bollywood, with the fourth most expensive office space worldwide, ranked seventh in the list of “Top Ten Cities for Billionaires” by Forbes magazine, is bursting with opportunity. An events co-ordinator, Meher, who hobnobs with Bollywood stars, finds London, New York and Toronto “slow-paced” compared to Mumbai. She pronounces Salman Khan “a brand,” Shah Rukh Khan “an institution,” the Bachchans “Royalty,” and south Indian star Rajinikanth “God.”


Spread your legs

As I hang up the phone to Meher I heard an 18-year-old relative repeating to a demure aunt dressed in deep crimson. “Go on, spread your legs.”  I was too shocked to reprimand him and was astonished at the lack of response from the elderly aunts, uncles, older cousins, little nieces. No one toppled a teacup or blinked. It then dawned on me. He meant “stretch your legs aunty, not spread,” whispered my husband, delighted at interpreting India to me. “You are very vestern with a dirty mind.”


Earlier he doubled up at a young male tailor (who stitched four outfits in one night) telling me that the “backside” needed to be altered, referring to my kurta and not anatomy. The Trini husband had also by now mastered the art of the head shaking in Indian conversation which could mean that he agreed completely, disagreed violently or both at the same time. It was my turn to laugh at him in the midst of admiring the architecture of Mumbai which hasn’t changed from my grandmother’s black and white photos of the city. The Victoria terminus and Bombay University, and many of the old buildings are Gothic treats which echo Europe: German gables, Dutch roofs, Swiss timering, Romance arches, Tudor casements, mingle in a spectacular way with traditional Indian and Mugul features.


This city screams romance. And in the midst of this the Trini spots the STD signs. “Why advertise Sexually Transmitted Diseases everywhere?” he asks. They are telephone services I reply smugly. Along with my parents we are a schizophrenic foursome of Indo Pak roots, divided to North South India, subdivided into Hindu/Muslim and Trini and further scrambled by the England and Canada years.


I can just tell that my mother still believes as she did when we were children, every white person she sees in this city wearing a traditional kurta or sari on the streets is a “hippie.” We couldn’t come this far without splurging on a stay at Mumbai’s Historic Taj Palace Hotel, an Indian architectural marvel, unsurpassed elegance with its silk carpets, magnificent art collection, vaulted alabaster ceilings, crystal chandeliers, eclectic collection of furniture, graceful archways, dramatic cantilever stairway and onyx columns. We had been to tea there one year before the 11/26/08 attacks which killed 167 people and wounded 293, listening to Chopin by the resident pianist. Then my mother had remarked it hadn’t changed since she was a child.


On our return this time, it appeared as if the monstrous attacks, the charred gutted rooms, the mangled bodies, broken glass and marble floors flowing with blood hadn’t ever happened. The restoration was complete but the wounds still raw. The security was tight, staff jittery, and tended to say things like they were “off duty” if you asked about that fateful day. Finally one staff member spoke, telling us of the sacrifice of the hotel’s manager who continues to rebuild the hotel after his wife and sons remains, charred to the crisp, yet intact, embracing each other, were discovered. So many eyes were hollow with memory, but warm with hope.


On the flight to London en route to Trinidad, an English steward roughs up my mother for not preordering a diabetic meal. We revert to numbers on a flight, instead of people, I examine why I never feel lonely in India. Emotional voids are filled in India by ordinary Indians who base their interactions on a mass recognition of a universal human need to be respected, seen, cared for, loved. Be it the shoe shine boy, the bookseller, an auto driver, you are immediately identified as a family member. Your parents are venerated. You are never sent away hungry from anyone’s home. You become sister, aunty, mommy.


My husband became brother, uncle, father. You are never empty. There may be a huge chasm between the billionaires and slum dwellers but they share a sense of family, a strong sense of identity, who they are, where they came from and a work ethic that takes them in one of the fastest growing economies of the world, where they want to go. On my return people still look at me pityingly thinking of poverty of the land. I think now, clutching strands of many continents, that to allow yourself to be absorbed by this infinitely forgiving subcontinent is to feel its healing touch.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur