The Endless puzzle of Bombay


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Category: Travel 19 Jan 14

One thing Indians don’t have is a sense of space.  Women will stare right into your handbag with tunnel eyes while the customs officer examines the contents. I say women because in all the huge gleaming airports of Delhi, Bhopal, Bombay and Hyderabad, we’ve had to line up separately from the men and been frisked in a closed, curtained booth by fierce female army officers in army-green saris.  Oddly, instead of creating a sense of modesty, I sense some perverted titillation in this.

The irritation I felt melted at the sight of the benignly smiling woman and ten of her relatives looking curiously at the electronic cigarette over which I was being questioned.  Being stared at is uncomfortable anywhere. It’s the worst in India because curiosity is naked, nothing like the darting looks of the British or the studied indifference of us Trinis. Indians get extra polite with people who they feel don’t belong. They are not themselves and become a curious version of what they think the Western world is—which at best is hilarious.

They offer hot dogs for breakfast when you want the South Indian dosa. They show you to cafes when you want a proper dhaba.  They point you to jeans when you want a sari. Indians have a term for feeling at home. It’s called “apnapan,” literally meaning “among us.”

So for the first few days here I kept my mouth shut, as my mother once advised me, and listened, hoping to be among the people I left in my childhood.  Often, unable to understand one another’s languages (there are 27 official ones, each to a state at least, and hundreds of unofficial dialects) Indians have created a kind of hybrid communication that is ubiquitous in this country of 1.2 billion, of the “yah, yah” type—nodding, the twirling of hands—a sort of cultural understanding that education is God, followed by respect for one’s parents and elders, followed by a love for Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, and an unnatural affection for electronics, satellite television (there are many in the slums too) and coffee shops.

Soon, to my children’s horror and amusement, I was swathed in my scarf, shalwar and kameez, sipping masala chai in chairs with feet tucked in, observing people at airports, homes, coffee shops, parties, streets.

The backdrop is the usual epic theatre of Indian public life with salacious Bollywood-type stories.  Like every developing country, India—despite its 300-million middle class—has its super-elite to whom everyone kowtows. The obscenely super-rich, like the Ambani business magnates, have been known to have the spare keys of an Aston Martin flown to the heliport of their home—the most expensive in the world, with a staff of 600. (Recently, a taxi driver gleefully repeated the rumour that this family shifted to their old house after some feng shui expert said the energy there wasn’t right: India is a curious mixture of practicality and superstition.)

Then there’s the old elite whose offspring, no matter how many recreational drugs they do at parties, become super-sensible when choosing a partner. Old money marries for a good family, which means, in this order: money, connections, fairer skin, education, and height, which ensures an eternal supremacy.

What else in Bombay? What’s not to see? While browsing in a crowded market, by now having given up on my unruly hair, loving melting into the nothingness of humanity, loving being both anonymous but accepted, being smiled at, offered cups of tea, taking in the smell of India, the sandalwood, crushed jasmine, dirt, I saw the affection between families.  But men and women who don’t belong to the growing educated middle classes (who mix freely) are jumpy around one another. On the streets, men hold hands in an entirely innocent way, completely unrelated to the fact that homosexuality is now a crime here. This is because of the segregation of the sexes. It’s part of a belief system that still largely prevails among the uneducated and super conservative sections of India: woman are limited to the role of Madonna, sexually unavailable; woman are mother, sister, teacher, elder or whore. A woman is “unprotected” if she is single, divorced, westernised, or living on her own. The latter is hassled the most. Sadly, the horrific gang rape of a 51-year-old Danish woman minutes away from the upscale shopping area of Connaught Place is testimony that not all Indian values work.

The nightclubs, according to one youngster, make clubbing in New York and London appear suburban, self-conscious. Here it is relaxed. Girls don’t show a whole lot of skin but speak their minds, words bubbling over, dancing like carefree flower children. Despite the rapes here, one girls insists that it’s different in Bombay. She has herself been known to be bundled in drunk in a cab and dropped home safely many times.

Bombay, with its India Gate, the Taj, Marine Drive, the millions being stuffed into the trains every morning to work by professional pushers (at least ten people die every day in train accidents), the jewelled curve of lights, the dabbawalas who deliver home food from millions of households to people at work in an unbelievably complex system, the grand brick colonial buildings, the aged thickspreading rooted heavy trees evoking nostalgia of the past and its new sea link soaring pushing into the future, is just the sort of tension that makes India endlessly puzzling, yet welcoming you into its fold. 


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur