As the plane circles over Mumbai, we have already been traveling for more than 40 hours – myself, my husband and our 4 year old son. We are exhausted, but we are energized. The smell of Mumbai somehow seeps through the airtight windows. The smell of burning plastic, mixed with incense, spices, food and millions of humans, hovers above the city in it’s airspace, reminding you that you are home. It is not a particularly nice smell, but once you get used to life in Mumbai you no longer smell it, so I know to relish it now.
In my mind, we are coming home. Yes, home is in LA where our Indian cats live and our Indian furniture lives and bright sunny humid free days are the norm. But Mumbai will always be home for me in so many ways. This is where I came for love, for a new beginning. This is where I adopted my beautiful and sometimes noisy stray cats. This is where my son’s life was created, where I first learned how to be a mother and where our life as a family began. This is where I became a real adult. This is where I made life long connections with people who are now scattered all over the world. This is where I became the current me. So yes, this is home.
Walking off the airplane, we are welcomed by a new shiny amazingly modern airport. I almost don’t know where I am until I make it to the restroom and see the large open square hole cut around the circle flush for the toilet. All I can do is laugh and remember that this is India.
Looking into the sea of people waiting for their guests, my eyes meet with our former driver waiting and waving outside. It is hard not to mirror his massive grin. Walking through the glass doors, the gush of heavy humid air hits me and I can’t help but gasp. I forgot what India heat feels like. Our son doesn’t notice and instead runs full force with his arms open wide to a man there is no way he remembers consciously. But that doesn’t stop him. Tears fill my eyes. As “hard” as it was to always have drivers, maids and cooks, who desperately relied on our wages and generosity, they truly do become like family. And this is our homecoming. As the years have put weight on us (told to us by our former maid “Madam you and Sir got too fat”), I see that time has made our former driver much skinner. I worry that this means life has been hard for him since we left.
I don’t have time to ruminate long. Our driver catches us up on all things Mumbai. Proudly showing us the new airport and road – a sure signal of progress for this great city. But as we ride through the streets on the way to our favorite hotel, the JW Marriott, taking in all of the sounds and smells of this vibrant city, I see that everything else is just the same. The ‘new’ Mumbai extends for only a kilometer, perched high above the city that is left untouched and operates as normal. I see the raised walkways started years before are complete, but remain empty. It is still preferable to walk below, alongside the pollution, noise and dangerousness of cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, cows and roadside vendors.
My son is shocked by the lack of rules (no carseat required), but mesmerized by everything on the roads. He admires the colorful artwork that is everywhere – on the rickshaws, trucks, billboards and temples. He isn’t overwhelmed. He isn’t scared. He can’t remember these things, but they have been in his mind and body since the day he was born. He makes conscious efforts to record as many sights and sounds as he can. He is home.
The JW Marriott was our club, gym and Sunday hangout before we left India. And now, 2.5 yrs later, our friends are already waiting for us at the pool just like old times. Seeing them at the pool, on a Sunday, in the hot humid Mumbai air, it feels like we never left. Our kids play like they have always known one another and the adult conversation continues like it was only last week. My eyes fill with tears again. These are my people. This is my place. As I chat to my friends, drink my nimbu pani (lemonade) and soak up the ‘wicked India heat’ as my preschooler affectionally dubs it, I sigh. I am home.
Our first few days in Mumbai is a blur. Up with jet lag at 3:30 am our days are long. But this works well with our son’s desire to hit the playground right away. Parks in Mumbai are open at odd times; 5 am to 9 am and closed until for the day until 3 pm. What was a previous annoyance, now suits our schedule perfectly. So begins our daily ritual. Up, shower, breakfast and off to the playground to hang out with the aunties and uncles doing their morning meditations, yoga, and the occasional snot blowing.
The rest of our Mumbai itinerary centers around doctor visits, catching up with old friends, shopping for our favorite Indian goods and of course eating. On our first evening, we drag our jet-lagged, comatose child into his first rickshaw ride in years to our favorite roadside dhaba. The first bite of fresh paneer tikka, creamy black dal and perfectly cooked tandoori naan is worth the 40 hrs of travel and no sleep for almost 3 days! We will eat this meal many times over our short stay in Mumbai, savoring it each time. The days are long, but time is short, so we pack in as much as our jet-lagged bodies can muster.
I finally get out at night on my own. This city comes alive when the sun sets. I had forgotten that. Walking out into the night of Mumbai I feel the energy that exists here like no other city I know. It is utter chaos as I walk down the street. There are no sidewalks, and if there are, they are riddled with roadside vendors, sleeping bodies (animal and human) or so potholed they are unwalkable. So I do what I have always done, walk on the streets weaving my way between rickshaws, cars, animals, people and open holes where construction has stopped work for the day (week or month). The noise, the smell, the dirt and the raw energy is everywhere. I try to meander, soaking it all in, but the speed of the city forces me along. I make it to my destination, the local stationary shop and immediately fall back into my zone. Hindi pops out of my mouth and my head nods, in Indian fashion of course. Supplies for our US Diwali party are procured for pennies on the dollar. This is my favorite kind of shopping.
Walking home, I slow my pace. I admire the fruit and vegetable venders with their perfectly stacked produce under dangerously wired lightbulbs. I actively listen to the sounds – the car horns blaring, the dogs barking, the hum of conversations. I smell the smells – nuts roasting on the roadside, incense burning, rotting trash piled on the corner, body odor and exhaust from trucks rumbling by. Fairy lights adorn the buildings, lighting up the night in preparation for Diwali. A rickshaw horn blares at me to move to the side. I notice I am pouring in sweat from the humidity even though the sun is long gone. Today it doesn’t bother me. Yep. This is my city. This is Mumbai.
I return home and need to sleep, but I am wired. I am almost out of time – I have only 2 nights left here. I don’t want to sleep. I want to wonder the streets all night long to soak it up. Soak up all the things that I would no longer notice were I to stay for a few months, but having missed for so long now.
I don’t think my husband feels this city like I do. He complains that he has never been so hot in his life, forgetting that yes, indeed he has been this hot – every single year for the 10 years he lived here! He forgot the Indian accent and no longer understands the Hinglish. He lost the mellowness that enabled him to live here for so many years without ever raising his voice. He gets angry at a driver for being gullible and basically a fool. This is not new to us though, but this time he is bothered. He is enjoying his visit, not in the same way I am, but he is also just as excited to head back to LA.
For myself and our son it is different. I see the sadness in my son’s eyes when we have to leave. He soaks up India every minute that he is awake. There are things he doesn’t love that he thought he would (the food), things that he discovered that he never knew existed, but loves (washing your bum with water and the squat toilet) and things that he didn’t know were possible that send him bursting with excitement (driving a rickshaw himself).
Bringing our son back to his birth city was a dream for me. Seeing him see this city with clear unjudging eyes and an open heart is beautiful. He is honest when he complains of the trash, the smell of sewer and lack of rules. He is equally forthcoming about his love for the art that exists everywhere, the city itself and the people. He poses for a photo with hotel staff, not by their request, but for his own memory. Seeing his love and worry for the ‘homeless’ animals as he calls them, reminds me of my years carrying pet food in my purse to feed any animal I saw. He is like me in wanting to touch them, feed them and pack them up to take home!
India is in my soul and will always be a part of who I am. I see now that it will always be a part of my son as well. Even with the 40+ hrs of travel and subsequently a horrible mess of getting back home, he still asks on the flight home when we will come back again. I had billed this as “our last trip to India for a long time”, but I see that I can no more stay away from India for a long time than I can my own country of origin.
Phir Melange, Aamchi Mumbai