[INTRODUCTION] – I originally wrote this post at the conclusion of my traineeship with the Times of India in 1996, so if any facts are a bit out of date it’s because they are.
“Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.”
It was about this time last year. I was chatting with my flat mate over a bottle of Margaret River Chardonnay when the topic of travel came up. He was planning to travel the world the following year, and as he was telling me of his aspirations, I looked over his shoulder to a picture of him posing the tourist pose in front of the Taj Mahal. It was at this point that I first thought of India as something more than some Asian country that plays cricket and likes a curry.
Not long after I took the plunge and applied for the International Traineeship Exchange Programme, a venture undertaken by AIESEC, an organisation which had been a part of my life for the previous 3 years. Here the big question arose… “Where do you want to go?” That was a toughie. Where in the world do I want to go? Let’s see. Scandinavia would be cool, and the Caribbean. Or somewhere exotic like Zimbabwe, no Brazil. All these places to choose from, all with a recurring theme. Different. A culture, a life different to my 23 years in Perth. Then I remembered the picture of Ben before the Taj Mahal. How about India? Yeah, that would be different. India.
I put in my forms for my traineeship, and in early December I received a phone call from my girlfriend at the time, who was attending AIESEC Australia’s National Conference in Adelaide. The first thing she said was “You’re going to India.” I could tell the concern in her voice as she said it. My Mum quietly freaked as well. She kept saying “Why don’t you go somewhere nice like Canada?” What’s the point of that? That would be just like staying here. I want to go somewhere different. Besides, India won’t be so bad. I can handle myself. This reassurance was as much for myself as it was for the people close to me. India won’t be so bad.
That’s a nice story, isn’t it?
“If you can live in Bombay you can live anywhere in the world.”
I’ve been here four months now. Three more to go. I am by no means used to life here, but I’ve picked up enough of what goes on in this city of 14-odd million people to get by with a smile on my face. The only way to get through life. And being a caring, sharing sort of a person I feel it’s my duty to pass on my impressions on life in Mumbai (or Bombay, or whatever it is you want to call it this week) to whoever cares to listen. And dear reader, that whoever is you. So listen.
The first thing that strikes you is the smell. A pot pourri of carbon monoxide, rotting fish and raw sewerage. The percentages change wherever you go. In the city it’s more carbon monoxide, on the coast it’s the fish (they should rename Sassoon Docks to ‘What’s that bloody smell’ Docks) and the air is more sewerage-laden in the ‘burbs. Is Mahim Creek Bombay’s version of the River Styx? It ain’t quite hell but you can smell it from here.
Mumbai doesn’t have any real amusement parks where you pay to go on some ride and lose your lunch from any variety of orifices. There was this Utsav thing, but that was pissweak. So instead Mumbai has traffic. On my second day here somebody told me that the traffic is the reason India has so many gods. And I believe it. I just thank Maruti, the god of traffic, that I’m used to people driving on the left hand side of the road. I wouldn’t be surprised if you can get a licence inside a packet of Corn Flakes. And it doesn’t take long to work out the traffic lights. It runs down like this : green means go, amber means go and red means go and honk your horn. As far as the cars go, for such a large number of cars there’s such little variety. Perhaps it’s the Henry Ford school of thought… “You can have any sort of car you want, as long as it’s a Maruti.”
The next thing you notice are the beggars. No matter how mentally prepared you think you are for seeing real poverty, it’s never enough. There are scenes in this city that have broken my heart. But no matter how much you feel for these people, you have to learn to detach yourself from your emotions when it comes to this end of the vast wealth dichotomy. You simply cannot survive in a place like Bombay and keep feeling bad for beggars. You’ll drive yourself insane. You can’t give them money either, at least I can’t. I don’t want to play God and decide that this person should receive money while this other person should not. It’s actually the ones that can’t beg that need it the most. The ethnic refugees in Rwanda or Bosnia, or any of a half dozen Latin American countries. There are organisations around the world set up to help these people, wherever they may need it. I’ll give to them, and get off my soapbox.
“That which doesn’t break us makes us stronger.”
Alright, you’ve made it past your first month. Without a doubt the toughest month of your stay. You’re just getting over the homesickness (a strange mental disorder for which the only cure is a plane ticket home). You’ve learned to rely on bottles of Bisleri (try Pio Pio, the cloudy mineral water). You’ve discovered the overpowering taste of coriander, the herb which kills the taste of anything else in Indian food. You’ve noticed people spitting red stuff on the road. That’s paan, some leaf thing you chew which involves betel nut, a mildly addictive substance. Before I came to India I thought smoking was the most disgusting habit in the world. Not anymore. You’ve had your first bout of the runs, and become a Mighty Porcelain Power Ranger. “The power is in us all!” And you’ve figured out all the tricks of the cab driver. The long way home, the no change, the no rate card, the variable night charge, the oops I forgot to turn the meter on. For a while I thought there was a dollar sign tattooed on my chest which only cab drivers could see.
But the learning never stops. You have to get a grip of Hindi. Why is it that the first things people teach you is the rude words? Acha is a dangerous word, because more often than not it means ‘alright I hear you’ instead of ‘alright I understand you’. Hey cab driver, turn left here. ‘Acha’. Cab driver turns right. There are useful Hindi phrases however. Walk down Colaba causeway, home of the tourist, where you meet many new friends wanting to help you exchange currency or sell you a bargain camera at cost price or Little Drummer Boy playing some tune especially for you. Try it next time while wearing a T-shirt saying ‘main tourist nahin hun’ and you don’t have as many new friends. “Come back mister, let me go to Goa with you and smoke some hash! Please?” Then you have all these films in Hindi. Now they’re something else entirely. A typical plot for a Hindi film goes like this : boy meets girl, another boy meets girl, boy fights another boy for one hour and then they all sing about something, living happily ever after. And does the same person sing the female parts in every song? It wouldn’t surprise me. Or for something completely different, try an English film dubbed into Hindi. They’re great! The only part of ‘Dunstan Checks In’ that I understood was the orang-utan.
“Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”
Now if you’re a student of human nature like I am, you’ll be intrigued by the aspect of Indian life that I like to call the Dating Game. It’s basically the same as anywhere in the world, only in slow motion. And when I mean slow I mean SLOW. Ever seen the head of a sunflower rotate to face the Sun constantly? Slower. Maybe it’s the culture, maybe it’s the fact that 14 million people doesn’t give a person much privacy (but such a large population would indicate that something is going on between the sheets) or maybe it’s because the typical pick up place, the pub or club, has a ‘couples only’ rule. Isn’t that a blow for the sexual revolution? But, against all odds, you meet that special someone. After a glass or two of ‘Knockout Punch’ beer or some beverage from Skol Brewery (whoever named this place should receive a bronze medal, giving India two of them…sorry, I had to put it in) and you’re on your way. Now try to find someplace quiet where the two of you can be alone. Good luck! So basically there’s a lot against people who are establishing a relationship, but you could help yourself by being more direct in your initial approach (362 1327, try calling between 8:30-9:30am). You never know your luck in the big bad city.
There’s another interesting thing to plug into the love equation, if you’ll pardon the pun. All these guys who walk down the street hand in hand, or arm in arm. For the homophobes out there don’t worry, they are just really good friends. Really good friends. An Indian woman once told me that one in five Indian men are gay. I don’t have a problem with that at all, each to their own I say. It’s just a very curious statistic. One in five. For a bit of fun go up to a group of Indian males and count; “One, two, three, four, you. Six, seven, eight, nine, you.”
“It never rains but it pours.”
It’s the middle of summer. Quite hot, and always humid. Then all of a sudden, from out of nowhere, comes the monsoons. It comes down in buckets full. And the funny thing about this deluge of rain is that it is the only occasion I have ever seen where water makes things dirty instead of clean! Now, all of a sudden, it stops. Like somebody realised that they left a tap running so they turn it off. I breathed a sigh of relief, until somebody told me “now it’s malaria season.” I told them I was fine, I’ve been taking tablets every day so I don’t get malaria. “They don’t always work though.” Well that’s just swell. Here I am taking pills every day like a fool, plus an extra two on Fridays (which taste revolting, a chemical coriander you might say), and they may not work. Then there’s the side effects these pills are meant to give you. Let’s just say stay indoors during a full moon.
I’ve mentioned the cultural ambassadors of Bombay, the cab drivers. The tour guides you have when you don’t want a tour. There’s another way to get around the city… public transport. You have two varieties, bus and train. The buses are interesting in that they only occasionally stop at the bus stops. Otherwise they just slow down enough for people to jump on and off without too much of a risk of serious injury. Then it’s a mad rush to get on a bus. The age of chivalry is as dead as fried chicken here. This rush is nothing however compared to getting on a train. Now that’s tough. The train stops at a station, and a wall of humanity pours through the doors, cramming inside the train like a sardine can. Fists and elbows fly to establish position. Once that happens you’re fine (albeit cramped for space) until you want to get off the train. That’s even worse. Some time ago I went to Bandra with some friends. We knew our stop was coming as we could smell Mahim Creek. We decided the best strategy to get off was to form a rugby scrum. Suffice to say we got off at Bandra, as did a couple of unfortunate people who got in the scrum’s way. You could also get around by putting a saddle on one of the rats and riding that around. Have you seen the size of these rodents? Cripes they’re big! They can carry off a small child if they liked. “A rat took my baby!” Much more convincing than a dingo.
“Ich bin ein Bombayite.”
If ever you decide to make Mumbai your home, at least for a few months like I have, you need to bring a few things with you. Firstly, and most importantly, bring a positive attitude. With this you can make your time here one of the most rewarding in your life. Without it you’re just counting down the days until you go home. A positive attitude also helps as more often than not you cannot fit your comfort zone in your suitcase, no matter how much baggage allowance you have. Secondly you need answers to the following questions :
- What country are you from,
- How do you like India,
- What do you do here,
- Where are you staying,
- How do you like Indian food,
- What’s your good name.
You will be asked these questions on average once a day throughout your stay, without fail. The last question I find really odd. What’s your good name? I didn’t know I had a good name. And having a good name tends to indicate that I also have an evil name! Like Good Joh, Evil Joh.
Thirdly you need a generous amount of patience. Indians have bureaucracy down to an art form. If only bureaucracy was an Olympic event…OK I won’t bring it up again. But seriously, it’s amazing the amount of sanctions you have to obtain and the amount of red tape you have to get through to get anything done here. Amazing! The fourth thing you need is a helmet of some kind. Why you may ask? If you’re 180cm or taller, you need one. Because of the ridiculously high real estate prices here, space is at a premium. Therefore the ceilings are made lower, low enough for me to crack my head on more than one occasion. Hurts too.
Finally you need to bring with you an open mind. Bombay, like the rest of India, is full of diversity. From the dichotomy between rich and poor, which is an absolutely staggering thing to encounter; to the differences in religions; to the quality of chicken burgers. Mumbai is home to the nicest chicken burger in the world (Temptations in Tardeo), yet the one I tried my first day of work made me sick for two days. All these experiences I’ve shared with you are not the only things in Mumbai, every day you experience something you’ve never experienced before. So whenever I’m asked what I think of Bombay, I reply with one single word… “Different.” After all, isn’t that what I wanted in the first place?