Mumbai is the sweet, sweaty smell of hope. It’s the smell of gods, demons, empires and civilizations in resurrection and decay. It’s the blue skin smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the island city, and the blood metal smell of machines. It smells of the stir and sleep and the waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and love that produces courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches and mosques, and of hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfume, spices, incense and freshly cut flowers. That smell, above all things – is what welcomes me and tells me that I have come home.
GREGORY DAVID ROBERTS
It is almost three months since I first landed in BOM airport.
After an eight hour flight in which I barely slept thanks to air conditioning and underage children, I proudly showed my passport, made my way through immigration and into the mid afternoon sun. The warm and humid air stopped me almost immediately in a sticky embrace, filling my lungs and making it harder to breathe. Well, this is certainly a change, I thought to myself.
Overwhelming is a correct adjective when attempting to describe my first impressions about Mumbai. Your body is in temporary shock from all the sensory stimuli coming from the environment; the heat, even in mid January, is a constant companion sticking to you like second skin and making three cold showers a day mandatory. Dust and spices mix, filling your nostrils with unfamiliar smells as you walk along food stalls or a quiet residential area where all the kitchen windows are open , letting out hints of saffron, chilli or freshly baked parathas. And the sights. You barely know where to direct your eyes in the midst of such chaos; cars, rickshaws, buses and bikes coexist in an invisible order which only they understand. Along the side of the road, tea stalls, shoe shiners, vegetable and fruit sellers and barbers fill the sidewalk to its limits as the pedestrians squeeze past on their way to school, office or the market. Shopkeepers, pharmacists or dry cleaners observe the morning rush calmly from the door, smoking or conversing with a neighbour. The occasional cow appears from a side street and wanders about until it finds a convenient spot by the road in which to lay down. It is, quite literally, a feast to the eyes.
During my first few days in the city, I couldn’t take my eyes off it all. I hadn’t learned my way around our neighbourhood yet and I let myself be guided around by Ishita, my lovely Indian friend. This gave me freedom to unashamedly watch everything, from the architecture and vegetation to the population around us: the road workers, delivery boys, banana sellers… My favourites would always be the groups of girls making their way to school in the morning. They always had an air of composure, of neatness and poise with their crisp and ironed uniform which consisted in a pleated pinafore in an array of colours from black, grey, maroon and white depending on the school, with a white shirt underneath, ankle socks and black patent shoes. The girls wore their shiny black hair parted in two, with circular braids or single braids if their hair wasn’t long enough. I watched them stroll in front of us, all giggles and curiosity when they catched me looking back. They seemed as interested in me as I did in them.
This mutual curiosity followed me around during my time in India. The constant feel of a gaze on you, from the women on the ladies compartment on the train to the dry cleaners where we went to have our clothes ironed and the man at the dairy where we bought our buffalo milk. It took me a while to get accustomed to the unseeked attention but ultimately it became part of my persona whilst in India. I accepted their curious stare as long as I could also satisfy my own, returning the observation, trying to record every single detail in my brain. I was fascinated by their appearances, the mixture of garments, accessories and textiles worn by the hundred different cultural groups cohabiting side by side in Bombay. Slouchy white trousers, kurtas, turbans, caps, suits and ties, saris… Each profession, class, religion and caste could be differentiated by their costume, Ishita explained to me. The colour, shape and trims of a sari would give away the marital status, economy and caste of a woman, as well as the jewlery; always in gold, intricate designs crawled the ears of mumbai women as well as their fingers. Nose piercing was common as well as differently sized bindis and the unmistakable khol framing the eyes.
I mostly observed and studied women on our usual train rides to South Mumbai, or SoBo. Distances, as everything else in Bombay are vast and our journeys in the mornings would be short of an hour. This gave me plenty of time to sit and glance as the train made its way to the Southern tip of the city. The trains where always busy, no matter the time but rush hour became impossible to transit the stations, let alone board a train. We often travelled in First Class Ladies Compartment unless it was between 12 and 3 where we braved it and took Second Class. Jokingly, Ishita said the only difference between the Classes was that in First class they swore in English and in the latter in Hindi.
From our house in Goregaon we took the Western Line often all the way down to the last station, Churchgate. This left us on the oldest part of Bombay, where colonial buildings mix with traditional Indian housing and its gigantic markets. Crawford Market is where I was taken to buy spices to carry back home. A beehive if seen from above, Crawford Market is a maze where each lane houses a different food or household object. From fresh fruit and vegetables to spices, dried foods, cooking and baking utensils, brooms, festival and wedding decorations, anything can be found. I stocked up on cumin, coriander, mustard, chilly and cardamom under the strict supervision and translation of Ishita, who conversed with the owner about her mother, also a loyal customer. I walked out into the unforgiving sun feeling like a true Indian woman, ready to go back home and prepare my own Black Daal (a speciality of Rajasthan and my personal favourite).
Walking around South Bombay at dusk is an experience. The sun gives a truce and lets you walk the streets leisurely, without fear burning to death in the everlasting traffic jams. I remember an evening at the Hanging Gardens, high up on a hill overlooking Marina Drive and in the horizon, Nariman point and Colaba. We watched the sun slowly setting, surrounded by couples and families looking for a quiet spot on this restless city. We walked through the vegetation and foliage down to the beach and catched the sun before it set below the sea. The neon reflections of billboards and street lights contrasted with two fishermen guiding a canoe back to shore.
This duality, this inherent dichotomy is what characterises the city, starting from semantics. Bombay or Mumbai, two names used in equal parts by its citizens, reflect the contradictions and disparities which make Bombay what it is. Dusty and unpaved streets lead to luxury hotels and 5km cable stayed bridges. Sleek black cars slide through the roads alongside bicycle rickshaws and camel carts. During my time in Bombay, I was driven by Hindis, Sikhs, Muslims, Nepalese, Pakistani and probably a few agnostics and expats. This constant struggle, the push and pull of tradition and innovation, the reminiscence of a past and the appeal of the future coexist in Mumbai and its inhabitants. This precarious balance between the opposites is what fuels the city with energy, contrast, with life. And ultimately with death.
As I am sitting on bedroom desk , looking out into my hometown, I reminisce of Bombay and its warmth; dusk walks through South Bombay, past the baby blue walls of Knesset Eliyahoo Synagoge towards Bombay High Court. Looking through shop windows at Horniman´s Circle and being surprised by the sight of the lit Asiatic Library. The familiar trail from our apartment to the Train Station, through Goregaon Gym, passed the Second Hand Bookstore, and the alley leading to the Dry Cleaners and Purav Dairy Farm. I can see clearly the elderly women sitting on the benches by the road and the school children running to catch the bus. Our morning walk to the market to stock up on fruit and veg for the week, through the dark underground passing full of beggers into the bustle and hustle of shoppers. Tomatoes, lettuce, aubergine, akra and an array of strange and curious looking vegetables stared at me from the stalls, begging to be picked up, smelled, touched and examined thoroughly.
By the end of my stay, I could proudly say I could move on my own around Bombay, buying a train ticket on the machines on the bridge and making my way to the dusty platform, placing myself next to a group of chatty middle-age women. I could stop a rickshaw on the move, quickly ask for a destination and always demand the meter. The feeling of satisfaction and self confidence after I achieved these small feats was indescribable.
I was overwhelmed by Bombay and now, I am overwhelmed by its memory.