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The International Writers Magazine
:Hacktreks in Mumbai

Only In Mumbai
Anne Young

I have lived in Scotland, Peru (when I was young), Greece, Spain, Norway and Dubai. Nowhere have I experienced such warm acceptance as I have in Mumbai.

Shaving in Mumbai

Nothing that ever went before quite prepares you for Mumbai.
As a Scot living here with my husband who is in the oil business, I feel there are many aspects of this city that yearn to be written about by people who are not just merely travelling through. Unfortunately visitors to India tend to take a look at the city and then quickly opt to move on to explore what the rest of India has to offer. Reasons for this are the same reasons that affect every visitor to the city. The sheer numbers of people, the horrendous traffic, the dirt, the animals in the streets and of course the thousands of people who live in the streets and slums. It shocks you to the core - no matter how widely you have travelled in the world. You want to cry out. You disbelieve what you are witnessing. You want to run away - escape. How can this be, you ask yourself over and over. How can this be allowed to happen? To see old men and women begging for a few rupees to buy food with their skin like thick brown leather telling you that they have been doing this for years and years - probably all their lives. To see children as young as two years old with no clothes on wandering in and around the moving traffic, crying because they are so hungry, lost and confused. The haunted look on a mother’s face that you see clutching a hungry baby on one arm and a tearful naked toddler with her other arm while she struggles from car to car, tapping on the windows hoping for a few rupees to sustain them all for that day. It stays with you for days. You find yourself overwhelmed by feelings of shock, fear, anger, guilt and most of all, humility. Any talk about material acquisitions or gains all of a sudden is accompanied by a very unsavoury taste in your mouth.

Do not think for one minute that, like most other third world cities, there are large areas in Mumbai where none of the aforementioned horrors exist. No, the city accommodates around twenty million people so that everywhere you go you will see people living and trying to make their living on the streets. You will see barber ‘shops’ that are no more than one wall with a canopy, one chair and a mirror at the side of the road giving customers little privacy but they probably only charge a few rupees for a shave or haircut. Immediately outside our apartment block there is a guy who stands ironing clothes on a rough bench. When he is not ironing clothes on his bench, he sleeps on it.

Wherever you go in Mumbai you will see animals in the streets. There are lots of stray dogs that all seem of similar type and they are usually nosing amongst the rubbish at the side of the street. You will see goats, pigs, bullocks pulling carts and live chickens, usually for sale. Not to mention the cows of course that are free to wander wherever they wish, even if it is on a four- lane highway. Did I say lane? No, Indian drivers, especially auto ric drivers do not know what a traffic lane is. In fact, I often think that the whole concept of queuing is totally alien to the Indian psyche. Going back to animals, each morning I think to myself that it could only be in this sprawling metropolis of Mumbai with not a green field in sight that you can be awakened every morning by a cock crowing at dawn! It can only be in Mumbai that you come across a dairy farm consisting of a few hundred cows right in the middle of the city. I have been told that the farm has been there for the past hundred years but gradually it has become surrounded by buildings.

After you have lived in Mumbai for a few weeks you begin to pull back the layers. Indians do not care too much about their outside surroundings -Ghandi despairs of this in his autobiography. The result of this is that the city appears to be very dirty, unkempt and as a result, unwelcoming. You feel that Mumbai’s only saving grace are the beautiful trees that line many of the streets and avenues of the city. However, the longer that you are here the clearer it becomes that things are a lot more organized than what they first seem. You also come to realize that the city has a way of getting under your skin. When I knew I was going to be living in Mumbai I asked some people for their opinion on the place. At that time I was working in an International School in Dubai and many of my colleagues were Indian. “You will love Mumbai”, many of the people from Mumbai and people who had lived in the city said. “Oh no, Mumbai is horrible! You really do not want to go there” said the Indians from other parts of India. Then there were the people who had travelled to India as tourists - their reaction varied depending on how long they had spent in Mumbai but overall they were pretty negative about the place.

My twenty-one year old son, Gregor made an interesting observation. He was in Mumbai for one month before I came and, of course, I was on the phone quizzing him about how he was finding Mumbai. He said, “ Mum, it is the complete opposite of Dubai. In Dubai everything is very orderly, extremely clean and easy for us westerners to live in, but the people (the locals) tend to be very reserved, distant and downright rude and unfriendly at times. In Mumbai, however, everything appears to be extremely disorganized, dirty, unkempt and basically very difficult but the Indian people are so incredibly friendly”. I have been living here for three months now and I am becoming more aware by the day of how very astute his slant on Mumbai was. In my lifetime, I have lived in Scotland, Peru (when I was young), Greece, Spain, Norway and Dubai. Nowhere have I experienced such warm acceptance as I have in Mumbai.

Since moving into our apartment I have discovered that the Indian people have a way of making you feel that they are responsible for your well being and this is something that they take quite seriously - especially if you are ill. They will make and bring you food. They will make sure that you have all the medical help that you need and at the best possible price. Apparently the custom in India, when somebody in the house dies, is for the neighbours to take care of the food for that household for a minimum of four days. Food, of course is something else that all Indians take very seriously. It would appear that no matter what age, gender, class or religion you belong to in India the purchase, preparation and consumption of freshly cooked vegetables and herbs is either at the top or next to the top of your daily agenda. Every Indian mother, no matter how rich or poor she may be, is very aware of what a balanced diet should consist of. Girls and boys grow up hearing about it in everyday conversation and then they find it easy to pass it on to their children.

Isn’t it strange, when you first come to India you think that the country has so much to learn from the West, and yes there are many things that they could still learn from us, but I think it is fair to say that equally there are so many important things that we still have to learn from them.

© Anne Young March 2004

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