"Here are tigers and wise men and famines. A hurried stop, a quick halt to take a bath and get a night's sleep on solid land, before the train departs early the next morning for the real India, the India of the villages. Nobody back then came to Bombay to live there forever; it was just a way station, between paradise and hell. You came to Bombay to pass through it." — Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Mumbai is all things in all place at all times. It is a city unlike any I've ever seen.
It's like a building, maybe, a skyscraper that disappears high into the smog, and in this skyscraper each level is one century (fifth, twelfth, twentieth), or maybe one place (Paris, New York, Barcelona), or maybe one little slice of life (the cooking, the selling, the bathing), and under the weight of some thirty million people the building has collapsed, these levels—these stories—crumbling atop each other and coming to a rest in a chaotic, beautiful, spellbinding disarray.
The streets are everything. They range from a meter wide—some skinnier than that—to great big boulevards, and between the well-weathered walls that encase them, life occurs: birth, death, and everything in between. The sidewalks are for domesticity: it's where people wake from a hard night on the concrete, where they peek out from beneath the covers or pull aside the corner of their tarp and see dawn's first light. It's where they fold up their blankets and fill their buckets and bathe; it's where they cook breakfast and lunch and dinner in tiny fire stoves all over Bombay. Play happens here: babies learn to walk and children toss marbles or just the rounded pebbles they can find; the parents stand and gossip while the parents' parents sit on the stoop, crushing spices or shaving bamboo or packaging dried goods.
The sidewalk spills into the curb. Sometimes concrete gives way to asphalt; often, the line is written in the dust. The curb is for business. It's where the informal economy of Mumbai sustains its millions: the little carts selling thali or paneek or dosa, the stool and the barber foaming up a patron's face for a close shave. Leatherworkers stamp on the street and metalworkers weld on the blacktop, and the teenagers roll out their blankets of packaged socks and duplicated DVDs, and rupees change hands a million times over in the span of one block.
Beyond the sidewalk, beyond the curb, cars park. Autorickshaws and their napping drivers wait for a needy fare, and oversized Volkswagens sit idle and odd, an anachronism in this Old World. Scooters and motorcycles and Tata trucks cram in so tightly one cannot cross from the sidewalk to the street without fearing she'll bump against a bike and set a whole series of dominoes in motion. And further still lies the real street, the arteries and capillaries of Bombay where all its millions move, a raging river of human and machine and fear and chaos.
The street has no lanes, no wide shoulder or enforced speed limit. People, unable to step through the families on the sidewalk and the businesses in the curb, trot confidently along the parked cars, filling the little space still left in these bulging, congested arteries of India's throbbing heart. This leaves no room for the cars, those silly inflexible clots of modernity, and so the drivers blare their horns incessantly, a monotonous orchestra that plays all day long in a terrible, endless symphony heard through every last lane in the city.
The horn of India, I come to learn, doesn't so much mean hey, you're in my way, as it does in the West, but rather hey, I'm in your way, a sort of cordial warning that I, driver, am very close to running you, other driver or motorcycle rider or cyclist or pedestrian over, and thus you, if you would prefer not to be run over, should move out of the way, because I, driver, do have brakes but can't really be expected to use them. It's the way of life here; people seem used to it. Many vehicles have the same request splashed across their backside, HORN OK PLEASE, which is a sort of cordial warning that I, driver, do have a mirror but can't really be expected to use it, so I kindly ask that you, other driver, let me know if you're going to be coming on by.
Peace aside, it's actually quite effective. On the highway, a passing car won't bother with blinkers; it'll just lay on the horn all the way through the maneuver, leaving the driver-being-passed with a precise, auditory signal as to just where the danger lies, without the driver-being-passed ever having to take his eyes from the road ahead, which is good, because there's a lot of craziness happening up there too.
The people of Mumbai are excellent drivers, perhaps the world's best. Sure, they're pushy and loud and always in a rush to get somewhere, and so they aren't maybe the most polite drivers, but skilled they most certainly are. On my third day in Bombay, after hours of walking and a sore blister on my heel and the raging heat of the city wearing me down, I give into the relentless appeals of an autorickshaw cabbie trailing me and hop a ride to Bandra, just a few kilometers uptown. If I think the streets are terrifying on foot (which I really, really do), they are the stuff of nightmares from the backseat: unaccompanied four-year-olds running across eight-lane highways on their way to school, five-member families whizzing through gaps in the congestion on the back of a 150cc scooter, the occasional cow or goat just ambling into the road and drawing it all to a halt. I'm something of a backseat driver in the calm traffic of America, so here in Bombay it takes all my strength to not call out an "ah!" or a "stop!" or a "watch out!" every fourth second, to not tear through the fabric of the front headrest in riddled anxiety.
But here's the thing: the driver doesn't need any help. They just don't; they just know how to navigate it all, to know what's behind them and what's in their blind spot and what's dropping from the second-story window onto the street fifteen feet ahead, and they do it all without hardly looking. They wedge by cars and leave mere centimeters of room to spare, they never hit the running schoolboy, they never, well, crash into anything.
I read in Shantaram about a Mumbai cabbie who rear-ends another driver and causes some injury to the car, the driver, and his wife. Minutes later, a crowd swells to over a hundred, anger growing, and the crowd (now a mob) pulls the cabbie from his vehicle, attacks him with fists and fingernails, and carries his bloody, lifeless body to the police station to report the accident. The narrator is aghast; his tour guide is unshaken: This is Bombay. So it goes.
It's a novel, and it was written decades ago, so I can't be sure if it was true once or true ever or true still, but it would explain the skill of Mumbai's drivers. To them, being on the road is a matter of life and death, and rather than just slow down a tad, they've done quite the opposite: built themselves into driving machines, hyper-aware speed demons capable of stopping on a dime and reading the bounce trajectory of an orange fifty feet ahead before the little girl who dropped it even turns into the road to run after it.
In my three days in Mumbai, I witness perhaps fifty near-accidents, those moments when your heart stops and your face winces and you prepare for the sound of fiberglass and steel on human skin and bone. Hell, I am probably close to impact a half-dozen times myself. But it never happens: the tires skid and the horn blares more loudly than ever and the bystanders maybe mutter disapprovingly, but nothing ever touches anything else.
Because cars and bikes and cows and people never actually hit each other, traffic in Bombay is its own sort of game. They are traffic lights, sure, but they aren't ever followed; it's all about who can get through first. A thick procession of cars at an intersection will heave forward east and west while their north-south counterparts honk and yell and inch ever forward, pressing up against the flow until a cautious east-west driver slows, and then they pounce: they pull up and widen the wedge, and those to their sides cram in too, and within a few agonizingly loud moments the east-and-west traffic has nowhere to go; they must now yield to the victors racing north and south. Match won; commence next round.
Drivers and pedestrians play this game too. People wait to cross; they see an opening; they begin to cross. Just then a driver whips around a corner and hurtles toward the sea of walkers. He punches his steering wheel with his palm but the pedestrians don't acknowledge the horn; they keep at it. He comes closer, doesn't brake, makes it seem like he's really about to run someone over. He's bluffing, of course: just seconds before impact, his horn is accompanied by the cry of tired brakes begging to be put out of their misery.
Scooters and motorcycles are everywhere; they outnumber the cars ten to one, and the bicycles two to one. They're driven by men in Western clothes or men in traditional Sheikh garb or women in full hijab or niqab or kids of twelve, and they carry huge sacks of rice, or wives, or entire families, the eldest boy sitting up on his father's lap, learning to drive, and the two or three other kids wedged between he and his spouse, while she, sitting sideways, cradles the youngest baby. The scooters seem more dangerous than the cars because a single misstep on your part could send the family hurtling helter-skelter to sure death; putting the wrong foot forward can wipe out a bloodline.
Being a pedestrian in Bombay is, to put it mildly, totally terrifying and painfully tiring and also fucking exhilarating. It's a job that never stops, because you literally cannot stop. On my second day of walking, my shoe comes untied, and I walk another two miles with the laces dangling because I can't find anywhere to kneel down. You cannot pause at an intersection; you must just choose a direction and hope it's the right one, lest you be run over by the city's stampede. Indeed, everyone in Mumbai moves, and the only ones not moving are those who have stuck themselves like a lucky barnacle to a larger object; they melt into it and become it and are safe from the endlessly rushing river.
You couldn't walk with headphones in your ears; you'd be killed.
You couldn't walk and sent a text; you'd be killed.
You couldn't pause to take a photograph; you'd be killed.
I take no photographs while in Bombay, not because it would be impossible to do so in the road but because it just doesn't feel right. This is a city that I'm not part of, and no one asked me to come here, and there's life happening here, real life and also difficult life, slums and poverty and a million faces per frame, and I don't feel I have the right to take all their faces and stamp them onto the image sensor of my shiny new camera (the realization of just how far eight-hundred dollars could go for a Mumbai family makes me queasy) and take them home with me. White-skinned people have done that to brown-skinned people for centuries, and I didn't want to make it worse.
They would have been beautiful, though, these photographs I don't take. A still of a beautiful woman with almond eyes and cinnamon skin gliding through the alley barefoot, a bountiful basket of fresh oranges balanced on her head; she's framed by the ashy concrete of the misplaced art-deco towers and lit by the smoky sun behind her, disappearing into the haze. A black-and-white of the rusted bicycle chained to the doorway, looking like it hasn't seen a rider since Mumbai was called Bombay. A thumbnail of twelve angry men crowded around a misfiring scooter, or a stealthy glance into a slanted slum, or a colorful print-out of the train pulling into Andheri with a thousand heads erupting from her open windows and doors, some great Hindu goddess of the railway.
Ah, the trains. I leave my hostel by the airport the first night and take a stroll to the station; its walkway stretches a kilometer over the Bombay "suburb," which is about as calm and removed as Fifth Avenue from Times Square. I approach the counter and ask for one ticket to the central terminal downtown. The kind man behind the glass raises ten fingers, clenches them into two fists, and presents them again. I pass him the hundred-rupee note.
"Ten ten," he says.
"Ah, sorry," I reply, and fumble in my pocket to give him another ten rupees, for a total of 110. He takes the ten-rupee note and pushes back the hundred; the price isn't 110, it's ten. I feel foolish, privileged, not thinking twice about tossing over ten times the price of a train ticket without even questioning it. The 110 rupees is about $1.80, which seems a fair price in my world for a forty-five-minute train ride into the city. The ride costs about fifteen cents.
I walk another kilometer to the platform and wait with the hordes of men for the train to arrive. There are no women; there is a platform, and thousands of bodies stand on it, but there are no women. The train shrieks its way into the station and before it stops those onboard begin piling out, jumping and running with the momentum and clearing the way as quickly as possible. I can't understand the urgency, but then I see it and hear it and feel it. The men waiting rush toward the moving train. They grab at it with their hands, pull against its handles, work collectively to draw it to a stop with them as near the doors as possible.
There aren't actually doors, just openings where doors might be. Inside the doors are the passengers unlucky or unprepared enough to not yet have gotten off the train. They are paid no mind as the writhing mass of men heave forward, throwing themselves onto the train, pushing and elbowing their comrades out of the way. I let myself be carried by the wave. I'm literally lifted off my feet by its force, and then I'm onboard to, pressed toward the back where I find a nice seat in the corner.
There is plenty of space and plenty of seats, but this is the cause of all the violence: space and seats. Within a few stops the car is completely full, and every last inch of bench is covered. The people of Mumbai demand to sit: they board the train, and find two people already pressed against each other, and they tap their knee or place a hand on their shoulder and the seated understand this gesture—make room—and they melt ever closer, impossibly making room.
We near the city and some people need to get off, but others are standing in their way with no place to move. As the train slows, the cries of a hundred men echo through the metal traincar, a baffling whoop! whoop! whoop! that signals intent to exit. Impossibly still, the others make room for their escape.
Mumbai is a city where everyone is in everyone else's way. There's never enough space, when in reality there are great hidden hordes of it: again, two-thirds of its people are stuffed onto five percent of its land. I see the surplus as I walk: the wide courtyards guarded by security to keep the untouchables away, the roomy estates of the Colaba where rooms rent for over $3,000 per month. And then, the four-hundred-thousand-plus houses and apartments and bits of acreage that stand unoccupied, going to ruin, four walls and a roof and a locked door while people sleep under tin scrap outside.
I learn about Bombay's housing crisis in a book I read. Seventy years ago, at the end of the war, the city adopted a Rent Act to freeze rents for five years. Men return from the war and get lofts and move their families in, and as those first five years draw to a close, the tenants of the city (who obviously outnumber the landlords) vote to keep it around a little longer. A little longer becomes a lot longer, and a lot longer becomes forever, and now those same families are living in those same apartments (the rent control passes from parent to child like property) for mere rupees. Landlords, bitter and unwilling to pay more on labor and unkeep than they're making in rent, have simply stopped repairing anything, and so these homes are almost universally unsafe: cracked ceilings, lead paint, broken pipes. When a family finally has had enough and leaves, the landlord raises the rent for new tenants dramatically to make up the difference: in a twelve-flat building, eleven units might be rent-controlled, so the twelfth unit effectively finances the whole operation. And, because there's no end in sight to the Rent Act, many landlords have simply withdrawn their vacant properties from the market, deciding no tenant is better than one who will never leave. Hence the $3,000 rents; hence the 400,000 vacant units. Mumbai is a city for the rich inhabited by the poor.
As such, it's terribly affordable for those with means, or even a little savings overseas. I feel guilty about what I'm paying for things: one of the best meals of my life is had for one hundred rupees ($1.60), and I'm stuffed afterwards. I buy a train ticket north, to Jaipur, a distance about equivalent to a States-side trip from Charleston, SC to Boston, MA. It's a twenty-hour overnight sleeper that costs $7. I take out five thousand rupees at the airport the night I land; by the time I leave Mumbai three days later, I've spent about twenty or thirty dollars and haven't wanted for anything.
"A city has its secrets: where you go to shop for an ice bucket, for an office chair, for a sari. Newcomers have to pay more because they don't know these places. We haggle over miniscule amounts that have no value for us: 10 rupees is only 40 cents. If we lost 40 cents in New York we would never notice it; here it becomes a matter of principle. This is because along with getting ripped off for 10 rupees comes an assumption: You are not from here, you are not Indian, so you deserve to be ripped off, to pay more than a native." — Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
I don't see any white people during my first day in Bombay. On the second day I catch a glimpse of them, white skin and white hair in a white tour bus, black phones and black cameras snapping quick shots of brown skin from air-conditioned seats. The bus stops and they begin getting off, fanning themselves and remarking on the heat they seem to only just have discovered, and I make a quick right to avoid them. I cross a street and reach the median and am waiting for the nerve to cross to the other side when an Indian man approaching the median stops next to me and asks, "Excuse me, do you know which way to Colaba?"
I find it a funny question, because I'm clearly not from around here, but point south and say that I think it's that way. He thanks me. "You have great beard!" he says. I thank him, scratching it self-consciously. "Where are you from?"
I tell him America, and he's pleased by this and talks about Obama coming to Delhi, and we make our way across the median and keep talking for a few more blocks. He asks where I'm headed and I say I'm hungry and looking for food and he says he knows a good place. I'm familiar with touts, people who get commissions for bringing travelers to certain hotels or restaurants, but I can be discerning and know the fair price of an Indian meal and don't mind a good recommendation.
His name is Kasim. We eat at a quick, totally reasonable and totally delicious shop, and he tells me about India and the places to see while I'm here and asks a little about me. We talk about religion and tolerance and the pursuit of happiness and when I'm done, I offer to pay for his chai tea as a thanks for the conversation. He resists, his pleasure, and we leave. On the way out, he offers to walk me to the tourist center, where they give out free maps and free tips to tourists. I don't really feel I need either, but don't want to be rude, so I oblige and follow him down the sunny streets to a little building with an Indian flag waving proudly outfront. We enter.
Introductions are made all around and a man at the tourist office assumes his position behind the desk. "Nice beard!" he says. He offers me a seat and asks how long I'm in India. "Five weeks," I say.
"Ah, not much time!"
I agree. I tell him I got in a few days ago, and have to pick up someone in Delhi on the tenth, whom I'll be traveling with for a few weeks before finishing up the month again on my own. He pulls out a paper and a pen and begins writing furiously. "Okay, okay, so here is good trip. You start here, Mumbai, busy city. Next you take train to Udaipur, most romantic city in India. You love Udaipur, very pretty, right on lake. You go alone, you going to want to go with somebody. Very romantic city. Next, you take bus to Pushkar,"
It went on like this: Pushkar, Jodhpur, Jaipur. The itinerary I'd so avoided was being built before my eyes. Elephant safari. Camel safari. Personal driver. Business lodging, breakfast included. Very nice. Good time. You going to want to come back and see again.
"You get to Delhi on the tenth, and then you to go to Agra. Taj Majal. Most beautiful place in world. Agra very pretty. Then Varanasi!"
"Ah," Kasim sighed from the next chair over, "Varanasi is very special city!"
"Okay, three days Varanasi, then ..." he eyed his map, "Kama Sutra palace?"
I stop him somewhere around here and say that I like to travel with the winds, that I don't know if I really need a whole itinerary, especially after the tenth. It seems a lot to decide at once.
"Oh, no worry, no worry," he says, "very flexible. You no like Udaipur, you leave soon. You like Udaipur and want to stay, you just call me and we change. Very flexible."
I say I'm not really comfortable having a personal driver, which is true. I say I'm not really comfortable enslaving an elephant or camel for my entertainment, which is true. I say I prefer hostels and homestays to business hotels, which is true. He swats these all away. He tells me I don't want to deal with buses and trains and taxis, that Indian trains are always overbooked and I couldn't even get to these places if I wanted.
I mention I already have a ticket to Jaipur, that it was no problem getting it. I show him the ticket. "Ah, very bad class!" he says. He shows it to Kasim. Kasim gasps.
The ticket I had gotten, all they had anyway, was fourth class (India's caste system lives eternally in capitalism; the trains have five classes). The man behind the desk quickly pulls out his phone and shows me a photograph of a dreadfully crowded train, bodies piled up on top of each other in the search for a place to sit. A man in a turban looks grimly at the camera.
"This is the class you travel. Very bad. Not very safe. You like massages?"
I understand his joke and don't really bother to respond. I smile a little. "Because if you travel this class," he volunteers anyway, "you be getting many massages."
I narrow my eyes, and he senses my doubt.
"Listen, I just here to help! I no make commission or anything from helping you, so no want to pressure. I just try to help. Try to keep you safe. I book everything for you, with confirmation and driver and everything, and you no have to worry. You travel in style."
I don't really want to travel in style. I want to travel the way the average Indian travels. What is the point of coming to a country to see pieces of stone stacked atop each other in pretty formations, but to never see its streets or smell its cities or meet its people? If fourth class is good enough for the people of India, for expecting mothers and little babies and old men, then it's certainly good enough for me. Where's adventure to be found if not at ticket counters, or lost scrambles around a city, or in the pangs of fear that you've just boarded the wrong bus?
I humor them anyway. I tell him I do trust him, that I know he's just trying to help. I ask him how much all this would be. "Ah, let's see!" He calls roughly into the back. A boy brings tea. A drink amongst men, as though I've just bought a car or a nice suit. I sip it warily and the man behind the desk punches away imagined numbers into his calculator.
"You like the number in rupees or dollars?"
"Whichever. Dollars, I guess." He writes the number in rupees on the crowded paper wedged right next to ELEPHANT SAFARI and slides it across the desk to me. It says 89,900.
"Oh, that's over my budget," I say quickly. It works out to be about $1,300, which isn't terrible for about two weeks of lodging, breakfast, chauffeuring, safaris, and transport across a subcontinent, but is about five times what I might spend in the same amount of time figuring it out on my own. "Way too much."
"Ah, but such good price!" he exclaims. "You no have to worry about anything!"
I'm not really worried about anything; I never was. I ask him how much without the elephant safari. 79,000. I ask him how much with nothing but the transportation, sans driver. I am certainly not booking a vacation package, but I figure it can't hurt to get some bookings out of the way while I'm here. He does a little more magic math: 25,000.
The best way to tell if someone's leaning on you is to pull back a bit and see if they topple over. I say that still seems like a lot. He drops to 21,000, then 18,000. The desperation makes it feel like he's up to a bit more than just helping out. I say I'm pretty sure I can manage it all for under 10,000 rupees, but I do appreciate his help.
Kasim jumps in. "But think how easy this is! Everything booked, right now! No rushing, no waiting, no walking."
I love rushing and waiting and walking. Seriously. But they're insistent. I can't really tell if Kasim is a scout. He seems genuine, like he maybe just really cares about me having a good time in his beautiful country, but one can never be sure. I do the math in my head: about $280 to have all those tickets booked right now, worry-free. "How much you pay for this in America?" the man behind the desk asks. "Much more, yeah?"
Well, yeah, but I don't want to be sold something at American prices when those aren't the going prices. He shows me his guestbook, old itineraries of old patrons. "This trip, two weeks, 112,000 rupees. This one, ten days, 98,000 rupees." This does little to convince me; Americans will pay anything for anything. But I know the money doesn't mean a lot to me, and will to them, so I relent. "Sure," I say.
The man behind the desk jumps from his seat and grabs a few sheets of paper and begins scrawling out a receipt. I drop my credit card on the table.
"Ah, no take card. Cash only."
"Cash only?" I repeat skeptically.
"Yes, otherwise big bank charge. Ten percent. You can pay card, but ten percent extra. You have cash, no?"
I show him the few hundred rupees stowed in my wallet; the rest are in my room, I lie, knowing full well there are another several thousand in my bag. He tells me there is an ATM just down the block, that one of his guys can walk me there. I tell him my bank card is in the room too, another lie. He says it's not a problem, that I can leave a deposit and one of his guys can walk me back to my room. Like a ransom payment. I tell him no, it's fine, I'll be back in a bit. I rush out. "Okay, I wait here!" he calls after me.
Kasim is smoking a cigarette outside. He asks me where I'm going and I say back to my room to grab some cash and he offers to walk with me. I say that I can manage on my own as I hurry away. "Okay, I wait here!" he yells too, cigarette waving in the air as I disappear into the chaos of the city.
I spend a morning on a thin slice of sand that is all Bombay has for a beach. It is pleasant and surprisingly empty. Midday, when the sun stands tall and rains pure heat down on the city, when the laborers take long naps underneath the shade of any available overhang or rickshaw and the stray dogs stretch long and lazy under the orange-and-white-painted trees, I take that terrifying taxi to Bandra. I have spent three days in the maximum city, most of it walking, and I am ready to escape.
I plan to pass my remaining hours in Bollywood seeing a Bollywood film, but the theater in Bandra doesn't have any films starting until 4PM. So I walk to a nearby mall, and its sliding glass doors open automatically in my presence, and I step through the portal and emerge in the West.
It isn't just a mall with designer stores, but a mall of designer stores: Zara and Ralph Lauren and the United Colors of Benneton, Coach and Kenneth Cole and Tommy Hilfiger. I see five- and six-figure prices in rupees in the storefronts; these are DC prices, New York prices. I feel a strange tingle on my back: air conditioning. The walls are straight and unpeeling, and the floors unblemished tile, and nothing has been faded by the sun. There is no dust. There are shiny surfaces. At 9AM I walked through parts of Bombay that contain (for reference, DC has about 10,000 and Manhattan 66,000) literally one million people per square mile. In the words of Suketu, "this is the highest number of individuals massed together at any spot in the world." And then there is this, an empty Zara selling socks for three hundred times the asking price in Crawford Market, just a few kilometers away.
Mumbai is everything. It is little slum children playing in their own sewers and it is fifty greasy men working on their engines in the middle of the street. It's pick-up cricket matches at all hours in the quieter neighborhoods and street stalls selling sustenance in the busier ones. It's the cow wondering why she's here and the human never stopping to ask. It's Berlin after the apocalypse, it's New York on cocaine, it's every last village of Rajasthan scooped up and dumped in one great, splendid heap at the Gateway to India. It's a family of thirty million all held together by the sheer gravity of thirty million huddled so closely, by this idea called Bombay.
I love it and I hate in the same second and I love it and hate it for the same reasons. I want to stop walking and just let the city's current carry me through its sweat and smog and beauty forever, and I want to run from it and never look back. I've known it for just three days when three lives wouldn't be enough time; I've known it for just three days and should have left three days ago. I write words for a place not made of words, but sights and smells of cars and cattle and faces and feces and the sounds of thirty million beating hearts.
There is a man, and he is cooking onions on the train platform. I take a step onto the traincar, turn around for one last lingering glance at a city I never hope to see again yet never hope to forget, and our eyes meet. "Welcome to India," he says.
A host of passengers hurry by between us. When the crowd clears, he's gone.
So am I.