Her taxis are black with yellow roofs, and everybody honks their horn constantly. That’s pretty much all I could tell you after the first three days in India. One day of that I indeed spent listening to car horns, and watching the ceiling fan spin slowly in a grey-blue room, dozing on and off and trying to ignore my aching stomach…
…happens to most people, they said, even their own family when they don’t come back to India for a while from abroad, where they live. The spices, the heat. No sleep for a day and jet lag. My stomach went on strike, violently. It would only negotiate with cola, toast and bananas. Remained suspicious of the Spiced Other for days. I found myself embarrassed at my cravings of cheese toast (mmmh…cheese!) and “European” food. I had always thought of myself as culinary adventurous. Now I was eating humble pie. Bland humble pie.
People told me that India assaults your senses. I always imagined this to happen in a state of altered perception, vibrant and clear and bedazzling. Glorious. The perpetual honking at all hours combined with the bass notes of low-flying airplanes and the vicious falsetto of a mosquito in the room was not what I had in mind. Nor the smell of cheap incense and the bite of pollution in the throat, or the feel of the pushing crowds. Bombay, am I doing you injustice? I guess you’ll shrug and stoically keep raising your towers out of the dusty grounds, some harsh grey boxes, some delicate white lace.
You smiled at us on the fourth day, Bombay. You opened the elegant sweep of the bay bridge to invite us into your marble cloud Jain temple, to see the dainty preciousness of your Victorian train station, the proud museum filled with treasures, and your laundry being washed by washing families in ancient pools. Glamour and dust. The humbleness of Gandhi and the pride of Bollywood. Menschlich, allzu Menschlich, Bombay.
On a practical note: we took a city tour with Namaste City Tours www.namastecitytours.com. I can highly recommend it. Our guide was Vasu and he was fantastic, very knowledgeable, organized and able to answer our one hundred and one questions.
On another note: yes, it’s officially called Mumbai. But many people still call it Bombay, people who live there and have done so for decades before it officially changed its name in 1995. And since that’s what I heard it called most, that’s how I tend to call it.