After two years away in Washington, it had become time for me to revisit my birthplace. Being at college can be engrossing, especially as an international student hobnobbing with others from around the globe. I decided in March that I had to get back in touch with India. In particular, I wanted to see how it has changed. Over 20 years, it has boomed and is now the darling in the eye of the West.
A morning in Bombay begins at 8:20 a.m. Surface units on, red kettle filled, nozzle slapped down. The antiquated air-raid siren is 40 minutes away. The television is on in the only room with air conditioning. The menu for the day includes little toast. There is cereal. Cows’ milk has been bought specially for the expatriate grandchildren. The iron hisses. It is time to steam shirts.
Crows caw outside. An entrepreneur on the street pushes his cart. One wheel is a bicycle tire, the other used to be part of a wheelbarrow. The cart is made of straight branches tied together with coarse rope. On it are coconuts and a sickle. In a most melodic manner the entrepreneur calls out and around to everyone. It is time for narial pani and pani puri – coconut water and small hard wafer balls filled with tamarind sauce and vegetables. Dahi – yogurt – is necessary. Mirchi – spices – top it off.
The air-raid siren doesn’t yawn anymore. It was a profound surprise in March not to hear this landmark of the morning. Mumbai doesn’t need it; perhaps Bombay didn’t either, but it was an integral part of my Bombay.
Back in the living rooms the fans liberally scattered the dust they had accumulated from last night. The cuckoo clock made itself known and then retreated. It likely saw the Indian living room and wondered how far away from Switzerland it had come. It probably enjoyed what it saw because it regularly returned for more glimpses. Each time it did so the picture changed and yet the scene was always the same. Different people, different bags, the light shifted.
The toaster oven churned out the tiny toasts, and Amul butter with its distinctive salty, creamy taste was applied. Some jam, a bowl of cereal. Reading the back of the cereal box, which I am convinced is the one marker of common humanity. The morning is still beginning. The only noise is the fan distributing its dust.
Then the chai arrives. People perk up and the conversation begins about where to go today. A voyage to Elephanta caves through the Bay of Bombay sounds extraordinary. At the other end of the ferry ride will be a sultry island populated by a few hundred inhabitants and scores of vicious savage monkeys that rip food and drink from hands. Mid-air theft is not unlikely or unexpected. They crawl alongside, up the hundred-some steps.
Once you land, a train belches black-blue smoke that reeks of oil along a 50-odd meter track along the jetty. Ahead, the only way up to the caves: precarious stairs. If you wish, for a price, two strapping young men will carry you in a carriage up the steps. Most choose to walk.
Along the way are hawkers who touch and pat you, who take your hand to lead you toward their glass beads, mini-Taj Mahals, shawls, snacks, watches, sunglasses, Buddha figurines and all manner of kitsch. If you are willing or interested, your bite-size experience of the entire subcontinent and its history can be peddled to you through these hawkers and their 500-rupee merchandise.
It takes an hour to get across choppy waters and past huge oil tankers and cargo ships that lurch ominously toward your precariously bobbing ferry. Dense pollution can obscure the view ahead. The Indian Navy appears in silhouette, and then the Taj hotel. Gateway of India finally emerges and with a croaky grunt the ferry nudges its way against others. Like the monkeys from the island you leap from boat to boat to dock, climb up rock steps with a handrail and return to Bombay. And inevitably the only thing to do now is to drag yourself across the square to the Taj hotel and its Sea Lounge for a refreshing lassi, a delicious yogurt drink. Just another day in India.
Upon my return I found my cultural consciousness fortified. I also found that life in Mumbai is not as different as it is here. Just as globalization brought me from there to D.C., it has brought the West to the East (iced coffee in particular). This change has foisted upon us a cultural intermingling that brings foreign influence to our social norms – with which we continue to find a balance. At the very least, it broadens our horizons.
Udayan Tripathi is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at udayanthehoya.com. THE INTERNATIONALIST appears every other Tuesday.