Mumbai was a city I secretly feared. I grew up in a small town. Mumbai, previously known as Bombay, was big, scary and glamorous; in my mind it was a city for mobsters and film stars and slums and crowded trains. I have never been to New York. My impressions of it are the same as those I have held of Mumbai.
We drove this week from Pune to Mumbai. I wondered what it was my children saw as I looked around me at this city. Mumbai has withstood many acts of terrorism. One against the very hotel in which we had booked a room. The view from our room was that of the Gateway of India, of a sea through which conquerors and traders had reached this country. Police security is visible everywhere- outside monuments, temples, malls, by the side of the beach. What I see is the common man who lives, strives, loves, works just as in any other place in the world, just perhaps the effort and strain a little harder.
I go for walking tours, for bicycle tours. Sometimes I go with Tom, sometimes with the children and sometimes I am alone. It is ironic that it is so easy to be alone here and yet not to feel lonely. I visit a church and let the deep silence seep into my bones, I stand in silence outside the first synagogue of the city and perhaps in this country, I enter a temple with a special queue for non resident Indians. I sit by the Arabian sea listening to Sufi singers at the tomb of a famous Muslim saint. It rains almost all the time. The mud, the dirt, the human and animal excreta are washed away and then accumulate again.
I meet a fellow writer who shares my outlook on the challenges of a woman’s life seeking her place in the world. She understands what I say and what I leave unsaid. I go to the house of a Parsi lady, ninety three years old. She makes me feel as though I have known her my whole life. Her hospitality is simultaneously one of this world and one of graceful times left behind. She speaks simply, she speaks without guile. I go to the house of another fellow writer for dinner. She has read my work and she offers words of support, and again that ear and a heart that understands what I say and leave unsaid. I find in these women traces of myself. I find in them a circle that pulls me into their midst without judgement or reservation.
America and the home I have made for more than a decade is half way across the world. What will we find here? The pilgrimages to homes and places of worship bring with it a melody to the solitudes and work of a woman. In Mumbai as in India, I find I am a stranger and yet at home.