Tag Archives: Mumbai

It is all about me

In a taxi in Dubai, the driver, a balding bespectacled middle aged man turned to the girls sitting in the back and asked them if they loved India. His English was very broken but he made himself understood. “You love India?” he asked them. It is foundation, he continued. You can make many beautiful branches but if foundation is not strong, the branches will get too heavy. Then you have to cut them down. The girls smiled back at him clearly unsure how to respond. I had been half listening to him while looking out the window at the glittering sky scraper lined horizon but now turned to him. Earlier on during the ride I had learnt that he was from Yemen and that he had been driving taxis in Dubai for twenty five years. That he had to drive two days to be able to go visit his family in Yemen. I had heard and seen many things full of color during my visit to this city but no one had said anything so far that caught my attention like this. What would you say you learnt then in twenty five years of driving in this city? He glanced at me and said with a small laugh. It is all about me. I learnt that it is all about me. The world moves through me. If I am happy, kind, the world is like that. If I am angry, upset, the world is like that. I am… the center of the world.

I am now in Mumbai, in the country of my origin, close to my foundation. Outside the air is humid and the sun is shining on the sands of the beach. I am in the land of innumerable mystics, gurus, gods, goddesses and religions. It is Christmas day and all I can think of is that never has such wisdom come my way in words as wild and true as all the oceans I have known–the Persian Gulf in Dubai in which I had learnt to swim as a child, the Arabian sea in Mumbai in which I swam in my youth and the Atlantic by which I live now in Cornwall.

An Indian but a foreigner or is it the other way around?

Into our fifth month in this Indian sejour and I think the novelty might finally be wearing away. We had applied for the OCI or otherwise called the Overseas Indian Citizenship which would allow me to stay in India without needing a visa. All the required paperwork was filed in the FRO, Foreign Registrar’s Office in Mumbai. I was told nothing further was needed from me. Then the calls started to come. A constable from the local office in Pune called every few days, ” I need to come and verify your house address.” He would say. “I will come today,” he would say and then not turn up till he did this evening- unannounced. I was feeding the children dinner and stayed away while my husband met him.

I could hear his loud voice through the concrete walls. After a half hour he left. He had given my husband a long list of more documents he wanted and had said he would return. My husband offered to go to his office. He insisted he would return. While showing his badge, he showed my husband his wallet full of thousand rupee notes. Asking for a bribe is punishable by law in India. I see it on road corners every day. Police in dusty brown and white uniforms stopping hapless motorcyclists, the furtive exchanges in return for freedom. And even though every single document he requested to see today were all already shown, verified and given to the main office in Mumbai, the officer today wanted those and more. Documents like the C Form which all foreigners must have but which we were told on arrival at the police station that we did not need because my husband had a PIO card, a Person of Indian Origin card. He insisted today we needed it. He wants my birth certificate even though I am an American Citizen and was born in Iran. He wants bank statements. While our rental leases and utilities bills proved our residence, apparently these were not enough. He has promised to return.

I feel a dejection in my heart. So much pride, so much nostalgia, so much joy to be able to return to one’s country after more than a decade on foreign lands. And today I feel I have been wishful and whimsical for that which does not exist- India, my motherland. What rights do I have to claim residency in a country I am more bound by my ancestors, language and skin color than anything else? Does it matter that I am more alive here than I have been  in a long time? Does it matter that my tongue revels in the other languages I can now speak freely? That my body thrills in clothes I shy away from wearing in America out of an abhorrence towards being stared at? I told my husband I would like to leave. Maybe not to return to America. Now a foreigner in so many uncountable ways in India, perhaps other shores shall always beckon till the whole world can symbolically become home?

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

PlaqueThirty one people, guests and employees of the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, died on the twenty sixth of December 2008 during terrorist attacks that spanned coffee shops, another five star hotel, a railway station and a hospital. There is a plaque on a wall at the Taj that has a list of the casualties at the hotel.  The last name is the name of the dog on duty that night, Lucy. A wall fountain with water flows next to the plaque, like washing away constantly the blood of that night. I mention that night gently in a few of my conversations with hotel staff. They are not allowed to speak about it. Yet some still do. Unlike Leopold Cafe near by which was also attacked and which has maintained some of the bullet Leopoldridden windows, at the Taj there is no other sign of that night.

The Harbor 1 Bar, the first bar in India, license number 001 was shattered too. It is  not something that is mentioned when we have our drinks there one evening. We have a drink that is one of the most fantastical I have drunk. Stories of an American sailor who comes ashore in the early 1900s and asks for something special at this bar when he hears that prohibition had been lifted in America. The drink, a mix of fruit juices and alcohol set on fire at the table like a flambe´is magical, like a fire lit on evenings when lamps and lanterns must have adorned these walls. Yet I feel a certain pathos. I wish there was a drink that remembering the lives of those who died that night.

Taj viewI feel disrespectful and inquisitive asking questions when another employee tells me how some tourists and guests in the hotel in the past have asked for gory details such as “Can you show me where the bodies were?” or “Can you show us where people died?” I blanch when
I hear that. Human curiosity is merciless. Another employee tells me sadly that many of his friends, chefs in the main restaurant that night, died.

I look around me at the polished surfaces, the gleaming chandeliers, the views of the sea and the Gateway of India, I eat the best food I have eaten so far in this trip to India. I cannot but still feel that the sadness and senseless brutality of that night lingers beneath the glamor. It is a hotel I will go back to because of all of that.

Mumbai Pilgrimages

India gateMumbai 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.

Haji Ali 1I 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.


Endangered harbors

Kitab Khana 2I am sitting in Kitab Khana in Mumbai, one of the rare remaining bookstores that does not belong to a giant chain. It feels like a heritage site- heavy wooden furniture, iron wrought beams, statues and art on the walls. I am sitting on one of the leather couches,  legs folded under me and for a little while I let my fatigue overwhelm me. As parents of young children, it is a luxury to allow yourself to be tired and just stop to rest.

A young lady, moderately pregnant, sat down on a chair near me. She wore diamonds in her ears and on her fingers and a big bag with the name of a famous brand printed on it. She ran her household from the bookstore. Chinese chicken fried rice and vegetable manchurian for lunch and paneer for dinner for her husband, light bulbs for the bathroom and a scheduled time for a driver to pick her up from the store. She did this all while leafing through Cosmopolitan and Vogue.

An old man was seated to my other side. He had been reading a big thickish book. He looked up at me and our eyes met. “Today, not many people read books.” he said. He wore old fashioned horn rimmed glasses, his shirt and pants neatly pressed; he carried on him, in the neat parting of hair, in the slight stoop of his shoulders, an air of faded dignity.

“We bring our children to libraries and book stores whenever we can.” I told him. “Good, good,” he said and then looking at the girls, he continued,”They are your assets.” “I hope they will be their own assets.” I quipped.

He smiled and pointed to his book, “So many great lives..” I peeked at the cover. Sugar in Milk, Eminent Parsis. “Are you Parsi?” I asked. “Yes.” he replied and for a while he seemed lost, gazing into space. “You miss the old days?” I asked. “Yes,” he said “Look outside, look at those cars. Where are they going to go? Where are they going to park? The young today are carefree, they do not think for themselves or for the world they live in.” He got up slowly, tucked an umbrella and a newspaper under his arm and with a slight nod of his head to me, took his leave. I watched him walk out into the Mumbai rains and hoped he headed to a warm home.

Bookstores can be resting places, they can be meeting places. By their very nature, a refuge at all stages of life. I hope they will still be around when I grow old. My daughter comes and asks me for a book on Vishnu, the Hindu deity. She is wearing a pair of shorts and an Indian tunic. “I am American inside and out.” she often tells me of herself. “Maybe, not so much.”I think to myself and smile as I get up to help her find her book.

Kitab Khana