Bright Lights, Big City, Bombay-Style

Dear diary,

Last night I was invited to dinner by a friend of a friend who told me that she’d just finished reading my book. A couple of nights earlier, she’d had a party and they were cutting lines on the book. The Indian cover of the book is like a patchwork quilt, and one of the guests, a writer, was making the lines of coke line up with the stitching in the patchwork, so that it was hard to tell where the drugs were, and they all kept sniffing at the wrong parts of the book.

While the writer was doing this, he recognized my name on the cover and said, “That’s my student!” Yes, many years ago I’d taken a writing workshop from him in New York.

And just when you thought print was dead. Can an e-book do that? I think not!

Meanwhile, the university where I’m supposed to be affiliated is embroiled in a book censorship controversy! A rightwing politician’s kid took offense at a novel by one of India’s best writers that’s been taught for many years. It’s a big brouhaha, in the headlines every day, and I will see how much I can bite my tongue when I go to visit the campus and meet the head of the English department next week.

My journey was fine and actually quite charmed. In the security line at SFO, I was whisked forward by a TSA staff person who told me to bypass the long line and take a shortcut all the way to the front. In the line in Frankfurt, a cute security woman teased me about my bear/neck pillow (Mr Takiyu, pictured), saying, “Oh you are carrying a dangerous animal!” And in Mumbai, at 2 a.m. after a 24-hour journey, a customs officer asked me a couple of questions (“Do you have an iPad with you? Any meat?”) and then waved me past the long “Nothing to Declare” line where they were x-raying everyone else’s suitcases.

Along the way I ate the fabulous food my mom had packed for me, watched the Karate Kid (not bad, but definitely not as good as the original with Ralph Macchio), and read Malinda Lo’s ASH, which I’d heard about when we were at a book awards ceremony together — a gorgeous re-imagining of the Cinderella story for young adults.

Here in Mumbai/Bombay, I have a “facilitator” assigned to me by the Fulbright agency, a lovely young woman named Giselle who is studying to become a journalist. She’s been teaching me to do things like ride the city trains and get out of rickshaws on the curb side rather than the traffic side. Always get in the ladies compartment, etc. Someone really needs to write a whole novel set in the ladies compartment; surely someone has?

I nearly gave Giselle a heart attack by getting out at the wrong stop (she said “next” and I thought she meant … anyway), and then suddenly I was on the platform and she was on the train, and the train started up again, and without thinking I ran alongside the train and swung myself back on, exactly like in Slumdog Millionaire. Ohmygod Ohmygod Ohmygod, said Giselle.

Thus far I’ve been feeling very well. I accidentally drank some non-bottled water this morning so I am hoping my digestive system doesn’t have a tantrum. I surprised the Fulbright staff by showing up at their office on my first day, as I was strangely awake despite getting to sleep at 4 a.m. and waking up at 7 a.m. They’ve just shifted to a new office so the head of the agency from Delhi was also there for the inauguration of the new space. I had a nice chat with him and I think I managed not to say anything delirious. They offered me lunch but I wasn’t hungry at all, and instead drank a juice box, for the first time in at least a decade. How fun to drink from a box with a poked-in straw!

I thought I’d packed everything I needed very carefully, but somehow several items didn’t make it, or at least are hidden away somewhere in my suitcase, including A) small notebook to carry around — no idea what I did with that, B) wattage converter (had to go get one immediately, as trying to run my 110v personal massager on a 220v current was really a bad idea), and C) pants. What happened to my pants? For some reason I seem to have only brought yoga pants and jeans. So far that’s ok, but I will need to go get some proper pants soon.

Happily, the cell phone I’d bought last year in India worked right away and even had plenty of minutes remaining, so I can be in touch with everyone easily. The hotel has fast broadband wifi in the lobby for about $1.50/hour which is just fine for email and looking up things, although not really private enough for Skype conversations, I think. Anyway it’s nice to feel connected.

I’m staying near the airport and I’ve been tired enough that it took me till now, day 3, to realize that the planes flying overhead at night are quite loud. Thank goodness for ear plugs and a natural ability to sleep. I’m getting in a lot of good research for my nap book, as I’m remembering important categories such as the jet lag nap, the afternoon heat nap, the post-apartment-searching nap, etc.

I’m not too homesick yet, but the apartment search is naturally an anxiety-provoking process. My hotel is in a neighborhood called Ville Parle, and apparently it’s a very Gujarati area. Lalaji, the first taxi driver I had on a day when I wasn’t with Giselle, was half-Gujarati and assured me that Vile Parle is 80% Gujarati while other areas are merely 30-40% Gujarati. Since my Hindi is really quite atrocious, it’s always a relief to find someone who speaks Gujarati, and we had a nice long discussion in which he gave me housing recommendations and inquired about my mother, father, brother, husband, etcetera.

From here to Bandra, which is the trendy area where all the expats and artists and queers like to stay, it’s approximately 6 rupees on the train, 90 rupees by rickshaw, or 250 rupees by taxi. That’s 15 cents, $2, and $6 respectively. Of course it’s all cheap if you have US dollars but it is truly exciting to be able to travel somewhere for less than a quarter.

Bandra, according to Giselle, is a traditionally Catholic area but since the Catholics are “more tolerant,” Bandra has become more cosmopolitan. By contrast, for example, in the Gujarati areas she says you won’t find meat. (Meat vs no meat seems to be an important organizing principle.)

So anyway, I’m pondering the benefits of living among the Gujus vs in a “cosmopolitan” area where I might have to speak more Hindi. And at the same time I do want to improve my Hindi, and be where the cool kids are, so…

I’ve got 7 nights in this hotel so I’ve been looking at lots of apartments. One was on the same block where Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan (unrelated) live, and the real estate agent made sure to point out their houses, easily recognizable by the crowds of common folk lingering about, gazing up at the terraces, waiting near the driveways, etc., hoping to catch a glimpse of Bollyroyalty.

We have two close family friends in the Mumbai suburbs, both of whom I’ve stayed with before, but both are in the process of moving themselves. I do have a place I can stay transitionally if need be, which is awesome, although I’d prefer to get settled sooner rather than later.

Once I choose a place, moving two suitcases in won’t be a big deal. But learning how and where to acquire the things I need feels a bit daunting. Simple things like where to buy groceries and cleaning supplies are a complete mystery to me. Sometimes apartments don’t come with things like refrigerators, and apparently one is supposed to hire a maid — we’ll see. I’d certainly need to clean the bathrooms, mop the floors, etc much more often here, because of the high levels of pollution and dirt (?) in the air and on the streets, and to keep the indoor insect population down. Progressive middle-class people feel a bit guilty or conflicted, but I’ve only ever met one person who totally did without household help. Others opt to try to raise the standard of living by paying double or triple, or what they consider a living wage, and offering things like paid vacation days, bonuses, and so on.

This weekend: More apartments and maybe I’ll catch a bit of the Navratri celebrations, and/or catch up with friends I’d made last time I was here, and/or meet some of the other Fulbrighters who are already in Mumbai. May try to take a yoga class too if I feel up to finding my way around.

I will keep asking questions and learning stuff. And of course, reporting back.

Signing off for now,

Minal “my book is a party” Hajratwala

PS just got word that LEAVING INDIA has received another lit award. I’m not allowed to say more for a week or so, but it’s exciting!

3 thoughts on “Bright Lights, Big City, Bombay-Style

  1. thanks Ashini and Indigo!

    Yes, crossing the streets is a bit like that awesome old video game, Frogger.

    I’m not bad at it, but I would like to look more casual and relaxed while I do it, the way the real Mumbai girls do. I have street-crossing saunter envy.

  2. omg your book is a party, how hilarious!!!
    how glamorous to be neighbors w/ SRK!
    glad to hear you survived the trip & your train-hopping escapade too 🙂
    good luck finding the perfect house.

  3. Minal – Have you figured out how to cross the streets? I tried to absorb the mindset “the traffic will accomodate me, I don’t accomodate the traffic”. However, when I did that, I was pulled aside and told I was going to get killed. BTW, it’s apparently safer to walk in the streets than on the sidewalks.
    Love hearing about your Mumbai adventures!

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