“Hindustan is a country of few charms. There are no good-looking people, there is no social intercourse, no receiving or paying of visits, no genius or manners. In its handicrafts there is no form or symmetry, method or quality. There are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, musk-melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or food cooked in the bazaars, no hot baths, no colleges, no candles, torches or candlesticks.”
India. It’s not for everyone, even the people who used to rule it. The quote above comes from the famous words of Babar, founder of the Mughal Emperor upon his conquest of and subsequent decision to stay in India, rather than return to his adopted capital, Kabul. He was comparing his new acquisition to the beauty and grace of the country we now know as Afghanistan, and he found it signficantly lacking. But Babar stayed in India, and so that’s what I’m doing too. I can only imagine how my parents would feel if I told them I prefer Afganastan…
So why am I in India, mourning, like Babar, the lack of bread and candles? Well, sometimes in life you meet someone, they seem nice, and in a wine soaked haze you tell them you wouldn’t mind moving to Bombay with them some day and then years go by and you hope they might have forgotten but it turns out that wasn’t a hypothetical question and you find yourself packing up your life and your beloved cat and moving to India. The whole time you keep thinking, someone is going to call chicken on this, right? But no one does, and you’re on the railroad tracks of life, hoping that the train named India doesn’t destroy you.
In other words, I married an Indian guy. And this person, who shall on this blog be known as Mr. India (and over here, on my sewing blog, is known to be Mr. Struggle, same person) wanted a reverse Life of Pi situation in which we actually come back to India despite the fact that he was literally living the Slumdog Millionaire DREAM. There you go, two pop culture references for the price of one. Mr. India spoke glowingly about Mumbai, about the city and the people and how much time we would finally have to write, and in the midst of another brutal New York winter as I dashed from one freelance job to another, constantly worried about how little I was making versus how much of my energy was leaching out of me, and feeling really sick of snow-filled boots and salt stains all over my outerwear, India started to look pretty good.
So we picked our departure dates and I thought, how bad can it be? I mean, Babar was of course quite critical, but what did that guy know, he was basically engaged in one war or another from the age of 11, he tried booze for the first time in his 30’s, the son he picked to inherit his empire was a complete loon, and one time someone brought him a melon and he cried for, like, an hour. If I lived my life letting the Mughal emperor Babar make all my decisions I would be sleeping in a tent somewhere in Uzbekistan right now. You don’t know me, Babar!
So now, I’m in India. Have you been to India? I had not. It’s a real place, although it doesn’t always feel that way. To be fair, I’m in Mumbai, or as most people here call it, Bombay. One of the most frequent questions I was asked before I moved here was, are Mumbai and Bombay the same city (yes) and why did they change the name (the Shiv Sena party and new wave Hindu Nationalism) and what’s that (I begin my unofficial and half-fabricated masters thesis in Indian political movements) and oh look at the time bye! That question, coupled with one of the most frequent reactions to my moving to India, which was literally wide eyes, hand to heart, You’re so brave, like it’s cancer not another country, was the reason I stopped telling people about the move, or started saying things like, I’m eat pray loving it! And then they would laugh and we could talk about how much I dislike Julia Roberts as an actress and everything would be fine, only there it still was in the background, my move to India.
I could write a book, not a very interesting one, to be sure, but a whole book about the challenges of getting my cat, or as it’s called here, billi, to India, but the point in the end was, it happened, and Mr. India met an exhausted me and a super freaked out feline at the airport after we were stared at by every passing person and watched our extensive paperwork be passed around like soccer ball by a world of Indian customs officers. If you would like to know about bringing an animal to India, message me, I’ve got thoughts. Did you know you can bring a falcon on United Arab Emirates but not a cat? I DO.
And now I’m here, writing from a brand new lap top because my MacBook Pro broke on my second full day in Mumbai (because, life? India? a sign? Shut up, signs, I’m leading an exciting and adventurous life here) and exploring Mumbai. So here are five observations I will leave you with in this, my first letter from the edge.
1, Mumbai is a lot like New York in that it’s busy, enormous, frantic, hectic, and also calm, small, neighborhood oriented and quiet, and also diverse, varied, full, in sum, there are a thousand Mumbais, it’s a city, everyone has their own experience of it. But the one thing that seems to be most like New York is that more people I have met in my first two weeks here have some from somewhere else looking for something they want to do here. It’s a city run by its economy, expensive by Indian standards (although GLORIOUSLY cheap by US standards) and filled with people who are busy. The fear I had about being stared at all the time has been realized, but I have not yet been watched. Quite simply, people are too busy to care. It’s freeing, in the way New York is freeing, and isolating, in the way New York is isolating. The key is, I think, to find your people. I’m good so far, though, see the point about the cat?
2. Despite what Indians told me, people do walk in Mumbai. It’s a sprawling unplanned mess of a city with towering buildings slammed against slums made out of sheet metal with tarp roofs, and in some places you think there is no sidewalk, but what you realize is, people are living there. But people do walk, everywhere. It’s just that if you can afford not to, why do it? But I still am, because the air might be smelly, but you can’t beat the view.
3. The trains are awesome. They are crowded and crazy, but so wonderfully fast, and in a city plagued with more traffic than a horse convention in a one horse town, fast is great.
4. Babar was wrong about the handicrafts. This place is a fabric lovers paradise. Stay tuned.
5. Babar was not wrong about the bread. Ugh. I take it back. Babar DOES know my life.