“As they hold the Farangis to be vile and abominable they have persuaded themselves that that people have no
polite manners, that they are ignorant, wanting in ordered life, and very dirty. For these things they would sooner die unaided than drink a cup of water from the hand of a Farangi; nor would they eat anything that he has prepared. They believe such an act to be an irremediable disgrace, and a sin for which there is no remission…” – Niccolao Manucci, Storia do Mogor 1653-1708
Boy, things have really changed since Manucci’s day. Blame the fall of the Mughal empire, blame the British, blame MTV, whatever you want to blame, Farangis (foreigners) might still be mocked or disliked by some, but we are a source of fascination for many more. Here in Mumbai this isn’t really the case, and I have recently realized just how spoiled I am living in a city that cares zero percent about its inhabitants.
A lot of people say that Mumbai is like New York. When I first got here, I have to say, I couldn’t immediately see the resemblance. I sent my mother photos of our neighborhood and her response was, but that’s not like New York at all! We both agreed that New York has fewer palm trees and fewer open sewers. The architecture is completely different, as is the weather. I felt very deceived by all these people,and wrapped myself in my smug worldliness, my amused knowledge that I, at least, knew the difference between both cities, having experienced them both.
As time when by, however, I started to see links between the two massive mind-numbing metropolises. For one thing, Mumbai and Manhattan both are long thin creatures, with movement centered on the North to South and South to North directions, with little considerations for the arduous journey East-West. Frequent riders of cross town buses in either city will no doubt agree with me. But beyond the transportation concerns and geographical similarities, the two things that make Mumbai truly feel like New York, even if it doesn’t look like it, are deeply intertwined. The first is that people come from all over India, and to a certain extent, the world, to be in Mumbai. There is a lot of hope here, a lot of optimism, and its high prices, by Indian standards at least, mean that everyone is working all the time just to stay afloat. Like the proverbial description from Alice in Wonderland, around here, everyone has to run as fast as they can just to stay in once place. What those two factors, that is, a wide diverse population (again, by Indian standards) of humanity pouring into the city and high prices led to is an atmosphere in which most people walk around largely anonymous.
Much like New York, in which almost everyone is from somewhere else and everyone has seen it all, in Mumbai people walk around feeling completely, marvelously, gloriously unjudged by those around them. Many of women all income and class levels work because, frankly, they can’t afford not to. What that means, though, is that women are publicly visible in most of the city. This is something that we in the US tend to take completely for granted until we go to a place where it is rare, or in the case of India, rarer. It’s not like women don’t go outside in this country, far from it, it’s only that women are encouraged not to be alone (frankly, everyone is encouraged not to be alone, it’s sort of astounding what a dirty word alone is for many Indians). In every place I have been to so far in India, men outnumber women on the streets by huge amounts, but in Mumbai, at least, I see a lot of women and, here is the key, a lot of women walking around alone, in both Indian and Western gear, and that, small though it might be, says something about Mumbai. Simply put, this is a city where everyone, foreigners, native Mumbaikers, boys from Bangalore and girls from Gujarat, can walk around and not feel watched. And that, in this land of perpetual observation and judgment, in a place where everyone has an opinion about how your behaviour is wrong, in a place where a girl and boy walking to school together can be reported back to both sets of disapproving parents, aunties, uncles, cousins and family friends before the school bell even rings, is something special.
But you really have to leave Mumbai to find out how special it is. Frankly, if you want to fall in love with Mumbai, I would advise you to take a trip to the North, to some of the most touristy parts of India, which also happen to be on the more conservative side. Because if you want to feel the opposite of anonymous, there is nothing like Northern India to do that for you.
Don’t get me wrong, I have been places where people wanted to take my photo before. I am in a large amount of Chinese people’s photo albums from their trip to the Forbidden City in Beijing, You have to be a shark in Chinese monuments, because if you stop moving, while you will not die, people WILL take your photo. I am also in a thousand photo albums from various tourists trips to my alma mater, which is a beautiful school and as such has tons of tourists pouring in weekly to take photos of Yale students in their natural habitats. So this is not, in fact, my first rodeo. But nothing, could have prepared me for Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and the Punjab.
In Kolkata, perhaps because of the long history of the city as a British Capital, white people don’t get a whole lot of attention. In Mumbai no one could care less. In Bangalore I barely got out of a car, so who knows? But in Delhi, oh boy. I must have had a “take a selfie with me” sign on that only Hindi speakers can see, because the number of random people, men and women but mostly men, who asked for selfies, was out. of. control.
Beyond being totally invasive, which by the way, Indian dudes out there, it TOTALLY is, the selfie game can be exhausting. You’re walking along, checking out a Mughal monument, reading about red sandstone versus marble and all trying to figure out which building was the Maharani’s palace, and then all of a sudden you sense a presence. No, despite the new Star Wars movie this is not the force. This is someone walking waaaay too close to you. Okay, you think, okay, this is India, this is a thing that happens. Space is limited, people have no sense of boundaries, stuff happens. Just keep looking for that 17th century sundial. And then, you realize, they’ve slowed their pace to match your own. Okay, maybe they are ALSO looking for that sundial. Right? That’s a thing that could be happening! And then it comes.
“Excuse me, Madame? One selfie please, Madame?”
And there it is. Some stranger who wants to take a photo with you. And it’s never just one, ps, it’s always like five photos, and then, as you are batting his (it is almost always a him) arm off you, the arm you specifically insisted he not put around you in the first place, you realize, a line has formed. Because for every person who is brave enough to ask about a selfie, there are ten more who want one, but don’t have the chutzpah. The selfie acquiescence is a floodgate, and you must not open it unless you are sure you can withstand the deluge.
You learn to say no pretty quickly. Nevertheless, there are some situations that call for it, in which case you go along with it gracefully and hope others don’t get the same idea. For example, after hitching a ride on a gypsy cab from the middle of nowhere back to Agra, we obviously agreed to a photo. (Additionally, people just use selfie for photo sometimes, which is weird, but hey, I don’t speak Hindi so who am I to judge their English?) Five minutes later, while buying ourselves “we survived that” booze at a stall, we also agreed to a photo there, because anyone who gives me whiskey is entitled, I believe. The family my friend and I woke up on the train from Alwar to Jaipur who insisted on looking at our passports to figure out where we were from? They got a photo. The dudes who stalked us around a massacere memorial in Amristar? NOPE.
What do these people do with the photos, I wonder? Do they show them off to their friends, saying “look at this white person I met this time”? Are we best friends in their narrative? Am I their girlfriend in this fantasy? Their fancy prostitute? What happens to all of these photos? Is this a country-wide art piece that no one else knows about? A general Indian secret? Will there be an exhibition of these photos at some later date which is significant and auspicious for Hindus called “Firangis have I known”?
Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing that.
So in sum, there is nothing that makes you like Mumbai like leaving it. After all, the only photos of me here are the ones I’ve taken myself. Although now, I’m going to have to ask myself for permission first.