Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mumbai Redux (Lots of Reduxes)

The Taj Hotel. More on that later.

Oh, Mumbai.

Hard to write about Mumbai for me, mainly because so many people more competent then myself have done so before. Mumbai is my favorite city in India, that's for sure, but it's also a Grade A bitch, with horrible weather, extremely strange people, and infrastructure that could test the patience of any deity. I made the oh-so-clever decision to come to Mumbai in the middle of India's worst monsoon in 20 or so years. Of course, the day I flew into Mumbai, the weather was superb. Clear and sunny, brilliant blue skies, not too hot by Mumbai's generally hellish standards. Hah. Pissed down rain for the next four days I was there. But such is the nature of Mumbai. Perhaps more so then any other place I've been, Mumbai does whatever the hell it feels like doing, and you are left with no option other then shutting up and going along with it. It's a nice feeling, though, having the sense that control is out of your hands, that Mumbai has sucked you into its eternally-spiraling drain. I know I'll live here someday. Mumbai has a sort of magnet in it, for me.

I always think of Mumbai as the Miami of India. Same deco architecutre, same filth, same sense of tropical decay and tropical ambition rolled into one. Having spent the past couple years in New Orleans, I see NOLA in Mumbai too - something about the energy, the pervading sense of fish, the cosmopolitan and delightfully threatening nature of the states. All three cities are cities of corruption and not particularly well concealed crime, dissolution, and unadulterated sin and nastiness. To a certain personality, all this is delightful and invigorating. I haven't read Shantaram, by the way. I have this habit of refusing to read books everyone tells me I must read. Real sorry.

The Gateway of India. Britain's "We're real sorry" gift. Pretty much.

I first came to Mumbai two years ago. I'd met this great woman at my internship in Bangalore, by the name of Aneesa. She had grown up in London but her family hailed from Mumbai, and she went back often. We became good friends, and she invited me to come down to Mumbai and hang out with her, since she was headed there after her internship was over and all. I thought this was a swell idea and promptly booked myself a flight to Mumbai. I remember getting out of the airport, mostly, the swell of stink and humidity that smacked me in the face rather like a wet towel. It reminded me of Florida. I realized in that moment that me and Mumbai would probably get along just fine. (The taxi ride that morning - past block after block of crumbling tenements, set along marshes that actually rose up sewage stink from the water, and every other house has got a blue tarp in place of a roof, and there's kids climbing up the metal fence to the airport terminal. Just Mumbai, this is how it is. Ocean drive and the semi-fantastical sight of the mosque on the water (only accessible at low tide), the rickety rides at Chowpatty, and people promenading in the evening along the water, slowly and decisively making their way home, or to wherever the hell people in Mumbai went in the evenings. (Maybe better not to ask).

Anyhow. Had a great time. I met my evil Indian counterpart there. Aneesa's cousin, Saleem, happened to be my age and similarily inclined to late night larceny, preferably in luxury hotels and executed with great prejudice. Aneesa, Saleem, and her incredibly amiable sisters and I wandered around the city and ate a lot of kebabs. A lot of memories of long and slightly damp cab rides out to Bandra, and eating mostly hygenic kebabs from a series of street-side stops, and hopping from bar after bar in the evening to avoid the ever impending chop of Closing Time. We ended up in the bar at the Taj Hotel one evening at 4:00 AM, the only place still open in Colaba. Ordered a plate of french fries and terrorized the wait staff for we had all had more Old Monk then was perhaps advisable in civil society. I stole two pots of ketchup, which sit on my dresser in my room in California. Ketchup is symbolic.

Sometimes they couldn't come out in the evening and so I'd go to the Cafe Leopald, or the Mondegar, one of the two, and then I'd try to do literary shit. I was 19 then and was sure I wanted to be a writer, and doubly sure that a large percentage of writing involved looking serious while hunched over a notebook in an appropriately atmospheric place. God Knows Leopald and Mondegar provide ideal venues for that kind of activity - they attract everything that crawls and skulks in Mumbai, although admittedly the largest percentage of patrons are mere aspirants like myself. I'd order some crap red wine and draw pictures or jot down half-baked and (to myself) very deep and authoritative opinions on the stuff I saw around me. I'd overhear discussions at the tables nearby. They almost always were between European tourists, and concerned where one might find really psychedelic drugs in the cities confines. Nothing too juicy. No white slavery scams to unfold.

You remember the Mumbai attacks. That of course occured in November, not all that long after I returned from India (finally) in May. Right during Thanksgiving. Everyone's in the kitchen, including extended family, fixing up the turkey and I'm glued to the television screen. The image of those black crows flying over the smoking hulk of the building, the fat kid with the machine gun and the mildly shy smirk captured on the surveillance camera, all the details of carpets pulpy with blood. The Leopold Cafe was especially affecting - I kept on thinking of myself trying to be literary, eminently teenaged, sitting at one of those tables, and catching a bullet through my weedy chest for my pains. Somehow it was as if my ambition had rendered me guilty, eminently killable in the eyes of this terrorist organization. A terrifying thought.

I was worried about Saleem - I couldn't reach him on Facebook. He reappeared three days later, to my great relief. He'd intended to hit up Leopold that night but something or other kept him at home. Pretty much everyone in Mumbai ended up at home for these three days and doing what I did - sitting around in a sweaty circle glued to their television. Eating out of their fridges and hoarding their water because it was too damn scary to go outside. Military operations where you live and camoflauged jeeps rumbling by and doubtless a sense of horrible anarchy. Again, this reminded me of Katrina, the paralells, the horror and the sense of everything spiraling fearfully out of control. We all remember the incredible and unexpected (or maybe a little expected) inability of the Indian police and military to actually fix the thing, to take these guys away. The terrorists held out for a long time, a really long time. Sometimes it seemed like they might stay holed up there forever.

That's a dark note.

I came back to Mumbai for two parallel reasons then. I was chasing down being 19 and literary and a bit of a drunk, albeit a reasonably happy one. I was also chasing down the terrorist attacks in a sense of equally literary voyeurism. Had the city changed at all? Could you smell it in the air? Did bloodstains and powder burns still persist on the streets? What did people remember, and what would they be willing to tell me if I (subtly) inquired?

This is perhaps what worries me most about Cambodia, or what is impending. To work in journalism in Cambodia is to work in an environment defined by a horrible trauma. It is of paramount importance that I develop the ability to do this - to talk to people about the nightmarish things that have happened to them in such a way that (somehow) both gets them to open up and does not offend them, piss them off, or make them conclude I am an exploitative idiot. It's a fine line. Going to have to toe it.

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