When my plane lands at Sahar Airport, I cannot help but know I am in Bombay. First the humidity hits me like a slap from a flabby hand. Immediately my jeans start to pull downward at the hips and thighs, simultaneously sticking to me like recalcitrant cling-wrap. I always feel crumpled here. Stench follows humidity, hanging boldly in the air after the dry, air-conditioned, sterile atmosphere of the aircraft.
“Yeh hai India (this is India)!” as Indians here are fond of saying proudly, as if flipping you off and saying, “Take it or leave it!”
Walking toward immigrations, I wonder why I don’t feel as elated as I usually do when I have reached home (as I still think of it) and almost immediately I have the answer. A week before I left home, I was delighted to bump into my friend Petra (whom I had not seen in years) at Gorbals in downtown LA. She mentioned that she had just finished reading a book of 14 stories titled Breathless in Bombay by Murzban F. Shroff. “I couldn’t put it down. It was just wonderful Do you want to take it on your trip?” she asked, fishing it out of her bag.
Being apropos to my destination, I added it to the inevitably increasing stack of books I meant to carry along (the others included The Stone Diaries, Kabul Beauty Club and Jill Richardson’s Recipe for America). But I was not inclined to dip into Breathless till I was finally on the last leg of my journey, the flight from Singapore to Bombay. I had gotten up at 4:30 am to get to Changi airport for a 7:30 flight but having had two rare, full nights of sleep, I wasn’t drowsy. So I started reading.
I appreciate Shroff’s motivation to tell the stories of the marginalized, the down trodden, of the seamier side of Bombay’s vast, underprivileged majority. Breathless in Bombay includes a story about a washerman (dhobhi) who finds his livelihood threatened by the advent of the washing machine; a tale of a cab driver who is taken for a ride by his passenger; and the story of a middle class spinster, pregnant and on the verge of suicide, whose chance meeting with a coconut water seller makes her change her mind, stay alive and have her child. Shroff’s writing did not impress me much as much as his compassion did. Nevertheless I found he dragged me into the depths of the city I have known so well. I arrived in Bombay nauseous and hopeless for the future of my country.
Emerging into the heat of the day, staring at the slums outside the airport as I am driven to the southern part of the island city, experiencing the maelstrom of traffic around me, I wonder for the hundredth time if I am more critical of India than tourists are just because I am Indian? I am just as fascinated as foreigners are by India’s age, beauty, complexity and spirituality. But having lived here and seen how, even in my lifetime, a grand, exquisite land full of natural and man-made wonders has become an over crowded, greedy, corrupt, decrepit, dare I say lawless, place, I can never return without a sense of regret and bitter-sweet nostalgia. Perhaps those who continue to live in India do not share these feelings. For them India progresses.
Bombay’s skyline is constantly changing, construction work goes on everywhere: new fly overs are making commuting easier even as their construction destroys the quality of life of those whose homes are now deprived of views, air, light and access to make way for them; new high-rise gated communities are going up faster than the speed of light with blatant disregard to the need to simultaneously upgrade services like roads, water and electric supply to serve those same communities; roads are dug up all over the city, repair work being done haphazardly and often repeatedly because someone in the municipal corporation has been bribed and a contractor or builder somewhere is making his millions at the expense of the rest of Bombay’s citizens.
Since I was here four months ago, there are at least a dozen flashy new high rises just in the neighborhood where my mother-in-law lives. People are spending millions for these homes. I often joke that if my mother-in-law sold her apartment, she could buy a penthouse overlooking Manhattan’s Central Park.
In her home we will sleep tonight in air conditioned comfort. This is the hottest summer on record in India. At the foot of the building, within the property walls, servants and chauffeurs sleep on pallets out in the open, in the muggy, noisy night, alongside stray dogs, parked cars, cockroaches and rats.
These same servants and chauffeurs have cell phones. Everyone has a cell phone because the mobile phone revolution has made it possible for anyone, rich or poor, to easily and cheaply acquire this mode of communication and because land lines are notoriously difficult to get. The fishmonger has a cell phone, the vegetable vendor has a cell phone, Asha, the woman who singlehandedly runs my mother-in-law’s home, overseeing cooking, cleaning, laundry, entertaining, has a cell phone!
And yes, bullock carts still inhabit the street alongside trucks and scooters, and cars of all breeds, including the odd Rolls Royce that moves sluggishly through the perpetually jammed streets like an elephant wondering how it got here.
“Yeh hai India indeed.”