Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back in Bombay Again... with a twist

Welcome Elephant in my Hotel Room

For the first time ever, I am in my old city, Bombay/Mumbai, and not in my college dorm, not in the working women's digs I lived in two decades ago, not in a home my husband and I shared, and not at my in-laws where I have stayed on every vacation since moving to the USA in 1996.

Everything is changing. I am in a hotel that did not even exist when I called Bombay home from 1989-1995 and wrote with 20-something passion about architecture, housing and urban development issues for one of the city's oldest broadsheets.

I am on the 28th storey of a hotel built on land in a neighborhood that was once chock full of bustling cloth mills and that would not, by law, have been allowed to be built back then! The mills stopped humming during labor protests in the 1980s and never re-opened.

By the early years of this century, loose ends from pending lawsuits between mill owners and labor unions were being tied up and land was freed from zoning restrictions. Owners are now selling these very profitable properties to developers who build towering high rises to support a rapidly growing island city. Land is at a premium and the unofficial population is a staggering 19 million. That is the history lesson!

Bombay's skyline looking south and east toward the docks

What boggles my mind right now, apart from the daily changing skyline that I no longer recognize, is the fact that I am here on my very ownsome, a state I have not achieved in this town before.

What is hard to grasp and accept is the quiet that only an air-conditioned room with the double paned windows and heavy drapes of a fancy hotel can create. I don't hear the sound of the koyal up here, singing me awake in the morning, or the flute wallah walking down the lane, playing one of the reed flutes he has made himself.

It is a strange sense of displacement in a place suspended out of reality. I am not accustomed to this detachment from a constantly humming and humid metropolis. Is this kind of escape how the privileged are able to keep clear of the problems and challenges that 95% of the people in my country face?

I am certainly not blase about the many people who hover about me at every turn in this fortress of luxury, 'butling' and cleaning, smiling and scraping, kowtowing and doing their lovely best to make me and every other guest here happy.

Service in India is a centuries old tradition. But it is not one I have ever been comfortable with, or reveled in. I'd rather get my own tea, thank you. Because, you see, I can't shake off the fact that my young woman "butler" has to make her unsafe way home on a bus or on foot at 2 am -- where does she live? -- after she has finished waiting on me.

Or that after driving me from the airport to the hotel in chilled comfort, my chauffeur has to catch a muggy commuter train at midnight, sleep for a few hours and hop back on the next train for a 2 hour journey to start another work day.

And that shared table... though I am here to write about food and I am eating it this first day, I don't seem to take it in. There were six of us at dinner tonight -- my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, her husband and their two sons.

But after a day of talking about food and cooking, I found myself unable to eat much. Perhaps it's just jetlag, perhaps it is me preparing mentally for some serious eating over the next few weeks.

Whatever the cause, tonight's meal was more about communing with family about dear and departed ones and then, strangely, saying goodbye myself and going somewhere I have never called home.

And yet it is apropos. After all I am here to write about a community of Indians who, for a time, had nowhere in this nation to call home!

Getting ready to write the blog again!

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