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Dancing with Mumbai

Engaging, confusing, consuming, frustrating, enlightening, filthy, disorienting, lively, loud and never boring, Mumbai is like a friend who infuriates you but you still want to be part of their life. This heaving city breathes life into us and simultaneously sucks the life out of us - a cocktail of hazy toxins fills our lungs and stings our eyes, obscuring the sun on the brightest of days. The recent appearance of brightly painted murals (thanks St+art India and Chal Rang De movement) and random street art on slum homes, facades of buildings, and, lately the Sassoon fish docks, add some colourful, visual relief when the sounds, sights and smells of everyday life stuff our senses beyond the point of sensory overload.

Market Madness in South Mumbai

It’s a manic, mega city and much too crowded.Twenty-two million (and counting) people live beside, on top, below and above each other on a relatively small bit of land stitched together years ago from seven separate islands. There is water on three sides bordered by wide beige beaches covered in trash, where despite the garbage, people play, snack and spend a day with family, and horrors, swim in the murky sea. On Juhu Beach, finding Ganesh idols that the sea didn’t claim after the Ganpati festival, washed up and half-buried in the dirty sand, is a favourite activity with the kids. Nestled beside the sea, the development of luxury and middle class apartment towers provide shade to aging colonial bungalows, a collection of impressive, iconic, art-deco buildings, and heaving overcrowded slums take over the footpaths. The monsoon, the heat of the tropical sun, the pollution, and the creeping dark mould that covers every surface, give new buildings the patina of age.

Mumbai skyline from Dadar

We usually find a reasonable place to call home within a few weeks of arriving in Mumbai. Varun, an upper middle-class son of a real estate developer, takes us through the process of finding a flat each year, managing the negotiations with the flat owners, the police checks and the accompanying bribes and payments at two or three different municipal offices. This year, the apartment we rented in the Sunglow building for five months, was owned by an elderly middle-class couple who had gone to live with their daughter in Sydney. They left us some well-used furniture, some old religious books on Hare Krishna, lots of brittle twine wrapped around old newspaper cones, rusted scissors and nail clippers in musty drawers, thread-bare sheets and stained pillows, a glass cupboard fashioned into an altar, the remains of a milky beverage sitting in the rusted refrigerator and the phone number of the woman they paid 500 rupees a month ($10) to daily dust and clean the apartment. The building sat at the back of a middle-class complex of high-rise apartment buildings, at the back of a large residential development, all of it set back from the main roadways and bordered by the Tunga slum community and a large dusty public park. The setting, plus the neighbours who guarded their privacy, provided a daily escape from the sounds and smells of the city. In the mornings we woke to the cooing of pigeons on the windowsill and the very, very faint sound of honking, dogs snarling, and our neighbours opening and closing their doors. It’s the quietest place we’ve called home in Mumbai.The windows provided us with views of the tops of palm trees, fancy colourful birds, and the skeleton of a nearby abandoned, half-constructed building obscured by the hazy air. Every morning we’d look out to see a security guard sitting on a white plastic chair on the fourth floor, perilously close to the edge of the unfinished building, a building that he will never be able to live in if it’s ever completed.The only noisy intrusion into our otherwise quiet early mornings was our choice to turn on the television with the grainy picture to watch the news, and finally, to leave the peace of our building and step out into the bedlam.

Our apartment building

Our daily twenty minute walk to the community started with a somewhat quiet stroll down a long, wide road out of the complex past a construction sight surrounded by a high wall, some parked rickshaws whose drivers took advantage of the stillness to nap, and two chai stalls. The only vehicle or foot traffic on this road was coming and going from the complex. We could walk side by side and hear each other talk, and sometimes we deliberately slowed our pace to prolong the inevitable clash with the city. Occasionally, we stopped for a chai, because just beyond the chai stall Mumbai waited to consume us. We could see and hear the rumble of Saki Vihar Road where masses of people and vehicles of all sorts jostle for limited space and the noise level escalated to ear-splitting levels. When we left this quiet lane, we stepped into a quagmire and had to walk single file, threading ourselves through the smell of sweet incense mingled with stale urine, exhaust fumes, and the pungent smell of snacks fried in pots of dark oil; the smells intensified by the rising heat of the morning. Honking rickshaws, buses and cars, large trucks and delivery bicycles compete with motorcycles (driven with brash irreverence for anyone’s safety) for road dominance, while throngs of pedestrians step around food vendor’s carts, other pedestrians, low hanging electrical wires and holes in the pavement. (The noise levels caused by vehicles honking in Mumbai have been measured at 110 decibels - the same decibel level as standing in front of a live rock band with enormous speakers). Stepping out onto Saki Vihar road was like a gut punch every morning. By the time we reached the community we were disheveled, hot, thirsty and happy to be in the narrow laneways where the familiar smell of the gutters became a haven from the chaos of street.

Saki Naka Pipeline Road.

Mumbai has its charms and we take pleasure and some pain in seeking them out, with or without children from the community, in tow. There are some beautiful neighbourhoods with dappled shade provided by tall, leafy trees with boutiques and high-end restaurants that attract both an international clientele and well-heeled locals, and we might see a Bollywood star. In south Mumbai, the British left their mark with colonial buildings still intact near the vast, spacious, grass covered Oval Maidan, where organized cricket games are played. The World Heritage designated Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the world’s busiest train station, is a breathtaking example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture where selfies are made, and five thousand people a day start and end their train journeys. Nightclubs and gigantic shopping malls, brand name stores and indie designer boutiques share the streets with food carts and street food vendors. Mysterious laneways hide ancient markets where we head to find tasty street food and bargain for clothing, where the Muslim call to prayer is heard five times a day providing a backdrop to the din. Hindus line up at temples with offerings, and a few brave monkeys risk their lives on the tangle of overhead wires. Aarey Colony, a wild, jungly forest area near the community where rogue leopards wander, and Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the northern edge of the city provide city-dwellers with some respite if they want to fight the traffic to get there.

Murals in Dharavi

Bhendi Bazaar, South Mumbai.

To live in Mumbai we embrace it, breath it, walk it, take part in family celebrations and rituals, eat the food, dance with it, hate it while loving it, and endure the “super dense crush load” (an actual term applied to the Mumbai train situation) on the local suburban trains. It’s a city that has become as familiar to us as it is foreign. It’s exotic and heaving, comforting and uncomfortable, easy and disagreeable all at once. It consumes us and spits us out and leaves us with questions that might not have answers. It’s also where we feel at home. We get tangled up in the trivialities of everyday life inside and outside of the slum community, and we are constantly and simultaneously surprised, excited, appalled and upset by what we see and hear and experience every minute of every day. Like millions of other people, rich and poor, travellers and locals, we adjust and acquire new skills to survive the mega city, to find our place, our purpose, and sometimes find a moment or two of peace and quiet within it.

Chal Rang De brightened up a slum community in Asalpha

The quiet lanes of Bandra.

After months in Mumbai, we travel slowly, dipping our toes into other cultures, and eventually arrive back home to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. It’s a small, uncrowded, vibrant, touristy seaside city with fresh air, wide clean streets, flourishing flower gardens (there is an actual flower count contest), where the colour green comes in a hundred shades, and mountain views are on offer across the strait. There are lush rain-coast forests, wild, trash-free ocean beaches, swimmable lakes and hiking trails only minutes away. We reconnect with family and friends while nesting in the small suite we built in our home, among the souvenirs of our life.

Victoria B.C., Canada

When we return to Victoria, we are often asked about culture shock and how it feels for us to come back to the culture where we have a home, where our children grew up and where we understand everything happening around us. The answer is that we cherish and respect the enviable location and environment we get to call home. It’s a brash contrast to living in Mumbai, and reminds us to be grateful for cleaner air and beaches, opportunities and lots of space to meander. In Mumbai, we’re grateful for new cultural experiences and challenges in the slum community that provoke intense emotions and hard lessons. We never stop learning when we immerse ourselves so fully into another culture, in a city without rules, where it’s an adventure to complete a mundane task. We experience a range of emotions when it comes time to wrench ourselves away from Mumbai, and when it comes time to leave Victoria we feel as though we are being dragged through a needle to pop up in the fabric of another culture. We love the quiet in Victoria and the noise overload in Mumbai. It’s a slow dance of emotions for what we leave behind in both places and what we are about to embrace, in two very different cultures. Every year we add a few more of the Ganesh idols that we collect with the children from the community on our outings to Juhu beach, to the small collection that sits in our home in Victoria, along with piles of drawings from the children. We see them when we grab our keys and head out the door for a quiet walk into the city; a reminder of the other, frantic place. If home is where the heart is, then our hearts are in two places.

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