December 31, 2012
We walked the streets of Mumbai all the way to the arch that said King George. There were guards everywhere, protecting the arch and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which was raided and bombed by Pakistani terrorists a few years prior. There’s nothing like a guard with a handlebar mustache and an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder to remind you of the scary truths lurking about.
We kept walking north and hit the railroad tracks. The smell of rotting garbage mushroomed. We took the overpass arching across the tracks and looked down onto an empty and crooked abacus of rails that often have felt passengers flop out of open-door trains. A train zoomed by when we reached the other side of the bridge and I watched young men standing proud, their shoulders exposed to the wind, one hand secured on a handrail, that hand all that was keeping them onboard.
I thought to myself how is death in a city of 14 million, in a country of a billion calculated? I wondered if mortality becomes even more of a game. Is the weight of love and sadness different in this aggravated gluepot of poverty, economic disparity and potential lawlessness? I knew my way of thinking was blind; I could feel it. My inexperience and western appetites keep certain simple truths obscured. But we continued with smudged glasses along the water.
Chowpatty’s mirth and grime and grit and swirling white of exhaust was paradise for the several young Indian couples holding hands on the bulkhead beside the sea. So there is love.
And after which I received more smiles from strangers than ever before. I smiled back and there began a dialogue. My self-consciousness as a foreigner was forgotten.
Joe and I left the water and climbed up a hill to get lost, and it was all smiles between each other too, it was because they are infectious I suppose.
We took a left into an alleyway and walked past old women selling fruit on blankets, and men getting shaves inside dimly lit duck-and-enter hole-in-the-wall barbershops. We continued down the alley until it narrowed into a path. We skated on the elbow path and the buildings began to rise like roaring lions. Colors got brighter, and the corrugated aluminum walls were ubiquitous. Wood patchwork filled all remaining holes. Joe and I were now just bit parts in a tumbleweed jigsaw quest. The pungent smell of masala slipped into my nostrils and kids poked their heads out of the windows and doorways to their makeshift houses and laugh when they saw us.
We got so deep in it we couldn’t turn back, even when the houses became so dense that our path completely vanished. A girl pointed between two walls and said, ‘That way.’ We greased up, shimmied through and kept our stomachs sucked in until we popped out onto a street where the neighborhood boys were playing cricket. They clamored over each other to have one of us take a swing.
We looked back behind us and the body of a slum buffed her chest at us. Joe and I stood at her feet and considered how that beautiful-ugly stands — I though out of mankind’s sheer will to make a home for one’s own self and for one’s family. That’s why slums stand like lions in Mumbai’s anti-Cartesian orbit. A simple truth.