Thursday, December 1, 2011

Reflections of India

I am back now, from another world. I discovered that the journey you plan to go on is not always the trip you end up taking.

We left Chicago in fine fall and arrived after more than 20 hours in a Mumbai "winter" night: nearly 80 degrees with smoke. Summer like I never had before.

Yes, it was real smoke, since thousands and maybe millions in that teeming Maximum City still cook by small real fire. The balmy air, the crowd, the smell. You aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto, that is for certain. And the smoke mixes with the smog and the thick air of 20 million hopes and dreams.

And so began our adventure. The plan was to get there, recover from the 11.5 hour time difference, check out some sights, get daughter situated in a Mumbai flat, hosted by my college buddy, and then I was to skeedadle to a hill station for a weeklong yoga and ayurvedic detox while she began her experiential study of Bollywood.

Maybe someday I will take THAT trip, but the universe intervened, and shortly after our arrival, my old friend got the call we all would dread. Sister in law was in hospice--after 9 years she had lost the battle with cancer.

Get on a plane and be with your family, said I--what else could my host do but leave us?

I was not about to leave my teenager alone in a flat in Mumbai, so cancel that detox--its time to immerse ourselves in the bustling big city and instead of a native, my child will have me as a guide--scratch that, will have me as a fellow explorer.

So here we are in an artist's garret in the heart of Kolaba, across the street from the much bombed Taj Mahal hotel--an architectural fantasy of scrolls and stone overlooking the harbor and the Gateway to India. Location, location.

Mumbai is seeped in its Raj Heritage and we were in the heart of it.  Mumbai is Los Angeles Movie Stars and New York Moxie, with a pinch of Chi Town brawn, and a lot of Rio de Janiero favela thrown in and mixed in a very Indian masala. More than once I found myself thinking India is SOOOOOO Indian. It's just not like anything else.

Learning to navigate a large metropolis is always an improvisation in problem solving. I like to walk a city to get to know it.  This will prove quite interesting--with a bit of Risk thrown in, since I gather most natives don't walk if they can help it....

Our inventory of tools: We had a centrally located tree top lair, airconditioned,  with a fantastic view --stocked with an excellent library of books and DVD's, as well as food. We had 800 channels of cable. We had daily English language newspaper delivery--a life saver when the internet was not working. We had some support: a driver (when the car was not kaput or his family not sick), a personal assistant wizard magical person with perfect English who I never met but who could be called to translate-- BTW they do not speak English as much as we have been led to believe: a crash course in Hindi would have been a good investment for this trip, as would have been a personal stock of toilet tissue, a rare mystery I never got to the bottom of.....

We had a housekeeper coming in daily, and she  sure could cook. And I could watch, so I picked up a number of recipes. The internet didn't work, but we were given a local phone. And so we set about to learn to get along in a new culture.  That was a mixed bag, and the learning curve was steep.

There was a lot of seeing sights. We visited the caves on Elephanta Island. Out of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, for sure. The "deluxe" ferry that got us there could never have passed my old harbor master's inspection.

India is a lesson in Functional Chaos. We Americans get a lot more done with far fewer people, but we don't need to keep so many people busy. I would be happy if a few less people were haranguing me to buy things or give them money--but I suppose I look like a big fat meal ticket walking down the street.

And we have sooooo much. If nothing else, I came away with a deep appreciation for how very rich this country I was lucky enough to be born in is by comparison. The concept of homelessness is irrelevant in Mumbai. Probably several million people would be classified as homeless by our standards. There was a family of 5 living in the street outside our flat--no box, no tarp, just right on the cobbles, outside the western union office where we went to pick up email on a computer from the 1980's.  And the slums are like a human collage stacked up in every open space. 

The food is amazing. I became a vegetarian. The people aren't doing so well, and the animals never do better, well with the possible exception of cows.  So I couldn't bring myself to eat them. And the street dogs and cats broke my heart. There were thousands of them. At 4 in the afternoon, you had to be careful not to step on them as you traversed your path because they would stretch out for a nap on the cobbles. Oh, and the perfume of the city rising from the sunwarmed cobbles-- a city with few public can imagine. It is a sensory overload.

But this is the land of Ghandi, and of art traditions thousands of years old, and some of the best stories ever told.
I made my pilgrimage to Mani Bhavan, yes I did. Highlight of the trip. See photo above. Birthplace of modern peaceful resistance. There would be no Martin Luther King without Ghandi. It was moving.

I took Kundalini yoga and chanted for change.  I walked. and walked.  Used up a pair of shoes and lost 5 lbs.  I sweated. I absorbed.

I discovered a contemporary dance festival and a theater festival of new works. The National Center for the Performing Arts became my daily "work". I filled my head with new ideas, and the chai in the lobby for about 60 US cents wasnt bad either. I will miss those samosas they serve instead of chocolate bars at the concession stand. We saw some street theater too-- a tradition alive and well in India.

And all too soon, I leave my child, our host to return just after I fly away home to oversee the second part of her journey.   I return to the American Thanksgiving table and to Black Friday and the culture shock coupled with Jet lag puts me in a surreal place.  This will take quite a while to process.