Lindsay Pereira: What Atithi Devo Bhava?
At the Mumbai Airport, around six immigration officers usually stamp the passports of approximately 10,000 people, resulting in long queues. Representation pic/AFP
What is it about Mumbai that makes you miss it as much as you do?' Friends of mine in far-flung corners of the globe often ask me this, usually around a week after I visit them, when my face takes on a hangdog expression and I find no comfort in Italian restaurants and empty citizen parks. 'How can you miss it?' they ask, these former residents of my city, who now find it difficult to commute from the airport to their former homes on increasingly rare visits to what was once their homeland.
I used to have no problem answering that question. I would remind them of what had they left behind — mangoes in May, the Bombay monsoon sweeping everything on its path, vada pav stalls at railway stations after midnight, the easy camaraderie on crowded trains, relentless bargaining at local markets, the unequalled pleasure of seedy bars. I find it hard to keep up the enthusiasm these days though, especially when reminders for my return flights from these places start to pop up on my phone.
To enter Mumbai these days is to enter a rude place, populated by rude immigration officers and crude policemen. They are a visitor's first glimpse of what is supposed to be a new and exciting country that promises everyone an 'incredible' experience — a place where the guest is supposedly worshipped like a God.
Here's what I found out a couple of weeks ago as I flew in after a trip outside the country: Everyone ignores announcements on the airplane. People who religiously paid heed to every word uttered by the cabin crew before we left a foreign shore, suddenly decided to accept en masse that the same cabin crew had ceased to exist. Repeated requests to 'remain seated while the seatbelt sign is on' were laughed off. Phones were switched on rapidly, and calls made to relatives and friends to discuss the "quality" of the flight. Overhead compartments were sprung open even as the airplane headed towards the parking bay.
At the immigration counter, we were all introduced to life in a populous nation, as six immigration officers decided to stamp the passports of approximately 10,000 people. There were no smiles of welcome, naturally, because we are warm and hospitable people only when cameras are thrust into our faces. There were guests from other countries in line too, none of whom had been informed that they were like Gods in our country. These foreign Gods were rudely pushed aside as part of the game called 'Let's Get Our Baggage First'. Trolleys were claimed instantly, fellow passengers thrust aside as everyone scanned the baggage carousel with the kind of attentiveness sorely lacking in most of our security agencies.
The policemen, supposedly on the lookout for unwanted immigrants trying to enter the country, were nowhere to be seen. A few stood by near the customs desk, ordering
passengers to scan their bags at random, while customs officers watched everyone like hawks. The rules governing what could and couldn't be carried into the country were probably written 200 years ago, but I didn't have the heart to get into a conversation with the officers standing around. When I finally exited the airport a little over an hour after my flight landed, I realised that getting out was more exhausting than the six-hour plane journey.
On a visit to a South East Asian country a while ago, I was asked to pay a deposit over and above my room fees at the check-in desk. I pointed out that my room was paid for, but I was politely informed that the deposit was only for guests from incredible India because a significant number of my countrymen were in the habit of departing with hotel linen, cushions and curtains in their luggage. The deposit, apparently, was to cover the cost of those items in the event of my taking a fancy to hotel property too.
I have realised that I don't really miss Mumbai as much as I used to earlier, especially when I find myself in far-flung places around the globe. I feel as if something in my city has died, but I can't quite put my finger on it. At the risk of letting nostalgia colour my memories, I feel as if we are not as nice as we used to be. We are noisier, rude, brash and arrogant. We laugh off rules, and make our way through life safe in the knowledge that the law will never catch up. The loss is ours alone.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to email@example.com