C Y Gopinath: Maya gets shock of her life in Mumbai
A teenager asks innocent, startling questions about the city and India on her first day in Mumbai
SHE HAS ASKED ME TO CALL HER MAYA. She was born in Mumbai, but spent the first six years of her life in Africa and the next 12 in Bangkok, where she finished her studies at an international school. She turns 19 in a couple of months.
Maya has visited India, her country of birth and notional home, several times. Most often, it has been Mumbai, but there was also one very touristy trip to the triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. When in Mumbai, she has fine dined at hip, eclectic restaurants, hung out at Phoenix Mall, seen movies. In her mind, Mumbai was an electric, electrifying, full of young people and fun.
In fact, you might say that Maya has never seen the real Mumbai. You might say that her images are from Bollywood blockbusters and movies like Slumdog Millionaire, and sneak peeks into high life during vacations. All the Hindi she speaks, she learnt in Bollywood, too.
But three days ago, this teenager, who I have known all her life, finally moved back to India for good, thrilled and expectant. Mumbai gave her a warm and fuzzy feeling. This was home.
I met her yesterday to start settling her in. She needed the basics of millennial life - a SIM card, bank account, debit card, Aadhaar Card, and so on. She was jet lagged, sleep-deprived and hungry, and it was pelting rain, making everything wet, slushy, and inconvenient. We were trapped inside an air conditioned Ola taxi, crawling through chaos and creeping traffic from Andheri to King's Circle, where she wanted to taste real dosas. We skirted deep potholes on a road built only 25 days ago by a contractor who had been blacklisted by the municipality, but still somehow got the job. A bridge had collapsed on the expressway because of sub-standard construction. There had been deaths. We were on a slower detour. The real Mumbai Maya had never seen was just outside the window. A hard rain was falling.
"WHO ARE THEY?" she asked me. "They look scary." She was referring to clusters of scruffy, seedy, unshaven young men who seemed to be just hanging around on pavements and street corners, apparently with nowhere to go and nothing particular to do. I gave her context, explaining that many of them were probably migrants who'd come to the city of dreams in search of a better future but had not yet found a job.
But Maya is from Bangkok, a city where men do not openly stare at women on the street, where a schoolgirl can take a midnight bus home after night school and never worry about her safety, where men by and large do not see women as prey, and a child will not be gang-raped. These men's uneasy eyes were everywhere. "I don't think I'd dare to walk here," said Maya. Mumbai looked ominous to her.
"WHY DO THEY MAKE CHANGES overnight here?" she asked me, as we wove through Dharavi. I had been telling her about the recent plastics ban, a positive thing, I thought. "Aren't there so many poor people who collect plastic who lose a living overnight? Why couldn't they phase out plastic bags?"
She added, "Didn't they ban some currency notes overnight, wiping out many millions of poor people and businesses?" I explained that when you ban big denomination notes just before a major election, the opposition party's is paupered overnight as their black money becomes worthless.
"I SAW A COW!" she said suddenly. "On the highway!" And I thought first, such a foreigner is this young woman. "Does no one mind?" she asked. Why does no one mind that cows freely cohabit highways and main roads along with trucks and costly cars? Why does no one point out the dishonesty of calling an animal sacred and letting it starve to death on garbage and plastic waste? Is everything acceptable and tolerated as Yeh Mera India, I love my India?
Mumbai has become the Gotham City of India, unable to regulate itself, ruled by corrupt men, captive to criminals, uncivil in every aspect of its life, every day and moment full of stress and struggle. Maya's innocent eyes may never discover anything better about it because she may flee the city in horror long before.
BUT IN MATUNGA, Maya, after a lifetime of fake Indian food in Bangkok and schnitzels and bratwürst in Europe, also had her first real South Indian dosa and Mysore filter coffee at the iconic Cafe Madras, established 1940. There was a queue and a long wait, and crowded tables, but what was served was classic and perfect. I knew from her face that for a moment there, even Mumbai seemed a bit of all right.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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