two. initial daze.
can't really describe my psycho-physical state right now. mumbai is more cosmopolitan than i expected, and so far i have not been hit by a car. i got ripped off buying a bottle of water, and then bought a second one (which made me realize how ripped off i had been the first time around). i spent a little time in my room, feeling as if my life and my brain are beginning some sort of explosion, not a sudden one but more akin to the big bang, where the particles just move lugubriously outward, through space.
Mumbai is life and death pressed up close together. everywhere. this realization – both a visceral, physical one, and a cognitive one, is what makes my eyes fill with tears multiple times a day – to be standing in this organism of a city as it sloughs, breathes, destroys, and is reborn. the water smells, the spices smell, the trees are taking over the buildings. skinny begging children squat next to a railway track which is across the street from a brand-new luxury tower. much of it defies comprehension. a night at the Taj costs $250, a train ticket 8 cents, and a half-alive woman sitting beneath the train ticket window can barely hold her hand out to beg, she is so weak. the informal economy is everywhere, in both exhausting and exhilarating forms: walking down the street and having to avoid every advance to purchase is countered by the joy of looking into an alley shop where men sit on the floor carving jewelry. although i sat on the plane on our descent and imagined all these grand plans for my very structured and very productive time here i realize with humility that learning daily life, even moving about and not getting run over by a car-bicycle-moped-rickshaw-cow takes a huge amount of energy. the sensation of not being able to forget oneself, so much a part of other solitary travels in Alaska or the outback, is unimagineable. all day i have been exhaustedly aware of myself -- my complete foreignness, my need to be alert, my single-femaleness, and paradoxically, my desire to eventually relax a little and become a part of this madness in some small way.
who knew that a shower in the evening could be even more pleasurable than one after three weeks in the mountains? I am learning to thrive off the simple joys here in this most complex of cities: a quiet corner beneath a stairwell next to an empty courtyard where no one can see me. mango juice. my first miniature box of Indian cigarettes, which taste so terribly I am sure to not become a smoker. chai after dinner. sleeping street dogs who tremble as they dream. a walking pace that slows along back streets. thick muscley vines on trees. my pencil. a nightly swig of scotch, which I am convinced is keeping my tummy happy. which it is.
my first few days I was jet-lagged, waking before sunrise and having the pleasure of listening to the way colaba (the area where I am staying) begins to stir: first the crows begin their cacophony, slowly joined by the rumble of the first trucks down on the causeway (the main commercial street). I hear the occasional taxi horn before any human voices out in the courtyard reach my ears. at some point the crows cease, and are overtaken by the hiss of someone frying breakfast down in the courtyard.
I have tried to make yoga on the marble floors of my room a daily morning practice – lengthen the spine, breathe deeply (only to realize that my throat is crudded up with smogdust). my first morning I headed down to the water to catch sunrise, past cathedral school (allegedly one of the most posh English schools), southwards, wanting to see the sassoon docks which ironically, at their entrance, boast to be a ‘calm zone.’ false advertising. although I’ve been here only 1.5 days, it is hard to imagine a place undulating more tightly with bodies and goods – not only of people and puppies but of the shiny-silver-wet fish in baskets, fish of all sizes, unloaded from crude wooden boats up onto the quay where women negotiating prices with the male fishers. (everything is a negotiation: the cost, the movement, clean air, drinking water). I am stepping over 3 feet long fish and 5 feet long eels and piles and piles of soggy miniature shrimp. fish sludge drenches my toes, and I want to capture it all on my tiny camera but refrain: supposedly there are no photos allowed down at these docks. also, I can barely move my hands to get into my bag anyway. even amidst this throng I am comforted by the overworked but still-soft hands of women on my arm as they try to move me out of their way -- I appreciate the feel of their hands on my skin.
the city is fully awake as I head back, but I still manage to find a quiet street with a dilapidated old indo-victorian, it’s façade weighty but undulating delicately. it is quiet enough here to sketch, as I rest my book on a 2 feet thick fence which runs the length of the sidewalk. the lot adjacent to this building is empty. a man stops while I sketch and asks if I am an architect, then tells me he is into development and “herbal medicine, and would I like to meet tonight to talk about mumbai’s heritage buildings?” he seems nice enough but I politely decline, telling him I’ll email him should I need a guide, and no, I don’t have an email I can give him in return. am I being overly cautious? anyway, the adjacent lot is going to house another ugly highrise, similar to the dirty salmon colored one across the street from the crumbling remains of the elaborate building I crudely sketch. development seems to be happening everywhere, small informal real-estate offices line some streets selling property to whom-i-am-not-sure. colaba seems to be getting a facelift; besides the usual constant state of sidewalk repair that makes walking down a sidewalk more like a mountain stream crossing, some of the old Victorians are laced with bamboo scaffolding, held tenuously together by what looks like twine. although OSHA would never allow it I prefer this hand-rigged scaffolding that almost looks like a decorative net over these facades. the city seems to be in a constant state of assemblage and disassemblage, from half-built concrete building skeletons (some being born, some dying, sometimes hard to tell which) to the sidewalks being exhumed.
I am learning, slowly, using my time as best as I can without burning too fast and early. I am still jet-lagged and exhausted. had a productive time today at the UDRI (Urban Design Research Institute), which published mumbai’s book for the recent Venice Biennale in which a comparative study between 16 world cities from a social, economic, and cultural standpoint was conducted. that’s all?, i wondered. the young female architect there was very helpful, threw out a dozen names of pseudo-government development agencies that I should go to, along with their respective authorities. it was overwhelming, I feel underqualified to tackle analyzing the future of mumbai’s development. however, she did talk to me about the 3 principle railway lines and their terminals, so I at least have a concrete start from which to attempt my rail-line deriving. she adamantly warned against second class rail cars, telling me I might get crushed to death. (in rush hour the carts get up to 500 people full, when their max capacity is somewhere around 220). I almost told her I’d commuted in Tokyo for awhile, but decided I would see for myself what a tolerable comfort level might be. anyway, the city has these grand plans, largely driven by reorganized transit spines (roads) to intersect the existing rail-lines. this would create a multi-noded metropolitan network. of course, this demands ‘relocating’ thousands of squatter settlements, which are being ‘rehabilitated’ eastward towards navi Mumbai. eventually such settlements would be given permanent block residencies along the rail lines, which doesn’t seem to give them much room to grow, as they necessarily will have to.
although Mehta’s book (maximum city) is fascinating I fear it has distorted some of my view of this city. much of the book is about the hidden underbelly that makes the ‘unofficial’ city work: fundamentalist political factions, ganglords, corruption in the police force, etc. thankfully I felt my shoulders relax a little more as i wandered the streets today, but it remains difficult to negotiate the balance between street smarts and suspicion, naivete and openness. I am constantly approached – not only by women carrying children and men selling goods but also by men who want to “be my guide.” in my wariness I feel I am shutting out all possible encounters in the name of conservatism, or of not feeling vulnerable. my common sense tells me that I am being common-sensical; another part of me feels like I am that which I never want to be – a wary traveler constantly on guard.
yet, I feel strangely at peace with this dirty, turbulent solitude. although I am fatigued by the simplest of navigations, I feel centered and un-panicked about the prospect of 45 more weeks of everyday-being-an-unknown. I am still relishing in it, trying to ride the ups and downs necessary in every day of travel. I have moments of pure joy, to witness the way a system so apparently out of control is working simply by nature of human nature; I have moments when i just need to breathe – to savor the sense of being overwhelmed. and I AM, even as I say I feel centered. I am centered enough to sense that at times I am overwhelmed – in awe of the world, aware of my own rigid smallness. this city humbles me, above all; it makes a free spirit seem a product of privilege rather than residing in a deep understanding of relinquishment or survival. somehow it all comes down to crossing the street, which goes most smoothly when you weave most dangerously between the cars, you and the machine effortlessly negotiating the impatient space of the road.
I also suppose it is not my role to fit in here. it is not what I am here to do, although in a sense my entire proposal was about throwing off the shackles of site-seeing to try and understand the mundanity of local urban movement and scale change. but even with my miniscule equipment I feel like a reporter. I grab my camera all the time – although the graphic distortion is unappealing the freedom of a tiny point and shoot makes the sacrifice worth it, I think – and it’s still only a fraction of what catches my eye. EVERYTHING catches my eye in some way. which is why I come back to my room and feel the need to stretch and exhale – that there is just so much to want to know, but only so much we ever will . . .