Musings of a Mumbaikar in the making


As I embark on my 5th month in Mumbai, it is becoming more evident to me that I am here to stay; that I am in the process of going from a San Franciscan to a Mumbaikar. While there are times that I do feel I am resisting this major change in national and cultural identity, I am becoming more open to embracing this new identity. I have been thinking about what distinguishes Mumbaikars from other peoples of this country. There are many things that are endemic to this city and the following are mere observations of this city and my take on what life in Mumbai means for me:

1. “This thing” or “That one” – Gosh! How I laugh to myself as I am writing about this. Every Mumbaikar, and I mean, every Mumbaikar, will expect you to be a mind reader. When in a conversation, be it in most situations or circumstances, the person I am talking to will substitute a person’s name or a thing/object with “this thing” or “that one.” The best part is, they expect you to understand what they are talking about! For instance, if I am talking to my aunt about a shop that I want to visit and ask her for directions, she’ll say, “Take a right on Linking Road, and then keep going straight, and you will pass “this thing” on your left and keep going till you see a big brown building at the end.” Or, if I am asking my grand mother about a family member I met for the first time, she explains that X is “that one’s” daughter, and many seconds later, cares to elaborate on who “that one” is. In a day, I will hear “this thing” or “this” or “that one” at least 5 times with the expectation that I know exactly what the person is referring to. Since I have lived in Mumbai for 4 years, I am much better at decoding what people are referring to. But, it drives my husband out of his mind because he sure as hell does not get it. He wished people in Mumbai spoke English rather than some form of English where every 5th word has to be decoded. I, on the other hand, find it amusing and I am always kept guessing when I am talking to someone in Mumbai.

2. Throwing things out of the vehicle – It’s probably across all of India that people find it OK to use the streets, roads, and railway tracks as their public bins. But, it’s hard for me to deal with the fact that people in Mumbai, and I am guessing a lot of them are educated people, do not bat an eye when they throw their trash out of their vehicle, be it from a train, a car, or a rickshaw. I have even seen people throwing their trash from their windows at home! What is up with that?? I have always known that in India, in general, we lack a civic sense. We find it more important to keep our homes clean, but will not hesitate in keeping out backyards and compounds and streets unkempt. I guess the positive side to it is that it gives the public Street Sweepers a job to do!

3. “Paan” / Spit Stains – This is something that I really find disgusting not only because it is gross, but also because it is extremely unhealthy. Paan is a food item, unique to India and other parts of Asia, which consists of areca nut, slaked lime paste, and other condiments (such as tobacco, sugar, candy fruits, fennel seeds) all wrapped up in a betel leaf.

Sweet Paan

It was originally used as a digestive or a mouth freshener by the royal families. Now, it is accessible to the commoner. I have had paan occasionally and can’t say that I particularly enjoy it. But this city contains millions of people, especially men, who relish paan.  While I have nothing against paan per se, I am disgusted by the fact that most people who eat it, have no qualms in spitting out the remains of the paan, on walls or on the streets. Paan contains a red colored substance, so when a person spits it out, the stain is colored brick-red. Here are several images of how walls, stair cases, and even trains are dotted with paan stains:

On the columns of a public building

On the columns of a public building

On public stair cases

On public stair cases

Similar to paan, a lot of taxi drivers in Mumbai chew a certain kind of tobacco and are constantly spitting out of their taxi windows. The irony of it all is that their taxis display huge signs that state, “Spitting is Injurious to Health” or “Do not Spit! It is the number one cause of TB.” There may be a cure for TB, but I fear there is no a cure for this disease – the disease of spitting in public!

4. Punctual Trains – If there is one thing I love about this monstrous city, it is the fact that local trains are punctual. I know I have mentioned this before and I probably will keep harping about it till my dying day…but you can get from anywhere in this city via the trains, and you can definitely get to your destination on time.  There may come a time where everything in Mumbai may come to a stand still, but I can bet my life that the strains will still be punctual and on the dot!

5. Pedestrians do not have the right of way – No, they do not! God knows how many times I have almost seen death’s countenance thinking that, as a pedestrian, I would have the right of way when crossing the road. Silly me for extending my expectations of “road sense” from San Francisco to Mumbai, where in SF, pedestrians have the right of way and drivers can be fined if they do not adhere to this law. Be it crossing a main road or a tiny alley, the drivers in Mumbai will zoom by you (and sometimes even into you) if you are so silly as to try to cross the road. How dare you! In Mumbai, apparently, it only makes sense that drivers get to go first and then the pedestrians.

So, here it is. Month 5 and I am allowing myself to become more accustomed to the Mumbai way of life: the good, bad, and the ugly.

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