The Nod

When I lived in San Francisco, my friends and colleagues would irritate the hell out of me when they would answer any of my questions with a “nod”. For those of you who know what I am talking about, and for those who do not, the nod is a quintessential characteristic of the Indian form of communication. I used to get infuriated, even offended, when people would make fun of the “nod” because I had no idea where they were coming from. And when I would express my irritation, I would get responses like, “C’mmon, every one in India nods when they want to say yes” or “I am sure you know what I am talking about – the nod is the Indian way of saying yes or agreeing with you.” Clearly, I was blind to the idiosyncrasies of my own culture, until the last few months where I have become distinctly aware of the “nod” and how every blessed soul in Mumbai, be it rich or poor, dark or light-skinned, upper caste or lower caste, all indulge in their fair share of nodding.

Think of a bobble head. That is exactly what the nod is. Wikipedia aptly describes the bobble head stating that, although the neck is connected to the head,  “Instead of a solid connection, its head is connected to the body by a spring or hook,in such a way, that a light tap will cause the head to bobble, hence the name.” It is safe to say that in India, a lot of us are bobble heads.

Courtesy to You Tube, I am sharing this clip that I found quite intriguing:

I have found that, in general, people prefer to have their heads bob from side to side, than to say yes. Even funnier, I have noticed that often times, people will say yes with a bobble, as if to double assure you of their response. However, what is interesting to me is the fact that I myself am gradually picking up the nod and noticing it being a more pronounced part of my communication style. I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined that not only would I get irritated with my Caucasian friends over the nod, but also use it myself. I am not sure how I feel about it, considering I do not identify with this style of communication and yet I am using it more often than I would like. I can only conclude that this is one of my ways of fitting in to the Indian culture. It’s really amazing how human beings adapt to their surroundings and pick up cultural traits that will allow them to be more accepted into the dominant culture. A few weeks ago I was at a party where there were several expats and I was talking with an anthropology student, visiting from the US, and if I had a rupee for every time he nodded while talking to me, I would have been a rich gal by the end of the evening. I was surprised and amused by how well he had mastered the art of nodding, as if he lived here all his life.

On that note, here’s to a nation of bobble heads! I shall continue to observe my own bobbling and be amused by this new and unintentional adoption of one of the many Indian styles of communication.


Living in Two Worlds, and it’s Getting Tiring

I live in two worlds, I dream in two worlds, I exist in two realms that are parallel to each other but are starkly different all the same. Yes, I am still in limbo, living between San Francisco and Mumbai. The last few days have been a downer for me, as the memories of San Francisco have been magnetizing and mesmerizing. I still find it hard to believe that I have left 10 years of living in the US and am now trying to settle down in India. I really exist in two worlds, because while I am living and functioning in Mumbai, my memories keep drifting to my previous life in San Francisco.

I don’t know how to explain it to someone who has not gone through this experience – of transitioning from one continent to another, of adjusting to a completely different culture, of exposing yourself and your vulnerabilities to a different kind of people, and of having to leave behind the luxuries and memories of a very comfortable and secure life. It was certainly a choice we made, although we are still not sure that it was the right one. But, nothing is for sure in life; nothing is guaranteed. There is a certain level of trust and surrender that I need to have in order to make it through each day. It’s funny though, a lot of my friends and family, both in the USA and in India, are convinced that my husband and I will be back in San Francisco before you could even say “chimichanga” (it’s a deep-fried burrito that is popular in Southwestern US cuisine. We used to love having Mexican food in San Francisco). I laugh every time they remark about our eventual return, and I know that it will not happen. We are making a life here – building a private practice (for me), renovating our home, developing a social and professional network, and letting our own personal roots sink into the soil of Mother India. I honestly do not foresee another move in the future, at least not for a very long time. But, nothing is for sure in life; nothing is guaranteed.

It’s so surreal this move, as if I were always in a dream, constantly in a haze of the past and the present. Sometimes I am lost, especially when I sit in a public bus or train, drifting through the streets and crowds that go on and on. This is a tiring process and a process I am assuming that one has to go through, whether they like it or not. It’s so hard to describe this feeling to anyone because it is so personal. 8 months later, it still does not feel like I belong here, like this is home. And I am hopeful, quite hopeful, that with the re-creation of our apartment, and the opening of our 19 boxes that have been shipped from the USA in September (and have not been touched at all), I may be able to make peace with my new life, my new beginning.


The “Bhangarwala”

Wanna get rid of old stuff or junk? Get in touch with the bhangarwala! The few years I stayed in Mumbai while attending college, I was always aware of the Bhangarwala, would hear their calls, and would see them wandering the neighborhood, like a cat on its prowl. I was a little curious about them, but never paid any attention to them at all. It was only recently that I have had several interactions with them and have greatly benefited from their services!

If you break down the term “Bhangarwala”, it makes for an interesting analysis of the word.  “Bhangar” means several things in different Indian languages. It could refer to “old stuff in the house”, “gold”, or even “scrap”. The term “wala” refers to person or man in Hindi. So the Bhangarwala is the person who deals in scrap or old house-hold stuff. It’s like a big pawn shop on wheels!

As part of the house renovations, we had the choice of either just thrashing our old furniture and cabinets as debris or engage in the delights and pains of dealing with the Bhangarwala. It was really an amazing experience. When you need a Bhangarwala, they miraculously appear with their flimsy carts made of tin and aluminum. Here is an image of the cart that is so common amongst the streets of Mumbai, any part of the city:

The cart upon which the Bhangarwala transports all kinds of items (don't miss the paan stains on the building wall!!)

The cart upon which the Bhangarwala transports all kinds of items (don't miss the paan stains on the building wall!!)


Her is the side view of the cart – rather flimsy looking piece of contraption, but does the job with efficiency and ease!


The Bhangarwala will take anything you need to get rid off…. My first attempt at recruiting a Bhangarwala was quite successful and effortless. I walked out of my rental apartment, found out the main street where they all hang out, and sought the services of one Bhangarwala who happened to be in the area. He followed me to the renovation site, and when I showed him all the stuff I needed to get rid of, his eyes lit up, like a child in a candy store. I had plenty of goodies for sale…..old cupboards, dining tables and chairs, a kitchen sink, cabinets and dressers, metallic scraps and electrical wires, doors of bedrooms and balconies, brass taps and bathroom fittings…these were some of the goodies that were up for grabs. But it was not as easy as it may sound.

The Bhangarwala said he would take all my wares, but I had to engage in the process of negotiating and renegotiating. Some of these negotiations took over an hour where each party would assess the goods, name a price, debate on it, and then reassess and re-evaluate, and the entire process would begin, again! It was really tortuous doing all of this in the heat of the day, where I was on the verge of wanting to just give in, but my Mumbaikar spirit just gave me the strength and spirit to stick to and get the price that I thought was fair. What was spooky about this all is that I had several Bhangarwalas who, upon hearing that things were being sold from my apartment, would almost stalk me every time I came to the renovation site. They would wait by the entrance of the building and ask me questions like when I was planing on selling my windows or when I was planing on getting rid of the bathroom pipes. It was a really bizarre experience seeing several of these men interested in wanting scarps from the house.

Here is some of the stuff that I got rid off in one day and got a decent chunk of change for them:

Old windows, bedroom doors, aluminum frames, metallic pipes and wooden frames

In India, we really give the word “recycle” a whole new meaning. I would have never thought that such old stuff would be sold and would fetch me a decent sum of money – it was really incredible how these people scout for old scraps like vultures, creatures with a keen eye. It is also amazing to note that this “scrap” will be resold to another party who will most likely re-furbish these things and sell it for a slightly higher price. What a lucrative business!

Here is a close up of the stuff again:

Of course, the bhangarwala did not load all of this on his puny cart. He called some of his own men and organized a truck to carry all the furniture and materials and paid for the truck himself. I watched with great curiosity and admiration how these men work so hard at looking for a good deal and are so persistent at their job – convincing you to sell your stuff to them and only them!

To date, I have still got a call or two from one of the bhangarwalas who bought my stuff, inquiring if I am ready to sell my windows. And when I tell them “not yet”, they tell me in strict confidence, “Please sell them to only me, as I will give you the best price. Whatever any other person is giving you, I will give you double the price.” When I am ready to get rid of my windows, I will call up this bhangarwala, and we will go through the entire exercise again of negotiating and re-negotiating, until both parties are satisfied with the decided monetary amount for the windows. Until then, I can relax knowing that if the bhangarwala does not give me a price I like, I can find a 100 more bhangarwalas at my service!

The bhangarwala showing off his newly purchased goods

Mumbai is killing me big time!!!

I know it’s been ages since I last blogged, and as usual, I missed it. Blogging is my vent; a therapeutic release that that helps me put things into perspective through my sharing and reflections. However, I realize that I have been silent for several weeks, and believe you me, I have some very good reasons for doing so.

First off, the sheer exhaustion that I deal with everyday from just the excruciatingly humid weather is enough to kill one’s spirit! My god, there has to be a limit to the levels of humidity that dominate the Mumbai skies. I officially take a minimum of 2 showers a day, most days 3. The heat is relentless and this is only the month of April. Rumor has it that May is going to be a furnace, decimating every living and non-living being that dares to be out in the sun.

I don’t think I can say enough about the extent of suffering that I undergo each and everyday. Because my house is getting renovated, the rental place I live in only has an air conditioner in the bedroom – the living room is a sauna for all means and purposes. Life really is funny – In San Francisco, I used to pay $20 to use a sauna at a spa, because it was so cold in SF, that you would really need to work hard to sweat it out during your day-to-day activities. In Mumbai, the sauna is available 24/7, whether you want it or not! When I wake up in the morning and get out of my air-conditioned bedroom, I get out fully knowing that I will be stepping into my very own sauna. Life sure is greener on the other side!

I was reading the weather forecast today: “28 degrees Celsius, feels like 34.” And yes, please do not forget to add the 279% humidity!!!!!

Second, the house renovations have also been taking a lot out of me. It’s been one roller coaster ride trying to work with the contractor, the architects, and the society members, whilst also trying to maintain one’s sanity and mental status quo. Doing anything in India, especially a big project, requires a certain level of patience, diplomacy, aggressiveness, and shrewdness, in order to get your job done. Oh, and did I mention patience???? Yes, living in Mumbai demands a heck of a lot of patience and forbearance…and, for someone who lacks patience in general, it is beginning to dawn on me, more and more, that Mumbai will either make me or break me. I don’t know what will become of me, but I know something will.

All this is still unreal to me, very unreal to me. I want to crawl out of my skin and into a hole in the ground and hide from all this change; take refuge from the earth where I will be invisible to the millions of people that fill the streets and alleys, the many pockets and crevices of Mumbai. It’s been 7.5 months since we landed here and I just cannot believe how time has passed me by. Talking of the millions of people in Mumbai, my aunt who is visiting from Goa, brought her maid along as well. This was the maid’s first trip to Mumbai, and she was so scared when she went out on the streets with my aunt to do some veggie shopping – she was horrified, overwhelmed and fearful of the millions of people that swarmed the streets of Mumbai. I found it rather amusing that she felt this way, but then when I think about it, it cannot be any more amusing than my first reactions to Mumbai when I landed on the balmy night of September 5th, 2011. Like the maid, I too was horrified, overwhelmed and fearful of the many things, places, peoples, and situations I was to encounter. At least the maid gets to go back to Goa….I am staying.

The Crow

Alex Proyas’ 1994 movie entitled The Crow, literary exonerates the crow as a figure of deep wisdom and direction. It is a movie in which a crow is given reverence for its darkness and knowing. I always thought it strange that a movie was not only entitled “The Crow”, but also featured a crow that was larger than life and was instrumental in guiding the lead actor. Fast forward to 2012, and I now see that it is not only in the movies that the crow is appreciated, it is also the case with some of the denizens of Mumbai.

I have heard numerous accounts and myths about crows in India. The most famous one revolves around how crows are our ancestors, and should be respected, and if they ever poop on you, then consider it a blessing, a communication from the world beyond. Mumbai is littered with crows and you can hear them squawking a little after sunrise and a whole lot at dusk. If one crow spots some food, it will squawk till kingdom come, sending out the call for other crows to partake in the feast.

I really got a sense of how important crows were to some people in Mumbai when I experienced two instances. The first one occurred when I went to get coffee “to go” at a local restaurant. It was about 7:45 am and I was on my way to see a client and needed my caffeine fix. So I stopped by the restaurant, and while I was waiting for the coffee, I noticed the restaurant owner perform a rather curious ritual. From the restaurant kitchen, he brought out a small tray in which there was one cup of steaming hot tea and one plate of idli (South Indian lentil doughnut). He took the plate, offered it to the religious altar in his restaurant, stepped outside and did what I thought was truly amazing: he took the cup of chai and threw it on the pavement, and took the idli and threw that as well. All the while, the crows had been hanging outside, clearly in anticipation of their breakfast. I asked the restaurant owner why he did that and he explained it was his way of daily honoring the crow and seeking its blessings for the success of the restaurant. I guess this trick is working, as the restaurant has been going strong for at least the last 20 years!

The second experience I have had a number of times. Sometimes when I look out the window, I see my neighbors putting chapattis (Indian bread) or rice cakes on their window sill. Within a few minutes, a crow or two arrive at the scene, partaking in the paltry but nourishing bites. I have noticed that the crows are not revered by any religion in India. Being a secular country, there are several religions and sects that exist in India. I have found that it is mostly the Hindus that have a connection with this species of the animal kingdom.

Every morning I am greeted by my own ritual which involves the crows and my cat, and me as the spectator. It is a usual affair: the cat wakes me up in the morning for her breakfast, she quickly nibbles on the spoonful of goodies, and then makes her way to the window sill where she knowingly attracts the wrath of her animal neighbors, the crows. She watches them for about 15 minutes, and sometimes, I notice a smug look on her face. She is amused by the cacophony of the black birds, knowing that they cannot touch her.

Here she is, comfortably perched on the window sill:

Here is one crow brave enough to sit in close proximity of the cat (please excuse the dirty window):

And a few more pictures of the number of crows that flock to the neighboring tree to give the cat a piece of their mind, and rightfully so!

The Crow……certainly an enigma to me and the cat. Every morning, they swoop into the sky, heralding a new dawn, a new beginning…like little black clouds in the blue sky, they are a perfect metaphor for the story of my life, how things stand today.

Sudden waves…Everyday is a surprise

Life is so amazing, sometimes. Just when you think you are beginning to settle in and get your feet wet, you are hit by sudden waves of emotion, a tsunami of feelings and memories that overwhelms you in a matter of seconds. The funny part of it all is that you had no idea it was coming!

Yesterday evening, I enjoyed the solitude of my own company, writing down my notes for my therapy sessions, reflecting on how every individual is so unique, and every story is so valid and important. I decided I would listen to Rod Stewart’s famous song, “I don’t want to talk about it.” I am not sure what prompted me to do so, and by the middle of the song, the dam broke and I felt a surge of emotions and tears come over me; I was possessed by the memories and experiences I had of San Francisco for the last 10 years, the innumerable opportunities that were presented to me to grow as a person and professional, and the few but precious friendships that were forged over time. I was surprised, utterly shocked, at how I was feeling. Like a silent visitor lingering in the corner of my mind, these feelings just popped out of no where. Just when I thought I was beginning to move on and embrace my new life, my world gets turned upside down and I feel the ground below my feet is breaking….breaking lose and I am losing my mind.

I guess these feelings and sense of loss are being heightened due to the fact that, in a way, I am now homeless. Yes, I do have a roof over my head, but it is not mine. I have a house to live in, but it is not a home. While my house renovations are going on, I will have to learn to make peace with my temporary (rental) house; I will have to learn to deal with the loss of my old life and friends, while also accepting the temporary loss of a house that is currently being worked on. There’s nothing worse than having a sense of “not belonging.” I do not know how long this feeling will last…..Mumbai is still a whole new world to me, and each day is a surprise. I know I just have to trust and be fully open to the new life I have created for myself, and that’s easier said than done, but I shall try…..for I have miles to go before I sleep.