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How Does a Traveler Find the Real Mumbai?

AFAR chose a destination at random and sent writer Catherine Lacey, with 24 hours’ notice, to the west coast of India, where a teeming city was the stuff of dreams.

Though it was nearly midnight, the highway was dense with traffic, motorbikes whirring through narrow gaps, all the horns a constant staccato. Ganesh Chaturthi was still a week away, but Mumbai was already preparing for this Hindu festival, which fills the city with hundreds of statues of the elephant-headed god, handmade papier-mâché and clay idols that are displayed and danced around for 10 days before being paraded and plunged into the sea. A half-built Ganesha loomed beside my gridlocked cab. He would be mud again before the month was over.

I was awestruck to watch a man bike past my window with a twin mattress balanced on the handlebars, but over the next few days cumbersome objects being transported on two wheels quickly became mundane—furniture, televisions, families of four, even a large board displaying knives and meat cleavers.

I spotted the knife guy midway through my week in western India, on the seafront road near the Haji Ali Dargah, a white marble tomb on a tiny islet off the west coast of the city. I’d been watching pilgrims stream across a walkway above the water, heading toward the mirage-like structure. SUVs decorated with flower chains lined the road. Vendors sold snacks, juices, and piles of breadfruit. Children played or begged. There, in the middle of it, was this guy with his knives. It turns out he wasn’t just conspicuously transporting his knife collection but was one of the city’s many roving knife sharpeners, his bike doubling as a pedal-propelled whetstone servicing everyone from roadside coconut salesmen to chicken butchers. It was one of the many times that something was not what it first seemed to be.

I was on foot after discarding the advice to take cabs because Mumbai was supposedly “not walkable,” and though it’s true that the city isn’t designed for pedestrians, it seemed to me that pedestrians outnumbered and often outpaced the clogged traffic. Yet, as I traversed the city alone, conspicuously foreign, I could not forget the recent spate of horrific violence against women in India that had made international headlines—nor the long conversation I’d had with my friend Siddartha the day before I left New York.

Siddartha, born in Orissa and raised partly in Bombay (he still refuses the city’s now 20-year-old name), moved to the United States in the mid-’90s. He was dismayed by the rise of a conservative and nationalist political party, the Shiv Sena, and though he’s energized by his yearly visits to the city, he’s still troubled by its politics and manners. He warned me at length about India’s “male-dominated culture” and suggested where I should and should not go, what I should and shouldn’t say to a man—any man, even the friends he offered to put me in touch with. And my friend Sara, who spent a few months in India five years ago, told me about the one night she slept alone in a Mumbai hotel where the male employees repeatedly tried to get into her room, as if the arrival of a young blonde woman without a male keeper amounted to a come-and-get-it holler.

“Cover your knees,” she advised, “and your shoulders, and your neck, and it wouldn’t hurt to cover your whole head if you can.”

“Some memories can overshadow what may have changed when you weren't looking”

With this in mind and limited hours to pack, I ended up with a suitcase of mismatched blouses and billowing skirts, and no matter what I put on, I looked like a pile of laundry. My lack of coordination felt fine when I wandered around the city by myself but seemed suddenly ridiculous at a book launch in the Goethe-Institut’s art gallery, where I’d been sent by a friend of a friend to meet the night’s host and moderator.

Thwarted by traffic, an inaccurate map, and the dripping end of monsoon season, I slipped into the back row a half hour late. When I later introduced myself to the thrice-removed friend, a journalist and critic, he asked what I was planning to write about. Without an easy answer, I rambled for a while, which he quietly tolerated before introducing me to someone else who introduced me to someone else who, in turn, introduced me to someone else, each person departing for better company or the snack table or the door, turning me into a sort of social hot potato, a clueless American hunting for the “real” Mumbai. Finally, after fielding several well-intentioned suggestions of well-trodden tourist spots, I tried to delicately bring up the question of this reportedly “male-dominated” culture, wanting to prove, I suppose, that I was not a potato.

I was immediately delivered to a woman whose intelligence hovered around her as if it had transmuted into a scent. I was told she’d written extensively about all manner of women’s issues, and I quickly sought her expert advice: How was the role of women in Indian society changing? Did they feel the culture growing more progressive, or had there been a conservative backlash? What challenges did they face?

The journalist stared blankly at me, shaking her head and insisting this was not a fruitful line of inquiry though it seemed she may have been trying to sneak out to dinner, or perhaps she just didn’t have time to really get into it. I mentioned Siddartha’s characterization and immediately realized why this woman discouraged my questioning. “Then again,” I said, backpedaling, “What country isn’t male dominated?”

“Exactly,” she said, easing away as if this dense or crazy woman might try again to commandeer her attention. Thinking back on it, I can’t blame her. All I had was a handful of anecdotes and a few days, and considering my haphazard ensemble (Tween Hobo on Holiday, you might say), it would not be unreasonable to think I’d gone off the rails. I hadn’t caught her name. But I could tell she didn’t want to keep in touch with me, a foreigner asking questions too complicated to answer at a book party.

Though my friends, Sara and Siddartha, aren’t alone in their dismay—journalist and novelist Aatish Taseer cited India’s “cultural chauvinism” in a recent New York Times essay—India is also undergoing massive economic growth, which tends to complicate any cultural climate. Mumbai, the country’s most populous city, is home to both the freewheeling Bollywood community and rigidly conservative politics; it’s rapidly changing in some ways and remaining static in others. To explore this captivating and complex city and reach any understanding beyond its surface is a dream in every sense—a delight and an impossibility.

While walking through an area that seemed pretty middle class, I saw several families living under tarps strung up with twine. Only a few blocks away, Antilia, possibly the world’s largest (27 high-ceilinged floors) and most expensive (hundreds of millions of dollars) single-family residence, loomed above us all. Named for an island that appeared on and then disappeared from ancient maps, Antilia is home to one of the world’s wealthiest businessmen, Mukesh Ambani, and his wife and children, who are served by a staff of hundreds.

Though the very existence of a home this lavish has caused controversy even among the Mumbai elite, it is not the only example of the country’s massive income disparity. Of course I couldn’t, in a week as an outsider, come anywhere close to understanding these issues of class and wealth, complicated by caste and gender, but I also couldn’t completely ignore them. Being on foot most of the time allowed me to notice all the messy in-between parts of Mumbai and make lunging attempts to understand where I was. 

One night I had dinner with Kiran Mehta, a travel writer I’d been introduced to via email. She suggested we meet for something called pani puri at Elco’s Market, a restaurant she assured me any cab or rickshaw driver would be on a first-name basis with.

“You’re going . . . to Elco’s?”

I said I was.

“You?” he asked again, aghast.

“Yes. For pani puri,” I said, hoping that name-dropping an insiders’ snack would lend me some legitimacy.

Earlier that day he’d done what all cabdrivers did to me here: He had taken me on an unrequested, mandatory shopping detour. The first couple times this had happened, I hadn’t realized what was going on, just gotten out of the car, been shooed into a shop, made a confused loop, and returned to the cab empty-handed, to the disappointment of the shopkeeper and the driver. What endears you to a cabdriver, however, if you’ve baffled him by being a white female ambivalent about shopping, is asking him to take you to Elco’s for pani puri—crispy little thumb-size shells filled with tamarind water and little floaty bits. He dropped me off with a nod and a smile.

Inside the restaurant, Kiran gamely coached me on how and when to accept a new pani puri: You stand at the cauldron where a man assembles and distributes them, one by one, to diners who eat them immediately, before the thin crisp collapses from the liquid. As with any regional delicacy, locals are slightly excited and amused to see an outsider consume pani puri; Kiran also assured me she had brought Imodium, just in case.

After a round of these little fried bits of “water bread,” Kiran ordered me something that wasn’t on the menu, a fist-size edible bowl heaped with crunchy bits, chewy bits, and various sauces and chutneys—a delicious mystery. From Elco’s we headed deeper into the Bandra suburb, where the young and well-to-do while away their late-night hours. We landed at Monkey Bar, a new spot decorated with kitschy art, where cocktails are served in mason jars. Ferociously popular, the place was packed, but we managed to nudge our way up to some bar stools. I told Kiran about my awkward night at the gallery and said I didn’t know what to make of all the warnings I’d been given about Mumbai’s male dominance and unwalkability.

A broom seller in Colaba

It was typical, Kiran said, of locals who left in the ’90s, to recall the city as it was then. Things had changed considerably, but expats tend to retain the worst memories. They often struggle to see today’s Mumbai for what it is, still complicated but welcoming to Westerners and safer for women. Every part of the world has its ugliness, of course, but like a photograph that’s viewed too many times, some memories can overshadow what may have changed when we weren’t looking.

“In the rural parts of the country, women often have no access to education and are dependent on marriage and men,” Kiran explained. But India’s population is massive, more than three times that of the United States, and Mumbai was a world away from the more conservative parts of the country. “Women want to live here,” she told me, because it’s a more tolerant city where they can pursue higher education and careers.

In an auto rickshaw back to the hotel that night, as heavy rain splashed in through the canvas flaps, I thought of how shortsighted I must have seemed to that journalist in the art gallery. I watched people bike, drive mopeds, and walk casually through the dark and pelting downpour, and I thought of how Manhattanites hunch and scurry through even the finest mists.

On a long wander through the city the next day, I ended up at a vegetarian restaurant called Soam, where a 20-year-old student struck up a conversation with me and, when he found out I was in the city as a travel writer, deadpanned, “This isn’t Mumbai.”

I could hear beautiful music drifting in from Babulnath Temple, an ancient Hindu landmark across the street, and yet, somehow, we were not in Mumbai. “This is one of the richest neighborhoods,” he said. “This isn’t how most of the city lives.”

Was I in Mumbai, perhaps, the next day, when I walked through the Dharavi slum? I was accompanied by a young man named Sunny, a guide from Reality Tours, a company that funds educational programs for residents. In some ways I did feel like I was more in Mumbai while there, ducking through the famously narrow alleyways and peeking into the factories staffed by men and women who help Dharavi gross $665 million annually, doing everything from recycling to leatherwork to baking papadums. Many, however, argue that the slum is more of a city unto itself, in but not of Mumbai.

Could you find Mumbai in the outdoor markets where locals and tourists rubbed shoulders, or was it in the opulent Phoenix mall where residents shop for clothes, some too inappropriate to wear in public? And which restaurant was more Mumbai—the very impressive Bombay Canteen, which serves delicious, updated Indian fare to international businesspeople and travelers, or the homey place near the art museum where I had a cheap but plentiful lentil-filled thali, that quintessential feast on a platter? Or was the real Mumbai only found in the street foods that foreigners are advised not to eat because the water will make them ill?

On my last full day, while I was finally checking out the art museum and the touristy Colaba district, I was approached by a group of kids, mostly girls, asking me for food. A charming, tenacious 13-year-old who seemed to be their ringleader sent me into a grocery store from which she was banned, then snuck in a back door to show me the rice and ghee she wanted. Another girl from the group, a shy 15-year-old from Pune, walked along the waterfront with me afterward. She explained that she comes to the city alone for a few months at a time, sleeping on the street and selling flower garlands to tourists so she can bring money back home, where there’s no work for her. She didn’t tell me this as if it were particularly sad, just that it was what she had to do. She said she missed her family, but it seemed she had so few options that even that nostalgia had become a distant feeling. Those children will always be the first faces I see when I think back on Mumbai, and it is more than disheartening to know that the money and food I gave them may have been taken back to someone pimping them out, which I was later told is pretty common.

That women want to live in Mumbai, that it’s male dominated and unwalkable—all of these things are true and not true. So often when we talk about a city, we do so in broad terms. But what that student in the restaurant told me will be right no matter where in Mumbai you say it—this is not Mumbai. I was left with the feeling that I had not seen, that I could not see the city, and perhaps that is how it should be; clarity would be a flat lie. As the main stage for much of India’s rapid cultural and economic development, Mumbai, in a week, left me with the feeling that something beautiful had just rushed by.

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