Meeting Mumbai Again After a Life-Changing Loss

How does a place change when the person who defined it for you is now gone?

Crowd of people near a shoreline in India

Juhu Beach stretches roughly three miles along the Arabian Sea. It is one of Mumbai’s most visited destinations.

Photo by Avani Rai

It is Mumbai in November, which is to say: hot.

I have stood where I am standing many times before, in all eras of my life—as a baby wobbly on my own two feet, as a bespectacled kid with scraped knees, as an awkward teen tugging down the skirt that attracts too much attention, as a young woman backpacking after college, and as a newlywed, visiting with my husband.

This time I am here as a writer, wife, mother. I’m around the corner from the park teeming with morning walkers, in the leafy suburb of Vile Parle, on the street where my grandparents, and then my aunt, used to live in a building called Nav Samaj. I remember every inch of it: the mineral smell of the staircase, the daybed where I spent hours as a child reading piles of Reader’s Digests. The cool tile floor I’d lie on when the heat was overwhelming, the dark kitchen in which some of the most spectacular meals of my life were created. The almirah in the bedroom that held my grandmother’s starched, mothball-scented saris.

Left: A person in red holds a bouquet of red roses. Right: a busy street in Mumbai.

Mumbai is one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world.

Photos by Avani Rai

But the view has changed; Nav Samaj is gone. A new building, Navasamaj—the name spelled out in large gold letters on the construction’s false front, with an image portraying a hulking complex three times the size of the original—is being erected in its place. I point to show my four-year-old daughter, Kavi, trying to explain the rift in my vision. She’s never been to India before: She’s too young to see this ghost.

There is no city more beautiful and richer with personal history to me than this one—where my parents grew up, fell in love, and left in their twenties for America. And yet, there is also no city in which I feel more out of my depth. Growing up, I’d visit for weeks at a time but rarely see anything of Mumbai. Passed like a parcel between family members, I never touched money, never went anywhere alone, and spent most of my time in the rooms of my relatives. But my mother’s sister-in-law (my Mami, in Gujarati) showed her Mumbai to me. Ila Mami understood something about her city and perhaps about me, too.

Left: A vendor holding a bunch of balloons. Right: a crowded bus in Mumbai.

The best times to visit the city are between November and March, when the weather is drier.

Photos by Avani Rai

Once, when I was visiting as a teenager, we bought a CD of pirated Hindi music from a man on the street. Back home, in the apartment that no longer exists, Ila Mami leapt to her feet to dance, egging me on until I danced, too. Another time, standing outside the market where we had gone to shop, she paused at a guava cart—you want? Yes, I always wanted—she wiped the fruits off with her handkerchief before placing them in my hand. There she was haggling for pants for me; there she was stopping to buy me kulfi, the frozen dessert brought out of the refrigerated cart, sliced to serve by machete. There we were, in the middle of a rainstorm, drenched and laughing, reveling in the wild kind of rain that comes and goes in an instant. It was not just sharing pleasure and joy with Ila Mami; it was that she lit the city for me. But it is now 2023, and my vivacious, life-loving aunt is no longer alive, gone before her time. Most of my other relatives have moved, and some have left India entirely.

Every city holds a universe inside it, none more so than Mumbai. There are as many pathways through the city as there are people in it, but my pathmakers are gone. Seven years after I last visited, I am in Mumbai with my white husband and our mixed-race daughter to try to see the present city. Yes, we will always be foreigners here. But is there a moment, a meal, an exchange that will make Mumbai legible to us? And will I be able to find it, the way my aunt once found it for me?

Left: A scene from a market with peppers, vegetables, and flowers. Right: Two girls by Mumbai's harbor.

The Mumbai area is home to multiple parks and gardens, several beaches, and three UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Photos by Avani Rai

The next day, we take a rickshaw to Juhu Beach, the longest and most popular stretch of sand in Mumbai. The rickshaw passes easily from mostly empty streets through crowded snarls of traffic—and then reaches the sea. Down the expanse of beach, we admire the waterworn faces of the once gorgeous Bombay-deco houses that line the ocean, their colors faded, many windows boarded up. I still find them beautiful. I remember ponies, even elephants, that we could pay to ride, people selling marbled balloons on sticks, bhel puri vendors handing over the crispy puffed rice in cones of newsprint. But I also grew up visiting Girgaon Chowpatty Beach in southern Mumbai, and these memories are so fuzzed over with time, I cannot discern if they were from one beach or another. Juhu Beach today is crowded with aunties in running shoes, picnicking families, and boys and men of all ages playing cricket. The shore curves, disappearing into smog and sea mist north to Versova, where people fish in boats painted with eyes.

We walk to one end of the beach and then turn around, hot and a little hungry. We buy a coconut for my daughter but can’t communicate to the coconut vendor that we want him to split open the husk to scoop out its cream—a failure my husband and I would have laughed off or rolled our eyes at, but to which my daughter responds with a howl. Now we’re kneeling in the sand, American-parenting, with I hear you and you seem very frustrated, watched by bemused vendors and passersby who apparently have never seen such a tantrum or such ineffective parents. “You promised,” she wails, and we had. We pick her up in defeat, to head home. But in the rickshaw, the driver mistakes the address I offer in my American accent to be one in the opposite direction from Vile Parle, and a ride that took 15 minutes on the way there takes four times as long on the way back, the driver alternating between questioning us in exasperated Hindi and shaking his head at our stupidity. Hearing my voice, even as I try to soften its long bland vowels and lazy consonants, makes me blush, trying for bottle instead of baddle, sorry instead of sawry. Home again in the flat, we’re chastened and exhausted and surrender to jet lag much too early.

People resting on motorcycles near fruit stand.

Mumbai is also famous for its legendary traffic congestion.

Photo by Avani Rai

That night, I lie awake in bed, my body humming with frustration. That I cannot make myself intelligible in Mumbai, as I failed to communicate with the rickshaw driver this morning, shows me the shut face of the city. I realize that no place implicates me in failure more than this one. It is a painful failure that sits inside my privilege as an American, whose face marks her as being of here, but whose voice and carriage highlight her as an outsider. How will I find my way through?

Sanjay Gandhi National Park lies like an emerald in the sprawl of the endless city. For me, it’s a clean slate, free of memory or expectation. Despite dozens of trips to Mumbai, I’ve never been to this park, which was established a couple years before my parents left India. It’s a place that’s around the same age as I am. It’s our third day in Mumbai, and we take the train—get off at the wrong station, get on again—and then hire a rickshaw whose stated price becomes absurd once we realize it’s an easily walkable journey.

Left: People playing in the water at a beach in Mumbai. Right: A spread of banana leaves with fruit and vegetables.

Mumbai is home to thriving art, culture, food, and nightlife scenes.

Photo by Avani Rai

The park is nearly 40 square miles, where abundant playgrounds and fields used for cricket and netless badminton give way, deeper in, to wilder terrain. Together as a family of three we wander through the spacious, tree-shaded landscape and admire the fantastical spotted butterflies, and others, palm-size, whose wings are an iridescent, impossible blue. We find a playground, and my daughter climbs a tree, impressing an older boy who climbs up after her. A little girl ambles over to Kavi attempting to strike up a friendship: My daughter, beset with shyness, puts her hands up at her chest and begins to hop like a bunny. The girl copies her. When we chat with her parents, it feels not dissimilar to the playground conversations we strike up at home—as though we are being seen, for the moment, as ourselves.

Near the boating area of the park, vendors sweep away the dust and spread down cloths to sell their wares: sliced unripe star fruit sprinkled with salty-sweet spice, pressed sugarcane juice, and fresh lime soda. We buy coconut water for my daughter and watch her flushed face ease as she drinks. Without being asked, the coconut vendor splits the fruit for the cream, and hands her a shard of the shell to use as a scoop. Here is a pleasure, one that Ila Mami might have offered me, that I can at last extend to my daughter: a small success to lay against the small failures, the miscommunications, and the tantrums.

Left: A girl with red ribbons in her hair. Right: A high-rise building in Mumbai.

There are over 5,500 high-rise buildings in Mumbai.

Photo by Avani Rai

Kavi is light skinned and copper haired, but here in the park she wears her Sanskrit name proudly. Her face is streaked with dirt, her shoes are covered in red dust, and her inquisitive eyes are open to the movement of the butterflies and wind-nudged trees, the scattering menace of over-friendly monkeys, and the happy river of faces. I have few memories of my earliest visits to India. What will she remember of this?

Moment by moment, this city will teach me to stay awake to the present, to pay attention, to follow the thread of human connection, to take pleasure where it’s found.

We’re tired—happy tired—on the train ride home. My daughter folds herself into my lap and sleeps as we pass through the changing city, where gleaming towers of luxury housing are springing up in outer suburban neighborhoods and where forests have been cleared for highways. A different feeling is spreading in me—not of confidence, of mastery, but one of playfulness. An openness to the new. Mumbai is a city that rewards flexibility, something I think my aunt knew best.

A busy train terminal in Mumbai, India

The Mumbai Suburban Railway carries more than 7.5 million commuters every day.

Photo by Avani Rai

In the days that follow, we will delight over little clay cups of cardamom-rich chai and bowls of sabudana khichdi, which is spiced just to the edge of tolerance, the soft, chewy tapioca contrasting with the crunch of peanuts and the sharpness of lime. In the mornings, the air will be honeyed and cool, and Mumbai will seem like the best city in the world, lush and gentle and filled with guava, custard apple, and dragon fruit, which I bring home for my daughter to taste for the first time. I will visit a handicraft exposition much like the one I last visited with Ila Mami, and watch Umar, the salesman, as he gently unfurls luminous scarf after scarf, and I will remember what an absolute pleasure it is to shop in India. My husband will tear into a lifafa wrap from Swati Snacks, the both of us nearly shouting at the exquisite mix of mint and fat, the slow burn of chili. Like biting into art. There will be a bright brass band that beckons us to stop and listen as it passes, the festival it commemorates a mystery but our bodies filling anyway with a booming joy. I will watch my daughter laugh, sliding down the tallest slide at the school next to the flat in Vile Parle. I will look at my husband, who wears his out-of-placeness with good humor, who wears the wedding ring we bought together with Ila Mami. Moment by moment, this city will teach me to stay awake to the present, to pay attention, to follow the thread of human connection, to take pleasure where it’s found. It will never be Ila Mami’s Mumbai that I can offer my family or myself. But her memory has helped us find our own city.

Shruti Swamy is the author of The Archer (Algonquin, 2021). Her work also appears in the Paris Review and the New York Times. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories about motherhood.
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