S4, E3: The Ghosts of Mumbai

On this week’s episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, a traveler in Mumbai asks: How does a place change when the person who defined it for you is now gone?

On the third episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, season four, author Shruti Swamy travels to Mumbai, India, after the loss of her beloved aunt to explore what the city means to her now.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, this is Travel Tales by AFAR. In every episode, we hear from a traveler about a trip that changed their life. Plus, this season, I’m sitting down with each storyteller to talk about life’s big travel questions. Well, I’m not really sitting down with them, because I’m recording all this from my houseboat in Sausalito, but you know what I mean.

Have you ever visited a place that was shaped for you by someone else? What does that place mean to you once you’re gone? That’s the question we’re exploring this week, on a poetic journey to Mumbai, India. We’re traveling with Shruti Swamy, a San Francisco–based author who’s written a novel called The Archer and a short story collection called A House Is a Body. Shruti’s parents grew up in Mumbai, but for her, the city has always been a place where she’s felt out of her depth.

She didn’t grow up there, but she has deep familial connections to it, and as you’ll soon hear, she’s spent a lot of time here. But her aunt, who she called Ila Mami, was in many ways the key to the city for her. And then Ila Mami passed away. Last year, Shruti traveled back to visit the city without her aunt, on assignment for AFAR’s magazine. But this time she brought her husband and four-year-old daughter. And she found that sharing the city with her daughter, who had never been there before, unlocked something completely new.

One note: At the top of the episode, I referred to the city of Mumbai, which is the name AFAR uses. In the story, Shruti calls it Bombay, which was the city’s name until 1995. And that’s because that’s how her family referred to the city at home and how she’s always thought of it.

Aislyn: Well, welcome to Travel Tales. It’s really lovely to have you with us today.

Shruti Swamy, author: Thank you for having me.

Aislyn: Yeah, of course. The story did come out of an essay that you wrote for the magazine, and I was curious, since you primarily write fiction, was it different for you in any way to write this, this essay?

Shruti: Oh yeah. Thanks for that question. So yeah, it was totally different in this very pleasurable way. Because I feel like when you’re writing fiction, you’re not quite—what was so wonderful was being able to process and experience through language right after it was happening.

I think that, especially traveling in a place like India, which is so dense with meaning, it was really a pleasure to have that experience with the idea of the story in mind and then come home and then try and figure out what it meant through language. And I think that that process was so beautiful for me cuz it allowed me to, like, explore all these ideas that felt really meaningful to me and kind of like solidify my memories of that trip, which was brief, but very intense and very meaningful.

Aislyn: Did it change anything about the experience for you? I mean, you said it solidified your memories, but was there any other way that it altered the, the trip?

Shruti: Hmm, in hindsight, maybe it made it feel longer, honestly. Cuz we were there for such a short period of time and I would generally never travel for that period of time in India cuz it’s like way too quick, but we did so much during those days and just being able to have a, like a richer memory of them—yeah, definitely, like, expanded that in retrospect.

Aislyn: Interesting. And you had your daughter with you, and I imagine that was also an experience.

Shruti: It certainly was!

Aislyn: How did the story evolve from the time that you pitched it to the moment that you sat down to write?

Shruti: Um, well, the story went through many evolutions, but I think that that—and that’s something kind of interesting about working with nonfiction. With fiction, you have this, like, pretty clear frame and idea and things like shift a little bit, but nonfiction things are so malleable, and there were so many things that happened in that trip that I didn’t write about, you know?

My mom was actually there on that trip with me and she was in an earlier draft, and then my wonderful editor was like, “I think this too much.” Which is true, you know, that, like, we needed to sharpen the focus. So there’s, um, yeah, there were a lot of elements. I was pretty open when I went to India. I had some ideas more broadly about the city and the city’s history and was curious about whether or not I would incorporate that.

And the, the focus it took really wound up being shaped by the experiences that I had. And, you know, I could have actually written, like, four or five different essays about what happened there because so many things happened and, um, you make such conscious decisions. It’s really interesting working in nonfiction. Just what you say, what you don’t say, really shapes the course of the story.

Aislyn: Did you have expectations going into this trip for your experience for the city?

Shruti: Oh, that’s a good question. Did I have expectations? I was actually honestly quite terrified to be traveling with my four-year-old daughter. I was like, “I have no idea how this is gonna work.” So if I had expectations, it was just like, “This is gonna be a catastrophe” sort of. And I was pretty surprised by how, um, she just—I mean, she’s four and she’s a very, like, a very willful person. But it was kind of, um, amazing to watch her make sense of what she was seeing, which was so different from her normal reality. And we’d been in COVID until then. So we hadn’t even really traveled at all with her.

I mean, I had an expectation that it was gonna be really hard—and it was, really, it wasn’t that it wasn’t hard, it was totally very hard. But I was also—there was a, a sense of, um, I don’t know, delight or something where I was getting to share these memories and these experiences and these, like, foods and these sites with her and these stories that came from it. And I guess I wasn’t totally expecting her to like it so much, but I think she felt she—I think she really liked it.

Aislyn: Wow. That is so cool. It was hard. And she liked it.

Shruti: Somehow!

Aislyn: Has she retained memories of this trip? Like, what was her experience kind of after the fact?

Shruti: Um, you know, we haven’t talked about it recently, so I’m not totally sure. But I’ve been telling her the stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and I think there’s this way where I’m like, “You know, in India—the place we were—that, like, that took place there.” Like, we were in Mathura briefly, and we saw these monkeys, and they’re scary because they’ll come up to you because people have been feeding them. And I’m not somebody who wants to be like—I’m not gonna come into your country and, like, tell you how to be. But this was just driving me truly insane. Like, “These monkeys are horrible. Don’t you notice that this is so awful?”

Anyways, so we would have a—we would always carry a stick when we were walking around, and then sometimes in Mathura especially, you’d have to, like, actually brandish the stick to get them away from you. And obviously she thought this was totally hilarious.

So we do—yeah, she definitely has some memories of that, but it’s like, you know, similar to how I was as a child. Like, I think that there’s some images, some sensations, some tastes, some smells, and almost like a feeling, like a vibe that you get from being there that you can just bring back with you. Some of it consciously, some of that unconsciously. I think that that’s definitely there, even though it was a brief trip for her.

Aislyn: How cool that she gets at a young age, you know—that becomes part of her consciousness. What was the hardest part of the trip for you?

Shruti: I think it was just the sense of disorientation and it was—it’s not a fully unfamiliar sense of disorientation. It’s definitely a version of a feeling that I’ve had every time I’ve been there. I think that it’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to, and I have often felt as an adult while I’m there, I’m, like, peering through these layers of history and trying to catch little glimpses of the city that it used to be.

And I was definitely doing that, but I think it’s a, it’s not even like, “Where am I in the city?” It’s like literally, “Who am I in the city?” A profound sense of disorientation because of my deep connection to the place. And also like a deep disconnection from the place, um, and especially the city in the present moment. So, I mean, all of the very pedestrian frustrations that we face actually sort of stem from this kind of deeper disquieting sense of dislocation, I think.

Aislyn: If you were to try to predict, how would you see your relationship with Mumbai unfolding going forward?

Shruti: I would love to spend more time there, honestly. It seems like a pretty difficult city to live in and to navigate, definitely. But it’s not just a beautiful city. It’s like, it’s such a beautiful way of living. Um, I felt that so keenly in certain moments and felt definitely a desire to be able to experience that more fully.

 Shruti: It is Bombay in November, which is to say: hot. It’s not much past nine in the morning, and I can already feel sweat prickling at my neck. I wedge myself into the umbrella of shade cast by a nearby tree.

I have stood where I am standing many times before—as a child, wobbly on my own two feet, as a bespectacled youth with scraped knees, an awkward teen tugging down the skirt that attracts too much attention, a young woman backpacking post-college, and a newly married writer.

I am now rooted again, blinking, beside my husband and four-year-old daughter, trying to take in the density of traffic, animals, fruit carts stacked with green and orange coconuts, others with thumb-sized bananas, still others with dry ruby-colored berries called chani bor.

Not to say anything of the river of college kids, office workers, domestic workers, cooks. I see even more people: rickshaw drivers, key copiers, cell phone accessory hawkers, school kids with their oiled hair in ribboned loops and giant backpacks, their parents dressed and ready for work.

A universe exists in one square block of Bombay the way a universe exists in a drop of ocean water. There is so much to see, I wonder if I can see anything at all.

Bombay is too hot, bright, beautiful, and friendly a city for me to think of as haunted. Yet it is peopled by the loved ones who have departed it, through immigration or through death. Those who have gone outnumber those members of my family who remain.

It’s peopled too by other ghosts, that of my mother and father’s young person selves. The traces of their lives and the lives of their families the city holds in its silent, capacious memory. And the final, most fleeting ghost of all is the ghost of my own self. The ghost of if my parents had stayed, if this had been my city in the way it was my cousins. (Though my cousins, all but one, have now left it.)

Who is she, the me who stayed, whose face matches the faces around her, whose tongue shapes perfect Hindi, whose body was grown on the food this soil yielded, whose ears are filled with the languages of her home?

The last time I was in this city, in 2016, my mother’s sister-in-law Ila, was alive: she died a few years later, before COVID hit. I called her Mami, the name of our relationship in Gujarati. Like Bombay, Ila Mami was too friendly and bright to do any haunting, yet on this visit I feel her everywhere.

On previous visits, other relatives dutifully served as tour guides and chaperones, taking me to the houses of relatives and points of local interest. Flickering outside the car window, Bombay was flat and foreign, a city that existed beyond my understanding. But Ila Mami understood something about her city, and perhaps about me too.

My aunt understood pleasure. Though she’s gone now, I can’t help but look for her face, a youthful creamy brown, her dark friendly eyes set deep in their hollows, dark lips that were often parted with laughter.

Once, we bought a CD of pirated Hindi music from a guy selling them on the street—back home, in the Parle apartment that used to be my grandparents’, and now no longer exists, she leapt to her feet to dance to a particularly irresistible song, egging me on until I was dancing too. In rafts of rain that blew into the rickshaw, we went on our final, epic shopping trip, where she helped me find my wedding ring. It was much too plain for her taste, but she made sure I got a fair price when she couldn’t talk me into something more extravagant.

We stood outside the exposition hall where we had gone to shop for handicrafts and had bought a trendy outfit, a long, navy-colored kameez and wide-legged eyelet embroidered pants. In a break between downpours, she paused at a guava cart—you want?—she asked. Yes, I always wanted.

The guavas, small, pink, ripe, fragrant, she bought for me, wiped them off with her handkerchief before placing them in my hand. I tried my new outfit on when we got home, then she did, crowing with delight that the cream-colored pants fit her too. No matter how Bombay has changed so visibly since I was last in it, it is this change, her absence, my mind cannot accept.

What is a city then, if the people who defined it for you are gone? Bombay is a city that holds many pleasures for many palates—hot chai and street food, the dazzle of textiles, a cocktail on a rooftop lounge, the brightly colored inflatable seacraft floating on the shallows of Juhu Beach, the crisp air of a jewelry store.

But pleasure without the force of something behind it burns out almost as soon as it’s consumed; it does not translate into joy, or even understanding. I don’t have those cream-colored pants anymore, but I have the memory of Ila Mami haggling for them; she was a world-class bargainer, not in the least because she understood it for the game it was.

The kulfi brought out of the refrigerated cart, colorful blocks wrapped in leaf and sliced to serve by machete—the flavors are gone now, but I remember the way she remembered me and stopped for it. It was not just sharing pleasure with her, it was that pleasure meant something to us, it lit the city with the flared light of a struck match, and made us visible in brief flashes to each other. It was a way of ordering an unorderable city. It was through this lens we looked together, and through it, Bombay seemed to make a kind of sense.

Now as I look for pleasure here, I look too for connection. Here in a handicraft exposition in Dadar so like the one I last visited with Ila Mami, I watch Umar, the salesman, sell. There is an art to it, and he is an artist, how he gently unfurls scarf after scarf.

What an absolute pleasure shopping is in India, passing your hands against the most fabulous textiles in existence, being shown one, then two, then three colors of scarves, draped over the scarf salesman’s arm. Then more, more even than you want to see, subtle patterns made from different shaded warp and weft that meet to make luminous color. And garish ones printed with computer-made graphics.

The eye and hand is overwhelmed, glutted, with the feeling of abundance. I understand this is a performance—and yet, there is something working in concert with it. It’s Umar’s life: It is Umar’s humanity glinting through the performance that gives it its force, like a method actor drawing on real memory, baring his real self to the audience despite—or even because of—the artifice.

So pleased we are with each other, he the perfect actor and I the perfect audience, that he writes his phone number on the invoice and invites me to come stay with him and his mother in Kashmir, the next time I’m in India: not for selling, he says, this is from the heart.

Can two people meet in the space of an exchange, with all its inherent imbalances, to glimpse the other? I wonder this a few days later when I am stopped at an intersection. A hijra, third-gender person in a red sari and a perfect red lip approaches my rickshaw. Her grace in the sari is luminous, the movement of her long limbs and her upright bearing expresses a complete sense of self-possession.

I glance away as I shake my head no to her request for money, and she accepts my no but puts a hand on my shoulder, very gently, before moving on. It is a gesture unmistakably of blessing. And I am pierced by it, by pleasure, without the sensory fizz, by, perhaps, the true thing: connection itself. It pins me into the present tense.

The ghosts of Bombay vanish in the cast light of the present, and I feel hungry for this city and the self I bring to it: I can almost see it for what it is. A staggeringly vast library of human joy, suffering, and ingenuity.

In a neighborhood north of the city, me, my husband, and my daughter take the train and then a rickshaw to Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Despite having visited Bombay at least a dozen times in my life, I have never been.

Together we wander through the spacious, tree-shaded landscape admiring the iridescent, palm-sized butterflies. The conversations of birds describe the space to us if we close our eyes, and so do the quieter voices of the old trees, stirred to life by the wind moving through their leaves. And monkeys, vicious, grooming, copulating, fed human food by human hands, and demented from it; we give them wide berth.

The park is enormous. Abundant playgrounds and dusty fields used for cricket and netless badminton give way, deeper in, to wilder terrain. Near the lake, vendors sweep the dust flat and spread down cloth to sell their wares, snacks of sliced, unripe starfruit and guava sprinkled with salty sweet spice, sugarcane juice pressed fresh while you wait for it, nimbu pani and fresh lime soda.

We buy a coconut whole from a nearby vendor: he skims the top off with one whack of a machete. In the heat, coconut water, sucked through a thin straw from the belly of the coconut itself, works on the body like medicine. I watch my child’s flushed face ease as she drinks.

In an act of grace, the coconut vendor gets up to offer her his seat, an offer she is too shy to accept. Heat rash prickles her chest, her fair cheeks turn red in the heat, qualities we’ve never had the chance to observe in temperate San Francisco.

When I take her to the bathroom, an enormous insect the size of my hand watches us from its perch on the closed door. I’m fascinated, she’s perturbed: I want it to go back into nature, she says, but feels pity when I point out that it’s more afraid of us than we are of it. I think it is a locust, that biblical pest, still, singular on the door of the bathroom, it looks like a thing carved from wood by a genius.

We go back outside. Light-skinned, copper-haired, my little one, but here she wears her Sanskrit name, Kavita, proudly. Her face is streaked with snot and dirt, her shoes covered in red dust, her inquisitive eyes open to, but not overwhelmed by the cacophony of visual information, the way mine often are.

I have few memories of my earliest visits to India, but some bursts of sense, of smell and sound, return me to an earlier time, not even a memory because it is too diffuse, more of a familiar feeling. What will she remember of this trip?

And here it is, where I least expect it: another ghost, that of the grown girl who is present in possibility.

Aislyn: That was Shruti Swamy. Shruti doesn’t have any plans to visit India again soon, but she says her daughter still remembers (and misses) the relatives they met there. Shruti said she’s been thinking recently about how much her daughter and Ila Mami would have liked each other and has been sharing more stories about Ila Mami.

We’ll link to the magazine piece Shruti wrote for AFAR, as well as her books and website in our show notes. Thanks for listening!

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This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.

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