Travels in India, part 2: An Alien in Mumbai

I have a confession to make. Until I planned this trip I had no idea that Mumbai and Bombay were the same place (and I have a GCSE in geography!). It turns out that ‘Bombay’ is a Galician-Portuguese moniker, most likely meaning ‘good little bay’.

‘Bombay’ was renamed ‘Mumbai’ in 1995 when the local the Shiv Sena political party ascended to power. The change was intended to throw off the colonial connotations Shiv Sena believed were represented by the name ‘Bombay’, with ‘Mumbai’ being chosen to represent the Maratha heritage of the region, in honour of the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi. Mumba Devi temple can be found in Bhuleshwar in South Mumbai.

I don’t know why the temple is named ‘Mumba Devi Temple’, with ‘Mumba’ and ‘Devi’ being two separate words, while the Goddess Herself is usually referred to as ‘Mumbadevi’ in one word. Nor do I know why Shiv Sena associated the Galician-Portuguese ‘Bombay’ with British colonialism. Hopefully someone will be able to shed some light on these questions in the comments.

It seemed to me throughout the trip that the lingering effects of British colonialism were too deeply rooted to be repaired by a simple name change. Although, I must say, the shared consciousness of a fairly recent colonial past was not so evident in cosmopolitan Mumbai as it was in the much more rural Mount Abu, but that is a story for a couple of weeks time.

There are three things that strike you when you leave the airport in Mumbai. The first of these things is the humidity. I was already fairly discombobulated after my eventful plane journey and narrow escape from arrest (or at least Ashwani’s narrow escape). The complete alieness of having dew constantly attached to my skin made me feel like I was on another planet, not just another continent. Coming from the UK I had never experienced anything like it. I don’t know if it’s a strange sensation even for the locals. Perhaps someone could tell us?

Our plane had arrived in the middle of the night and the next thing I noticed was the seemingly endless stream of people sleeping on the roadside. I understand that these people were migrant labourers who would travel to large cities like Mumbai in hope of work, but with no accomodation. I guess that wouldn’t be a wise use of the money they had travelled in hope of earning.

I was told by our taxi driver that these people, almost exclusively teenage boys or young men, will work for months in the cities, and return home periodically to the families they had left in various villages and towns. Often they would have travelled for days, or even weeks to look for unskilled jobs that promised better pay than could be found outside of a city. It felt odd hearing about this way of life, trying to imagine the hardship of their journeys, after having just travelled halfway around the world in less than a day. I didn’t just feel like I was on a different planet, I felt like an alien.

This feeling of disassociation stuck with me for the whole trip. I can best describe it as jet-lag with added anxiety. In fact I didn’t feel anything like myself again until a few days after arriving home. I remember walking around the town where I live when I got home, trying to anchor myself to my surroundings for the first time in 3 weeks. I couldn’t do it; it turns out I just had to wait, to be patient to come back to myself again. I’ve found that being patient is a cure for many things, although it doesn’t make it any easier to actually ‘be patient’ knowing that. Knowing a thing and doing a thing aren’t as closely related as you might think.

The third thing the now poorly adjusted, very anxious, very tired ‘alien’ me noticed was the weird black boxes sitting on the outside of the taxis. Our airport taxi didn’t have one and I never got round to asking what they were. I’m guessing they are some sort of meter? Again, maybe someone could let me know.

I have to admit, especially considering the way traffic flows (doesn’t flow) through the centre of Mumbai, it still doesn’t seem wise to me to have anything other than extra large bumpers on the outside of your car! This is by no means the only city I have been in that seems intent on cramming as many motorised vehicles into as small a space as possible, with the sole purpose of seeing how angry it can make their drivers (Rome and Paris are two examples that spring to mind). It is however the only city that seems to think it is a good idea to add strange protruding appendages to the taxis trying to navigate their way through the ever changing obstacle course it seems intent on creating.

When we arrived at our hotel, having only a few minor bumps and scrapes with other motorists that our driver seemed entirely unconcerned by, there was one final surprise of the day waiting for us. The hotel, recommended by Ashwani’s brother (who was a retired Indian Air force Pilot), had for some reason assumed the booking was for a married couple. They literally told us exactly that! I have no idea why, or how, they had come to this conclusion, the unfortunate results of which meant Ashwani and I had a very large, very comfy king size bed to share for the night!

Ashwani insisted on complaining (mostly to me, rather than the hotel), but it achieved nothing. This was the only room available, and unless we wanted to join the migrant labourers who had lined the route from the airport, this is where we would be sleeping. I laid on the bed, closed my eyes, and fell into a half sleep. As time went by, and my feeling of ‘otherness’ grew and grew and grew, this half sleep state would come to characterise both my days and my nights for the next three weeks.

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