The trash that lines the sides of the make-shift roads along with what can only be described as “scattered human debris” is almost unnoticeable when you’re caught up with the concentrated panning of your vision, left to right and back again. You search desperately for some sort of landmark, sign, or, in a perfect world, a person with a loudspeaker commanding you to enthusiastically “turn here.”
The heat is brutal in Mumbai. The heat’s pretty brutal in all of India. But then, that’s a huge generalization, almost as expansive in generality as this country and not mildly as diverse. But that’s obvious. So let’s settle for: The heat’s brutal in Mumbai. Your cotton clad body sticks to the sun like yellow. Anyway, it’s that close. And all you want to do is peel yourself from it. Quickly. Like a swift plaster removal. But you can’t. Because that would imply lowering yourself to the degradation of a first world misfit and hailing a cab. With air conditioning. Even if it is just for the sake of being able to tell the difference between attire and epidermis. This doesn’t seem reason enough. You walk.
Colonialism seeps through the soil of this city like a welcome worm. Pesty. But accommodated. But you don’t need a magnifying glass to observe the stark contrast of the monumental British architecture and the admirable, yet spewed up remains of Kolkata’s Untouchables. Perching and prowling languidly on the ground below. So black. So white. And then, enter the Indian banker, lawyer, all round business man, in their three piece suits and “made in china” belt buckles. Who stop to chat in English on the sides of the road while they dish out dirty Rupee’s to the chai-walla’s. So grey.
India leaves little room for in-betweens. No middle class. No maybe. And just like that, you either loathe it or love it. To hate it is easy. You choose it. Like anything else. You choose absolute repulsion. But even choices are difficult, if only consequentially. To love it is far easier. All that’s required is the slight dumbing down of the senses, (in some cases, you may have to dumb these down to a very large degree), an exaggerated sense of objectivity, (fake it till you make it), and an opening up of the self to such an extent that you seek less to understand and more to just accept (in a very Mahatma Ghandi sense, naturally). Which reminds me of something he said: happiness is when your thoughts, actions and words are all the same thing but I’m paraphrasing and could be wrong.
If you look carefully, you will notice the poetry of the city sweeping through the air. An energy that shuffles with a rhythm that matches the pace of your stride, totally malleable. You can test it by slowing down and picking up, it stays with you and the only certainty about it is that it’s always there. It will always find you. And even when the tempo changes, the timbre of it all never does. The texture remains thick and dense and sometimes even subtle, all at the same time. So impenetrable and undeniably present in fact that while you study the vendors on some side arcade of a bustling street you feel like if you stretch your arms out and keep your hands open long enough you might just be able to catch some of it in your palm and let it swim there a while. So you try. Just like that, and in the midst of your pseudo-meditation you’re pushed over by the drone of a stampeding crowd. Always a stampeding crowd. Groups, going somewhere, always.
As you steady your stance against the murky, stained glass of a corner store that sells dodgy electronics, fire-crackers, the odd cell phone charger (and possibly doll-house sized tubs of some or other menthol ointment), you notice the sari-clad woman sitting between the angle of your feet and displaced balance. Humming. Back and forth. Just humming. You straighten up and find your way forward in the momentum of some more stampeding.
This city is your iPod. With sounds that bellow from every corner. They all collect as a complete composition in the acoustic hollow of your virgin eardrums, the safety net of notes, the pitch collector of people, places and plants, rodents and things. Just things. Everywhere, things. The comfort of not having to wear earphones is twofold: The deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for functioning eardrums which have dodged the abuse of a pocket-sized sound system that’s turned up unhealthily loudly to drown out the outside sound, and the sheer comfort of knowing that you wont be run over by raging tuc-tuc driver because you didn’t hear his horn and incessant shouting.
Between the beeps and buzzes that rush in frequently, you skirt the outer borders of the hustle and bustle – all in the name of having the experience, any experience. And then all at once, while cooling down with a Mountain Dew, dirt clouding below at your feet, you are lost. You came here as a traveler of this land, in all your nomadic glory and now, without a street map or road sign in sight, with all the colors of this vibrant city bleeding into one, you are lost in the epitome of that very idea. Your wandering aimlessly has turned you into an aimless wanderer. With no recollection of how to get back “to there.”
You go with your gut. You follow the general direction of your mind’s-eye. Your mental cartographer. And head in the direction of your instinctive true north. “Whatever the hell that is,” you wonder. You’re not too perplexed. Still caught up in the momentary lapse of utter trust in the illusion of being so independent that you don’t have to ask for directions. Like all those times you misplaced something, left it behind somewhere, caught up in the moment of “it just happened,” and so sure that you would find it again by yourself somehow.
And while you run through the mental catalog of these all too often incidences you find yourself at a crossroads. Literally. It’s like a painting. A bad one. Everything about the visual impact is cliché in it’s purest form. You’re shaken, gratefully, out of the kitsch that’s flirting with your cornea by a sudden hum. It’s duller than it seems. But the murmer’s comfort screams at you.
She’s old and disheveled. If you had enough time you would listen to the stories of all the crevices on her face. Sure that they would enlighten you with the purity of something real and stir you out of the comfort of your sheltered life. But there isn’t enough time. You could begin it, but the cadence would be left incomplete. Because you know that each narrative is not as shallow as your own and there would not be enough time left to continue.
The people still flood in and out of the arcade you’ve found your way back to. And with the humiliation of dropping ten Rupee’s into the ribbed and worn out silk that fashions her sari and rests in her lap, you sigh your conclusion. There is no grey. No love. No hate. It doesn’t matter. India chooses you.