Mum's the word

February 11, 2007 at 11:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          As a solo traveler, you lack a constant companion who can validate or challenge your opinions about a place -- how good the food is in a certain restaurant, whether the bathroom you just used is the filthiest one so far, whether Indian children are the most adorable children on the face of the earth. So when you meet a fellow Westerner on your journey, it offers you a chance to learn whether your opinions along the way have been on the mark or whether you've simply gone mad and lost all perspective.
          I had this chance when I met Nicola on a boat ride out to Elephanta Island, off the coast of Mumbai (formerly called Bombay). Nicola, like most of the travelers I've spent time with, was on a far more ambitious journey than I've been on - seven months solo through India and East Asia. "I enjoy my own company," Nicola said when I asked her about possible loneliness on so long a trip. We turned out to have a lot in common -- both only children, close to our parents, in our early 30s and interested in farming. 
          We ended up spending a great day together in Mumbai. Nicola, who lives in Calgary, had been missing the company of her girlfriends back home and mentioned that our time together in Mumbai -- shopping, eating, visiting an art gallery, going to the movies -- reminded her of a day with her friends. For me, talking with Nicola reassured me that some of my opinions about India were shared -- above all, we both thought the world of Mumbai, both preferred it (by far) to New Delhi, and both felt very at ease in the coastal city that -- to me, at least -- embodies the spirit of the "New India."
          In Mumbai, I saw far more Indian women dressed in Western clothing than anywhere else. Many of the young men wore glasses and carried the Financial Times or some other English daily. In one restaurant, I sat next to a group of six guys having a Friday lunch out. Their Hindi conversation was peppered with words like "information technology," "computer" and "software." I leaned over and asked them where they worked. "A software development company," they said. I told them I'm from America and said, "We hear so much about the 'New India' at home... you are the New India!" They smiled bashfully, not knowing quite what to say.
          In essence, Mumbai felt like my hometown of New York City. I suppose you could compare New Delhi to Washington, D.C. -- the seat of government, lots of wide, tree-lined avenues, a bit sprawling and without a central core. It seemed rather staid to me. Mumbai, on the other hand, had an intangible energy about it, great restaurants, black and yellow taxis, and sidewalks -- for the first time in a month, I was able to stroll. I felt re-energized upon arriving in Mumbai, having been sagging for a few days before that, weary in the middle of my trip.
          Perhaps I also appreciated Mumbai because my mother lived there as a little girl. Her parents, having fled Czechoslovakia after the arrival of the Communists, arrived in India just before the 1947 partition of the country into Pakistan and Bangladesh. As if adjusting to India weren't hard enough for my grandparents, mother and aunt, they soon had to flee New Delhi in the middle -- literally in the middle -- of violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims following the partition. My mother and aunt have awful memories of the scenes they witnessed in the New Delhi train station. Perhaps this is why I've felt so much trepidation about taking the train in India. Perhaps the legacy of my mother's experience, so deeply ingrained in her, somehow passed into me. Nevertheless, I felt my family's spirit in Mumbai, where they lived for a year or so in relative peace before heading to Australia. 
          I know, however, that the central core of Mumbai is nothing like the outskirts, where millions and millions of people live in the most unspeakable slums. I saw some of these slums from my train -- buildings that looked like they'd been bombed out, the "windows" filled with faraway faces peering out at the trains rumbling past them. It is hard to see how the "New India" will benefit these people. As the government builds gleaming, hi-tech, gated compounds for IT workers and visiting Western businessmen, the other India waits outside.
          It's also hard to square the squalor of India's poverty with the glamour of the Bollywood stars who appear in all the movies and fill the pages of the newspapers. Nicola and I went to see a movie one afternoon in Mumbai, which is Bollywood. We had a ball trying to figure out the trajectory of the love stories being presented to us in Hindi and a bit of English. The goofy, happy, and (relatively) well-acted movie lifted my spirits, but I left wondering how traditional Indian society will be affected by such flashy, Western-style films. (By the way, the movie was called "Salaam-e-Ishq" -- in English, "Salute to Love." If you see it, look for the great scene between the American tourist and the New Delhi taxi driver!) 
          Although the film was fun, my most precious moment in Mumbai was when I happened on a street fair one evening. There was a music stage, food carts, and various booths set up by non-profits. I was overjoyed when I came to the booth belonging to the organization Welfare of Stray Dogs. I spoke with the young people manning the booth about their mission to help the stray dogs of Mumbai. It was a relief to know that the dogs are being cared for. 
          While talking with the staff, though, I mentioned that I liked Mumbai more than Delhi. They all agreed, and appreciated my enthusiasm for their city, but then turned to a fellow at the back of the booth. Turned out he was a Delhi native. I immediately felt bad that I had insulted his hometown. "Oh, don't worry," he said to me good-naturedly. "I don't say this very often, but I kind of agree with you."