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Chai-Sky City

March 16, 2000

It took only a few moments after our captain announced our descent into Mumbai (Bombay), before a dim fog engulfed our Indian Airlines flight 971, direct from Chennai. Direct and two hours late. It wasn’t the dim fog of a highjacker’s presence, which recently fell over an Indian Airlines flight, nor was it dark storm clouds. We were heading down into what seemed like a massive cup of thick, chai-brown tea. It was the densest smog I’d ever seen. However, I’ll admit to having never descended upon LA in an airplane. Once we were deep into the brown muck, I saw a neighborhood that would make the slums, I imagine, of LA look like Beverly Hills. It was a vast growth of box-shaped corral in a dirty, chai-brown sea; shanties stacked one up against the other. A house of cards where I envisioned a huge domino effect in an angry wind. The card-houses went on forever, impossible to discern where one stopped and the next began. The Seven of Hearts seemed intent on blending into the Six of Spades. The King of Clubs was bullying the Jack of Diamonds. It was a scene that you couldn’t really imagine unless you were coasting overhead in a 747, looking down through the chai-smog. Just as you can’t grasp the moon until you’ve orbited it in the Space Shuttle. The houses of cards went up to the very edge of the landing strips of the airport, and I imagined that our tail must have grazed a roof or two.

Those were my first two impressions of Bombay: thick brown smog and a massive shantytown. Only one hour later by taxi and I could have been in London, driving by Big Ben, Parliament. As my neighbor on the plane, an Indian man with thick glasses had explained, “Bombay is a cosmopolitan city.” Well, almost, if you ignore the roads, repaired by skinny workers, working themselves to the bone, carrying gravel along on their heads, and focus solely on the art galleries, cafes and movie theaters galore in a city that rushes constantly into the new millennium.

I had made my way to the airport taxi stand and hopped into one as it pulled up. Meanwhile a man stood at the window, palm upturned, asking for money for the service he had rendered me — he had told me, as I was standing in the taxi-line, that I was standing in the taxi-line. In Bombay everyone will try to make a living in whatever way possible. So as the you-are-in-a-taxi-line informer diverted my attention, the taxi-driver reaped the benefits of my ignorance and lack of haggling before we departed for the Colaba area on a fully exaggerated fare. You always have to be on your toes here, for a sucker with blonde hair and a southern accent is surely born every minute.

We drove from the airport and shantytown toward Parliament, where the shanties still existed, but were more scattered. Most of the buildings we passed looked well beyond their years and wore the makeup of car exhaust and indifference. Mascara ran down in streaks from the closed windows and smeared eye-shadow all around. Beside the buildings were rushing people and beside the rushing people were small trees lining the sidewalk. They were sorry, starved-looking trees with chipped green painted cages surrounding them. Each cage bore a small sign: “Protect Your Environment.” Cosmopolitan, indeed! Then, I let out a big yelp of a laugh when the next four or so signs stated, “Protest Your Environment.” It was a nasty misspelling, the irony as thick as the chai-brown smog and the crowds of cars on the streets. I wanted badly to show the driver my finding, but didn’t think it would amuse him much. He was too busy about his business of swerving around pedestrians and other taxis, blasting others with his horn. A stern schoolteacher, thinking that because he had a ruler at his fingertips he must use it, and use it often.

I try to imagine Mumbai in twenty years, but the possibilities are too many and seem either too possible or too impossible. Just take everything and double or triple it. Or smash it to nothingness, like Pakistan might like to do. Or watch its cosmopolitan smile grow, showing its pearly whites as the pride of India. Maybe the Taj Mahal Hotel turns into a nursing home and a new bigger, better hotel courts Mumbai’s wealthy clientele. Maybe those countless shanties become unnecessary and are covered over by more landing strips as their inhabitants either move up and out or die. Maybe they add another deck or two of cards: more box-shaped corral to snag the tails of planes, more inhabitants to be awakened by loud jet-sounds. Mumbai’s vast population of approximately 14 million, separated into extremes of rich and poor, becomes vaster and the gaps between extremes wider. In an already overstuffed city, bursting at its seams, where do all the people fit? I’m not sure. Mumbai is a city of two faces: one of the biggest slums on Earth, and an upcoming, cosmopolitan glory.

I had an experience during one of my afternoons in Mumbai that well illustrates this picture. I had the opportunity that day to hear the Dalai Lama speak on the “Ethics of the New Millennium”. The line outside the theater was enormous, made up of an incredibly eclectic bunch, and I was well toward the back of the line. When we finally achieved near-the-door status, all hell broke loose. There was a mad, crushing, shoving, squeezing match to fit through this too-small doorway, and I was swept in with a push from behind. Everyone wanted to hear a man’s message of non-violence and ethics, yet we were elbowing our way to get in through the small door. Most were left behind. That is Bombay. Everyone rushing and pushing their way through a small doorway to something better, leaving many forgotten outside.

-Erin Edwards
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