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Mad Mad Mumbai

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Friends and Russell Peters said India is smelly.

So naturally when I stepped out of the plane, I took a deep breath.

(Friends and Russell Peters clearly haven’t been in a lift full of Chinese after their lunch break…)

Sure, I know. And multiple times, I was told: India is filthy. India is not safe. Men ogle at you like a piece of meat. Women get raped. There are laws. But there is no enforcement. You shit like no tomorrow from everything you eat.

Once upon a time, somebody must have toppled a jar of magic powder and splashed poufs of red green purple yellow, disgust and delirium all over this wildly, savagely exotic place.

Why would one want to go to India?

Weeks before my trip to Mumbai, the GP gave me countless vaccinations and prattled on about a long list of what-not-to-dos. Then I left the clinic, took a 10-hour flight and forgot about everything she said.

I had ice in my drinks, brushed teeth with tap water and devoured street-side, newspaper-wrapped samosas. They are the best samosas I ever had. 

From the Mumbai international airport to the hotel, I saw people walk across the motorway like they were asserting their last thread of civil rights on zebra crossing. Lorry broke down and stayed stock-still, driverless in the middle of the road. The honking never stopped. Strayed dogs and cats roamed the streets like zombies on earth. Busses spit soot.

I tried my hardest to stay awake from the jet lag, with teary eyes irritated by dust and ears ineluctably pierced by shouts of incomprehensible dialects. There was a tornado of violent, irrepressible energy going on in this place. I couldn’t not be a part of that.

On the second day, at the street behind the 5-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, we walked pass a dark, scraggy woman in orange saree. She has a tooth that juts out of her lips, resulting in her not being able to close her mouth properly. While travellers and trendy Mumbaikars swigged beer at nearby Colaba Social and select hotel guests mingled on broad terrace – she was begging for money, walking stark naked with life’s injustices hand in hand.

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You see, Mumbai is a rare bird. It is the largest tax contributor in the state of Maharashtra, and Maharashtra pays almost half of India tax. Yet it shelters and starves the second largest slum in Asia. How exhilarating and exasperating is that?

It is as if the 20 million of Mumbaikars live their lives on a bunk bed, with the rich being on top and the poor grapples with public sanitation problem, illiteracy and spousal violence shockingly and widely regarded as norms at the bottom.

To make matters worse, the caste system that stormed into the room thousand years ago effectively removed the ladder and made it so much harder for the lower group to get to the upper bed. 

It was like the big bully who came to the playground and separated the kids based on what their parents do and the toys they have. It’s social stratification, a cricket ball that smashed the Indian society into fragments of broken glasses and made one bleed when one tried to pick up the pieces.

For centuries, the caste system dictates almost every aspect of the Hindu’s life. It messes with human psychology because when you create a zone for people and ease them into this false sense of belonging, that zone becomes their comfort zone. It’s a useful tool to protect, attack and influence, with the latter especially apparent when politicians aim their manifestos at caste groups. A classic example of divide to conquer. It’s mind fucking you know, it’s so bad.

At sunset, we came across a couple who were relaxing by the water, watching boats inching slowly to the Gateway of India. They didn’t talk a lot. And it struck me that this pair of lovers, right in front of me, might be the perfect exhibit of a nation transfixed by arranged marriages.

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I don’t know. When the rest of the world focuses on the sparks and the chase in relationships, the traditional Indian skips the supposedly exciting stage altogether and plunges straight to learning how to keep a romantic bond intact (coming from the birthplace of karma sutra, how deluded are you to think they didn’t know). What is more important than that?

Not that I am a true believer of this type of marital union, but studies have shown that arranged marriages have high satisfaction level and low divorce rate – simply because people have lower expectations when they enter into one and are set to commit for the rest of their lives right from the beginning. It’s mind fucking all over again. Except this time it isn’t so bad.

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^ At the Crawford Market, three generations of vendors huddle together to sell nuts, teas, seeds and spices. The fountain designed by the father of Rudyard Kipling is just a few steps away.

Days before the BMC’s election, supporters flocked the street and rallied for municipal candidates. We certainly didn’t get out of the car. This kind of political gusto in India was overwhelming. And terrifying.

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There were quite a few second-hand book sellers at Colaba. The joy of finding them and lugging all seven of my steal back to London was indescribable.

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^ Arranged marriages and men who lock hands to parade their brotherhood – tell me something more rebellious one can do in the name of love?

Also, had fun stumbling into a shop-disco one fine, drunken night in Bandra West, and established instant rapport with confused vege seller. Poor guy didn’t had a clue what was going on.

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Throughout my time in Mumbai, I didn’t see any familiar faces i.e female, oriental faces. In a dusty, maddening place like this, the lack of young East Asian tourists is understandable and self-explicable.

But then again, shouldn’t we all travel to see the world as it is, not how we want it to be?

Different places we go, sure they will leave their olfactory traces on our skin. So what if India is smelly? How bad could that be?

Just go.

Go to India, sweetie. Pack your common sense and go.

Trust me, when I say there is no other place like this.

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With love x

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