Last Christmas I visited Mumbai, India. After the walk I mentioned, I came back to my room and typed a slightly different version of this letter on my cell phone to my best friend back in the states. A few weeks ago, I planned to read part of this on stage at my last reading, but its too long and clunky and sample.
I’m staying at an artist residency near the coast in Mumbai. It’s a two-floor hostel that resembles a roadside motel. There’s an open courtyard of plants supervised by a coterie of seven foot tall plaster of paris nudes of well endowed women. I am in an upstairs unit that has a mosaic terrace made from broken tea cups and triangles of shattered china. Since the room I’m using was previously a library, I sit outside every morning under an affectionate sun to read. And every morning, above the sound of children playing in the street and the impatient honk of taxis, a speaker across the street crackles to life and over me floats an Azan, an Islamic call to prayer. It is the most deeply haunting sound. The singer not singing as summoning. Moaning like the elders from the church I grew up in. The first time it played I didn’t understand what I was hearing, but my body understood. I stopped reading and looked up as if the sky had just opened. No, something in me opened.
Usually, coming back from the taxi stand, I’d take the same street. Its full of neon landmarks and small shops. A yogurt shop named Fruitilicious. The cupcake shop is called Guilt Trip. There is a Subway sandwich shop I’ll never enter. And since it is that time of year, standing between the cell phone store and the ice cream parlor is a fully decorated four foot tall Christmas tree.
On my first neighborhood walk, I noticed one of my neighboring apartment complexes has broken shards of glass embedded along the tops of the stone walls instead of barbed wire. In front of my building is a closet sized temple to Ganeesha. Behind that, another apartment building, a huge dark mountain leaking clothes and sheets and saris.
On the night I write this, I decide to walk down to the beach and take the street on the other side, the one I never used. It is a different world. Vendors with wooden vegetable carts of perfectly stacked potatoes, carrots, pineapples, bananas. The little bodegas are simply glass display cases and counters. There’s a liquor store, of course. A repair shop. A taxi mechanic. A couple of chai and food carts. A cigarette counter. An outlet to buy tools. A little bakery with myriad buns I could not identify.
I’ve been keeping you and your mom in mind for souvenirs, though walking through the streets at times…
Let me say it.
The beggars make me self conscious. They are more serious and hungry than the fat homeless in our home city. They come up to you grab your arm and pull you towards them while pointing blackened fingers to their mouths. I was told European travelers don’t like being touched, so the beggars have become very intimate, hanging off you while praying in Hindi. One older woman grabbed my arm and dangled from me while I was crossing the street. I saw two naked children climb the doors on taxis sitting idle at traffic stops. Older teens would knock on taxi windows to sell useless plastic toys or bootleg copies of 50 Shades of Grey. I wanted some incense burners emblazoned with the Nazi-like original Buddhist prayer symbols, but was stopped by a Hindu child, his forehead powdered red and white, who stood in front of me and pushed against my thighs while an audience of Indians sat staring, awaiting my reaction. Somehow, every response seemed wrong. I had nothing but: Sorry. I was flush with Sorry.
Walking further, past the street vendors, there is a clean, open field where women were busy tying straw. What men I saw were all bunched together in circles. At first I thought they were playing or watching a game, but they just talked. Crows sat on nearby buckets of water and kept a blue black eye upon the working women and scurrying mice.
There were more shanties at the end of the block, then the Arabian sea. These shacks you remember from Slumdog. They are misshapen and stacked awkwardly, two units high and made with corrugated sheet metal, plywood, sheets of plastic, cardboard boxes, and thick tarps. Narrow wood ladders lead to upstairs units. They are full of pots and pans and makeshift beds. I pass a barbershop and saw a child loudly slapping the back of man’s freshly clipped head in massage.
The juxtaposition of poverty and wealth is overwhelming, but there are no victims here, and there is no sadness. This is just It. People live.
I crossed the street and sat on the stone wall at the beach. Kissing in public is against social law, so as one young woman explained to me, young people come to the beach to be together. At low tide they climb down along the exposed rocks and walk out to the ocean to strum guitar or just hang out in groups of four or more. Interspersed with them is an abundance of animals. The streets are full of stray dogs, millions of crows, hawks, and cats that are just hair, skin and long nipples from recent births. The birds didn’t appear bothered by the cats. The skinny cats didn’t seem to know how to hunt. Or want to. The stray dogs found flat bolders away from people and laid down and slept. I watched couples holding hands, animals sniffing and the sun as it turned colors behind a hazy orange horizon and lowered itself into the sea. The Arabian sea. With my phone back at the room, I wished I’d taken photos of everything I saw, as intimate and unglamorous as it all was. But it wouldn’t have mattered. No matter how gorgeous the sun setting in the ocean is, I’ve never seen a photo that told the whole story or truly did it justice.