It was my first trip to the home country all by myself. I had no expectations as it all seemed surreal till I sat in the tiny black and yellow cab outside Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. (Yes, they are still very popular.)
Well-schooled in how things work here during multiple visits over the past 12 years, I mentally prepared to go with the flow. I tried to divest myself of any Canadian ideas of following process or order, solemnly resolving not to brandish the rule book when a situation arose. It would only aggravate public service officials who thrived on their ability to make it an excruciating experience.
Whether it is the bank, local grocery story or street vendors, to be served in the shortest possible time one must be humble. In Mumbai (and probably the rest of the country) it is the service provider that is always right, rarely the customer. To get your job done it is best to pander to his/her ego.
So, I learned to smile amidst my frustrations, wait patiently as people elbowed their way around me and ask most humbly for what I needed.
Most important was blending in and not being detected as the ‘foreign return’.
Friends warned me that NRIs are rarely well-received. While shopping you were sure to pay a higher price, but worse still you ran the risk of having to clear unnecessary hurdles when seeking any service. People would make their displeasure of you leaving the motherland known.
Once you observed these basic rules, it was less of a struggle. I must admit that whenever possible I let a friend or a relative take the lead. It was a wise decision although the feeling of complete helplessness was difficult to swallow. And I am eternally grateful for without them I would have accomplished nothing. In the end I realized that feigning helplessness was the easiest way to accomplish your goals.
“This is India,” my mother reminded me as I complained about all the noise—cats fighting on the street, neighbour’s children screaming in their homes, the constant hammering from nearby construction sites and people renovating their homes, cars passing by with blaring music in the wee hours of the morning… and trains hooting their way down the tracks.
While awareness of noise and light pollution is increasing, the wheels of change move slowly. There is less honking on the streets of Mumbai, but the horn of the trains is ear-splitting. I abandoned the cell phone as it was virtually impossible to hear it ring or the person you were trying to connect with.
Nonetheless, travelling by local trains (off peak of course) was a liberating, time and cost-efficient decision. I was able to cover huge distances without being frustrated by the traffic and smog-filled air. I was shocked to learn from the daily newspaper that the air quality was worse than in New Delhi. But I could feel my lungs labouring. The smell of smoke is constant wherever you might be and the haze is hard to ignore.
My train travel also led me to the conclusion that Mumbaikars (and probably Indians in general) are the most friendly and helpful. I did not need a map as there were plenty of fellow passengers, vendors and people on the street who were happy to help me get to my destination.
I enjoyed my two-week respite from the Canadian winter and took every opportunity to walk. Distances were so much shorter than I remembered, and I was also happy to get the exercise. The cabbies who refused fares to short distances kept me motivated. I decided to let off steam while walking.
Being the Mumbai girl again was an exhilarating and satisfying experience. Probably because I was unencumbered, on vacation and here just for a short while.
Relatives and friends made time for me and I appreciated their warmth and hospitality.
Will I do it again! Definitely!!!
One gentleman’s answer to where he was coming from while boarding the flight to Toronto at Heathrow Airport best describes the feeling and experience—I was coming home from home!