“All passengers flying to Mumbai, India, please report to gate number 1.”
Here are the three things my mother knows about Bombay:
1. Everyone is a thief. Every single Mumbaikar. Even the paavam daadi selling vegetables on the street corner is a thief – don’t you dare trust anyone.
2. Are you a woman? Then you’re likely to get raped. Actually, you’re definitely going to be raped. Or harassed… More than once, probably.
3. The monsoons are beautiful, though.
“Final call for all passengers flying to Mumbai, India.”
As I grab my passport and join the thinly dissolving line in front of the fake-smiling airline employees, I know I’m going to prove her wrong. (Well, at least her first two statements.)
After living in Dubai for twenty years, a place so satiated in its own artificiality, Bombay becomes a contradiction of everything I have ever known; I have been a third culture kid all my life, lost between fabricated border lines and a strange kind of homesickness I could never find a cure for. So in an effort to find independence at the welcome mat of adulthood, I migrate to the city that invented it. I can tell that there is an unearthing awaiting its beginning within my bones, and only Bombay is harsh enough to pull me by my roots and plant me in new soil. Like a mother bird forced purely by instinct as it pushes its newly-winged hatchlings out of its nest, only Bombay is cruel enough to do the killing before it compels the growth.
Now, Bombay never was my home – I have maybe visited twice in my life, both times as a wide-eyed teenager looking to live the life of someone who frequented a grocery store often enough to run a tab there or knew every street corner by a strangely specific memory, not just by name. I craved to know every starving child this city could not feed, and every other child – wonky-dreamed and big-willed – who made it in the end, nourished entirely by the immensity of it all. How does everyone here, from so many different walks of life, seem to so effortlessly fit in? They moved about like a coordinated dance form: left foot up to avoid the cow shit, right to leap onto the narrow walkway, barely missing the auto-wala. Their lives were intricate, orchestrated symphonies that I wanted to play a mere note in.
“But why here?” I’ve been asked multiple times. No family, no friends, definitely no space to live in (which is an entire article in itself for a single girl from abroad), and not even a local telephone number. Besides, there were far more revered performances to play a role in. What does a South Indian girl like me, from a “glamorous” city like Dubai, do in this shithole? Something that originally started out as a predictable conversation starter sprouted into a sphere of actual interest for the natives, a term I use fluidly. After all, everyone was trying to get out of here and move on to seemingly brighter places like Dubai, the ever-so-coveted United States of Amreeka, or just anywhere (so long as it’s not fucking Delhi). And maybe that’s a question that I’ve been asking myself too. Every single time I have to fill my flat’s tanki with water that comes only twice a day, hail a kaali-peeli solely to hear a flat-out “nahi chalega” in response, or taste the mess that Mumbai likes to call a dosa but may actually be some sort of deep fried, antique frisbee from BDL Museum, I find myself, for a split second, wondering why I ever boarded that flight in the first place.
The following seconds are met with a distinct kind of humbling.
Bombay towers before me, echoing its eminence exclusively for me to hear. “This thankless child, barely a sapling of this city, complaining about this grand, fine thing that she is yet to fully understand,” it seems to say. “What a disgrace.”
So Bombay must dutifully remind me of the bhaiyya who brought my phone back after I absentmindedly left it in his auto, the bartender who told me it would be alright as I threw up in his restaurant, and the men who screamed “ladies hain!” as I attempted to get off a crowded Mumbai local during rush hour (as a side note: I would not recommend any of this, unless you’re some kind of masochist). Bombay must remind me of its past monsoon, one so full to the brim with the youthful fever of dreaming that it was perhaps difficult to remember that the roads were even flooded at all.
And dreaming may be a dangerous occupation, but Bombay loves the thrill of it. This is the Bombay I came to find; the fearless aspirations of almost a dozen million people bound tightly together, fighting for that last inch of space on a train, the last word of gossip about someone’s uncle’s daughter’s dog, or the last minute of sleep before the madness starts all over again.
This is the Bombay that once began as Heptanesia, the disease that even the immune cannot sweat out. Seven islands sewn together with only good intentions and the fervent hope that one day it will be home to opportunity, to growth, to a belief that home could be somewhere far, far away. But it would still be home.