Relay: Postcard From Mumbai

Unencumbered by rules, training, or insurance, Indians drive with an ethereal airbag of reincarnation

Pedestrians in Mumbai have no zebra crossings, no rights, and, by the law of averages, not a long life expectancy. There are barely any traffic lights to give a moment’s grace to those who have to get to the other side. Unencumbered by rules, training, or insurance, Indians drive with an ethereal airbag of reincarnation. They follow no laws of the road, only some eternal and unwritten commandments of existence. Stopping for pedestrians isn’t one of them.

I stood on one side of Hill Road in Mumbai’s swank suburb of Bandra, contemplating the moment to plunge myself into the maze of bumpers and wheels, the honking, heaving, never-ending flow of vehicles and hawkers, an occasional cow, and the clog of pollution. It’s a road I effortlessly crossed every day as a child, to and from Apostolic Carmel Convent School. Forty years later, I’m paralyzed.

There’s a beggar boy I’ve seen often during my two weeks here who seems to have staked out his patch on the traffic island outside St. Andrew’s Church. He whips his arm out of his sleeve, binds it across his back, and taps mournfully on the window of a sleek BMW stuck in the jam. The pane closes in response and the car nudges away. He shrugs and leaves his island, unfurls his arm, and walks away with carefree abandon. Perhaps he has already made enough to avoid a beating from his father. He walks ramrod straight, tall for a street urchin, a good-looking boy, even under his matted hair. Maybe he dreams of being a Bollywood star.

A nearby chai wallah stands behind his sun-faded stall. He’s been there for years, I’m told, and, although he never went to school, has taught himself English. If you stop and chat with him, he’ll tell you that Starbucks is killing his business as he pours his liquid caramel mix of tea, milk, sugar, cardamom, anise, and black pepper from one pan to another. He catches my eye that day on Hill Road and calls out to me, all the while continuing to pour between pots without losing a drop. 

“Madam, a cup of chai today?” he shouts, waggling his head.

I go over, as I have done a few times during the past week. He launches into his usual complaint but always with a lovely smile. 

“The Indians are only wanting cappuccino Frappuccinos nowadays, so I am relying upon the foreigners to still drink my chai.”

I pay him 20 rupees, about 25 cents, for the cup of tea, but don’t drink it, for he is right, I am a foreigner now in my own home city. With a very first-world stomach.

I go back to my spot to contemplate the crossing once more when suddenly there’s a cacophonous honking of horns, and men start jubilantly pointing up to the heavens. High above the six lanes of vehicular indigestion is an advertising billboard that two men have scaled onto from bamboo ladders, the rungs tied together with fraying rope. They are plastering a poster for the next Hindi film that promises the usual three hours of a sexy, spicy tale of forbidden love told in trilling song-and-dance routines as fountains spurt forth and guys in black jeans go from car chases to line dancing, up there on the silver screen.

The billboard men, or maybe boys, are squeegeeing one side of the poster with loving tenderness; their gloriously Technicolored heroine is now looking down on Bandra through her impossibly green eyes. As a mop caresses her mountainous curves beneath the token diaphanous layer of wet sari, it produces another round of orgasmic honking from the gridlocked traffic below. A group of skinny schoolboys next to me moan in echo, then lunge forward into the crush.

A heavily tressed, mobile-wielding housewife appears beside me. “Yah, yah, 100 percent confirmed. Dinner tonight at the gastro pub. Ciao, baby,” she says in a strange Mid-Atlantic twang that is now a requisite of Mumbai’s burgeoning middle class. But it is her hair that is her real cultural badge, a thick dark mane falling over one shoulder. Not a bead of sweat visible either, while I melt in the fermenting heat.

I decide to use her fleshy frame as a buffer to cross the street, and dart into the traffic next to her, mirroring her moves, the stops and starts, in perfect unison with the drivers who choose to brake or not. 

You often hear earnest foreigners talking about wanting to see the “real India.” They mean village India, those parts relatively untouched by modernity and the crass outside world. But it’s in the subcontinent’s great and growing cities where you’ll see the fulcrum of modern India’s culture. Cities that are undoubtedly some of the most gorgeously complex places on earth.

I finally leave Hill Road and walk into the frantic scurry of Bandra’s fish market. Shoppers haggle with squatting fisherwomen. The floor is slick and slimy. A scrawny cat makes off with a fish head. In the midst of this hullabaloo, a man bumps into me. I mention this only because it’s rare. Indians are dexterous in crowds. As our shoulders touch just lightly, he brings his fingers up to his heart, a silent apology and a prayer. 

No matter where we come from or what we look like, to Indians there’s a spark of God in all of us. He was saying sorry to one of his 33 million gods for bumping into mine, whoever my God might be.


Judy D’Mello is The Star’s education reporter.