Mumbai, like any major city has it’s fair share of amusing characters lurking around it’s public transport system. Yesterday morning a toothless, crazy eyed but well dressed (and clearly bonkers) elderly gentleman spent a good ten minutes until my train arrived trying to persuade me to put my recently purchased and imminently to be eaten as soon as I set foot onto the train sandwich into a grubby looking carrier bag. He seemed to speak perfect English but persistently failed to understand why I could possibly want to eat my sandwich and not put it into his kindly offered plastic receptacle, much to the amusement of the platform of waiting commuters. In the end I accepted his bag kindly thanking-him-sir, which seemed to make him ecstatically happy and off I trotted, or rather fought my way tooth and claw along with the teeming masses onto the western railway train.
That evening returning home, cardboard tube of bhel in hand I was complimented by a friendly lady on how ‘Indianized’ I had become. Not aware that this was a point for congratulations I quizzed her on what on earth she meant. Apparently she was impressed by my ability to force myself through the wall of people onto the train and deftly take the ‘fourth seat’ (a kind of half bottom perch on the end of a row of seats clearly only built for three) ushering the current occupants to move up with a shooing hand gesture that would almost certainly be considered rude in my native Britain. I rather like the Indian no nonsense approach to communication with complete strangers though, and although it felt a little odd at first I had embraced blunt directness. Other points the lady noted with glee were they way i was shoveling the bhel down my throat, raw chilies and all. Also the green glass bangles jangling on my wrists- a Hindu badge of motherhood and one I wore proudly. Apparently she took great delight in the novelty of seeing a foreigner adopting local quirks and customs and just looked confused when I pointed out how Westernized many Indians were as a juxtaposition. Somehow this parallel didn’t produce the same joyous reaction, It stuck me how for many the customs and traditions of the West were seen, at least by the largely Catholic community who had adopted them, as preferable, at the very least more modern and advanced in some way. For me, who takes great delight in Indian fashion and food as an antidote to our bland and dull Western counterparts, the whole thing strikes me as bizarre. For Indian women diamantes and sequins are everyday wear and this is something I wholly approve of!
Going back to the lady on the train I guess what she was really getting at was how comfortable I seemed in an environment that at times was a little hostile to foreigners. Most days I am the only foreigner I see all day and I certainly cannot recall ever sharing a train carriage with one. The stares you get can verge on intimidating, as are the Cowboy movie style silences that fall as you enter a crowded room sometimes. A thick skin and strong stomach are prerequisites for an ex-pat living a ‘normal’ life in Mumbai, un-insulated from the general population due to lack of cars and drivers, high paid job with a foreign company and British husband to deflect unwanted advances by men that believe white skin equals loose morals. Most Indians I meet question why on earth I would want to leave my so-called comfortable life in England to share their hardship on The Western railway.
My final and most disturbing encounter of recent was this morning in Bandra station. I paused for a moment to get my East-West bearings and a man stopped and wished me a lovely holiday and a safe trip. I smiled and explained I wasn’t a tourist but lived here. At first he failed to absorb this information and once again said he hoped I enjoyed my vacation. After repeating my thanks ‘but no really I live here,’ he looked appalled and told me to leave India as it was not safe anymore and how dangerous the country had become. As he walked off I wondered if it was unwise to write him off in the same crazy category as Mr carrier bag man? Surely so, after all – people say the same about parts of London. Was his opinion a more paranoid version of the lady from the night before – shock that a foreigner (especially a woman) could, or would want to fit in here? Was it based on an idealised view of the West coupled by an Indian media hype on the recent rape in Dehli?
Sitting this evening nestled in the bosom of the ladies carriage on the Borivali slow train I feel right at ease and perfectly safe, lulled into the serenity that the familiarity of public transport produces, especially when the carriage heaves a collective sigh of satisfaction when the train pulls into that inevitable end-of-the-line station known to them as ‘home.’