I’ve spent the past ten months in Mumbai, working as a model and freelance writer. The city certainly gives me a lot to talk about. I’m an American, born and raised, so imagine the confusion of my family and friends back home when I said, “Guys, I’ve fallen in love with India and I’m not coming home!”
Mumbai holds an energy that even the most skilled writers have difficulty expressing in words. It’s best described as a city of extremes – from noisy streets littered with cars, children, and animals, to serene gulleys lined with temples and houses of generations’ old families.
During my first days in Mumbai I was astonished by the sheer audacity of everything – the way the city runs, the sights, the noise – but after some time, the madness just begins to make sense.
In Mumbai, the mornings greet you. A strong whiff of sea breeze blows into my window, awakening my senses and inviting me out into the world. Though many of my days first call for a cup of Indian chai – consisting of masala tea, milk, and a heaping spoonful of sugar – in a tiny plastic cup. Perhaps I’ll make it myself at home, but chances are I can always sniff out a good chaiwala on my way to work or castings. My Desi soul ignites as I sip on this spicy aromatic beverage.
I meander my way to the corner of where my street meets the main road, silently thanking the chai for the little caffeine kick. The madness of Bandra – one of Mumbai’s hippest, most “happening” neighborhoods – awaits.
“Rickshaw!” I scream as I whip my hand out at the passing mobile. He slams to a halt, barely missing my toes. I tell him my destination and he gives a quick head wobble. In India, this means, “okay.”
There’s something about a morning rickshaw ride that really awakens your senses. Not for the faint of heart, the rickshaw-wala takes me for a ride (a la Mario Kart,) twisting and turning and avoiding Mumbai’s infamous potholes as he weaves his way through the city. I peer out into the world as the sea air hits my face.
The city stops for nobody. In India, “wala” means “the one” – there is the one who sells vegetables, the one who sells chaat, even the one serving up the country’s popular “paan.” They go on their way, taking their spot along the road where they sit throughout the day, chatting with locals, tourists, and expats like myself. Though, come to think of it, we never really chat.
I alight my rickshaw and stop inside Pali Market, a popular road inside Bandra selling fruits, vegetables, and…ok, everything but the kitchen sink. On my first trip to Mumbai, this road mesmerized me. That particular day I was searching for ingredients to make a chicken dinner. My friend, a girl from Morocco, guided me along the way. She didn’t seem too worried about my laundry list of things to buy. We snaked our way along the road, popping into several different shops, picking up ingredient after ingredient. Many stores are dedicated to just one thing – as I said, Indian people take their “wala” very seriously. After 30 minutes of shopping I had purchased all of the ingredients for my dinner. And boy, had I worked up an appetite!
Today, I want only one thing: a piece of fruit for my breakfast. I peruse the markets, peeking into each fruit stand to see who is serving the freshest produce today.
“Guava, hai?” I ask. Another head nod as the fruit-wala reaches for his ripest guava, even going through the motions of cutting it for me. I opt out of the masala seasoning, though some days (when I’m feeling audacious) I let him sprinkle it on my fruit.
And then I go on my way. Today I have no plans, but knowing Mumbai, something will surely spring up. A casting, perhaps. A friend calling to go get a coffee.
But I love to walk through the city. By now, I’m an expert at managing the narrow lanes. I duck out of the way of the rickshaws, bikes, even the dogs sleeping along the sidewalk. It’s all become routine, as after ten months of being in Mumbai, it’s difficult for me to notice things I once thought were strange or out-of-place.
So today, I make a conscious decision to look at my surroundings, to feel the soul of the city. In my neighborhood of Bandra, I take shelter on the sidewalks. In the more secluded area of Pali Hill, a canopy of large, leathery leaves loom high above the road, providing shade to an otherwise sunlit day. These leaves represent the banyan tree, the national tree of India. This is my favorite area in the city, as it reminds me of home: the Motherland of Minnesota, where nature abounds.
Next stop, Carter Road. A strip along the sea, this road is an entity in itself. At sunrise, bikers and joggers are seen floating along the horizon. As the sun makes its way across the vast blue sky, stragglers trickle in. By night, Carter Road is absolutely teeming with people. I see women in bright, traditional saree; couples – young and old – holding hands; children playing amidst the throng of people. The sweet smell of roasted sweet potatoes wafts through my nose as I stop beside a food cart. The vendor slices it into large chunks, drizzles a bit of lemon, and seasons with masala before handing me the warm potato inside of a piece of the day’s paper.
And I carry on my way once more. In Mumbai, a plan doesn’t get you very far. I’ve learnt to keep an open mind, to let the day runs it’s course. Whatever is supposed to happen, will.
I head to Hill Road, the premier shopping strip in Bandra. It’s getting dark, so I catch another rickshaw, this time in the prime traffic hour. It seems as though half the city also found a reason to go shopping tonight – but then again, Hill Road is never empty.
Stalls and stores line the road; rickshaws and bikes dominate the street. I begin my walk, cries of “Yes, mam!” and “Hello, miss!” following me along the way. There are racks and carousels of brightly colored clothing; walls of shoes and chappals; tables glittering with bangles, earrings, and traditional Indian headwear. But today, I want a bag: big enough to fit a laptop, small enough to carry with me through the hustle of Bombay.
Just like that, I see my bag. Square and made of cloth, elaborately colored motifs adorn the exterior – in the center, a large fuchsia elephant. I smile at the vendor and point towards the bag. He reaches for it, handing it to me with a toothy smile.
“Kit na?” I ask, meaning “how much?” Hill Road is meant for bartering. In fact, it’s almost like a fun game for these shop-owners. After minutes of haggling, we settle on a fair price.
For dinner, I’m meeting a friend at a new spot. Bandra is a popular place for fusion and international cuisine, though today we have decided on a chilled out spot serving ayurvedic food. Also a model, her and I like to nourish our bodies with wholesome food and natural ingredients. This particular spot has large cushions on the floor, where I sprawl out after a long day of walking around the city. We order juices, smoothies, and vegetarian cuisine and spiral into deep conversation about the mysteries of life.
As I said, Mumbai is a city of extremes. But amid the extremes, you find yourself. Greet the city with open arms and it will pull you in – warmly, graciously, and mightily.
Meghan is a Mumbai-based model/writer with a penchant for satire and a soft spot for local cuisine. Preferably something spicy. When she’s not hitting the streets on the way to her next casting, you can find her sniffing out Mumbai’s most promising eateries and music venues.