HOW WAS MUMBAI?
I visited the city of my birth for a week.
The question is "How was Mumbai?"
My snappy answer has been "wild". But here's what I actually thought.
The city is trying to kill you. The air, water, traffic, cows and stray dogs roaming the street. Mumbai is not good for health. There are too many people, it's overpopulated; that means it's the right size. Anything less than excess is too less.
In America I feel the most free. But in Mumbai I feel the most alive.
People go go go. The energy is like sniffing bullets. All great cities are schizophrenic, and Mumbai is no exception. It is at once monster and muse.
With the money comes art. My friends in Mumbai are in a host of creative endeavors.
Everything is real and alive. There's life oozing out of the pavement.
The city is a result of raw, frantic improvisation. Everything grows wildly, haphazardly, in response to the needs of the inhabitants. Forget urban planning. That's impossible in this urban chaos.
The financial, film, and fashion capital of a subcontinent. New York City and Los Angeles combined. It's awash with money.
Mumbai is a global city. Anything is available here. Vegan tiramisu. Oat milk. American cereal.
The airport is a work of art. There's a mall with a roller coaster on the top floor. Downtown is packed with skyscrapers.
Healthcare is worth travelling here from the other side of the world. My eye doctor trained in California. My dentist gives seminars on the latest techniques to be found anywhere, not just in India.
All the fashionable brands are here because there's a real demand. Restaurants to rival anywhere else. What's the point of having money if you have nowhere to spend it?
Fundamentally, Mumbai is Maximum City. Everything is pushed to the max. Mumbai doesn't fill your senses; it assaults your senses.
There can be no failure here. It's a triumph to just try.
Crime, wealth, poverty, traffic, pollution, homelessness. Everything is blown up to monstrous, impossible proportions. At a certain point I realized that comparison was impossible. It's another planet.
Far less is required to live well here compared to other global cities.
For a fraction of the cost in other global cities, you can live like royalty here. Hire a small army for your household -- cook, cleaner, driver. Eat at the best places around town. Get around town with a few cents.
Healthcare is so cheap you don't need insurance. For the price of a treatment at a teaching hospital in America, here you can be treated by an expert with decades of experience.
The climate is unforgiving, blinding, and oppressive. My brother fainted; I resorted to dumping freezing water on my head several times a day.
It was 2AM. I hailed a rickshaw to go to walk by the sea. I found entire families with young children. Revelers. Teenagers. Couples. An accordion player.
It's impossible to plan anything here. But that's why my friends and family there are some of the most driven I've ever met. To dare to do, to fight through the countless tiny tribulations that mark a day in Mumbai? That is a revolutionary act.
It's a triumph to go against the flow instead of surrendering to it. But once you become comfortable being uncomfortable, the city opens itself to you, ever-changing, yet always the same.
BACK TO AMERICA
Before I left, I didn't want to leave. After I left, I didn't want to come back.
I came back from Mumbai proud of my heritage. It's part of my inheritance, like the two Indian languages in my head. I'm proud that I thrived there. This city isn't for the weak.
Perhaps for me, Mumbai is a symptom of a deeper madness; perhaps it's not so much about Mumbai but an attraction to the megacity. What about living in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Rio, Cairo?
America's more sustainable. Besides, my life is here, now. But back on American soil, I felt a deep sense of melancholy. A malaise and dislocation at the difference between Mumbai and where I find myself now.
I've been part of the diaspora all my life. But it's never been exile. This wasn't my first time in Mumbai, and it won't be my last.