I arrived in India 3 weeks ago. To write about my experiences and thoughts of Mumbai and India was difficult, as I was thrown right in the middle of it and needed time to figure things out. Talking Heads lyrics come to mind when I look back on how I felt: “How did I get here?”, and “Where does that highway go?” I had no map and really had no idea where I was for the first week and a half.
I am writing from my small room in the guesthouse, drinking tea. The tea here is so good, I have always enjoyed it, but now I can have it every day! The guesthouse is for company employees, and while I knew I would be put up in one, I did not expect there to be caretakers who are attentive to every single detail and who also cook for us.
Mumbai struck me as a frenzied, chaotic city of movement, color, and noise. People tell me that it is the “New York” of India. Once important difference, however, is that unlike New York, Mumbai is lacking in infrastructure. The city desperately needs a subway to help with the traffic problem (and one is being built, but it will take years to finish). I think the government should invest money in improving the roads as well (the roads here are some of the worst I have seen anywhere, and that includes Mexico and Ecuador).
This is an interesting thought experiment: what would happen if the governments of India and China were switched? How much would things change? One of my colleagues remarked that things are more orderly and efficient in China because it is a dictatorship, though I don’t think it is really so simple.
I met another intern at the guest house, an Italian doing a project on Muslim finance. He was the first non-Indian I met in 3 weeks – it was good to talk to another foreigner that was having similar experiences. In general though, most of the other guests are full-time Indian employees and are only here for a short time to meet clients or colleagues. As they say in the film Grand Hotel: “people come, people go”. The benefit of this is that I can see what different employees are working on and get a broader perspective of the company. At the same time, it also means I have the same questions thrown at me again and again: “What country are you from?” and “Do you like India?”
Luckily I enjoy my work, as I spend most of my day in the office. This does mean that I do not have as much time as I’d like to explore the city or learn Hindi, but I am hoping that I will develop more time as the months go by. Right now Mumbai is just a colorful backdrop for research and studying, and I would like it to be more than that. The office is not so close to my lodgings, and there is awful traffic each way- it can also be stressful because I am not used to how people drive (there seem to be no rules…it is worse than China). The apartment is far from the noisy streets and is very calm, a good environment for activities like reading or mathematics.
These are some things that have caught my eye: colorful saris, women with bindis, men with moustaches (the percentage of men with moustaches seems unnaturally high here), and how people shake their heads when they mean “yes” (reminding me a little of bobble head dolls). Also one must not eat food with the left hand. My caretaker observed me doing it once and cried out in shock, “not the left hand!”