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Abeja Dispatch

Lost in Bombay
May 6, 2000

As the plane approached the landing pad, I looked down on the city of Mumbai (formerly called Bombay). Every square meter of land was covered, all the way up to the fence where the runway starts. Ramshackle houses made of corrugated metal -- some of them with two precarious stories -- pressed one against another, as far as I could see. The streets in between were packed with people, bikes, cars, motorcycles, and even a few carts pulled by Brahman bulls. My heart was racing -- THIS IS INDIA!

Out of the air-conditioned plane I followed a woman with a long braid and a red dot on her forehead in a silky light-green sari (a lightweight cloth draped so that one end forms a skirt and the other a head or shoulder covering). The heat hit me like a wet towel. From that moment on, India has been a full-frontal assault on all of my senses. The divine and the distressing, the beauty and the misery, the hope and the confusion, all bump into me, tug at my sleeves, compete for my attention day and night in the streets of this crowded city. I've entered into the land of superlatives -- India is the biggest democracy in the world, and, with around one billion people, has the second largest population in the world (after China). Mumbai is one of the three largest cities in the world, has the largest slums in Asia, AND it is one of the three most polluted cities in the world.


corrugated - shaped into wrinkles or folds or into alternating ridges and grooves
precarious - insecure
Brahman - an Indian breed of humped cattle
superlative - the utmost degree of something, usually denoted by the suffix "-est"
Victorian - relating to the reign of Queen Victoria of England or the art, letters, or tastes of her time
Jainism - a religion of India that teaches freeing the soul by right knowledge, faith and conduct

Even downtown, where there are parks and HUGE Victorian buildings left by the British, the streets are thronged with people walking, sleeping, eating, pooping, selling clothes or shoes or trinkets, waiting for buses, working on construction, and, of course, begging for money or food. The women's bright colorful saris and "Punjabi" dresses with flowing scarves swirl through the crowds. Horns beep, incense burns from the street vendors' stands, and dirty children tug at my hand, pleading for a few rupees (the Indian currency) or some food. Jasmine grabs my hand and points to a woman in a sari that's like a sunburst floating on the breeze. I look up to see a huge lion's body with the head of a bearded man staring out across the crowds -- another Victorian statue swallowed up by the Indian masses. Pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses stare out at me from posters, and small shrines along the side of the road -- Shiva and Vishnu, and the elephant-headed Ganesh -- all cast their blessings onto the chaos. Stickers are stuck on windows and doors with images of gurus and sadhus in their saffron-colored robes with one hand up, as if blessing whoever is fortunate enough to pass. Pictures of Jesus and Zoroastrian imagery are just as prevalent.

When the British first started developing Bombay as a trading port in the late 17th century, people started pouring into this city from all over the country. Since India became independent in 1947, the population of the country has almost tripled (from less than 350 million then to around 1 billion today)!

Mumbai is flooded with peasants and farmers looking for work. Some of the slums are filled with refugees who have been forced off their land by development projects like dams and uranium mines. These immigrants speak different languages and practice different religions. I often hear Indians speaking to each other in English. When I asked why, my new friend Ravi explained that he and his friend are originally from different states, and their first languages are different. Both of them speak five languages, with only English and Hindi in common. The constitution of India recognizes 18 "major" languages, but there were over 1,600 minor languages and dialects listed on the latest census! I guess that's why they even have different accents in English. Once in a while, I meet someone who sounds just like Apu, the mini-mart owner in "The Simpsons," and I have to keep myself from giggling!

The central inner-city train station -- Victoria Terminus, or VT for short -- with its high, arching ceilings and old, "vintage" red trains, is just as crowded and chaotic as the street. Fortunately for us, there is a car reserved for women and children -- so we don't have to cram onto the regular cars, with men practically hanging out the door.

I always meet someone on the train who is happy to chat with me. One college student, who was originally from the state of Gujarat up north, told me that she was a "Jain." What?! I know the movie "Tarzan," but what's this business about being a "Jane"? It turns out that "Jainism" is an ancient Indian religion! Yikes! I have a lot to learn about this country! After I take some photos of smiling school children on their way home from school, an older lady in a green sari motions for me to come sit by her. A physics professor at a local technical college, she happily answers all of our questions about Mumbai and the proper way to wear a sari, and what the red dot on her forehead means. "I am putting this paint on my head to show that I am married. Some girls are wearing bindis (the sticker-like forehead decorations), but these are different. This is natural, and it means that I am a married woman."

Great, one question down, eight million more to go. I guess I'll have to take a lot of train rides! I'll let you know as I learn more about this amazing country! Until then, I think I'll sit down to some spicy Indian dahl (a dish made of dried lentils, beans or peas) and a cup of fresh cane juice with ginger and lime...Oh, the life of a trekker!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Links (pictures and descriptions of saris)


Andrew - The Things We Do for Love -- The Story Behind the Taj Mahal
Brian - Beginnings and Endings
Jasmine - Indiana Jazz and the Temple of Doom...or Not
Kavitha - Delhi -- The City I Love to Hate
Monica - The Eternal Light Shines Brightly: Amar Jyoti, a School for the Differently-abled

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