My idea of travel planning is reading fiction from whichever country I’m going to, and for no other place was I as well prepared as I was for India. For years I’ve devoured books about India. The whole reason I wanted to come to India in the first place is a book I read that was set in Delhi. And the real India is almost exactly like the India of my imagination. It’s a little surreal, almost like I’ve found myself in Alice’s wonderland.
The first thing I did in Mumbai was take a stroll from my hostel, and I was struck by how similar India is to South East Asia — narrow roads, little shops on the side walk so you have to walk on the road and jostle for space with rickshaws and scooters and cars. It’s loud and dirty and full of life. The men were all staring at me as if I were an alien, but they’re not as bad as the men in Turkey — they don’t follow you or sit down to eat dinner with you or try to marry you. The stares are disconcerting though; it’s like being stared at by a lot of cats. I had my “oh my god, I’m really in India” moment when I saw a large bull hanging around on the street, nonchalantly eating garbage.
In the hostel, I met an English lad who reminded me of the skinny buzzard with the floppy hair from the Jungle Book. He’d just finished a six week tour of India and was headed home. I could see in his eyes that meeting someone who was just starting out their India adventure made him wish he could turn back time and start all over again. He said that he loved this country and hated it with equal fervour; he was going to be so bored at home after India (I’d hear an iteration of this from nearly everyone I meet here). He also said Mumbai isn’t the ‘real India’ and I thought immediately of when Shantaram’s protagonist first gets to Mumbai, he meets some German backpackers and they say the same thing. It’s a strange thing how travellers decide that a certain place isn’t a “real” part of the country, when what they mean is that it’s not what they’re looking for.
Mumbai is a testament to the importance of urban planning: the city spills up the coast line, all higgedly piggedly, like a patchwork quilt stitched together by a meth addict with cataracts. Never again will I complain about traffic at home. The only way to get anywhere in less than three hours is to take the local train. And what an adventure that is!
The train looks like a mobile prison — drab metal, grates on the windows, industrial fans bolted to the ceiling. There are no doors; people bulge from the openings like stuffing from a torn sofa. There’s a separate car for women, which is beyond crowded but apparently nothing compared to the anarchy of the men’s compartments. Squished into the car with all the women in their saris, I was reminded me of picking wildflowers as a child with my grandma. I’d pick so many, I could barely contain them in both hands — picking just one more flower would’ve caused the bouquet to explode. Being on the train was like being inside that bouquet, only the flowers had elbows.
One day, when I hopped the train in the height of rush hour, a fist fight broke out in the women’s compartment and the whole car erupted into screaming and yelling. If the women’s car is the tamer one, then the men’s must really be intense. Everyone was incredibly nice to me though, they always asked what stop I was getting off at and helped me push through the crowd and alight at the right place. People start jumping off before the train even stops, and the people on the platform start pushing their way on. Getting off of my stop was like being shot out of a cannon. I burst onto the platform, feeling like the train should’ve at least bought me dinner first.
Just walking down the street here is an adventure, and the simplest things, like taking a train, are so full on, that even if you did nothing else that day, you feel accomplished.
Judi Dench’s character in the movie, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was right: India is like a wave in the ocean. If you try to resist, you will be knocked down; the only way to enjoy it is to dive right in.