So my flight to Istanbul was set to take off at the ungodly hour of 6:40am. That meant I would need to be to the airport by 4:40am, which meant I would have to leave Malabar Hill at around 4 or so. Nik helpfully used an app on his phone to reserve a cab for that hour, and we returned to chatting and drinking and celebrating Rittu’s pre-birthday. Around 11pm, I got notice that my flight would be delayed until 8:30, so Nik called and changed my cab to 6am. When I woke up this morning, I got packed, got ready, and was down in front of the house just after 6am, but no cab. I didn’t want to wake Nik so I just walked up the hill a bit to one of the busier streets and within a few minutes I had a cab.
It is a pretty amazing experience to be whizzing through the streets of Mumbai so early in the morning. Whereas the traffic is usually pretty crazy, tight, and slow-moving, at this hour one travels at dizzying speed. We reached the airport in something like 25 minutes. It was still dark out and I have to say the new airport looks pretty stunning at night, all lit up as it is. When I first arrived at this airport a few weeks ago, I noted what a new and clean terminal it was, but I was not overly impressed with the design. Going through the departures and ticketing area is an entirely different experience, the place is really beautiful.
As I approached the check-in counter for my flight, I found out that my flight was delayed yet another hour, so I was really early. Oh well I thought, I can hangout in the business class lounge. I went through the special security screening and passport control area they reserve for business class passengers, which was about the easiest of these things I have ever gone through in my life. There were exactly zero other passengers in this line, and the whole process took about 2 minutes. I then headed over to the rather nicely appointed business lounge area where I am currently holed up writing this very post.
A couple of weeks ago, Rittu, Ken and I went to visit Mumbai’s famed Dhobi Ghat. This is one of the major centers where laundry is done in Mumbai, and the largest operation of its kind in the world. It is partially run as a kind of collective, and we met a nice fellow at the entrance who charged us a fee (saying it would go to benefit the collective, who knows) and then guided us around for an in-depth tour. He showed us the concrete tubs where hand washing is done (and told us a little bit about how the machines are replacing/displacing the hand washers because they are faster), then took us through a number alleyways hung with colorful and matched washing. He told us about the kinds of work they do for hospitals and first washing of clothes for export when they come out of factories. The place is an amazing labyrinth, pretty fascinating, and well worth a trip when you are in Mumbai.
I have to admit to having had a little trepidation about returning to India. Had I changed too much to appreciate it? Would all the things it took me awhile to get used the first time resurface with a vengeance? Would I find the crush of people, the pollution, the poverty, the chaos to be too much? Maybe I had become a different person after all these years, one overly accustomed to my New York life and ways, and I would be bothered by all those things in ways I was not before I left India over seven years ago.
Well, I needn’t have worried, there is something magic about this place. From the moment I stepped off the plane and got in the car to see Nik and Rittu, who I am staying with, I was charmed again. And in the last day we have got caught up a bit, Rittu and I wandered around a little and had a thali, and I met up with Alok and Vikrum and a bunch of their friends last night for dinner down in Colaba. Seeing old friends here has been wonderful, it feels that no time has passed between us.
Although I have only been here a day, so much seems easier than the first time I was here. Getting from place to place seems faster, with traffic flowing much more smoothly than I remember. Taking taxis is much easier, I don’t have to argue about fares at all. Getting train tickets is much easier, you can just order them online now. Even walking on the street is much easier, I just don’t get harassed the way I used to. Is it my beard, or something else? Have I changed or has India? I am almost regretting deciding to spend so little time here on this trip.
My friend Jai and I went to go see Slumdog Millionarire yesterday in Greenwich Village. It was very good, and in particular the images of slum life in Mumbai and Indian city chaos in general were far more faithful and true than in any other movie I have seen. It is especially interesting to put this movie up against something as trite as Darjeeling Limited for comparison. Slumdog has a much more authentic take on Indian life. Darjeeling was nothing but someone’s fantasy version of India, the one Wes Anderson (the director) wishes existed in place of the real.
There were also several scenes in the movie that depicted things that I always imagined happened in India while I was there (like refilling old mineral water bottles with tap and resealing them for resale, for example). I was left wondering how much western audiences would be able to connect with this film (if the film’s success is any gauge they apparently very much are) as it seemed to me greatly enhanced by my previous experience of Mumbai.