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There is no try.

L1008082 2MUMBAI—In the literature, those accounts of mostly British people who have passed through here, Bombay is a way point. It is a place you pass through on your way to somewhere else, a place you stop for official business, training, garrison duty, before marching off or setting sail for points beyond. Of course the 20 million or so people who live here, who make Mumbai their home, might object to this viewpoint, might, if they took the time out of their busy lives, tell you that this place is the destination. Mumbaikers are fiercely proud of this city and their place in it, of its size and speed and ability to make fortunes and crush dreams. People look into Mumbai, towards Mumbai. For thousands and thousands of people from all over South Asia, this is the destination.

I have written this before, but it bears repeating. Mumbai is not an old city. The history is complicated, like most history on the Subcontinent, but before the Portuguese arrived here in the 16th century, the area was home to fishing villages. What is now India’s Maximum City, was, in fact, seven islands that have since been joined together in massive land-reclamation projects. The fishing villages are still here, by the way, ancient outposts clinging to the rocks right inside the city, and scatted up and down the coast as you get farther away. But the city itself is little more than 500 years old, a blink of an eye in a country whose antiquity is still being unraveled, one of the founding cultures of mankind.

No trip is ever how you imagine it. In no season do you do all the things you dream of. I believe this is why the Buddhists preach the avoidance of desire, the denial of expectation. Desire and expectation lead to wanting what never is, never was, never can be. Desire for a specific outcome, narrowly defined, will always end in disappointment because the thing you wish for will never be what you get. We have been in Mumbai for six months now. As always, I am surprised by the swift passage of time and the unmarked transition between the strange and the mundane. In half a year I have been outside the city limits a handful of times and those were not long journeys: a day hike to an ancient hill fort, some documentary work in nearby communities,  a few short ventures into the surrounding countryside. All of India is out there and I have seen Mumbai. There are reasons for this, but for the most part they are utterly mundane reasons. First and foremost is that we are not on vacation. We live here, work here, and are raising our family here for two years. Days and weeks and indeed months are taken up by the quotidian tasks of establishing a household. Still more time is taken up by the process of acclimatizing. For the first months it seems like you are at least 20% sick 80% of the time. There are weekends you would like to go away but then it rains for 72 hours without ceasing. You have social obligations, shopping to do, reports to write, work to edit, and for all your desire to see Varanasi, Kerala, Jaipur, Kathmandu and Goa, you also realize that in two years you will barely get to know the fascinating city you live in.

I feel strangely at home here. Not in the sense that I wish to buy property, settle down, and raise my grandchildren, but that beyond the first rush of strangeness, there has always been something deeply familiar about Bombay. Coming here for our first posting seemed almost inevitable and when my wife was assigned to Mumbai, my first thought was, well, of course

I am reminded of something the great traveler Blair Schweiger wrote to me a few months back. She told me of the Spanish word, “enseñado,” and one if its meanings as a state where you begin to feel comfortable in a new place, to have reached a certain equilibrium. I was thinking about this the other day on my way to a meeting. It was a pleasant day, mild by Bombay standards. I had planned to hail a cab but by the end of the block I decided walk. I knew the route well, a half hour of dodging cars and motorcycles, threading through markets, cutting through the train station and going from sidewalk to street and back again. To get to my destination there are only three major turns, but contained within the route are hundreds of small, separate paths. Walking down the street is like giant three-dimensional chess match with potentially fatal consequences for a misstep but somehow that too becomes no more than what it is. Sometimes I think I have reached that state of enseñado and other times I think it is a constantly receding goal, like fluency in a foreign language. There is always more to learn, always a deeper understanding to be acquired of a place, a language, another person.

I traversed the sidewalks, made a certain detour and was stopped by a flood of people filling the street I was going to cross. From a nearby doorway pallbearers carried a dead man on a white-draped bier. I stood shoulder to shoulder with the people praying around me, pressed my palms together and silently said my own kind of prayer. It was an old man with a patriarch’s white beard. Incense spiraled up from around his body. The man at the front of the bier scattered rose petals back over the corpse. I caught a glimpse of the face in the morning sun, serene, grey, slightly swollen with a death unobscured by makeup and embalmer’s tricks. They carried the man a short distance to a waiting hearse and as they passed traffic began again. The walkers started walking and the cycles and cabs pressed ahead on their various missions, as did I.


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