I hate water. I've always hated it. I've just learned how to get along with it when I absolutely have to (ie: hours of aqua jogging, taking showers, ice baths, etc.). I was told by my swimming instructor not to fight the water. Just relax, turn over on to your back, and float...
Little did I know, however, that this advice would become a metaphor for survival here in Mumbai, twenty years later.
Maybe it's the softness I've developed from living in comfort and relative predictability all my life; maybe it's the freckles and fair skin or that nagging little voice on my shoulder whispering "you are not one of them" that makes me feel like an alien intruder. Either way, I feel awkward and clumsy navigating this conglomerate of commerce and congestion that bares little resemblance in form, smell, sound, or custom to anything I am familiar with - as if only by walking through the streets I am somehow disrupting an imperceptible order underlying a highly calibrated algorithm that on the surface appears only as an utter chaos of motion and narrowly avoided collisions. If you stop to avoid being hit by a taxi heading straight at you or pause to hold the door open for someone behind you or you let your face soften into a smile at one of the children begging in the street you will disrupt the system and undo the inexplicable chaos.
So as a westerner, learning how the system works for the first time, there is no such thing as the gift of anonymity one usually gets to ingratiate oneself in upon entering a new and humungous metropolis. No matter how many swaths of saris I wear or how well I can do that head bobble thing that means neither "yes" nor "no", my presence will never be subtle here. The sooner I accept this the sooner I will find my natural place because if one thing is assured in this city, there seems to be a place for everyone...whether it is socially visible or not.
Maybe it is too much to ask, but I hope that with finding my place in the system I will start to understand it a little. Right now, very little of it makes sense. LG, 3G, 12GB, 3BKG, 1LKH: a few must-know acronyms I learned while setting up a portable wifi system, getting a mobile phone set up, and conducting one of the most complicated apartment-hunting escapades I have ever undertaken. Understanding the urban code of this city is more than simply remembering to look right before crossing the street. It doesn't take long to learn that the only code worth remembering here is the code for survival: every man woman and child for him/herself. And men women and children there are abound. 12 million to be precise. Actually, 13 or 14 million depending on what data you are using so really "precision" is kind of a foreign concept. As is punctuality or toilet paper in public bathrooms or diving in one lane at a time or "please and thank you" or drinkable tap water or or waiting your turn in line or forks and knives, and so on.
And a "foreign concept" is exactly what I am, though being foreign does not make me exempt from participating in the urban code - a code that is not easily forgotten.
If nearly getting hit by a moving vehicle over a dozen times daily or spending over 7 hours battling bureaucratic hoop-law to get registered as a resident are not impressionable enough of reminders, getting awakened at 1:43 am by a loud knock on your hotel door accompanied by the words, "It's the police", certainly is. (They wanted to see my identification - passport, visa, proof of affiliation with my host institution, and official Fulbright documentation because the Prime Minister was going to be visiting the area later that morning). Phew! My heart was racing and hands were definitely shaking a little after that one.
But all of this seems to be a par for the course in the kind of shock therapy that I am undergoing as initiation to this incredible city. The triviality of the kind of survival mechanisms that I am learning to develop is brought to a sobering reality at the far too common sight of a small child - not more than 3 or 4 - begging, barefoot, in the hot tight spaces between queuing taxis, cars, and rickshaws. The cold hard reality starts to settle in: there is no algorithm to this chaos...no order, perceptible or not. The system is much much lager than anything we can possibly imagine. Being here is like being thrown into the deep end without knowing a wit how to swim
...just relax, turn over onto your back, and float.