Soundtrack Leonard Cohen, Suzanne
It’s Republic Day here at home, Australia Day there at home. I’m going home to Mumbai to my second favourite city in the world. I feel odd, shakey inside. Colonised. Coloniser. Post-colonial.
I just finished packing, looked out the hotel window. A poor man is washing trousers in a muddy puddle on a construction site. It’s the same image I saw on my first morning, on my first trip to Mumbai in 2001. Refugee women cooking breakfast on rubbish fires, washing clothes in muddy puddles on a construction site. It is India. Progress, change, the same.
Today I feel lost inside.
I was born on the land of the Kulin nation
I grew up on Wurundjeri land
Today I live on the land of the Turrbul people
My ancestors were English and Scottish
I am Australian, my soul Indian
Today I journey, always coming home.
What to say. Where to look. Who to be. Human? Woman? Anthropologist? Ex-engineer? Just me? Who is that?
On the way out last night, the Uber GPS said, “You will arrive at 2015.” Time travel or taxi?
I guess the only way to find out is to go. Journey home. Always coming home. Home is where the heart is… right?
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
Hard to imaging that I didn’t even want to come to India when my first work trip came up more than four years ago – five years ago, wow time flies. I raised a sardonic eyebrow when a friend offered the advice: “You like people. There are lots of people in India. You’ll be fine.”
But fine I was, WOW, more than fine. Come with me a moment, I will get back to this trip I promise, but if you’re going to have any chance of understanding how I feel about India you need to go with me on this – did you ever read Pookie books when you were a kid? You know about the little white rabbit with wings? Well, I have these memories of sitting up in bed with Mum reading me the adventures of Pookie. She bought me all of them. He was a little lost rabbit, different, who found home and belonging on arriving in the Gypsy night market full of incredible sights and smells too foreign and wondrous to imagine.
So there I was, 2001, starry eyed like Pookie in the back of a black Ambassador taxi inching out of Mumbai airport into a full on Indian traffic jam. Back then direct flights from Australia landed after 10pm. And it was also Ganesha’s Birthday, a festival that is just huge in Mumbai. Imagine Pookie’s lights, a million little pixie lights strung over stalls made for the festival, twisted around barrows selling food of unknown tastes and ingredients, with awesome smells. Everywhere women selling garlands of flowers. Fresh coconuts split for juice, sugar cane squeezed to make some sweet elixir, later advised by my local friend to be too hygienically dodgy for me drink. Glass cabinets of fried samosas of a million different varieties. Amazing exotic flowers festooning multicoloured smoke filled entrance ways, beckoning, offering passage to new worlds where mysterious temples are inhabited by brightly lit, smiling, blue idols. And everywhere incense and smoke from small fires. People rushing in and out between the traffic, cars ignoring lane markings – are there lane markings? I laugh, unable to wipe the grin off my face. Horns are blaring, head lights flashing all in a relentless press to get somewhere. Children laughing, calling, running out, adults carrying impossibly balanced loads over miniature foot bridges before disappearing into shanty towns shrouded in mystery and smoke. Everywhere full of people and laughter and magic lights. So much pulsing life.
And I sat hypnotised in the back of my taxi inhaling the scent and wonder. Like Pookie, uniquely at home. Somehow belonging.
Waking to the next morning’s foetid reality after a pre-dawn tropical thunder storm couldn’t dampen my wonder. Naked children were playing in puddles. Those narrow foot bridges had been over open sewers foul with every kind of rubbish and excrement. Scrawny yellow dogs snapped and chased and barked. Brightly clad women squatted, cooking over rubbish fires in a squalid shanty town clinging like the torn underskirts of an ageing sari to a freeway construction site where men were already working in the dawn light, swarming like a million ants. Squalid, dirty, raw poverty. But shining with the pride and beauty of the human spirit. I felt truly at home and that feeling hasn’t changed.
On arriving this time I simply passed through Mumbai on my way down to God’s own Country and, perhaps foolishly, I economised on an airport hotel. That economy meant the hotel was “functional” at best and that I only slept courtesy of the airline earplugs I had stuffed in my bag. I should say immediately that I still slept with a smile – in fact I don’t regret it at all. Peaking between the dusty hotel curtains before bed to see where all the noise was coming from showed, even through the filthy glass, that five floors below traffic is still snaking down the same main road into Mumbai along which my taxi crawled five years ago, and it’s still gridlocked in one continuous traffic jam, even at midnight. The look also showed that my room’s twinkling ambience is courtesy of the top floor of my hotel being festooned with constellations of a million pixie lights. Home again, home again, jiggity jig.
Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look amid the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror
I’m back in the familiar Marine Plaza Hotel in a subtly shifted Mumbai. So much has changed, so much is still the same. The drive was much faster, more prosaic, even with the engineering feat that is the new Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link. But Haji Ali Mosque is still at the end of its causeway, all lit up and floating. And the Tower of Silence is still there, looming above the unsilent. I always used to have tomato soup and a club sandwich when I arrived here, going native with the vegetarian tandoori sticks tonight!
And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you will trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind