India is a pickle. It is to a vegetable deeply rooted in the earth, extracted, diced up, and added to meals for its nutritious value. It is organic. It is dirty. It is a garnish slipped atop a beef patty to stimulate the palate. It is a process by which things are made to be sour. It is a problem, a quandary for which there is no clear solution. India is all of the above – minus the beefy patty. They don’t eat beef here.
I came to Bombay (also called Mumbai) with an uneasy smile. As I walked out of the airport I took stock of my new roommate, employer, wife. It was an arranged marriage: I had committed to spending a good portion of my life with someone I barely even knew, had never met before. Sizing her up on the way home she seemed well, okay: I liked the palm trees, good weather, stray wafts of spicy cuisine… I could do without the chaos, mosquitoes, dirt-choked streets…
Several months in I’m proud to say we’re still in it for the long-haul. It wasn’t love at first sight but like a good arranged marriage we’ve found a way to make it work. It’s a mixed bag: my shower only works for 8 seemingly random hours of the day. My apartment is fully cleaned and dinner cooked daily for a few dollars a month. I can get anything, including groceries, prescription medication, housing supplies, and laundry delivered to my doorstep for free. Nothing is done right the first time. The street food is first-rate. The lack of civic responsibility is so ingrained in my housing society that a small tree is literally sprouting from a concrete hole outside the fourth floor of my building.
Bombay, much like New York, is a city of immigrants. It’s a city of 13 million stacked on a string of seven islands that were recently connected by rock, garbage and dirt trucked in from the east. Those who come to Bombay do so driven by a desire to move up in life, more so than any other city in India. As you walk the streets you’re passing those who’ve consciously chosen to gamble their fate, and the results are mixed. In some cases you run across tremendous wealth, proudly displayed in the spit and polish of luxury sedans and modern high-rises. More often you run across several generations of previously rural families, roughing it out within a shack smaller than a McDonald’s bathroom. There are few motions to go through for those living here, few paths set out for them – instead there is opportunism, desire, creation – a constant series of choices that adds to the city’s intensity.
So am I happy to be here? Mosquitoes aside absolutely yes. Between work and personal trips I’ve had a chance to see some incredible parts of the country (snapshots at www.laoudji.com/photo; click “India”), including a French colony (Pondicherry), Mother Teresa’s mission (Calcutta), the spiritual home of the Sikh faith (Amritsar), and the country’s political center (Delhi). At work I’m helping TechnoServe India to manage an entrepreneurship development program — we’re working to train and scale up small enterprises in the agro-industry and renewable energy sectors. I’m supporting those who are weaving the story of an unprecedented economic revolution. I’m learning in new ways and stretching myself. Life is beautiful.