There’s something different about Indian jet lag. It steps beyond a movement of time and creeps into a movement of being. It’s not Starbucks in Rome to Starbucks in New York, it’s a 65 year old woman squatting in front of my apartment gutting fish to Starbucks in New York. It’s not sleepiness, it’s the feeling of power leaving my body. It’s soaking in the juices of one culture and being thrown back into my own. Alone. To dry. It’s sex. It’s watching a small dog’s strained eyebrows as he relieves himself in the middle of the Bombay tarmac, to breathing in sterile air out a quadrifiltered bicarbonate composite alloy air duct howling in the belly of a glass airport. An air duct large and strong enough to suck up the dog, his eyebrows, and recent creation in one fell swoop.
Last Friday, on the way to the Mumbai-Kolkata Indian Premier League cricket match, Beth and I had the good fortune of riding the train to Churchgate Station during rush hour. Watch Bombay commuters of every size, shape, and generation leap onto the train, before it stops, to secure a seat for the long ride home:
Controversial psychologist Phillipe Rushton developed the head test: ethnicities with smaller heads, he stated, are less intelligent. Apartheid South Africa developed the pencil test: if a pencil placed in a person’s hair stays put, it was thought, the person is racially inferior. Not to be outdone, Hindustan Lever, India’s largest consumer products company, recently developed a “Fairness Meter.”
In a society where a darker complexion indicates lower caste, the Fairness Meter brings a new level of accuracy to the time-honored tradition of judging people by the color of their skin. Part of the Fair & Lovely line of cosmetics, the Fairness Meter helps Indian men and women to accurately track the bleaching effect of Fair & Lovely’s skin-whitening cream. The lower the number – the logic goes – their fairer the person and thus the more beautiful. Says the mother of Apoorva Satish, an early adopter of the Fairness Meter: “My daughter Apoorva Satish studying in 10th Standard was some dark chap. After seeing the advertise of Fair & Lovely I encouraged her to use this multivitamin cream. The result is 15 number to 10 number according to fairness meter. We are all very happy…”
Read more testimonials on Fair & Lovely’s website.
After suffering heavy losses in the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the 158-year-old financial services firm Lehman Brothers has decided to fundamentally refocus its corporate practice. Says CEO Dick Fuld: “Lehman Brothers has a fine tradition of brokering high-quality transactions between corporate bosses over dinner at the world’s finest restaurants. Given the historically unprecedented and relentless downturn in the global economy, Lehman Brothers is left with no choice but to liquidate its assets and refocus its corporate practice on its strong suit: eating.”
Click this link to download the Lehman Brother’s restaurant guide to Mumbai. I hope you’ll find it as useful as I do. Bon appetit!
A secret you discovered about Mumbai?
If you walk with your arms extended you won’t drop into the open manholes.
An Indian product or service you can’t do without?
Home delivery — the service is pretty unbelievable and the kids pretty poorly paid. I order often and try to tip well.
Any fashion tips?
Wear shorts in the summer — your body deserves it.
Dared to try street food?
Street food is the porn of the culinary industry. Cheap, flashy, and made to please. No matter where I travel I find that street food is what I end up missing most when I leave. Spiced corn, pani puri, all fantastic in my book.
A phrase you’re bound to hear?
More a sound than a phrase — part whistle, part mouse being squeezed to death. I hear it most often in crowded shops when I’m in somebody’s way and they’re telling me to move.
Your road experiences?
If riding a rickshaw were a videogame it’d be a best-seller. Just 10 rupees to play, fast-paced, and fully-interactive. I’ve realized that it’s my responsibility to warn the driver of oncoming traffic. I’ve been involved in two crashes and that’s only because I wasn’t paying enough attention.
What is sexy about Mumbai?
You don’t come to Mumbai for the parks, for the beach, for the monuments or for the restaurants. You come for the sweat, for the people, for the spirit of the city. It’s standing on a train at 5pm seared to a half a dozen people. It’s watching the sweat collect and slide off the brow of those around you. It’s knowing you’re in it together and it’s worth it. ‘Nuff said.
Have you been conned yet?
Does a 1 Lakh rent deposit count?
Truly, madly, deeply, Mumbai…
My friend and I were stuck in traffic when she tried to light a cigarette with her last match. The taxi jerked forward and the match was extinguished. As she searched in vain a matchbox appeared in front of her face. She followed the arm that held it aloft to discover that it came not from within our car, but from the car idling to our left. A fellow driver noticed her misfortunate and decided to help. He gave her a nod and told her to keep the rest of the pack. Only in Mumbai.
What are the similarities or differences between Mumbai and your hometown?
I was born in North Africa where the first step onto the tarmac brings dust, heat, and a wall of noise that’s difficult to escape. I’ve been told that Cairo is Bombay 40 years in the past and I can see it. The main difference is Mumbai’s energy — it’s a people-magnet whose pull gets stronger every time someone moves into the city. It gives the city an electricity on par with New York and London. It’s a great place if you’re interested in seeing a city take shape.
Mumbai, the cultural capital?
Most definitely. A walk down my street brings an Islamic call to prayer, a group of neighbors conducting a Pooja, and a candle-lighting at the local Catholic altar. Mumbai is a city of immigrants. Many city dwellers are deeply steeped in tradition, having brought with them an ancient and rich tradition from other parts of the country. To become a recognized cultural capital Mumbai needs someone with the will to bring out what’s been hidden in the woodwork for so long. Maybe even someone who’s reading this interview?
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.
So I recently decided to take a post in Mumbai India. I’ll be heading over in a couple of weeks to support an organization called TechnoServe where I’ll support the development of industries that provide an economic lifeline to underprivileged communities. Please continue to stay in touch, esp. if you have plans on making it my way-