Bombay Letter 5 – March 1998

(Part of a letter typed on actual paper with a typewriter by my wife during the first month of our stay in Bombay.)

March 22, 1998

Dear Family,

One of the things I’ve been wanting to do is write down my impressions of India based on the sights, sounds, smells, feel and taste.

The sights:

  • Dirty, run-down buildings, some crumbling and some being worked on, but once inside, beautiful apartments, stores or offices, some with indoor gardens, or patios with gorgeous views of the ocean.
  • Dirty streets and sidewalks with garbage, but garbage and dirt that has been swept into neat piles, and people sifting through these piles to recycle the paper, plastic, string, rubber bands, food….you name it… it’s used over and over again.  (That line that parents have about not wasting food at the dinner table, “Think of all the starving children in India” doesn’t work here.  Here we say, go ahead and waste it,  so you can feed the starving kids in India). 
  • The beggars at every stop light, the one missing an arm or leg, who beg car to car, or the little girl with a baby in her arms, or the old man with some disease that leaves him with lumps all over his body.  Yuck. It’s hard to get used to.  But maybe even worse to get used to is the callousness one needs to be able to just avert one’s eyes (eye contact commits you) and drive on.  Sometimes we pass things out the window, but only once the light turns green so we can get away before we’re mobbed by others.  A lot of people just never give.  In some ways that’s easier, but we’ve decided it’s too hard on our souls.   When compassion is constantly squelched, it dries up the soul.  So we try to carry one rupee coins (about 2.5 cents) to give away.
  • Amidst the dirt, the beggars, and the filth are the beautiful bright colors Indians wear, especially the women.  Put me next to an Indian woman and I will always feel under-dressed and drab.  Saris are bright orange, or yellow, or pink, or white, or green, and sometimes highlighted with real gold woven in.  The trucks can be just as colorful, brightly painted and decorated.

Now the sounds:

Yesterday, while Gary was dealing with Mutayeh’s death, he heard this haunting flute music. There was a seller on the street playing a sample of what he sold…wooden flutes.  Then there’s the traffic….honk, HONK, honk…that’s constant.  (Trucks have painted on the back, “Please honk.”  It’s the polite thing to do here.)  And the dogs barking, though actually not as often as you would expect. The stray dogs on the streets are the same as you’d see squirrels in the U.S., plentiful and ignoring you as they go about their existence. And the cat fights (again, lots of stray cats, but they probably keep the rat population under control, so we won’t complain.)  The calls of the vegetable seller that carries for blocks (they know how to project).  The whistle of our guards here at the apartments (they don’t let anyone stop or park in front of the building).  And yesterday, shopping downtown in the Muslim section, the calls to prayer from the loudspeakers mounted high up in the mosques.

The smells:

Yes, lots of smells here in India.  Unfortunately, the memorable ones aren’t good.  When we were in Matheran, I was pulled up the mountain in a rickshaw.  If my eyes had been closed my nose would have told me it was being pulled by horses, but it wasn’t.  (Get my drift?)  But we’ve also smelled incense, even in the taxi where the driver had a stick burning in front of his little shrine.  And the food, yes the food smells pretty good.  Lots of garlic, onions, curry and other spices.

The tastes:

The food, while we’re at it, tastes pretty good, too.  Can’t say I like it all, or that I love it, but it’s pretty good.  I prefer the fruits…papaya, cantaloupe, bananas, and soon mangoes.  And the Domino’s pizza is good, especially when we’re in need of that western fix.  This is also one place where you can enjoy going to a potluck.  Everyone brings such different things, usually made by their cooks.  So you end up with Chinese food, Thai., Italian, German, American, and of course, Indian.  And I also enjoy the tea, good British or Indian tea.  The only thing we don’t drink is the coffee.  Even at fancy receptions, they serve instant with hot water!

And finally, the feel:

India is a hardship assignment, and that’s sometimes how it feels…hard.  Especially the beds, like what we slept on (or tried to sleep on) in Matheran.  And the taxis are hard, especially with their bad suspension and the bad roads (they like speed bumps here).  One feel that will stick with me (excuse the pun) is all the immunizations we have gotten and still will get here.  I’ve lost count, but I think we’ve had about ten shots already, and we’re due to have more in two weeks, and again more in another five months.  You name it, we could get it here: hepatitis A and B, rabies, typhoid, cholera, etc.  But maybe even harder to feel here in India are the emotions.  So often it feels surreal, like we’re in a painting, or a book, or a movie.  Some expatriates, fellow foreigners, have told us it can take as much as six months to get over the feeling of not really being here!  Though dealing with death, and beggars, and riding in taxis where it looks like the drivers are playing chicken with each other, and so much more, can do a lot to jolt you into reality.

I will close for now.  We feel distant from you all, and are sorry that communication has been so difficult.  Getting on the Internet from our own place will do a lot to strengthen the lines of communication.  Please know that the lines of love and affection between us are not at all diminished by this distance but maybe even strengthened.  God’s blessings.

Anita and the Redheads

About literarylee

I sling words for a living. Always have, always will. Some have been interesting and fun; most not. These days, I write the fun words early in the morning before the adults are up and make me eat my Cream of Wheat.
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