April 29 1998
I want to share a few Bombay reductions with you. A reduction is a shrinking of something, lessening it from what you’d normally expect. Sometimes, a reduction takes a thing to its essence like boiling fruit to get jelly or corn mash to get moonshine. The first reduction comes from what I’m learning about people here who want a visa so they can enter and visit the United States. To qualify for one, an applicant needs to prove he or she has strong ties to a home outside the U.S. For most people here, that means in India. In order to prove that, applicants often bring reams and notebooks and binders full of paper. They bring birth certificates, death certificates, deeds to their flat (apartment) or bungalow (house), bank statements, bank books, tax forms, business agreements, savings certificates, and on and on.
These documents are a reduction of a person’s life or identity to an actual stack of papers they carry with them to try to prove they have strong ties to India. I shake my head in wonder to think that a person can try to boil his whole life down and reduce it to some folders full of papers. Often, the papers they bring to the interview are quite valuable such as the fancy ones that represent Certificates of Deposit, a very popular way to save money here. One must feel like a voyeur or Peeping Tom looking into the lives of these friendly but total strangers applying for visas. How much money do you earn? Do you own a flat? What sort of car do you drive? It must be sad when the person finds out he or she is not eligible for a visa even with the stacks of papers (their life reduced) all on the table. They must feel personally rejected.
The next reduction I experienced just today. We finally got our car. Hurray! Hurray! Yes, the 1987 Toyota Van, which we dubbed the Bombay Mobile has arrived and I drove it on the streets of Bombay for the 10 minute drive from my office to our apartment. Let me tell you, traffic in here is really something else! Two lanes of traffic become three and three becomes five. You should see it: the honking, the thick exhaust, the cutting in and out. However, there is so much traffic (especially at 5:15 when I drove home today), the pace is slow and here, my dear family and friends, is the next reduction. There was a point when I escaped a clump of heavy traffic and finally got going fast, or at least it felt that way to me. I looked down at the speedometer to check the tremendous rate of speed I was traveling. It read 25 miles per hour! The traffic here, though bad, goes so slowly that 25 feels fast. This is reduction number two, a reduction of speed and even a reduction of what I think is fast. For an American, familiar with 65 MPH on beautiful, wide, clear interstate highways, and even 35 or 45 in big cities, 25 here in Bombay actually feels pretty great.
The final reduction I wanted to mention I experienced at a concert we went to a few nights ago to celebrate South African Independence Day. It was at the local 5 star hotel’s big ball room, and consisted of a string quartet and two singers, a tenor and soprano. The ensemble performed a couple of arias (reduced versions from the orchestral original, but still nice), Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (again, a reduction played by only a string quartet), and even some selections from Phantom of the Opera. The reduction I wanted to mention involved a performance of Scott Joplin’s Entertainer. I was reduced, in a subtle, quiet way, to tears hearing this familiar bit of American Culture. In the middle of Bombay, at a South African event, surrounded by Indians and colleagues, even the string quartet version of this song from my native land brought tears of homesickness and also pride to my eyes. Yes, I am an American! Yes, this ragtime, loosey-goosey music is a part of who I am and what my country is about. And yes sir, did it ever sound good, so good, I was, (but not quite fully since it was a public, formal event but enough to make it true) reduced to tears.
I suppose there are other reductions I could share, but these three stood out. I promise, there will not be any more reduction of mail from us now that we have email at home.