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A Mumbaikar No Longer

A Mumbaikar No Longer

December 14, 2011

A grudging account of how I have become a foreigner in my beloved home town of Mumbai.

On a recent trip to my beloved city Mumbai, I had a rather disheartening realization. I had crossed over from being a Mumbaikar to a foreigner in my own home town, despite my ardent attempts at preventing such an occurrence. For instance, I still talked in an Indian accent and fluently spoke Mumbai jargon, even though the Mumbai lot had long ditched their accent in favor of American colloquialism. I proudly sported ethnic fashion amid my western-brands adorning friends. Why, I even devoured street food and drank un-bottled water much to the astonishment of my disapproving clan. But, for every conscious effort on my part there were enough unwitting signs that I was no longer a local.

The first sign was that I found myself constantly and profusely ‘thanking’ the maid. Not only was I making her uncomfortable but it also seemed a bit hollow; considering that she has witnessed me throwing a fit over burnt toast and damp towels in the past (I am ashamed to admit). If that wasn’t enough, I really got chided for ‘thanking’ the road-side pani-puriwalla for every puri he unceremoniously served on my plate. I realized my folly when I found the other pani-puri eaters, the pani-puriwalla, and my family all snickering at my expense.

The next sign came when I went shopping at one of the old-fashioned shopping marts. Now, the only reason I chose to go there instead of the swanky malls was for the joy of haggling. As a young girl, I remember being embarrassed when my mom haggled with the shopkeepers; but now having lived in the US, where haggling and finding bargains in tourist destinations is considered a sport, I was actually looking forward to it. I had even come prepared with carefully rehearsed bargaining lines. But, it was of no use. As soon as I opened my mouth to haggle, the older shopkeeper started shaking his head and muttered disapprovingly Beta, you must be from America”. It turned out the markets are all ‘fixed-price’ now and haggling is associated only with cheap foreigners. Mind you, the art is still alive and kicking on the streets and I eventually got my fix on the streets of Colaba. Granted, I won’t ever get caught wearing the junk I bought there, but still, making the deal for half its price was worth it!

Then, it was the paranoia of crossing the road. I broke out in sweat every time the occasion arose and believe me it had little to do with the sweltering heat. It’s like a pedestrian-motorist face-off. The on-coming traffic can and will accelerate upon spotting pedestrians in the middle of the road, especially if they sense fear and hesitation common in foreigners. I had to be dragged by hand whilst screaming by whoever was unfortunate enough to be accompanying me on the streets. And if I happened to be in the car during such face-offs, our driver would have it! The poor guy jerked and swerved the first couple times he heard me shriek; eventually, he learned to tune me out.

And, the final straw was my urge to do all the touristy stuff while in town. On previous visits, I just couldn’t be bothered; all I’d want to do was hit the hot and happening spots at night and shop and watch movies during the day. But this time around, I wanted to go see Dhobi Ghaat (no, not the movie), visit Jehangir Art Gallery, ride the horse-buggy at Nariman Point and pay homage at Haji Ali much to the chagrin of my family. And I always had the camera around my neck everywhere I went, happily clicking pictures of the sights, the slums and even the billboards along the way.

Yes, I had become a foreigner. And, even though it’s been a long time coming, it is with a heavy heart that I finally concede.

P.S. I will always be a ‘Mumbaikar’ at heart! P.P.S. I don’t mean to imply that Mumbaikars do not express gratitude for the services they receive; just that they do not feel compelled to vocalize it with a ‘Thanks’ at every instance, unlike us expats who are so unaccustomed to such pampering that we almost feel guilty being waited on.

Photo credit: Ram Balmur 


  • Harshit
    22.02.12 08:18 AM
    Somehow hopped onto this blog- awesome post! Really true. The truth is however much you try to be swadesi - people will try to treat you as a foreigner, and later gossip about how much you've changed :)

    My family once tried to smuggle food inside a "Food-not-allowed" resort. Not only did no one listen to me when I said they should not break the rules, but when the time to give the excuse came, everyone pointed to me and said "yeh america se aaya hai, bahut bimaar hai, bahaar ka khaana allowed nahin hai "

    And little do they know, that i sneak out first day to have a taste of my favorite wada pav, and love to tip the guy who's making them :)
  • Dev
    17.02.12 09:05 AM
    Hi Neelam,
    It was fun reading your blog today. I am going to Mumbai - Bombay (same dilemma) after 9 years of continuous US stay and already worried instead of being excited.
    I love everything about Bombay because i grew up there and lived 26 years of my life- school, college everything.. all my memories are from there. Now suddenly after 13 years of break from hometown, and long awaited visit after 9 years - back in memory lane is making me bit anxious. You won't believe i just typed "nervous visiting India" on Google and your blog came up. I am planning to take pictures too everywhere I go (smiled when I read your blog entry), want to try all raste ka khaana, old malls and shops, local train ride, paanwala, Prithvi theater, naturals Ice cream much to do.

    Actually everyone visiting us from India scared us quite - "Boss everything has changed now, you won't recognize anything.. oh that movie theater is gone now.. there is new mall, baba which world are you living in? people pay 1000-2000 Rs in restaurant bills now & US malls are kind of oKKay but Mumbai malls are way good..wait till you see all that.. You can get Italian and Mexican food everywhere".
    Isn't it funny we may not want to eat all that. We want Pao-wada near mithibai, bhel at Churchgate station, K-rustam's ice-cream sandwich may be..

    I somehow feel Lousy right now. Can't figure out why am i not excited about going back for 1 month fun. Have I become numb to such feelings in years or became a fattu ? or I am worried if my "Balanced" life in US will be disturbed - what will happen to my bills, house, tax filing, work, kid's school, kid's soccer and swimming class etc.. OR I am worried about how will i fit in Mumbai again, will I sound like a Gaowala which I think we have become one in US or foreigner as you have mentioned..
    I think, frozen in time - stands true for every NRI. You can figure out the year they must have left India - their fashion, style, liking of music and talks.. I still wear small gotti beard below lower lip from Dil Chahta hai - and its been 12 years :)Yeah I am in that clan and also I still keep little long side locks. LOL

    As I was reading your blog I felt like I was reading my own story as vision... wow..Anyway, thanks for writing such good blog, I will write about my tour in April when I am back. I love taking pictures so may be I will send some "faces of Mumbai" pictures when I return (one of the bucket list thing...No idea how my friends will take me with big lens camera, probably kick my buxx..Or I may just have to lie to everyone and go away for one whole day with my Nikon)..We will see.
    Thanks again for reading. Keep writing Neelima.
  • Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    21.12.11 12:17 AM
    @Purba - seriously?? ecstatic over cow-dung?? That's funny!

    @Rajpriya - You are right, we can get used to anything once we live in a place long enough.

    @Vaibhav - Good for you! But, I still call Mumbai my home and I think I have a better appreciation for it now than when I lived there.
  • vaibhavGhevde
    20.12.11 10:02 PM
    I liked the way you listed the signs of loosing the Mumbaikar in you. I will never understand what you feel as I have never lived far from my mumbai and never will. The thought of not being able to call mumbai home irks me.
  • Rajpriya
    20.12.11 05:25 PM

    Germany is a highly advanced country with top priorities for Farming and Agriculture. Living in villages anywhere even those that are very close large cities Cow-dung can be seen on roads.

    If your friend takes an early morning train ride in or out of large a city in India I would not be able to describe what she would exactly do if she happens look out a window?

    As much as one could get unused, one can also get used to realities over a period of time.
  • Purba
    20.12.11 01:27 PM
    It's so easy to get unused to stuff. I remember a friend who'd go ecstatic every time he spotted cow-dung :p
  • Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    19.12.11 02:37 AM
    @Freya - I was not even going to dignify your 'hate' comment with a response. But, like my hubby says, I just can't help myself!
    It IS Mumbai, whether you like it or not. Mumbai, Mumbaikars and I have all embraced the change and weaved it into our identity. It’s because our identity has more to it than just the name. Maybe, not so in your case(?)
    And, for the very same reasons, my sense of identity is secure whether I am in India, America or anywhere else. Unlike you, Americans do not impose rules for being called an American. If I live here and love it, I am an American.
    In fact, the way I see it, I am one of many who have the privilege of calling two countries as my own and love it both just as I would my parent’s and my husband’s home!

    As for my article, you are entitled to your opinion!
  • Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    19.12.11 01:56 AM
    @Shashi - Thanks! Growing up I always said that I'd never leave Mumbai either, but life takes its own course. And now, I have a home in two cities across the globe which is pretty cool as well:)

    @Raahila - Beautifully said:) loved the line, it says it all!!
  • Freya
    18.12.11 10:09 PM
    I'm sorry to break it you, you were never going to be truly from Bombay, if you refer to it as Mumbai and call yourself a Mumbaikar.
    You're just one more of the many who fall into a perilous identity crisis, cause you will never truly be American either. Stuck in the middle and all that!

    And it wasn't even an interestingly written article.
  • Raahila
    17.12.11 11:34 PM
    nice article totally relate to whatever u said face the similar stuff when i visit. i Miss Bombay when i'm in New york and vice versa :) never satisfied always longing....never felt more like an Indian when i was out of india or more like a Foreigner when i was in india :)
  • s.H.a.S.h.I
    17.12.11 02:28 PM
    Hey nice post. Even being a mumbaikar, somethings i just hate bout this city. But having stayed here for long, i dont feel like settling down anywhere else, however difficult it is. Ive stayed in other cities too, but mumbai is in my heart, i dnt wanna miss things tht happen in mumbai, be it for good or bad.
    Well in ur case, there r still lotta places, where u can get gud bargains, but i agree the major shopping joints like fashion street has lost tht charm.
    nice blog btw :) cheers
  • Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    17.12.11 12:13 AM
    @Aradhana - Thanks:) Even though we feel like foreigners a bit, it will always be our home!!
    @Antarik - why, thankyou!!
    @Ashwini - I know what you mean!!
  • Ashwini
    16.12.11 11:06 PM
    I experience the same thing every time I visit, another thing I experienced was that we still think of India as it was 10 years contrast to what it is today. Good to see the new India though. Feels proud being called an Indian here.
    Love Ash.
  • Antarik
    16.12.11 01:18 AM
    Loved the post :)
  • Aradhana
    15.12.11 02:58 AM
    Wow! This one is just too good. I started feeling like a foreigner after my 2nd visit to India many years back:)
  • Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    15.12.11 02:00 AM
    @Sanjay - Thanks!! Yeah, it took me along time to get used to saying Mumbai instead of Bombay.
    @Harry - Thanks! That is wonderful advice.
    @Style Destino - True! I just don't have the benefit of seeing it change over a period of time, so when I visit after a long break, it catches me off guard...that's all. It still is very close to my heart and always will be!
  • Style Destino
    Style Destino
    15.12.11 12:23 AM
    Change is the only thing permanent and of course Mumbai will evolve everytime you come here. What makes Mumbai alive is its spirit and people.
    14.12.11 09:14 PM
    Nice article NEELAM,

    You will always be an Indian by heart regardless of your citizenship. Apple can never be an Orange. One should always embrace who they are, rather then who they are not. It's great that you accept and understand your identity.
    My best wishes to you.

  • Sanjay Shah
    Sanjay Shah
    14.12.11 07:46 PM
    Nicely written Neelam.
    My dilemna usually is between calling it Mumbai or Bombay...
  • Rajpriya
    14.12.11 07:07 PM

    Take look at a headline that hit Daily Mail UK today. Queen of shops Mary Portas warning that town centres would never return to their traditional butcher, greengrocer and fishmonger scenario.

    Under the heading, “Our high streets hit 'crisis point': There are too many small stores and thousands must shut”, says PM's retail guru.

    Read more:
  • Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    Neelam Kamdar Bhamani
    14.12.11 06:08 PM
    Thank you for all the wonderful comments:)
    I must say that I don't have anything against people talking and dressing differently now, it is what makes each of us unique in our own way. Like Sudha said above, Mumbai has no rules and accepts everyone as they are...even an expat like me:))
  • Writerzblock
    14.12.11 05:04 PM
    That is a brilliant article, Neelam. Couldn't agree with you more!! This line was funny :'haggling is associated only with cheap foreigners.' :-)
  • Sudha
    14.12.11 04:30 PM
    Ah... Neelam. There are many types of Mumbaikars. Even your type. That is what Mumbai is all about and that is what this city allows you to be. It does not lay down rules and it does not expect you to conform. The fact that you are writing this makes you a Mumbaikar. :-)
  • Rajpriya
    14.12.11 04:16 PM

    Here is link to an article that appeared in the Times India. It tells you the stories of parents who created the Wannabe habit to make Gonnabe’s.

    "Parents are now encouraging their children to speak with American and British accents to make sure they are a class apart. "I feel that my daughter's future will be better if she has an American accent," says Raja. "It is best she attends the classes now because children learn things faster. It will give her an advantage over her peers," he adds. Apart from the twice-a-week classes, Sangeetha also watches English movies as "homework" to pick up the accent".

    "It's the same in the Dharaneeswaran household in Red Hills, except third grader D Aiman's parents are keen on a British accent. "My daughter plays tennis and she sometimes has matches abroad, so we want her to speak with a British accent because people will understand her better. She also has to interact with international coaches," says Dr. Dharaneeswaran, a physiotherapist".

  • Rajpriya
    14.12.11 03:54 PM

    With out just saying it is an excellent article I like to go a bit further to tell you my reason for believing why I think it is.

    You have effectively combined the many aspects of your experience as a tool to communicate the way your birthplace has changed when you have been away for long times. Added with components that are no longer indigenous makes one to believe it’s not the place it once used to be but unusual and strange.

  • Deepak
    14.12.11 01:15 PM
    Glad that you don't want to loose the real identity of being an Indian, but you know something ? people here lives and pretends to be like a foreigner, they never hears or wears Indian things, all they do is just like a stage drama actor, pretending to be a foreigner... shame of them and glad to have ppl like you, people who love them for being an indian,, Luck by chance i read this post :)
  • Bhagyashree
    14.12.11 10:51 AM
    I could so identify with the post. But in my case I feel Me and my hubby are the only Indians around and the others....I don't know to which country or planet they belong to.
  • Rohan Ramos
    Rohan Ramos
    14.12.11 09:34 AM
    Excellent work Neelam. I can relate to so many things you have mentioned, especially the "Thanks" part :-)
  • deb
    14.12.11 09:10 AM
    You are one of my favorite writers. Love your posts.
  • ramakrishna
    14.12.11 08:39 AM
    very well written blog even though i am not from usa i have experienced most of the things
    14.12.11 07:42 AM
    love it Neelam, keep up the good work and the great writing! I can relate to all of the above!

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