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