That sounds like a simple thing, planning to meet someone. In Mumbai, plans are rarely followed. They’re subject to constant adjustment, jugaad, and the only way to achieve one’s ends is to prepare to adjust at every turn.
It was late June, the height of the monsoon, when bursts of thick rain are accompanied by an even thicker humidity that settles over the city. I awoke that morning sticky and uncomfortable with sweat. Recalling warm nights of childhood in Auckland, when even a single sheet somehow led to overheating, I wondered how on Earth I had managed to sleep with Mumbai aggressively draining my pores.
As I stumbled into the bathroom, my hosts again apologised for the lack of hot water. Their ‘geyser’ was broken. I smiled back and said that I wouldn't have used it anyway.
My bowels churned. Loose bowel motion, which I had only ever picked up in my first days in India three years before, had returned. Given that I was now about to leave the country, this provided an unfortunate symmetry. More pressingly, I didn't know if going to Fort to meet someone I'd never met before was a good idea. Andrea was promising ‘the best berry pulao ever’; it sounded delicious but not at all friendly to an upset stomach. Then there was the small matter of being crammed into a Mumbai Local train for half an hour, possibly the worst place in the world to have an ‘accident’.
My hosts thought hard as I debated whether or not to go. As always, they were able to provide a solution -- or, more accurately, a tablet. They produced some magical Ayurvedic pills, and within an hour, I was confident enough to leave the house. Such a strange feeling: the sensation of needing to go didn't diminish at all, but I just... didn't have to go.
The Mumbai Local was therefore manageable, or as manageable as it can be. I'm not sure if it was the pills, but I was in a kind of hyper-aware state, spotting tiny details everywhere and noting them with fascination. That guy is carrying three mobile phones. That puddle of water is travelling up and down the carriage. Those lovers are secretly holding hands. It probably wasn't the pills but the city of Mumbai itself – you can't help but be fascinated, wherever you go, whatever you do. (I later wrote about that train journey here.)
Andrea had given me reasonably clear instructions. They went out the window the moment I emerged from CST. “Sir, taxi? Which hotel? Colaba only 200 rupees ok?” Yes, everything you've read about Indian taxi drivers is true, especially in the cut-throat South Mumbai atmosphere. I managed to convince the throng that I wasn’t a tourist and knew where I was going, which was kind of true: I was going to meet Andrea. I just wasn’t sure exactly where, or how.
The meeting point was Flora Fountain. I was already a little late, but Mumbai Time is Indian Time + ten minutes, as The NRI’s public transport reporter alluded to in a recent piece. I called Andrea to make sure she wasn’t left waiting in the hot sun. “Keep going down the southbound road, you can’t miss it”, she said, “and I’ll be there in about ten minutes.”
I walked on, expecting Flora Fountain to be less a fountain than a culvert in this space-deprived city. About every twenty metres, I would step out of the purposeful flow of pedestrian traffic and ask a roadside wallah if they knew where Flora Fountain was. ‘No,’ they would shake their head, usually with a smile. When I finally reached it, and indeed could not miss it, I wondered how someone could work around here and not know where it was. Maybe I was pronouncing it incorrectly?
Andrea soon arrived, and as soon as she did, I forgot all about the sweat, the noise, the pollution, the people. With her being a three-year veteran of Mumbai, I was expecting a properly Indian greeting - a smile, a few words of introduction and a handshake at most - but Antipodean rituals won out as she gave me a friendly hug. It felt like the reward at the end of a journey, a signal to relax and finally be led. Even though I’d never met her before, being in her company at last gave a similar feeling to returning home after a long day at the office.
I had informed her in advance (in the briefest detail of course) of my bowel problem, and we agreed to go to a cafe serving plainer East Asian food instead. The food was mediocre; the service a little slow and inattentive; the decor polished enough but somewhat out of place, given that the restaurant was on the mezzanine floor of a clothing store. The point, though, is that I made it there, and so did she, and she is a sweet and wise person who was absolutely worth making the effort to go and meet. The meal itself is a small footnote to the experience; another adjustment that I’m quite happy to have made.
In a place like Mumbai, it is those adjustments, those moments of jugaad, that simply have to be assumed as a constant in every experience. Locals learn to accept them and allow for them. Those passing through will find that if they do the same, the rewards are worth every inch the city takes.
Photo credit: Eric Parker
The 'Jugaad' Constant
March 29, 2012
In Mumbai, plans are rarely followed. Prepare to adjust.
I visited Mumbai twice during my three years in India, staying for a combined total of about two weeks. I had a lot of remarkable experiences during those two weeks, and met a lot of wonderful people. One of my abiding memories, however, is of a relatively mundane few hours: the time I went to meet Andrea at Fort.