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Moving Back to Bombay

What challenges does an Indian expat encounter in his former home city?

February 8, 2005

What challenges does an Indian expat encounter in his former home city?

India is the “Country of the No.” That “no” is your test. You have to get past it. It is India’s Great Wall — it keeps out foreign invaders.

Pursuing it energetically and vanquishing it is your challenge. In the guru-shishya (teacher-student) tradition, the novice is always rebuffed multiple times when he first approaches the guru. Then, the guru stops saying no — but doesn’t say yes either. He suffers the presence of the student.

When he starts acknowledging him, he assigns a series of menial tasks, meant to drive him away. Only if the disciple sticks it out through all these stages of rejection and ill treatment is he considered worthy of the sublime knowledge.

India is not a tourist-friendly country. It will reveal itself to you only if you stay on, against all odds. The “no” might never become a “yes.” But you will stop asking questions.

“Can I rent a flat at a price I can afford?” Coming from New York, I find that I am a pauper in Bombay.

The going rate for a nice two-bedroom apartment in the part of South Bombay where I grew up is $3,000 a month, plus $200,000 as a deposit — interest-free and returnable in rupees. This is after the real estate prices have fallen by 40%.

We have a meeting with the owner of the flat, a Gujarati diamond merchant, to negotiate the contract. The landlord is a Palanpuri Jain and a strict vegetarian. He asks my uncle if we are, too.

“Arre, his wife is a Brahmin! Even more than us!” my uncle replies. And this is where we get our vegetarian discount: 20% off the asking rent.

The flat we have moved into was designed by a sadist, a prankster, or an idiot. The kitchen window ventilates only the refrigerator —or, rather, heats it — since there is no provision for curtains and the sun beats down on it.

When I turn on the fan in the dark recesses of the kitchen, it blows out the gas flame, since the space for the range is directly underneath the fan.

The only way we can get air in the living room is to open the study window, to let the sea air in. But this also brings in a sand dune’s worth of thick, black, grainy dirt from outside — along with a spectacular array of filth.

By five o’clock, the living room is dark, since we’re on such a low floor. We need the air conditioner and the lights on all the time. Our electricity bills run into the monstrous figures, the necessary price of keeping the environment out.

Breathing the air in Bombay now is the equivalent of smoking two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day. The sun used to set into the sea. Now it sets into the smog.

The city of Bombay is divided between the air-conditioned and the non-air-conditioned parts: AC/non-AC. My nose can’t handle the radical difference in the worlds of Bombay. I am continuously sneezing. I have a constantly running nose.

I am advised to buy an air-conditioned car. We have no choice but to live rich, if we are to live at all.

Every day, the flat gets cleaned and scrubbed. We learn the caste system of the servants: the live-in maid won’t clean the floors — that is for the “free servant” to do. Neither of them will do the bathrooms, which are the exclusive domain of a bhangi, who does nothing else.

The driver won’t wash the car — that is the monopoly of the building watchman. The flat ends up swarming with servants. We wake up at six every morning to garbage, when the garbage lady comes to collect the previous day’s refuse.

From then on, the doorbell rings continuously all through the day: milkman, paperboy, knife sharpener, waste-paper-and-bottle buyer, cable man. All the services of the world, brought to my door — too early in the morning.

For the month after my family arrives, I chase plumbers, electricians and carpenters like Werther chased Lotte.

The electrician attached to the building is an easygoing fellow who comes in the late afternoons, chats with me about the wiring in the flat, which he knows well from multiple previous visits and patches up things so they work only for a little while, assuring multiple future visits.

The one phone line on which I can make international calls stops working.

A week ago it was the other one. Most people who can afford it have two lines, because one is always going out. Then the phone department has to be called and the workmen bribed to repair it. It is in their interest to have a lousy phone system.

As a result, in the “Country of the No” nothing is fixed the first time around. You don’t just call a repairman — you begin a relationship with him.

You cannot bring to his attention too aggressively the fact that he is incompetent or crooked, because you will need him to set right what he has broken the first time around.

Indians are craftsmen of genius, but mass production, with its attendant standardization, is not for us. All things modern in Bombay fail regularly: plumbing, telephones, the movement of huge blocks of traffic.

Bombay is not the ancient Indian idea of a city. It is an imitation of a Western city, maybe Chicago in the twenties. And, like all other imitations of the West here — the Hindi pop songs, the appliances, the accents people put on, the parties the rich throw — this imitation, too, is neither here nor there.

Adapted from “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” by Suketu Mehta. Copyright © 2004 by Suketu Mehta. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.