First Rain, First Train, and Mumbai
The rain started just as we were about to leave for the train station. I have never seen water pour like that from the sky. The air was more water than air. The train was supposed to leave at 1:55, and we were late. Mr. Nayak’s friend’s son came along to drive back the car. The two of them spoke in a language I didn’t understand, but I recognized a couple words that were in English: ten minutes, hydroplane (4 times), train.
We arrived at the station at 1:40, but the train was not there. It had been delayed, the announcement said. There were people everywhere, with sacks of coconuts, jackfruits, and boxes of rice rotti that they were bringing to friends and family in Mumbai. Some people smelled like large bars of soap, others like incense, and still others like the lunch they ate. I smelled everything at once. All the children stared at me, and so I smiled, and they smiled back. A couple sad, skinny dogs came by and stood next to me. There were not enough seats for everyone waiting, so women spread out their scarves and sat on the ground with children in their laps. Scarfless, I remained standing.
When the train arrived at 5:20, my knees were numb. We were in the 2AC car (AC: air conditioned), which consists of two-tiered reservation berths in which you can sit in the morning and sleep at night. Each berth comes furnished with sheets, a blanket, and a pillow. Vendors walked the narrow aisles with containers of sweet, hot chai. The train did not start moving until 6. I had the upper berth, and so at 7, I climbed up to sleep. It is unclear to me how other people fit comfortably into the berths because they seemed tailored to my size and most people in the car were not my size. In any case, I had three hours of rather peaceful sleep, punctuated by the weirdest series of dreams (likely induced by my antimalarial medication).
At 10, Mr. Nayak woke me up and urged me to eat dinner. But it was only my third night in the country, and the approximately 12-hour time difference between the west coast of India and the west coast of the US really hit me then, and the sight of food made me nauseous. He offered me rotti with chicken curry, which smelled so good that I contemplated eating it, and hard-boiled eggs that Mrs. Nayak gave us for the journey. I declined both. He gave me a short lecture about not wasting food and I felt a little bad, but not too bad because I would have felt sick. I climbed back up to my berth, but could not fall back asleep. So I tossed and turned in my little berth, and kept turning my reading light on to check for bugs on the ceiling (they were all just screws and nails). The wool blanket they provided made my skin smell like an old sweater. At 8 in the morning, I gave up and sat and stared at nothing. Mr. Nayak called me down to eat the hard-boiled eggs for breakfast (3 of them) and some chai to wash it down. I have been so spoiled with good tea here, I’m not sure how I’ll be able to take tea anywhere else.
“Is your reading light working?” Mr. Nayak asked me, “Mine did not work last night, so I couldn’t read until the morning.”
“Mine is working,” I said.
“If yours didn’t work, Obama would probably send in a drone to fix it,” he joked, which is uncharacteristic of Mr. Nayak because he is usually pretty serious. Looking back, he may have been serious.
When the line at the sink was gone, I went to go brush my teeth. The sink was out in the open, flanked by the two doors of our train car. There was a mirror at the sink. I had not seen a mirror in several days and it was fascinating, because I had started to forget what I looked like. I thought that being a female traveler with my complexion would attract attention and make me feel suffocated and enclosed in my own body, but it’s actually quite the opposite. People do stare at me, everywhere I go, but it doesn’t matter at all because I’m usually busy trying to see and feel and smell everything around me that I lose awareness of how I appear to other people. It’s liberating. I probably look like hell all the time though. Sometimes when the humidity becomes unbearable, I think that this is probably what hell feels like.
Anyways, the train stopped at another station while I was brushing my teeth . I was busy studying my sweaty, tired face in the mirror when I felt a head of wiry hairs push against my arm. I looked down and jumped back, because there was a girl with a large sack full of plastic bottles, digging at the trash below the sink. The men standing near the doorway yelled things at her that I did not understand and waved their hands. They looked at me with what looked like confused concern. The girl stepped off the train without looking at me or them, and the men sighed. I walked back to my berth with heavier steps than with which I came. I wiped my arm with hand sanitizer, which made me feel sad and guilty.
When we arrived in Mumbai, Mr. Nayak’s brother (who looked almost exactly like Mr. Nayak) met us at the station.
“Move quickly,” he told me. We ran up some stairs, ran down some stairs, and weaved in and out of a colorful maze of people. We ended up in a long line of sweaty people waiting for rickshaws. The Mumbai Mr. Nayak has several cars but could not bring one because there is no parking at the station. Next to the rickshaw line, some men were doing sewage maintenance of some kind, digging up trash and black lumps of foul-smelling things. It was smeared along the road, and the heat was practically cooking it on the asphalt, making the smell rise. I was the only person in the rickshaw line who looked like me and everyone stared. I think I am getting better at determining at whom I can smile and with whom I should not maintain eye contact.
We squashed our bags into the back of the tiny rickshaw, but my suitcase and backpack did not fit. I had to wedge my right leg between my bag and the seat, which was painful. I was sweaty and distressed. But then the rickshaw began moving and the breeze wiped away my sweat and there were twenty other rickshaws driving on the road near and around us and I forgot about my leg and watched everything go by. It is a wonder that my jaw is still intact because I have been so awestruck by the things I’ve been seeing.
We arrived at the Mumbai Mr. Nayak’s apartment, which is gated and staffed with about a dozen security people. His apartment is on the second floor and has three front doors, because he knocked down two of the walls to form a super-apartment with six bedrooms. Both Mr. Nayaks tapped on all three doors. The one furthest to the right opened, and a silhouette told us, “There’s no electricity or water right now. This never happens! Everything is going wrong today!”
Veena, who is the second Mrs. Nayak, has the easiest accent for me to understand. She offered us breakfast. I had something that looked like a crumbled polenta, which was very good. The Nayaks also had a daughter my age, who is an engineering student and owns two tortoises that she let me feed.
“Is this okay? Do you want corn flakes and milk instead? Because we have that if you’d like,” Veena said. I told her no, I was happy to have the same thing as everyone else. There was also rotti and a curry with lentils, lychee, bananas, and a black fruit that looked like a darker, larger grape that I was not allowed to eat, because it could not be peeled. Veena scooped a white, spongy ball coated in syrup and gave it to me in a crystal ramekin.
“It’s called rasgulla,” she said. “Common wedding food, very sweet. It’s made by boiling milk curds in a sugar syrup.”
“Some people eat fifty of them at once,” The first Mr. Nayak added, “People have competitions to see who can eat the most.” It was good but very sweet and I could not imagine eating fifty of them at once.
The light had not come on after the meal. But one of the faucets was working, so Veena set a flashlight for me in the bathroom so that I could shower. And then we left to drive into the city. The shower was rather useless because as soon as I stepped outside, the humid air condensed on my skin.
“You said you study economics?” Veena said, “Do you want to see the Mumbai Stock Exchange?” I laughed. I had no idea what I wanted to see — I wanted to see anything and everything. I told her that. We drove down the highway, which was like any other highway in the states except that the left side of the highway was all salt pans and mango trees while the right side of the highway was all tall buildings and concrete. The entire trip into the city was conveniently curated by the three Nayaks. We saw the Arabian sea, Quieen’s necklace, the Fort (the area where the British used to reside during colonial times), Gateway to India (an arch), fancy hotels by the sea that were once attacked by terrorists. We parked in an impossibly tight spot so that Veena could show me around the fabric stores.
Fabindia was a colorful explosion of fabrics, made into short kurtas, long kurtas, dupattas, tunics, salwars, and saris. We looked through all the long kurtas in my size, but they all looked too long on me. I ended up with two tunics and a scarf for my mom. I looked enviously at the women donning saris in the store. I didn’t know how to wear one and I was too shy to ask. Veena and I took a picture together inside the store and she thanked me, but I had no idea why she was thanking me because she was the one who opened her home to a strange, clueless girl and braved the Mumbai traffic to take her around the city.
When we left the store, the two Mr. Nayaks were hanging out by the car. They had gone to get gelato (which I am not allowed to have, in case it will make me sick) and then some chai (which I am allowed to have). They asked me if I wanted any, but I was still so full from the earlier meal. We drove back home at “office hour,” which when people come home from work, so it was really crowded on the roads.
Back at the apartment, the electricity was back on and the AC cooled things down a bit. One of the tortoises climbed my foot and we all sat around, eating Indianized Lebanese food and watching the news, which was blowing up with the debate of whether Maggi (which is like ramen) should be recalled or not, because apparently the labs found lead in the noodles.
“In America, if it were found that the product contained one more milligram of sodium than stated on the package, it would probably be recalled!” A debator yelled, “There is poison in these products! Are we guinea pigs?”
Dinner winded down with Veena slicing three different kinds of mangoes for me to try, all of which melted on my tongue.
“What do you think of our country?” Veena asked. I told her that my experience so far has been so wonderful, but it was probably thanks to everyone I’ve met. For all I knew, I could be hiding away in a hotel room being scared and miserable.
“You just have to meet the right people, and then things fall together,” she smiled.