bombay: spring

communists, camels, and thoughts of the future

Mishti (Vidushi Sharma)
by mishti
Published in
9 min readMar 7, 2018

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March 2018

In my grandfather’s lawn in Lucknow, the air has grown lighter and the magenta dahlias are tall and as big as fists. My body appreciates the sun and the tranquility. In the last three months, I haven’t been home for more than a week at a time, traveling across India — and the world — for work, play, and the looming object on the horizon called My Future.

Hampi — a UNESCO World Heritage Site that hosts the Vijayanagara empire’s remains — was the strangest place I’d seen in India. Squat in the middle of rural Karnataka, it looked like a mix of Pompeii, Castle Hill, and an Israeli commune. In the central temple complex, dozens of men, women, and children prayed, dried clothes, and assembled street wares. Some spread into the river, which was a boating area, laundry machine, barbershop, pool, and bathtub for the holy elephant at once.

On “hippie island” across the river, falafel and Hebrew billboards were as ubiquitous as daal. At a free sound healing, I ran into an Israeli girl I’d met in Mumbai. She clutched her iPad to her chest, radiant.
“I’m trading this in for a happy drum,” she told me.

Down the dirt road, a Rajasthani boy wound purple macramé into my hair and explained that one could always identify the Israelis by their sandal straps. When I checked into my hostel, the owner glanced at my Tevas and decided that I was not Indian.

I awoke to loud knocking at the institute where I was staying with the national education policy committee in Bangalore.
“Madam, breakfast?” a man asked. He didn’t speak Hindi or English; I didn’t speak Kannada. I nodded.
“Dosa?” he said.
“No,” I said. I had wrung out yesterday’s dosa like a towel, plugging the steady stream of oil with a napkin wad. “Could I have just toast and jam?”
He paused to consider the request, which did not compute.
“Dosa?” he asked again. I shook my head and tried to explain.

The doorbell rang an hour later. He handed me a heaping loaf of white bread and a packet of chutney and left without meeting my eye.

When Drew and I left for Nandi Hills at 4 AM, we expected a quiet sunrise hike on Bangalore’s outskirts. Instead, we arrived to a block party for a city of 12 million. Children ran up and down a long caravan of vehicles, selling ten-rupee chai in metal buckets. Families snapped pictures together in between idling motors. We parked and speed-walked to the lookout point in time to see the sun emerge midway above the suspended smog. Behind us, crowds of young Indian men mean-mugged selfies and blasted Green Day.

The mountain roads reminded me of Crete, the little Christian houses of San Cristobal de las Casas, and the green vistas of Dunedin. Only the loud Tamil music and Malayalam writing jolted me back to communist Kerala, where hundreds of red hammer-and-sickle flags lined village streets and posters showed the evolution from Marx to the Communist Party of India (CPIM). When I inquired about communist attire, a street vendor brought me a Che facemask and a stack of red sweaters. I asked the jeep driver what he thought of the CPIM and he told me what all drivers tell me, that all politicians are the same.

The government-authorized alcohol store in Alleppey was a tin-roofed shack in the back of a parking lot, where men squeezed into line between corrugated tin sheets like slaughterhouse cattle.

“Madam,” asked the man in front of me asked apologetically, “what do you need?” When I told him, he gestured towards the back of the building, where there was no visible entrance.
“You can buy it around that way,” he said. I saw everyone staring at us and realized what was going on.

Kerala is touted one of India’s most progressive states, with a high literacy rate and a deep network of social services. We’d seen Keralan women climbing some of India’s tallest mountains in saris and brewing their own coconut toddy and sweet wine at home. But still, my presence created chaos in this line.

After he ordered his alcohol, the same man turned around again in desperation.
“Tell me what you want,” he said, “and I will get it for you.”
“That’s really ok,” I told him. I bought a box of Kingfisher and Old Monk and enjoyed the win.

In Bandra, I wake up, tie my laces, and take an auto to Jogger’s Park, where I run to Spain Top 50 and Maluma tells me no hay problema. Sweaty and satisfied, I down a coconut from Rajesh’s stand and walk home through Pali Market, a cobblestoned neighborhood where palm trees shade Mumbai’s elite from the dust. I work in my flat’s dining room at a standing desk assembled from old issues of National Geographic and Vogue India. Some evenings, throngs of my flatmates’ French and Italian friends stop by for beef tongue and wine.

On some days, it’s easy to imagine this life in Bombay’s Brooklyn rolling on indefinitely. I know the street corners and feel allied with the local train riders and the merchants in Chor Bazaar. On others — when my skin breaks out and I fall sick from the pollution — I am glad my time here is limited. There is something sad about the expats my flatmate Bartolomeo calls the Lost Souls of Bombay, who live in hotels and watch people ebb and flow.

“Dhobhi ghat?” I heard behind me at Mahalaxmi station. I glanced at the man behind Colin and saw Thakur, dressed in a tucked button-down and pants.
“It’s on my way,” he said. “I’ll show you.”

Two minutes later we were at the entrance of an open-air laundry complex that processes thousands of pieces of Mumbai’s laundry every day.

A guide materialized, nodded at Thakur, and led us inside in exchange for three hundred rupees. Men beat clothes in concrete wash pens with blocks of blue soap and twisted them into clipless drying lines. In side lanes, others scooped hot coals into irons and pressed shirts into form. Every time we walked down a lane, I started to notice Thakur’s hand on my arm, lightly guiding me forward.
“Don’t worry,” he’d say, “I’m right here. Just stay to the side.”

I stopped registering my surroundings and began to design elaborate ways of escaping his touch. I stood next to the guide, stopped at random places, and switched spots with Colin. Still, Thakur’s fingers found my arm. When we were done walking through the Ghat, he offered to show us the way to the Mahalaxmi racetrack.

“No, we’re going that way,” I said, pointing at a random residential street. I looked straight at Thakur, my heart racing with anger. We both knew what was happening. He nodded and left; I never figured out what he was hoping for.

When the five-minute drive to my hotel turned into a standstill in Seattle traffic, Zoe and I started talking about the differences between urban India and America. Here, people smiled at each other on the streets. Ten o’clock appointments started no later than ten fifteen. It was monochrome — the roads were gray, brown, and white — and expensive (“The tea glasses I bought on the street for fifty rupees cost thirty dollars at Anthropologie.”) As we idled on Queen Anne Avenue, I started to feel like something was wrong. I wondered if it was because of my impending interview.

“Weird,” Zoe said. “No one is honking.”

The first person I talked to about being waitlisted for the Gates was the sadhu at the Jagdish temple on my first morning in Udaipur.
“There’s this course I think I wanted to do next year,” I told him, “but I didn’t get in.”
He shrugged and smiled and pointed up to the cloudless sky.
“It happens,” he said. “It’s up to fate.”

I didn’t know about fate, but what I really wanted to hear was that the sadhu couldn’t care less. Neither he nor most people I walked past in Udaipur — or India — would ever recognize the shiny badges that I’d enjoyed collecting, Princeton or Fulbright or British university scholarships. Drop the scavenger hunt, I thought, and do something.

A few hours after we landed, I understood why GoAir’s in-flight magazine billed Udaipur as India’s Most Romantic City. White haveli-turned-hotels gleamed against Lake Pichola, where small boats with Europeans in sun hats cut past the surrounding mountains. The streets were small and winding, and the February weather was perfect.

Colin, Heather, and I spent a full day drifting along what was, in reality, a ten-minute path. At the ghats, rooftop cafes, and terraces we visited, it was easy to see what I wanted to. At Gangaur ghat, I focused on the pigeons and past the topless old woman washing her only blouse. On the dock, I stared at where the lake shone blue and ignored the green water at my toes, dotted with bloated fish and condoms. At Sunset Point, I photographed the city’s Athenian sprawl and shrugged off the fact that we only made it in time by skipping the cable car line with my Hindi and my friends’ whiteness.

Despite my sunglasses, Somnath knew I was sneaking sleep on my camel. I couldn’t help it: the Thar desert safari felt sometimes like purgatory. The landscape was like a green screen, tumbleweed-pebbled sand for as far as I could see. And ships of the desert though they were, camels were uncomfortable and strange. They pooped pebble-like excrement as they walked and bubbled their massive tongues in frustration when they sensed a female nearby.

Somnath and our other guides were kind but distant. We were among the last in a long season of tourists, and they needed our money — it was all they had to survive on during the hot summer months, when tours and crops dried. We plodded along together and stopped often to make tea and thick chapatis. We achieved the cheerful mutual understanding that we were, in fact, circling just a few kilometers from the main road.

My Fulbright grant is ending in a few months, and after two fellowship opportunities advanced and eventually fell through, I’ve had to face the future with intention for the first time. With the accompanying stress comes joy, too, as I realize that I trust myself in the midst of this uncertainty.

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Mishti (Vidushi Sharma)
by mishti

For a kinder, greener world. Helping build Highlighter and writing about the diaspora at maildropbymishti.substack.com. Tweet @m1shti