Monday, May 22, 2006

The roller coaster that is Mumbai

Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from The Hindustan Times

Americans who live in the city go through a gamut of emotions

Shevlin Sebastian

I meet Nina Woodard at the lobby of The Hilton and, straightaway, I can see that Mumbai, and India, has seduced her. She is wearing a pink salwaar kameez, with a bindi at the centre of her forehead. With her fluffy red hair, she could easily pass off as an Indian, since hair colouring has become a rage these days.
However, Mumbai took a while to grow on her. “Everything was so overwhelming. Too much sight, too much sound, too many people, too much colour, too much everything,” she says. “When I later read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, his description of the first impressions of the city was exactly what I felt. But when you step back and look at everything on an individual basis, that is when you begin to enjoy the place.”
The Californian Woodard, who works in the Indian branch of a US based firm, moved to Mumbai five years ago and plans to stay on. For her, the most attractive feature of the city is the people. “The smiles, the relationships, the kindness, the big hearts,” she says. “People will go out of the way to ensure that you have a pleasant experience.”

Variety is the spice
On a Wednesday, I go to the private residence of the US Consul General, Michael Owen, on Bhulabhai Desai Road. The sun-soaked rooms are spacious, with wooden furniture and large glass-paned windows with a panoramic view of the sea. On a low glass-topped table there is a coffee table book: Stephen Ambrose’s The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation. At the stroke of 3 p.m., in walks Owen, soft-spoken, impeccably dressed and gracious.
“Mumbai is a big and vibrant city,” says Owen, who has been in the city for all of six months. “The number of people I see every day is amazing. I am used to serving in national capitals where you meet a lot of people in government. But here, you meet people in finance, business, investment banking, entertainment and the arts. The variety is amazing.” (See interview below).
Few Americans can help but compare the metropolis to New York. Says writer Janet Fine, who has lived in Mumbai for more than twenty years: "Both cities have the same non-stop attitude. In one day, you can do ten different things that have nothing to do with each other. For example, you can go to a press conference and get hugged by Hollywood star Will Smith, visit the girls at the WECAN orphanage in Mahim, and later, party all night at a rocking art gallery opening and surburban restaurant celebration, without ever losing the Mumbai rhythm."
Agrees Jim Cunningham, the commercial consul at the US consulate: “There is always something happening in Mumbai. Indians are so hospitable, they don’t allow you any time to feel homesick.”
One group, who are far from being homesick, is the 23-year-old trio of Charles Greene, Sukhesh Miryala and David Aranow. They are working as executives, on a two-year stint, in the Mahindra Group. They look smart and upbeat in their tucked-in shirts and ties, sitting around a conference table on the fifth floor at Mahindra Towers at Worli.
Asked about the working environment in Mumbai, Harvard-educated Aranow says, “As undergraduates, I don’t think we would have got the same level of responsibility in an American firm. The office environment is much more friendlier than in New York.”
For these youngsters, the city has been a sort of a cultural shock, especially the social disparities. However, Greene says, he found the people are, for the most part, happy, “even though so many of them are living in poverty. They are friendly and go out of their way to help me. That was one of the first things that struck me. To see the cows on the street was also…different.”
His colleague, Miryala, of Indian origin, takes a deep breath and then waxes eloquent: “The great thing about Mumbai is the juxtaposition of traditional Indian culture along with a cosmopolitan and international feel. There is so much of arts and culture happening here. Rudy Guiliani and Anoushka Shankar have come visiting, as well as the Viennese orchestra. Mumbai is a global city.”

Not all roses
Of course, Mumbai’s flaws have not escaped their eyes. Says Nina Woodard, her clear brown eyes clouding up for the first time in the conversation: “The amount of poverty that one sees in the city is very disturbing. Now that I have been here for a while, I have realised it is disturbing for everyone.”
Across town, in east Andheri, I go and meet Louise Williams, (64). She is the founder and managing trustee of Love Humanity International, an NGO to empower children. In her house-cum-office, apart from paintings on the walls and potted plants on the window sill, there is an unusual feature: in a small alcove, lit by a lamp, there are pictures of Ganesh and Shirdi Sai Baba.
“The disadvantages of the city are the infrastructure, poor sidewalks, pollution and trash everywhere,” she says. “So many children are living in the streets. That is why I am here. I want to help and empower them.”
Williams also finds the suburban train travel stressful. “I almost broke my toe when somebody stepped on it when I was on a train,” she says. She narrates the story of her friend, Gail Presbey, an associate professor from the US who came to Mumbai on a Fulbright scholarship. “She was pushed out of the train at Andheri,” she says. “Thankfully, she suffered only a few bruises.”

Mishaps and adventures
Like all foreigners who live for a while in a tumultuous city like Mumbai, they have interesting experiences to relate. In her second week in the city, a friend of Woodard took her out to dinner. And because he knew she was fascinated with everything Indian, he asked her whether she wanted to try a betel. “Being new and not understanding it meant paan, I declined,” she says, with a smile. “And I watched him enjoy it. Then I asked to see how it was made and after I looked in, I asked, ‘Well, where is the beetle?’ Everybody laughed out loud!”
Miryala, who, amazingly, joined Mahindras on the ill-fated July 26 last year, was amazed at the ferocity of the rain. “I saw people wading in the water and I was shocked,” he says. “So I asked, ‘Does this happen every time it rains?’ But somebody replied, ‘I don’t think we have seen such a rain in a very long time.’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I forgot to bring my swimming shorts.’ I thought I was going to have to swim home.” Which thankfully, he did not have to do, since he was staying at Tardeo.
Janet Fine also has an interesting story to tell: “When I first met my Indian dance guru, Kalyan Sundaram, my fellow dancers asked me to kiss his feet. And I literally went down to kiss his feet with my lips, when the others hurriedly pulled me up. I did not know I was just supposed to touch his feet.”

Interview/Michael Owen, US Consel General:
‘There is so much happening here’

What are Mumbai’s attractions?
There are so many different things you can do. I get invitations for dinners, receptions, art openings, screenings of films, seeing films being filmed, there is so much entertainment at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, plays and lectures.
Any negative impressions?
Like any large city, traffic is a problem. I had to go once all the way to Powai and I was able to read all the day's papers in the car. The air pollution is another problem. I’ve noticed that people at the consulate sometime have colds and sore throats because of it. It affects everybody, including long-term residents.

Your most interesting experience?
At the Ganesh immersion at Chowpatty, diplomats were supposed to stay in the viewing area. I told the police I would like to be there on the beach among the crowd but the police were not very happy. But I finally convinced them. So I went down with my wife and daughter. We were just standing there nonchalantly when all of a sudden I turned around and there was this huge group of people, with a big Ganesh idol, running directly at us. And we needed to move back in a hurry. Then the police said, "Now, it is time to go back" and so we had to go back to our viewing stand. But, it was a great experience.

Your views on the Indo-US relationship?
The relations between India and the US is very positive now and that is very gratifying to see. The number of Indians who want to go to the US for business or study is increasing. Also, the number of Americans who are coming here is also increasing. The level of interchange is excellent.

What benefits will accrue from President George Bush's trip to India?There will be blanket press coverage of the visit back in the US and it will raise the profile of India for the average American enormously. George Bush is coming with a number of private American citizens, many of them of Indian origin. I expect a lot of follow-up from this visit. It symbolises the way the relationship has grown and improved over the years.

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