There’s a street just around the corner and down the footpath from the Churchgate train station. I couldn’t tell you the address of this place, but I could describe it as bordering one of Mumbai’s several maidens, or grass malls, and housing a line of cheap clothing stalls. It doesn’t much matter the address, as Mumbaikers generally describe locations based on what they’re across from or next to. A result of being a city in two languages, I imagine. And I’m certain the families who live on this street – who’ve lived on this street, up against the surrounding fences and in the nearby gullies for the past 40 years – don’t have any need for an actual address.
The streets of Bombay smell of warm piss and cooling feces. This isn’t surprising given that over 14 million Indians call the city home. With more people per square kilometer than any other city in the world, Bombay (re-named Mumbai in 2006) is over 14 times more populous than New York City. And Americans wonder why Asians have a different sense of personal space.
It’s impossible to step foot out of a Mumbai house (and often even inside one) without tripping over some form of humanity. There are hapless businessmen dressed in slacks and long-sleeve Oxford shirts, unaware that other parts of the world practice a thing called short sleeves in this kind of heat. There are hordes of schoolchildren: girls with thick, shiny, black plaited hair and boys with varying levels of pre-pubescent acne. There are beggars who wheel themselves on small wooden boards, reminiscent of the yellow plastic scooters I played with as a child in elementary school physical education. There are hawkers – half of them children – who’ve ascertained my need for a coloring book or to have my shoes polished (He ends up polishing my sandal and half of my foot) and are relentless in convincing me of this fact. I search and search but the dogs asleep on the pavement and the rats dead in the gutters outnumber any other white person I see. And I see lots of people.
How old are you? I ask in slow English, crouched down on my haunches as if I were an Indian myself. She wobbles her head like Indians do, the whites of her eyes large in the glow of the stall lights. The Indian head wobble can mean any of a thousand things, but in this case it indicates shyness and her lack of understanding. You, I articulate again, touching my finger to her tiny chest. Four? Five? I hold up my fingers, clean and white.
My guide translates my question into Hindi and the little girl holds up six fingers. She says she’s six, my guide reiterates, but I think she’s five, and I wonder if anyone at all knows this little girl’s actual date of birth.
I pull my camera from my backpack and, in the international language of I Don’t Speak Yours, state my request to take the little girl’s photo. With the aid of technology, shyness melts into the heat of the evening, and little hands clamber up my sides, groping for the glow of a screen that has captured her image. Her fingers are dry and grimy and she smells of dust and petrol fumes. Her hair is slightly matted and her teeth gleam white against her dark skin. She continues to play my body like a jungle gym until, at last, she flops down onto a pile of plastic bags and begins unwrapping a tinfoil ball, which, I find, contains the Indian bread, roti. I don’t know the address of where I am in the dark heat of Mumbai, but I know now why I’ve come.
This post has been entered into the Grantourismo-HomeAway travel writing competition
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