by Jonathan Lyons on February 5, 2012

We lived in Bombay/Mumbai for about a year in 2001-02 so that my wife could conduct research in-person for her dissertation. I never planned to live there, I must admit that up-front. But in 2001, she was scheduled to fly out for the subcontinent on September 15 and, due to events we all experienced a few days earlier, no commercial air traffic was happening here in the U.S.

It gave us extra time to reconsider things. I had a job I’d grown to hate, but that paid me so well that I felt that I couldn’t leave it. Those extra few days motivated us both, and when, a week later, we shipped her off, I made it about three weeks before I couldn’t stand it anymore. What point was keeping the job I hated and remaining shackled to the need for that paycheck when people in New York had been jumping from buildings and people had lost those they loved the most, en masse? What if one of us lost the other to some senseless, random event?

I’d grown up in a working-poor family in Iowa, had worked crap jobs to slowly, slowly pay my way through my undergrad coursework and, eventually, a degree in English. I’d always thought that when money was plentiful, I would be overjoyed. Now I sat in our home, alone, and wondered how money had ever become so important to me. Was it really worth bearing all of this, worth bearing, even, separation from my wife?

I penned an e-mail to her with the subject line, Letter from a CRAZYMAN. We worked through the numbers and realized that if we cashed out everything we had, that, combined with her research funding, should enable us both to live abroad for the year. I convinced a couple we knew through her grad-school program to live rent-free in our condo and cat-sit for the year, and I began preparing to live in India.

Here’s one thing I want to make clear: No matter how many of your friends from a South-Asian-Studies program have been to India, and no matter how much they have described the experience, and no matter how well-prepared you think you might be for the Bombay experience, you aren’t.

You. Are. Not.

At least, I wasn’t. I wasn’t ready for the pushing, shoving crowds headed for Bombay that flat-out refused to form lines, making every situation that called for lining up into something out of pro wrestling; that started at the gate at London Heathrow.

I wasn’t ready for the shoddily-maintained airport in Bombay, nor the sheer, physical impact of the rotting-garbage stench hanging over the place as we deplaned and the late-night air hit us.

I wasn’t ready for my wife to ward me off as I tried to kiss her at the airport, saying only, “We’ll cause a scandal!”

I wasn’t ready for the crush of humanity that is Bombay. The massive city is perched on a peninsula, which limits its physical growth. The entirety of it covers a scant 233 square miles. Onto that finite space, around 14 million people make their homes. That’s the ambient population. During the daytime people flow into the city to work, super-sizing the ambient population by millions. One estimate I’ve heard is that this results in 21 million people occupying that finite peninsula.

The dust and rubble that made the streets look as though they’ve been bombed. The sidewalks that serve not as sidewalks, but urinals, shanties, quasi-legal vendor spaces. The neighborhood market, wherein each vendor sets up a table or tables and sells at most a few different sorts of vegetables, making it necessary to visit many separate vendors when one wishes to get more than, say, potatoes.

The vendors, who post no prices, jacked ours up; we were obviously wealthy Westerners who could afford it.

Ah, that market – thousands upon thousands of people pushed together. Forget any notions you may have of personal space. And the many men who had the urge to shake my hand, as we do in the West, but as South Asians generally do not. The autorickshaws buzzing past, loud as chainsaws, piloted by men who,upon spotting the two of us, a lone pair of Caucasian faces in a sea of South Asian ones, and shout “Hey! Gaura!” Having very little Hindi, I needed my wife to explain to me that they were calling to me, referring to me as a white person.

And it’s odd, because I wasn’t certain if the term was an insult or not – locals guys yelling the equivalent of “What’s up, honky?” But the drivers were smiling and waving, and didn’t seem to be in the mood to insult me.

In short, I didn’t know what I was doing. And it was overwhelming. I’d left behind a country so shell-shocked by the attacks that all of the 24-hour news channels had abruptly added elements of the U.S. flag to their window dressing and all ran the death toll from the attacks and headlines from the attacks as though, those weeks later, they were just now taking place. And I had landed in a place where I was the foreigner, the Other, the idiot who knows little about the place he has decided to call home for a year, knew little of any of the many languages and polyglots by which the people of the megopolis that is Bombay communicate.

I was suffering severe culture shock, the heat and humidity in the city were staggering, and always, always the roar of traffic and the vendors hawking their goods, and the uniquely Bombay potion in the air, a comingling of the scents of deep-fried food, engine exhaust, and fossil fuels. But people were friendly, always curious to know what we thought of India.

“How do you find our country?” they always seemed to ask. I was cautious at first about this. I was the fool who’d uprooted and moved to their country; who was I to say anything that might come off as insulting?

But India, generally, and Bombay much, much more so, from the shit on the sidewalks to the refuse that people simply dropped onto the ground and left behind, was an overload, a supersaturation, an assault on the senses.

From my linguistic limitations, to the fact that I longer knew how to carry out such basic, everyday tasks as lock the door, or operate the toilet, or store up water during our daily three-hour window of public-water availability, I was out of my depth.

I pouted like a spoiled child for those first few weeks, unable to accept that India would simply never conform to my wishes or preconceptions. But slowly, I learned that resisting India, its own currents and ways, was a futile exercise.


Jonathan Lyons lives and teaches and writes strange things in Central Pennsylvania.


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