MASALA DREAMIN’ II: DESI PRICES (Mumbai, India)

by Jonathan Lyons on March 19, 2012

I never expected to move to Bombay. I detailed that in my previous diary here.

But forces colluded, and there I was.

Masala usually refers to a spice mixture, or more loosely as simply a mixture of South Asian elements. The air in our neighborhood was a masala of frying samosas and pakoras; exhaust from the autorickshaws; urine; and whatever the neighbors were cooking. It often included a dash of fecal taint.

My first few weeks there were witness to frequent bouts of illness. I’d never realized just how casually I usually used tap water.

Brushing my teeth with tap water? I’d get sick.

Letting even a drop slip into my mouth as I showered? Sick again.

Eating the wonderful chutneys the street-food vendors provided with an order of pakoras? That too. (And I love pakoras!)

I eventually figured out how to lock and unlock the doors — something I didn’t know when I arrived. I figured out the South-Asian-style toilets. I thought I’d need to take a crash course in Hindi, but Bombay turned out to be such a vastly diverse melting pot that I found I could get by on relatively little. Most communications took place in a hodge-podged pidgin of Hindi, English, and the local language, Marathi. Being white, we were both novelties in our neighborhood; flagging down an autorickshaw was never all that tough. We figured out the local market and visited its many stalls frequently for our vegetables, and I found a wine shop along the same road.

We amused the people working at that shop. Locals tended to buy a sturdy Indian whiskey, with the goal of getting hammered. But I wasn’t out to get hammered — we just wanted to be able to wind down a bit with a cold beer at the end of the day. The shop sold big bottles of Foster’s Lager, a deal only made possible by Foster’s opening a brewery in the state of Maharashtra, home of Bombay. I tended to stop there and go clanking on home with two bags bearing several of those each. We must have seemed like garish, outlandish drinkers to the men working there. They had a high-school-age boy working there, and the older men had him deal with us because his English was better than theirs.

At another shop, a bit further down, we learned that they not only carried 10-gallon jugs of purified water, but their delivery kids – all boys around ages 12-15 – liked delivering to our place because we were such a spectacle, and because they really, really loved getting tips from us for lugging a jug to our place.

The food vendors in the market never posted prices on anything. I’ve never been good at poker, and hate having to play games with people about these things. I much, much prefer straight, open, honest dealing. So, of course, I found that I had moved to a place where virtually everyone haggles over virtually everything. And as we were Western gouras (white folks), we were naturally assumed to be wealthy. In truth, my wife was a grad student and I’d just quit my job to join her there.

After about a month of regular shopping visits to the market, though, a young man who sold potatoes and green peppers asked me, as he did each time we stopped, “How are you finding my country?” I’d started, finally, to stop pouting and adapt to India and its weird ways — which took some time, believe me — and so I was honestly able to tell him that I was enjoying it.
I didn’t go into the Indians’ tendency to drop trash on the streets and walks. I didn’t mention how freakishly loud the megopolis of Bombay was and is. I didn’t mention the ground-level air pollution, which we could watch rolling in cloud banks down the road by evening. (We drove past a board over traffic at an intersection that explained that air particulate parts per million  reached levels dangerous to one’s health somewhere around 225 part per million. On that day the board indicated 449 ppm. The next time we saw that sign it was too smeared with airborne pollution to read.)

No, I had come to admire these people. I’d watched them building a traffic flyover in the Bandra neighborhood, watched as India threw manpower, rather than heavy machinery, at the task. I’d even become jealous of the people who, inexplicably, could walk down the streets of stiflingly hot, swelteringly humid Bombay, covered in full-length clothing, looking as though they hadn’t sweated once in their lives. I felt like a pack animal whenever I stepped out into the heat to do anything.

And then it happened: The vendor of potatoes and peppers quoted me the desi price instead of his usual, inflated price he gave me. Desi means native people, products, and cultures of the Indian subcontinent. He’d realized that we were neighbors now, rather than visitors. We were regulars.

We’d been invited into an exclusive club made up of our neighbors. Soon enough, the other vendors followed suit.

This was an alienating season for me, nonetheless. We were approaching the American Thanksgiving holiday – a holiday that passes without notice in Bombay. But we had developed a ritual stable of habits for Friday nights. We discovered that a restaurant called Oasis,  just down the road from us, was a great place to celebrate the end of the work week. It had a freezing, blasting, wonderful air-conditioning system, a menu we could make a number of selections from (we’re strict vegetarians), and cold beer. They became accustomed to us, too. Indians tend to eat dinner quite a lot later than my wife and I do, so Oasis was quite quiet around 7:00, when we usually dropped in.

The wait staff all made certain to come by our table and shake my hand like Westerners do, and they became accustomed to our habit of cooling down with a cold drink before ordering – also unusual there.

Then we’d make our way back to our flat (an address described as “S.V. Road, Behind Kalpana Garage”) and settle in for an evening with Cartoon Network India’s “Night Shift,” which has a lot in common with our Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” and much of the same programming.

A Bombay moment for me came on our first visit to Oasis. I hadn’t been in country long, so Indian English and its quirks were all new to me. I ordered us drinks, and we ordered appetizers and main courses. Then the waiter asked me, “You are wanting the drinks only?”

This was a stumper – for me, at least. I was about to say something like, “No, I want all of that stuff I ordered just now,” but my wife, more savvy in such matters, put a gentle hand on my forearm and smiled. “Yes,” she told our waiter.

Then she explained to me that this use of the word “only” actually meant that he was asking whether I wanted our drinks delivered first, then could summon the food after we’d relaxed a bit.

What did I know?

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

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