by Jonathan Lyons on May 25, 2012

I don’t know how to convey just how weird is the sense of alienation that came with landing unprepared in the megalopolis, an American moron who didn’t know enough of any of the local languages to be able even to read signage. When we arranged our flat, we didn’t know about the water agreement that the city had made for our neighborhood, Irla. (The L in Irla is a retroflexed sound, one of several South Asian Ls that I really don’t do very well. I often confused the rickshawalas.)

We couldn’t figure out the water issue; we simply usually didn’t seem to have running water. Then sometimes we did.

And we had a camping stove that came with the flat. Its burners wouldn’t light up, so we inspected it a bit, followed its fuel line to the cupboard space beneath, to find an empty propane tank. We didn’t know where to get those refilled or replaced, either.

I have no idea what we might have done if the neighbor next door hadn’t turned out to be a kindly young mother who was curious about us and who spoke heavily accented, but quite fluent, English. She knocked on our back door, which opened into the building’s shared hallway, to introduce herself. We asked about the water situation, explaining that it seemed to be out of service most of the time. This, she explained, was because Irla is scheduled to receive water service for three hours a day, from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM.

“You need to be home to fill your tank,” she advised us.

“Tank?” I asked.

“Yes. Um — may I come in?”

We nodded and, when she didn’t seem to understand, did our best South Asian head wag, which looks a bit like we’re shaking our heads No to Westerners.  She said of our landlord, “I think Mabel had this installed in the bathroom.”

But we hadn’t noticed any sort of tank in the bathroom. She walked in and looked up; over our heads was mounted a large, plastic tank.

Feeling a bit silly now for managing to miss a 75-gallon tank looming over our heads in the room, we asked about how we might get our propane tank refilled. “Oh, you do not have an extra?” she asked.

Not as far as we knew. Asking us to wait a moment, she retreated into her flat, emerging after a moment with a clearly heavy propane tank. “This is our extra. The gas man comes tomorrow. I can arrange deliveries for you.”

We thanked her thoroughly and gratefully, then hooked up the tank. One of our two burners worked; for the duration, that was going to have to do. We were renters, so we weren’t going to run out and buy a replacement stove.

Then the pipes banged to life. I checked my watch. It was shortly after 4:00. We scrambled to crank on the shower and scrub away the dust and air-pollution grit of the Bombay streets. I boiled rice on our one burner and set it aside while my wife showered, then she cobbled together a mixed vegetable curry as I showered.

A hot meal! I felt as though we’d banged on rocks and accidentally discovered fire.

A bit before 7:00, the sound of water rushing through pipes quieted. Within an hour, our tank was empty. I sheepishly knocked on our kindly neighbor’s door to ask why the water hadn’t filled our tank.

“Oh,” she said, “I forget that you are not used to this system. Let me show you how to close the valve.”

It turned out that our tank had filled up just fine; then, when the city had cut off the water service again, ours had drained back out.


It took some trial-and-error tinkering to figure out our water heater. It was a wall-mounted geyser system, and I’d never seen one before. A friend of ours doing his research in Chennai had e-mailed us with the warning that his geyser had exploded in a hail of sparks when he’d tried to use it. A cool shower hadn’t mattered the night before, but first thing in the morning — no matter what anyone enthusiastically gushes about it, no matter how hot the region is, and no matter how exotic it may feel to say so — a cold shower is not “refreshing.” It is cold.

The prospect of a cold shower was a potent motivator for figuring out how the thing worked.


Thanksgiving in Bombay was odd, because, of course, why would anyone in India celebrate the U.S. holiday? The day came and we greeted it by splurging on a nice dinner at the Juhu Beach Marriott, a four-star hotel in the next neighborhood over. The Juhu Marriott was palatial, and it became an oasis to us on those days when the noise and the air quality and the human supersaturation were simply something we needed a break from. We often frequented a small bar in the hotel with a stunning view out over the Arabian Sea. A wonderful place for a cold drink, and travelers can trust the ice. The bar manager regarded us as regulars, and always made time to pause for a friendly, neighborly chat. The rickshaw ride from our flat to the Juhu Marriott cost us around 19 rupees, give or take.


I think that being in the minority is something that everyone should experience. Everyone. It’ll gust aside any notion one might have of occupying some foretold societal pedestal among one’s fellow humans. I’m not beginning to compare my experience living in Bombay for a year with the experience of, say, being African-American in America; racism works much the same way in India as it does here, favoring paler complexions to the point of supporting a market for skin-lightening treatments.

When I’m in India, I am typically called two things by locals who don’t know my name: Goura, which translates roughly to “white guy,” and BossBoss is a bit grating to me; it’s a holdover from British colonial rule, when white men really were the bosses. I did not and do not want anything to do with that. But as I wrote earlier, resisting India is pointless; India doesn’t care what you think of its odd habits and ways, and you certainly aren’t going to alter them. And if the local merchants are going to call me white guy or boss, who am I to be offended?

The common greeting begins with Haan (“Yes”) and an honorific — Ji.

Translated in the local polyglot, this often came out as “Yes, Boss!” along with a beckoning sweep of the right hand over whatever wonders the person greeting me was selling.

* * * *

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

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Todd Weissenberger May 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm

An interesting meditation on the ambiguities of the American in India. I was there in 1993-94, and experienced a similar sense of displacement and “otherness”. For me, literacy was the issue. Although English-language information was everywhere, for some reason my eye was continually drawn toward bold, bright, Hindi (Malayalam, Kannada, Urdu, Tibetan, etc, etc) characters, and each time I was struck by my inability to process these back to their intended referents. I certainly agree that being the outsider in this way is an experience from which a lot of people could benefit. It’s equally true that once you give up that sense of self and immerse yourself in your new milieu, you will never see your dominant cultural landmarks in quite the same way.


John Idstrom June 1, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Nice one Professor Lyons.


Jonathan Lyons June 1, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Thank you, sir!


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