Sunday, January 18, 2009

First Day in Mumbai

As I type, I hear the incessant and insistent sound of car horns outside my window, audible clearly even though I am high above the street. And perhaps more interesting, a barrage of cracking noises does not distract me from the computer screen, though one might expect it would considering recent events here. With surprise at my lack of attention to these gunfire-like sounds, I get up to look out the window, half-expecting to see armed gunmen but more rationally expecting fireworks, which I find is the case. How different tonight than the hazy sunrise this morning, or the bustling airport last night.

Shortly thereafter, I think about what happened here in November, and wonder if I would be safe here where my hosts have provided excellent guest services. Would I hide effectively? Would I be hunted down for being a rich Westerner? These thoughts have been with me throughout the day, and when I visited the Taj Hotel, it didn't even occur to me until well afterward that I could have actually gone inside. Instead, I lingered on the mall in front of the Gates of India and took pictures, ignored touts, and marvelled at how much it looked just like at had on the TV. There is a festive feel today, and it is a time of festivals. There was also a marathon today, and signs with both positive slogans and admonitions to be vigilant (much like New York's subway) abound.

Bombay makes more sense to me as a name. That's how I always heard it growing up, and yet the name itself and the "confusion of tongues" (to reference Ferenczi's eponymous paper) around why it was Bombay and now why Mumbai (the Maharashtra name) bespeak the many roots of conflict which have shaped this city's development. And the many events of a terrorist character which preceded the events of November 26, 2008. My impression so far is that Westerners say "Mumbai" but many, but by no means all, who live here still say "Bombay". The hangover of imperialism is more similar to China, here, than to any city I've known in the United States.

Today I am adjusting and taking in the ambience. In addition I am organizing as much as is possible at this stage, in preparation for the next two weeks. Further compiling material, nailing down agreements to meet, and settling into a 10 and a half hour ahead time-zone jet-lag. Bleary-eyed. It feels good to be back in India, and I enjoy the experience of easing back in despite the multiple, overlapping and often (like this sentence) confusing dialectics.

I have to admit, in some ways Bombay reminds me of New York post-9/11. Terrorism is similar everywhere, and maybe that's why it wasn't even possible for me to think I could walk into the Taj today. Next time, I go inside.

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