The first thing you will feel is awe.
Walking out of the airport, with your prepaid taxi slip in your hand, the throngs of people outside of the airport, waiting for loved ones, or marks, or saps, or customers. “It’s four in the morning,” you’ll say to yourself. “What the fuck have I gotten myself into?”
This is me we’re talking about. But it could just as easily be you.
So I walk past security, past the two soldiers guarding the doors, and I am immediately approached by a taxi driver, the first of many. “I have a prepaid taxi,” I tell him. “Yes, but I help you.” He tries to grab the slip from my hand. I stop in my tracks, give him the evil eye, and pull it away. He continues to offer his help. “Are you my taxi driver?” He is not, which I already knew. He will help me, he says. I do not believe him, but I stop, listen to him for ten seconds, then turn around and walk away. He doesn’t follow.
I find my cab. I get into my cab. We drive to Colaba.
Colaba is forty five minutes away from the international terminal at the airport. At least by night. Along the way are some of the most devastating sights in the world. A vast slum. Houses with roofs sagging in the middle, held up by twigs and old newspapers and the sheer will of the gods. Scraps of cloth drying in the early morning heat, sewage on the streets. There are children and adults sleeping on the highway median, goats and cattle strolling aimlessly, people bathing and pissing and walking to no particular place. Imagine, if you will, the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and then imagine that it is real, that it is one hundred times more overwhelming than the cinematic portrayal of poverty, and that it is the permanent state of affairs–that it does not end happily, or when the credits start rolling. I asked the taxi driver if I could smoke a cigarette, and since he didn’t speak English, I took his grunts as an affirmative.
The drivers in India are a thing of much mystery, as are the roads, and the rules of the road. First rule/only rule: there are no rules. Traffic signals could hardly be called even suggestions, so brazenly are they violated. The horn functions as a turn signal, a register of presence, and a signal of dissatisfaction. The roads are shared by taxis, rickshaws, cyclists, cattle, strollers, people pushing their wares on large wagons, and everything else under the sun. Or, in this case, under the moon. It’s four-thirty in the morning, and though the city is mostly asleep, there are more people out now than there are in Brooklyn at four-thirty in the afternoon.
Then I got to the YWCA. Colaba. Of course there were no rooms at four in the morning, so I bid my original taxi driver a farewell, tipped him 50 rupees, and enlisted the services of another, middling about, talking to the guards in front of the YWCA. I took him to be a more reliable source of information regarding hotels that would take someone in at five a.m. We went to one guest house, which asked for 1700 rupees for 24 hours of bedding. I said “Too many rupees,” and walked out, taxi driver in tow. Then we went to another, which asked for 1200, had bigger rooms, and would let me stay until 10 a.m. the next day. This room I took. And even though I knew that the taxi driver was getting a kickback from the hotel to bring me there, I tipped him 50 rupees, too, because he had told me his life story, and it was not a pretty one.
I slept until the afternoon. I awoke to blazing heat. The whir of the fan. The call to prayer in Muslim Dongri. I washed my body off, put on my sandals, and went downstairs, to find water that I could drink, to see the streets illuminated by the sun, to soak it in.
It’s easy, now, to act as though this was an easy decision. It was not. I spent the better part of an hour rolling around in bed, looking at the ceiling, thinking, “Too much, too much, too much.” Thinking, “Flee, go, leave. Now.” Thinking, “What am I trying to prove?” And, “To whom am I trying to prove it?”
But then I went outside. Because I had to. Found water, because I had to. Found the Internet, because I had to.
I talked to Aliya, in Bangalore, who asked me how I was, and I said, “Oooh. Don’t know about all of this,” and she said, “Takes time, takes time.” And I realized, after a while, that she was right. And that I needed something to eat. That I needed more water. I bid her adieu, went to the restaurant recommended to me by the man at the Internet cafe, ate delicious Muslim food, paid 96 rupees for a giant meal, and felt, instantly, alive. Capable. Happy. In the course of three hours I went from feeling utterly destitute and lost to feeling like I had made the best decision of my life.
It must have been something I ate.
Back at the hotel, talking to the owner, who likes me and implores me to stay in Dongri–“Colaba is bad, filled with tourists, not real Mumbai”–he asks me if I am married. “No, not married.” Why not? He wants to know. “I thought I was going to get married once, but it didn’t work out,” I explain. “Oh. How come?” he wonders.
“We were going to kill one another.”
He tells me that I will perhaps find wife this year.
I ask him if he’s married, because this is the polite thing to do. He is. “Children?” He has seven of them. “Boys and girls?” He smiles, wags his head, “Yes, it is a mix. So it is okay.”
He, his friend at the desk and I all laugh. I don’t know why I laugh. I laugh perhaps because they are both laughing, or perhaps because it’s genuinely funny to exhausted-jet-lagged me that a Muslim man with seven children would be relieved that they are not all girls. Of course he would be relieved. I would be relieved too.
I wish him well, I walk upstairs, I read until my eyes won’t stay open. Then I go to sleep.