One thing that makes Mumbai so challenging, I find, is the juxtaposition of order and chaos, glamour and poverty, development and rubble. It prevents you from making easy judgments or putting things in tidy boxes – or from averting your eyes. There is luxury and excess to be found here on par with any western city, but also there is an inability (or perhaps a lack of desire) to hide the underbelly of the city. It’s all mixed together. There are begging children with babies in their arms sitting right next to fine restaurants, and shiny new high rise apartments climbing nearly on top of decaying houses. In the United States, we take great pains to remove beggars from the main thoroughfares, to keep downtown areas “clean” and appealing to visitors, to segregate the downtrodden from the affluent. In Mumbai, there is no such pretense.
It is jarring and painful to walk by dirty malnourished children who don’t have an adult with them, even though I knew to expect it. I guess I don’t really want it NOT to be painful, and certainly that’s a risk too – becoming numb to the sight. Rather, it feels like somehow it’s appropriate that tourist attractions and visible impoverishment are mixed together, that I can readily see the poor children whom I know are here. It just feels honest; brutal, but unapologetic. You’re walking through real lives. There is no artifice.
On Tuesday, two of my classmates arrived in Mumbai and we met at the SiddhiVinayaka Mandir, a renowned temple of Ganesha located smack in the middle of a busy city block. We felt it would be auspicious to start our India experience with a visit to this holy site to make offerings of laddus (the sweet confection that is Ganesha’s favorite) to ask him to clear our path of obstacles. Lynn and Ras had also each been told by a jyotishi (a vedic astrologer) that they should make an offering of radishes to Ganesha at this particular temple to appease a certain planetary arrangement in their birth charts.
Miraculously, we found each other immediately among the crowds outside, which I took as a remarkable sign considering I was rather late due to my search for radishes at an outdoor market for them. Lynn and Ras had landed only hours before and were feeling rather ragged. After only five minutes or so in the queue, we found ourselves at the doors of the inner sanctum which held a surprisingly small orange-red murti of Ganesha, maybe three feet tall, seated on an altar and surrounded by flowers. There were four or five bare-chested priests who received the offerings from the crowd, placed the gifts briefly on the altar before Ganesha, and then moved them to the side, one after another – all day long, all year long.
It was at this point that it became a full-contact event. As we approached the altar, people began pushing from behind and we ended up pressed against the low wall of the priests’ area with people thrusting their offerings over our heads. Someone’s flower garland was dangling over my face and suddenly I found my ear nestled against Ras’s radishes as I listed sideways. I was leaning heavily against Ras’s shoulder, trying to raise my arms to lift my laddus onto the counter. When I finally did, I said a quick prayer and then ducked my head and started slinking backwards until I popped out of the crowd like a smushed grape relieved of its skin.
After leaving Lynn and Ras with plans to meet at the domestic airport the next morning, I took one more walk around Daniel’s neighborhood. It was my last day in Mumbai and I wanted to photograph some of the buildings I had seen around his apartment. Their flowery and bucolic names might have seemed ironic had there not been an entirely unselfconscious quality to their idyllic reach. Instead, they seemed somehow naively optimistic.
For more photos on an ongoing basis, you can check the home page of this blog at http://www.AyurvedaInTranslation.wordpress.com and look in the right column for “My Photos.” Clicking there will take you to my photostream on Flickr.com, which I will update throughout my time in India.