Mumbai Madness by Camilla Frumar
Camilla Frumar relates her hilarious, and often surreal experiences, when she relocates from Sydney to Mumbai. Find out why she has fallen in love with this mad and crazy city.
I liked living in Sydney…… actually, I loved it! With my wonderful family, dearest friends, the stunning harbour, a cultural melting pot of cuisines, all at my fingertips--- everything was so easy. For me, it was almost too easy. I was starting to get itchy feet and was tiring of the “same old, same old”. So when the opportunity arose to move abroad in the form of an overseas posting for my partner, Mark, I couldn’t have been more excited. However, Mumbai wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. London or New York would have been nice, or even Hong Kong or Singapore, with their fabulous “expat” social scene. But Mumbai had me more than a little frazzled.
Being a hopeless romantic, I decided that I was up for the challenge. Needless to say, this was greeted with extreme reactions from family and friends. Mumbai is not exactly a fence sitter’s destination of choice. However, Mark and I had made up our minds, so we planned for him to go first, and that I would follow after a few months of his settling in.
My last days in Sydney were a whirlwind of farewell parties and teary goodbyes. I had secured a job for myself in Mumbai through a contact of Mark’s, so I was feeling almost smug in the knowledge that I had everything under control. Little did I know that this was just the calm before the storm.
In almost no time, I found myself at the airport with my life packed into 2 suitcases….. Okay, I confess. I shipped most of my things across the week before (including my ski gear). You see, I had never lived away from home before, and I was suffering from major separation anxiety. I also discovered an itchy, red welt on the left side of my forehead, which I simply dismissed the night before as a spider bite. However at the airport, my parents (both doctors), gravely informed me that my welts were the beginning of shingles, a condition caused by extreme stress. Was this an omen?
After a fairly uneventful trip, my plane landed on time. In retrospect, this was nothing short of miraculous, as the Mumbai airport had been closed 2 days prior due to the torrential monsoon rains. Mark, worried that he wouldn’t be able to meet me by taxi because of the floods, had borrowed a friends’ “pimped out” Scorpio, the Indian version of a Hummer, complete with all the chrome trimmings and Bollywood music blaring from the sound system. Needless to say, I was completely freaked out.
After a short visit to the Breach Candy Hospital, and armed with medication for my relocation-induced shingles, we arrived “home”. Home, I discovered, was an eclectic 2 bedroom apartment in a “fancy party of town”, with neighbours such as the Chief Minister of Mumbai and various business moguls. Our landlady, who happened to be an artist, had incorporated some truly bizarre styling elements in the apartment including sculptures of Hindi love deities in the master bedroom and an array of “found object” creations, the highlight of which was a lamp that incorporated a cheese grater. This merely enhanced my already surreal introduction to Mumbai.
Arriving during the peak of the monsoon season (from July to September), the atmosphere was oppressively sticky and hot, and it rained on and off most days. Flooding was continually a problem. And yet, it amazed me how the locals almost revered the rain, and talked about going away to Goa on their holidays, where it rained the entire time. I eventually began to understand that in a country where there is no rain for 9 months of the year, the rains are embraced when they finally arrive.
Getting our domestic life in order was another challenge altogether. Buying something as mundane as a microwave presented me with the most insane obstacles. I was used to going to a department store in Sydney, picking one up in a well known brand, taking it home and plugging it in. End of story. Not so in India! I had to wait for the delivery man to arrive with the appliance the next day, only to wait for the “demo” man the following day again to install it for us. When I told the “demo” man the microwave wouldn’t work, he scratched his head, probably thinking that I was just a dumb foreigner who was used to servants doing things, and then rang the repair man. I then had to wait for the repair man, who found out the appliance had been faulty to start with. So back to the store I went, microwave in tow, and on and on it went.
Servants were another minefield. Our first driver hit 2 pedestrians on his first day of work. Worried that we would relieve him of his services prematurely, he confided in me that his sole purpose for working was to earn enough money so he could buy a gun and shoot his relatives! On a much brighter note, our new driver Ajay doubles up as our tour guide, and refuses to take me anywhere until I ask him in Hindi first.
There are so many more anomalies in this weird and wonderful city that I’ve come to see as normal, like the spanking new Bentley to my right and the wiry local man to my left, pulling a cart full of gas cylinders, as we wait at a set of lights. Or the young girls in their colourful saris, selling wreathes of marigolds to adorn Ganesha, who stand next to the local leper, who is begging in front of a man selling the latest edition of British Vogue. Mark and I have learnt to do what other Indians do and flick our wrists a couple of times to dismiss the merchants and beggars, but we always keep a supply of apples in our car to hand out through the window.
I have come to accept that paying the “white guy premium” is just synonymous with Indian life. In fact, the rich-poor divide is so extreme, that one actually feels better about over-paying a little. But it’s a fine line, as when the locals realize that you wear your heart on your sleeve, a line-up of people begging for help inevitably appears, from the carpenter who alleges his tools were stolen (and only wanting cash, and not new tools when I offered to buy them for him), to an ex-maid, who wanted $10,000 for a home loan, as the “Tsunami was coming” and she needed to move inland.
As I write this article, I can’t help but reflect that, not only have I triumphantly survived a year in crazy Mumbai, but I have grown to love it and feel very much at home. My Hindi is getting better (thanks to Ajay), which means that I am less likely to get ripped off by the “subzi walla” (vegetable man). Mark and I have also traveled to some amazing places since our arrival, like the tiger safari that we experienced not far from Jaipur, which I cannot recommend highly enough, and the Taj Mahal, and parts of Rajasthan, which I visited with my mother when she came to stay.
In a couple of weeks, Mark and I head off to the Himalayan foothills. In August, we’ll be “unwinding” at a spa resort in Kerala with friends, and in September, we look forward to Ganpati, a 15-day festival dedicated to Lord Ganesha, Mumbai’s favourite god. The final day of the celebration will see Chowpatty beach filled with plaster Ganeshas that will gently melt into the ocean by sunset. Next week is Janmashtami, which is a festival in commemoration of Lord Krishna’s birthday. Young boys from every corner of the city gather in different coloured T-shirts, forming human pyramids in commemoration of the event.
Indeed, I am loving the “Mumbai Madness” and I am grateful for having taken the plunge to live a life less ordinary.