02 August 2012

Refilling my heart, and my stomach

After almost exactly two years, I have returned to India and aamchi Mumbai for a 2 week holiday.

And what a homecoming it's been. Today reminded me of all I love about India and her people. The warmth, open-heartedness, connections. In short, the people. Oh, and the food.

I arrived just after midnight, and after an emotional taxi ride through the streets, gulping in the sweet, unique smell of Mumbai, I went to a hotel in the neighborhood where I used to live, Danda, in west Khar. It's a bit of a fancy hotel, but it's the only one I knew of in the area, and I knew I could arrive at any time.
When I woke, I checked out, thinking I would look for a cheaper place, but there was none in the area to be found. I thought I would have to go further, near the railway station, when the manager came over and wanted to talk to me about a deal for the whole 2 weeks. He offered me a very reasonable price, more than I'm used to paying in the rest of the country, but as low as anything that could be found in this city, so I accepted. Which is great, because it's right here, walking distance from my old apartment.

The next thing I did was walk to my old street. I hadn't shaved for a couple of days, knowing I would see my old friend and saloon-keeper, Sachin. We recognized each other right away, and while I waited for him to finish with his current client (who translated a bit for us), we chatted. When I was here two years ago, he used to joke with me about sending him gifts from the US, and Sachin jokingly said that I hadn't sent anything. Aha! I pointed to my bag and told him that I had brought.  He was pretty amazed when I pulled out a Timex watch for him, some t-shirts for his kids, and a Hollywood snow globe for his wife. The look on his face, I will never forget. He gave me my shave, shaping my beard just so, and we caught up. At the end, he refused to accept any payment, but I told him that next time, I would pay, and he reluctantly agreed to that. I told him I'd be back in a few days.

Then, I went over to the Pali Naka neighborhood of Bandra where I was meeting my friend Sonali for lunch. Before that, though, I changed money at a shop I know that performs such services at rates higher than banks will give. I got 55 rupee to the dollar; two years before it was only 45. Good for me, not so good for the locals. Then I went to Shiv Sagar to meet Sonali. She is the director of Dreamcatchers, the NGO for which I volunteered when I was here. I got a masala dosa, which as we all know is something I love. It had been 2 years since I had a proper one, and i savored it. Between bites, we had a great talk. We've always had an immediate, deep connection, understanding each other's hearts, minds, and souls effortlessly, in ways that inspire both of us to reach our deepest selves. It's been a very eventful two years for her, and for me, so we had a lot of catching up to do. The restaurant eventually kicked us out because they needed the table space, and we stood on the street outside talking for a few more minutes before putting the conversation on hold until we go to our next restaurant together (there's supposed to be a great new South Indian place in Juhu).

Back on my old street, I ran into so many shopkeepers and former neighbors, and they all greeted me so enthusiastically, it was a real homecoming, so sweet. I went to my old building and all my old neighbors were so happy to see me. One of them, a family living on the ground floor with two brothers who are DJs, Sam and Sachin, had been particularly friendly when I lived in the building and invited me to come back later for dinner.

After resting at the hotel, I returned for dinner. Sachin is in Goa, so I talked to him on the phone, but Sam and his sister and father and aunt and grandmother were all there, and we chatted, and they fed me a lovely dinner. Some customs are quite interesting, including the one where they let the guest eat first before they ate. So I ate alone while they watched, kept filling my place when it got half empty, made a special trip to get soda for me, and we talked. They couldn't have been nicer or more sweet or hospitable. They kept piling puris on my plate until I have to beg them to stop. They told me they were so happy to have me as a guest, they wanted to make sure I got enough. And they even had gone out and bought a little vanilla ice cream to give to me for dessert. Before I left, Sam and I made plans to have dinner on Sunday night.

And to top it all off, today is Raksha Bandhan, a lovely Indian holiday that celebrates the bonds of brothers, sisters, and cousins. The streets are filled with families dressed up and blowing noisemakers.

I'm heading back to the room now, but stopped to get these thoughts down, so I could always remember this incredible day. Earlier, I had told Sonali a story about seeing an Indian family at Universal Studios in Los Angeles this year, and how I had approached them, asked where they were from (turned out to be Tirumala, where I spend my birthday in 2010), and talked with them a bit. Sonali told me that she was in Amsterdam earlier in the year, and when she was there, she understood the core of my love for India. There, as in LA, people just walk briskly, minding their business, on the way to doing something important, and she had a hard time getting anyone to stop and chat or even so she could ask for directions. She knew that in India, when you're in public, it's one big community, and it's common to talk to strangers, show them kindness and friendliness. Sometimes in LA, I seem weird for talking to strangers in public, as if we were friends. Here, it is commonplace. And when I am friends with someone, or neighbors of theirs, the love and kindness and hospitality can split my heart wide open, and refill it to overflowing.

Mumbai, thanks for the love. Not only are you the best food city in the world, your people are second to none. 

1 comment:

Matthea said...

Beautiful and so recognizable! We lived in Khar Danda as well, went to the same Shiv Sagar, never had such a good masala dosa since. I walked with you in my mind when I read your post. I too left 2 years ago, went back to get my Mumbai-fix last year, this is exactly how I would put it if I could. Except for the shave of course :)