by Gregory David Roberts
The first thing I noticed about Bombay, on the first day, was the smell of the different air. I could smell it before I saw or heard anything of India, even as I walked along the umbilical corridor that connected the plane to the airport. I was excited and delighted by it, in the first Bombay minute, escaped from prison and new to the wide world, but I didn't and couldn't recognise it. I know now that it's the sweet, sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate;and it's the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love It's the smell of gods, demons, empirees, and civilsations in resurrection and decay. It's he blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the Island CIty, and the blood-metal smell of machines. It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells ofr heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures andloves that produce our courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches, and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers, Karla once called it the worst good smell in the world, and she was right, of course, in that way she had of being right about things. But whenever I return to Bombay, now it's my first sense of the city --that smell, above all things-- that welcomes me and tells me I've come home..
The next thing I noticed was the heat. I stood in the airport queues, not five minutes from the conditioned air of the plane, and my clothes clung to sudden sweat. My heart thumped under the command of the climate. Each breath was an angry little victory. I came to know that it never stops, the jungle sweat, because the heat that makes it, night and day, is a wet heat. The choking humidity makes amphibians of us all, in Bombay, breathing water in air; you learn to live with it, and you learn to like it or you leave.
Then there were the people. Assamese, Jats, and Punjabis; people from Rajasthan, Bengal, and Tamil Nadu; from Pushkar, Cochin, and Konarak; warrior caste, Brahmin, and untouchable; Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Parsee, Jain, ANimist; fair skin and dark, green eyes and golden brown and black; every different face and form of that extravagant variety, that incomparable beauty, India.
All the Bombay millions, and then one more.
The journey from the airport to the city began on a wide, modern motorway, lined with shrubs and trees. It was much like the neat, pragmatic landscape that surrounded the international airport in my home city, Melbourne. THe familiarity lulled me into a complacency that was so profoundly shattered, at the first narrowing of the road, that the contract and its effect seemed calculated. For the firs sight of the slums, as the many lanes of the motorway became one, and the trees disappeared, clutched at my heart with talons of shame.
Like brown and black dunes, the acres of slums rolled away from the roadside, and met the horizon with dirty heat-haze mirages. The miserable shelters were patced together from rags, scaps of plastic and paper, reed mats, and bamboo sticks They slumped together, attached one to another, and with narrow lanes winding between them. Nothing in the enormous sprawl of it rose much above the height of a man.
It seemed impossible that a modern airport, full of prosperous and purposeful travellers, was only kilometres away from those crushed and cindered dreams. My first impression was that some catastrophe had taken place, and that the slums were refugee camps for the shambling survivors. I learned, months later, that they were survivors, of course, those slub-sweller; the catastrophes that had driven them to the slums from their villages were poverty, famine, and bloodshed. And five thousand new survivors arrived in the city every week, week after week, year after year.
But the slums went on, kilometre after kilometre, relieved only by the awful contrast of the thriving businesses and crumbling, moss-covered apartment buildings of the comparatively affluent. The slums went on, and their sheer ubiquity wore down my foreigner's pieties. A kind of wonder possed me. I began to look beyond the immensity of the slum societies, and to see the people who lived within them. A woman stooped to brush forward the black satin psalm of her hair. ANother bathed her children with water form a coppper dish. A man led three goats with red reibbons tied to the collars at their throats. ANother man shaved himsself at a cracked mirror. Children played everywhere. Men carried water in buckets. Men made prepairs to one of the huts. And everywhere that I looked, people smiled and laughed
I looked at the people then, and I saw how busy they were -- how much industry and energy described their lives. Occasional sudden glimpses inside the huts revealed the astonishing cleanliness of that poverty; the spotless floors, and glistening metal pots in neat, tapering towers. And then, last, what should've been first, I saw how beautiful they were; the women wrapped in crimson, blue, and gold; the women walking barefoot through the tangled shabbiness of the slub and patient ethereal grace; the white-toothed, almond-eyed handsomeness of the men; and the affectionate camaraderie of teh fine-limbed children, older ones playing with younger ones, many of them supporting baby brothers and sisters on their slender hips. And half an hour after the bus ride began, I smiled for the first time.
But from here on in, you got a couple nice temples and some big British buildings that are okay--stone lions and brass street lights and like that. But his ain't India. The real India is up near the Himalayas, at Manali, or at the holy city of Varanasi, or down the coast, at Kerala. You gotta get outta the city to find the real India.
The street kids here have more ways to take your money than hell's casino