I’m going to let you in on a secret but you have to promise not to tell anyone. Specifically, you have to swear you won’t tell any of my Mumbai friends because what I’m about to confess might hurt their feelings. I never, ever wanted to live in Mumbai, India. I was quite keen on India, but Mumbai, not so much. Here’s the thing, I hate congested urban environments. I know I grew up in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, but I grew up in a quiet, leafy neighborhood. Kids played street hockey in front of my house. It was that quiet.
I also hate living in an apartment. I don’t mean I dislike it, or it’s not my preference, I mean I hate it, as in detest, loathe; you get where I’m going with this. I like trees and birds and tranquility. I write best when I have total peace and privacy. Mumbai has a population density of 21,000 people per square kilometre. My hometown Toronto has 945. So when my husband approached me a year ago saying he’d been asked to move to Mumbai my answer was an unequivocal no.
Yet here I am in a small two-bedroom apartment, roughly a third the size of my house in Canada, listening to blaring horns, which may quiet down by three in the morning but usually don’t. The only birds are aggressive hawks, which lunge at my small dog on the rare occasions we let her outside, and pigeons, which defecate on my balcony. I keep my bedroom curtain permanently closed to prevent the man who lives on the neighboring roof from looking in and do my best to tune out the voices from surrounding apartments and the streets that run in front of my building and behind.
Mumbai is every bit as claustrophobic as I feared it would be. I’m relentlessly reminded that I’m sharing a city with 13 million people, almost exactly the same number as in my entire province, Ontario. I know what you’re thinking. If I knew Mumbai would be this oppressive, why did I agree to come? That’s a good question but I have a better one.
Why is there a man living on the roof next door? Rain or shine, monsoon or cold season, he sleeps on a straw mat on the hard cement, with only a threadbare blanket for comfort. Does he work in the building? Does anyone even know he’s there? He cooks all his meals on a small kerosene cooker. On hot days he strips down to a loincloth and on cool winter days he huddles against the low wall which also prevents him from rolling to his death while he sleeps. I don’t know what he uses for a shower or toilet. Perhaps he swims in the sea and relieves himself among the rocks as many people do. Twice I’ve seen him attacked by the ubiquitous hawks who mistake him for carrion. There are times, when I watch him asleep in the moonlight, his emaciated form jutting angles like a shipwreck, that I could make the same error.
Do you know what I see out my other window? Whole families live on the street below. They chase me for coins when I take a walk. They see me come out of my building, rundown by Canadian standards, modest even for expats here, and yet they know I still have wealth beyond their imagining. Their clamoring is so overwhelming I’ve developed rules. I always give to the elderly, the sick and disabled. I never give to children or anyone carrying a baby. Most street beggars are ruled by gangs. Babies are kidnapped to use as props. Child beggars are virtual slaves. Today I added another category to my list of beneficiaries. A woman approached me, her severed hand oozing blood and pus. As I parted with my cash I wondered if her hand had been amputated for just that purpose. Did her gang boss do it? Was her desperation so extreme that she did it to herself?
Twice a week a couple of kids, rescued from the street, come to my apartment for a free lunch and tutoring. It’s the least I can do. The other day one sat on my balcony and said she wished she could live in my apartment forever. The usual cacophony of blaring horns and shouting voices almost drowned out her words. It was ironic that at that moment her heartfelt desire was an almost perfect inverse to my own. But above the pandemonium I managed to hear her.
I heard her.