I have never been to a place like this. I’ve never been so uncomfortable in a country. I’ve never been anywhere before where going outside my hotel makes me cry.
Dirt and poverty are everywhere. And not just dirt, but filth. There is mud and refuse and abandoned pieces of clothing on the footpaths. People live in corrugated iron sheds next to the road – some have statues of gods out front while others hang their laundry. People sit on the curb, in the street. They zoom around in three-wheeled taxis that look barely street legal or crowd into hot, oversized tin cans masquerading as buses, glazed looks on their faces as they make their way through the dense and crazed traffic.
Dogs – large, lean, strong – walk slowly around on the sidewalks. Not happy, not angry, not mean looking – just there. We passed a dog lying in the bushes as we walked to the car at the airport. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive, and turned away so I wouldn’t have to reach a conclusion.
Construction work is done on scaffolding made of thin trees which are lashed together. The occasional worker sits precariously on an oversized branch, no safety gear, foot wedged under a balcony if he’s lucky enough to have something to provide a bit of leverage. He is in no way secured, isn’t even wearing as much as a hard hat. Workplace safety is obviously not even a consideration and in some respects I feel like I’ve walked into a modern day version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, where workers are a disposable commodity.
The majority of people I have met have been extraordinarily kind and friendly, especially at the hotel. But sitting in the back of the car today as my driver slowly maneuvered his way through the crowded, rain-damaged streets, I saw people looking at me through the window with open contempt in their eyes. One man sneered at me from above in his overcrowded bus, his gaze lingering as we sat trapped in a sea of taxis. My left hand slid over and surreptitiously made sure the door was locked while my right moved my backpack just a bit closer. Not that he could get to me, but I felt extremely vulnerable at that moment.
I think that’s probably why, if someone asked me how I felt about India, I would say I hate it. I hate it because I feel so vulnerable on so many different levels.
I feel vulnerable because I am a Western woman travelling on her own. Standing in line at immigration last night I realised I was the only white woman in the whole arrivals hall. And I looked to be the only woman traveling by herself. It was one of the few times I have ever felt different. It was, in a word, disconcerting.
I feel vulnerable because, despite my Australian passport, I am most decidedly American. When we arrived at the hotel the car was stopped at the very large gate by security so they could check for explosives. They swept underneath the car with some device, and opened the boot as well as the doors to the backseat. The guards were extraordinarily polite, but that was somewhat at odds with the large German Shepard who gave me a halfhearted sniff before deciding I posed no safety risk. Once at the hotel’s front door, I was again greeted by more extraordinarily polite guards who put my luggage through an xray machine and me through a metal detector. I know there are political situations not involving America that mandate such tight security, but I am also keenly aware of what happened in this city several years ago and how westerners were targetted.
I haven’t taken any real photographs yet. In part it’s because I haven’t had the opportunity – what little I’ve seen of Mumbai so far has been from the back of a car. But there are other reasons as well. I feel as though taking pictures of some of the things I’ve seen is wrong. Like I’d be taking the picture not so much to document it or tell a story, but because it is so freakishly different than what I perceive as normal. And in some ways I feel like I personally don’t need to take a picture to remember.
I will always remember the streets, the taxis, the people, the dogs. Even though I don’t really want to.