When you step off the plane at Mumbai’s sleek international airport, a few things immediately happen:
One, you’re instantly overwhelmed by the city’s scale. Before stepping out of the terminal, you get a sense for just how massive the experience that awaits you is. After all, this is a megacity of 25 million people crammed into a space that’s half the size of London. If you’re used to the New York minute, the Mumbai minute will take you by storm.
Two, the coexistence of massive wealth and massive poverty. The flashy logos of Gucci and Louis Vuitton live alongside children begging for scraps of food. Walking through Bandra, you can book an ultra-luxurious hotel room at the world-class Taj Land’s End Hotel only to see families living in tin shacks not half a block away.
Three, Mumbai stimulates the five senses and doesn’t let go. The smells of freshly fried street food, the purring of rickshaws weaving through otherworldly traffic jams, and the vibrant colors seem to echo into all parts of this global city.
For me, I was hit by one more thing– the notion that I was arriving in a city where I was neither a tourist or a local. As I observed my surroundings, I thought back to comedian Aziz Ansari’s piece in The New York Times where he describes a trip to his ancestral home city of Trivandrum. He recalls being stuck in the middle of two cultures. The India he identifies with is a country he’s never lived in, only one he hears about through stories, relatives, and artifacts.
I, like Ansari, grew up with an Indian name, with Indian parents, in a household where Indian languages were regularly spoken and Indian food was regularly consumed. But there I was in a coffee shop in central Mumbai, in India’s most cosmopolitan city, and I felt lost. I wasn’t an outside observer with no knowledge of the country and its customs but I was in no way a Mumbaikar.
“Sure, I appear Indian, but my clothes and sneakers were clearly American. Even in India, I was kind of an outsider.”
Aziz Ansari, The New York Times
I was stuck in the middle.
A whirlwind of thoughts flooded my brain. Just because I have Indian heritage, does that allow me to critique the country’s practices? Since I stuck out as an American simply by the way I walk, does that mean I don’t belong here? That I’ll never truly fit in? That even if I dive deep into my roots, staying in flats and eating the cuisine I grew up on, I would still be viewed as a foreigner?
I wrestled with these questions on my flight home and I continue to do so to this day. It’s bizarre to see New York on one side of your boarding card, Mumbai on the other, and knowing that home lies somewhere in the middle.