The Mumbai I Remember

As the horrific news from Mumbai poured in -- gunfire in hotels and hospitals, murderers in acid-washed jeans -- I watched the bulletins with something more than chagrin, something closer to indignation, an emotion I was not sure I was entitled to feel.

Mumbai is not my city, after all. It is a city I have visited a few times, a city I admire from afar, but not my city. I remember how conflicted I felt when foreigners offered me their condolences after 9/11: thanks for understanding, but you don't quite understand.

Condi Rice and other diplomats are now trying to stem an international crisis. Some fear we could be back on the brink of nuclear war.

Still, I can't help how the news hit me: not as a global tragedy but as a personal affront. Maybe it is because I have traversed all those narrow blocks, wandered in those very hotels. Maybe it is because I once had dinner in the home of Rivka and Gavriel Holtzberg, the murdered Chabad couple.

Maybe it is because I still cling to my own dream of Mumbai, even after watching that dream careen into nightmare.

In the fall of 2004 I was studying in Hyderabad, in the middle of South India. Most Thursday nights, a few of us foreign students would hop an overnight train, wake up in a new South Indian city, and spend the weekend there.

Mumbai, of course, was the Holy Grail of Indian cities. Camel lights, gay clubs, the biggest mansions, the biggest slums -- if it existed anywhere in South Asia, you could find it in Mumbai, and all on the same block.

But the train ride to Mumbai was 18 hours, too far for a weekend trip. So we stayed in Hyderabad and inured ourselves to the unrelenting humidity, the open-mawed stares from strangers, the blurry lines between religious festival and public dance party.

Then Yom Kippur rolled around, and with it the annual reminder that I am Jewish, whatever that means. It does not mean that I keep kosher or know Hebrew; but it does mean that every Yom Kippur I fast and I allow myself to be dragged to temple, where I stand all day hungry and bored and overdressed. This year, it seemed, would be the first year I could not be dragged to temple even if I wanted to be.

Until my friend Amitai did some research and told us that there were, in fact, Jews in India. There were the Bene Israel, said to have emigrated to India in the second century CE. There were Sephardic émigrés from Iraq and diamond merchants from Europe. Amitai had even contacted Chabad, an ultra-Orthodox missionary group with a chapter in Mumbai, and the rabbi there had extended us an invitation to eat at his house before the fast began at sundown. All in all, there were eight synagogues in the city.

Another item on the list of things you can find only in Mumbai.

I remember that weekend in Mumbai as one long day, almost as one long breath. We put on white shirts and climbed the stairs to the Holtzbergs' apartment. I extended my hand to Rivka and she stared at it, until I remembered that Orthodox women don't touch men. The rabbi served us chicken though most of us were vegetarians. He prayed frantically -- now splashing water on his hands, now standing up and bowing toward the bookshelf -- the whole time racing against the sun. Toward the end of the meal, some barefoot Israelis wandered in to hear his sermon, tying back their dreadlocks out of respect.

We rushed to the ornate Baghdadi synagogue in the neighborhood, Keneseth Eliyahoo, a blue polygonal gem of a building, and as we slipped in just before sunset, I felt the sweet soporific lull of incomprehensible Hebrew.

After services, we wandered into the street. It was late, but the air was still warm and heavy. On the sidewalk we poked our heads inside a life-sized cardboard shrine, surrounded by floral curtains, where a teenager in a 50 Cent t-shirt sat on a knee-high stage next to a porcelain Ganesh. We passed by the majestic Taj Hotel and stopped in for some air conditioning, and I remember remarking, "It's nice to be a Westerner. I look like a sweaty mess, but the guards didn't even stop me on the way in."

At some point we went to sleep and woke up and hired a taxi to dart to some points of interest. Crawford Market. Victoria Terminus. St. Thomas Cathedral. The National Gallery of Modern Art. I followed along in a giddy daze, lightheaded from fasting. At some point we let a street barber scrape the wax out of our ears; he unsheathed his sharp metal wand and plunged it somewhere between the outside of my head and the inside of my brain.

The taxi driver thought he could take us to a Bene Israel synagogue. But when I got out and asked the rickshaw-wallahs, "Jewish temple kaha hai?" they looked nonplussed. "You know, Jews," I prompted them, "Like Christians, but older." Still nothing. Then I looked over their shoulder and saw the sign, in Marathi and Hebrew: this was the temple. It was five times as big as the last one, all decked in white bunting, and packed with Marathi men in yarmulkes. When I slipped off my shoes and walked in, I was the only white person in the building.

We broke the fast near Chowpatty Beach at Café Ideal, a chintzy place that claimed to serve "Indo-American Gastronomy," which apparently meant pakoras and grilled cheese and Kingfisher beer. I can safely say I have never been happier.

This is the Mumbai I remember. This is the Mumbai I will continue to remember. Not the glitter of Bollywood but the grit of Colaba, the air thick with smog and seafoam and the stench of fish, the street thick with bhel puri carts and black taxi cabs and barefoot kids playing cricket. A city where anything is possible, not just fortune or squalor, but anything. A city where you can make a living and worship freely; but also a city where you might see a monkey garlanded like a goddess, or a naked baby learning how to dance on top of a parked car.

When we hear, inevitably, that the terrorists are enemies of freedom, we should remember that there are many kinds of freedom. The big freedoms (political, religious) should never be ignored; it is not incidental that Jews have lived in India for centuries and this is the first time they have ever been targeted.

But there are also smaller, more personal freedoms. These are the freedoms that animate my dream of Mumbai. These are the freedoms I worry about when the terrorists strike: the freedom of a city to live and breathe, to contradict itself, to be brash and sloppy and vibrant and unpredictable.


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