I’ve just realized that, to me, “real India” means Nagpur, the city-scale village in which my mother was born. It may be because there is pretty much nothing to do here except be with family — and family is what I associate with India. Family, and dust that covers you 5 minutes after you bathe, and crowds, and continuous servings of milky sweet tea, and honking, and vegetarian Maharashtran food, and brightly colored fabrics, and concrete buildings with ancient plumbing, and bucket baths, and impromptu singing sessions, and doted-upon babies, and venerated elders, and Marathi, and impossible traffic of various vehicles and animals, and brushing teeth with bottled water, and flies, and mosquitoes, and vaguely familiar relatives asking if I remember them, and people breaking out the winter coats when it hits 70° F, and ridiculous Hindi films, and tiny cluttered shops, and cough-inducing rickshaw fumes, and Amul dairy, and Dinshaw’s Ice Cream, and chaat, and people who know sides of my parents that I’ve never known, and people with whom I should probably talk more instead of hanging back, shy, unable to make small-talk, overly concerned with how to conjugate Marathi verbs. To me, that’s India.
As a lad, I remember holding a sort of awe-and-fear of New York City — its size, cosmopolitanism, sophistication, and the sheer number of things to do. I became familiar enough with NYC to rid myself of the fear, and alas, some of the awe. But now I’m in Mumbai, and I remember the feeling — not as a tingle of excitement, but as an A-bomb blast at Ground Zero. The magnitude and density of this place is overwhelming. The things I want to see and try. The traffic. The press of people. The smells, both good (peanuts roasting on charcoal fires, the salinity of the sea air) and the horrible (you don’t want to know). This city wouldn’t laugh at my attempts to master it. It would just swallow me whole without noticing. It would crush me to powder under its boot without breaking a stride. There’s something exciting about that, like swimming in a vast ocean alongside a blue whale.