Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Valentine's weekend in Bombay

{Sara, Corinne, and me at Juhu Beach}
It might be because I was born there (back before it even became Mumbai!), but of the many places I've visited in India, Bombay is without a doubt my favorite. The food and shopping are unparalleled, a ton of my family is there, and when the heat or traffic aren't overwhelming you, the city is perfect. Needless to say, Bombay is home for me in a very unique way, and various parts of the city hold incredible sentimental value to me. There's my first home, my Nani's (maternal grandmother) place where I've spent so many summers, the beach I used to visit as a kid, and so much more. I've wanted to go back with some friends from GW for a while now but coordinating vacation schedules and financing expensive flights from the U.S. isn't exactly easy to accomplish on a college student's budget and lifestyle. So when I found friends from my CIEE Abroad Program who were interested in visiting Bombay, I jumped at the chance to show them around.

Although I was in Bombay for a few days before my study abroad orientation in Hyderabad, I knew I wanted to go back. All four of my grandparents are currently there and seeing them is reason enough for a weekend trip to the city. But when I thought about how fun it would be to show some friends around the city I call home, I got even more excited. So this past weekend, my friends Corinne and Sara and I flew down to Bombay for a trip I think of as my most productive visit to any city, ever. My friends and I certainly ate our way through the city, and the suitcase that was half empty on my flight there and full on my return to Hyderabad is a testament to the six kurtis, two tops, and two dresses I managed to buy. Beyond that, my three major goals for the weekend were to show my friends my city, spend time with my family, and visit places that held sentimental value for me. By some miracle we managed to accomplish all of that and then some in only two and a half days.

{one of the many dishes we had for dinner}
After we reached Bombay Friday afternoon, my friends and I headed to my Nani's house with the help of my Mama (maternal uncle). We had an amazing lunch, after which Sara headed down to Kala Ghoda and Corrine and I played cards with my cousin and Mami (maternal aunt) before heading out for some shopping with my Nani. After picking up some kurtis and fun pants from the street stalls, we headed back home to see my Ba (paternal grandmother). The four of us then visited two temples that I had gone to as a child before going to another uncle's house to see my Dada (paternal grandfather), who had recently broken his leg. We then met up with yet another uncleand I low-key blessed his motorcycle and got some amazing ice cream, nbdbefore heading to dinner. The travel hadn't been great on my stomach and I was feeling a little off, but some relentless goading by my Mami assured that I had a very filling dinner. We shared plates of pizza, dahi puri, kati roll, and the coolest pav bhaji I've tasted (the bhaji had cheese and the pav was fried with some sort of masala!) and somehow I still managed to say yes to dessert. I looked at Corinne and offered the justification of, "If not now then when?" and am definitely glad I did because the malai gola we shared was insane and definitely better than anything I've found in Hyderabad. I swear, Bombay food is just incomparable. 

The next morning, Nani, Corinne, and I attempted to fit in some more shopping, but found the stores to be closed and settled for some fresh coconut water instead. My cousin came home from a class he had, and my Nani, Mami, cousin, Corinne, and I headed to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. I've always seen the park from the windows at my Nani's place, but have either never been there or had gone when I was really young so I was looking forward to the visit. After a short rickshaw ride, we walked through, ate some fruit, and went on a short safari ride to see some tigers. We also saw some monkeys and deer on our visit! Nani, Corinne, and I then headed to see my mom's old house, the home she had lived from birth till marriage. 

For obvious reasons, visiting India and especially Bombay always reminds me of where I come from. More than being about my ethnic or national origin, Bombay makes me think of my early childhood, my parents' youth, the life I could have led and almost did. It makes me appreciate my parents on a very conscious level, which I don't do often enough. It makes me think about the family I wish I was closer to, the family I'm grateful to be close to, the family I only see every few years, the family that makes coming to India feel like home time and time again.

I'm so lucky to still have all four grandparents with me, and every time I hop on a plane or bus or car and say goodbye, I worry about whether that goodbye is as final as I fear it to be. Maybe this is a bit heavy to be sharing on such a public platform, but I think it's important to value what you have and to be appreciative of and grateful for every moment you have with the ones you love, in the places you love. So it that sense, going to Bombay has always felt like coming home to my family, and leaving has always been doubly difficult.

And Bombay means even more to me. For as long as I can remember, I've been working on a balance between Indian and American. It wasn't until recently that I was able to conceptualize it as a spectrum rather than a binary distinction or a hyphenated identity. Because I'm not hyphenated. I'm me. I'm both, I'm whole. I feel so connected to India and Bombay in a way that I don't think I'll ever feel with my small town in New Jersey, in a way I don't think I even want to feel with New Jersey. And as much as I love, love D.C., I know I won't be there after graduation. It's not where my field is, and so it'll forever be the place I spent my college years, the place I grew into myself a little bit more and learned to live and love and accept in ways I didn't think possible. But Bombay. Bombay will always be home. Do you know how weird it is to leave a place for six and a half years and return and have some things change completely and others stay the same and feel wholly and completely happy to have what you have and be who you are and stand where you stand?

One of the biggest benefits of learning new languages is finding ways of expressing those teeny tiny intricacies of the human experience that you didn't know how to convey. If you're a native Spanish speaker, the phrase, "me emociona," might not mean much to you. It might be something you grew up hearing and repeating. But for someone who feels so strongly about so many things, for a writer who is frustrated with the inability to describe wholly and fully and truly every feeling and thought and experience, the phrase, "me emociona," works wonders. Because that's what Bombay does to me. That's what Madrid does to me. That's what being around people I love and being in places I love and feeling truly myself does to me. 

So when I visited my mom's old house, and when I thought about where both of my parents have come from and where they are now in a way that relates to but goes beyond the standard immigrant family, American Dream story, I was emotioned. I saw my mom's old neighbors, faces I didn't recognize at all, faces of people who expressed such warmth and a sense of community and a desire to express such genuine kindness for a person they didn't know at all, I was emotioned. When I thought about what I have to leave behind each time I leave India and the time that passes between each trip and what moving back here would be like and how both India and America are home but in a way neither of them are, I was emotioned. 

The Coldplay-Beyoncé video that recently came out frustrates me for such a wide host of reasons, but one of the major ones is the lack of representation that South Asians and particularly Indian-Americans face. I'm currently working on a post regarding that, but for now I'm just going to say that the Indian-American experience is one that is so complicated, has so many layers and valences that reflect a lot about India and America and the way we as the people of either or both countries believe and think and behave. It's one that holds so much value as an academic discourse, as a literary and artistic diaspora, as a reflection of the government and politics of both countries. Seeing such a reductive representation of India through the Western lensand seeing the lack of regard for the misrepresentation that some people excuse because it's a music video or because it's Coldplay or because it's Beyoncé, and so on is just so disheartening and so painful in ways that I myself am still struggling to come to terms with. India is so beautiful, but dancing street children and Holi and a painful-to-see appropriation of our many dance forms are not the reasons why.

And that is what I thought about on the rickshaw ride from my maternal grandparents' old home to their current one.

After a quick rest at Nani's place, Corinne and I headed to my cousin Jhanavi's apartment with two other cousins. From there, we met up with Sara and spent some time at Juhu Beach, a place that holds a lot of sentimental value for me for a host of different reasons, before heading out to dinner. At dinner, the topic of the Coldplay music video came up again and I was amazed at how much Jhanavi related to my frustration. As an Indian-Omani who is going to college in Bombay, Jhanavi knows exactly what it is to be of two worlds, to be an "in-betweener," as she calls it. 

I find that my local friends and family here don't share my frustration with the way Indians and India are represented in this video, and maybe that's because many of them have no way of knowing what being an Indian-American in 2016 means, of truly knowing how the lack or representation and misrepresentation feel when you spend the majority of your life in a Western setting. I haven't explored the topic enough with my family in the U.S. to know their stance, but even among many (although certainly, certainly not all) of my Indian-American friends, I often feel like I'm the only one who cares or at least the only one who cares this much. It's pretty isolating, and many of the friends I've made through this abroad program have provided the support and comfort through the fact that they share my frustrations, that they know where I'm coming from. Put very simply, they get it and when I saw that my cousin got it too, I was ecstatic and even relieved. I'm not alone. Someone else cares, too. And even if we're the only one's having this conversation, it's okay. Twenty years ago, this conversation might not have even happened. Maybe twenty years from now, it might not need to.

We spent our last day in Bombay in the best way possible: shopping and eating. After my cousin and I visited a great-aunt of ours, we met up with our friends for some shopping and lunch in Lokhandwala. My last trip to India was the summer before my freshman year of high school (yikes!) and my cousin Riya and I pretty much spent our entire summer shopping and dancing (we took a pretty wild Salsa/Bollywood/Bhangra/Raas-Garba dance class that summer). We visited Lokhandwala a ton that summer, and the first place we stopped at this time around was a stall that I've seen pretty much every time I can remember being in Bombay. I got a little obnoxiously excited, especially for a stall that only sells cheap trinkets. But before I came to India, I'd been hearing people talk about how much India has changed in the recent years and it's so comforting to see how so much is still the same.

After walking around a bit, we stopped by lunch and got classic Bombay food. My personal favorite was the Bisleri pani puri, 20% because it was the first Bombay pani puri I'd had in years and 80% because I knew it wouldn't make me sick. I also had bites of my friends' pav bhaji and dahi puri before ordering a pretty good royal falooda. I've been in India for a month and a half and really don't anticipate getting sick of having Indian food every day. If anything, I'm worried about how I'm going to be in D.C. without my thrice-a-day cups of chai and such. Guess I'll finally have to learn how to cook Indian food.

{mediocre-at-best iPhone shot of our view from the plane}
Our flight back was bittersweet. It was late enough that all the city lights had turned on, and as our plane rose we were above a thin layer of black clouds with the city and black Indian Ocean below us. Above, we could see a few stars and it seemed like a perfect, albeit reluctant, end to an even better weekend. It was one of those things where photos don't capture the beauty, so you'll just have to take my word for the fact that it was breathtaking. 

I want to travel to so many places throughout and close to India while I'm studying abroad here and I initially wasn't sure that I'd get time to go to Bombay again before heading to Oman and then going back to the Dirty Jerz. But after this weekend, I'm determined to make time. This city is just so amazing and although I'll never let six and a half years pass in between my trips there, I know I have to visit it one last time before the next.

Here are a few more photos of our trip, as well as a video I made of one-second clips from our weekend. Enjoy!

{food on food on food}
{pre-Bombay selfie}
{lunch at Nani's}
{Mami makes the best chai}
{walking around Borivali}
{Corinne and her new Vespa}
{living in a constant state of only remembering to take photos after having a bite}
{nariyal pani}
{malai gola feat. photobomber}
{fennel seeds!}
{spot the tiger}
{dahi chaat for lunch}
{Nani's building}
{falooda for dessert}
{me and my valentines}
{rickshaw selfie}
{Corinne meets the fam}
{ice cream at Naturals}
{natural park feat. a sign I can actually read now}
{malai gola}
{flowers + trees+ pretty walls}
{Nani and fruit}

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