So that's it. A few days in Mumbai are now almost gone. Tomorrow morning at 5 am, I will be taking a 25 hours train ride to Varanasi. I had come here once more than a year-and-a-half ago. I remember the first words I had written at the time about the city: "I hate Mumbai!". Literally. That's how I felt the first time I laid foot on this ground. It was December of 2009. It was hot. It was crowded. It was hectic. It was foreign, so completely foreign to anything that I had seen or experienced before, even though that realization only came later, much later during that first journey.
I thought I knew when I came the first time to Mumbai, to India for instance, with my wife. I thought that being non-white automatically, even magically, gave me a kind of innate understanding of this world. “Come on!”, I thought, “they’re dark-skinned like me; some, most of them, even darker than me, that should be enough to navigate in this society, in this culture”. The reality is that I had forgotten many things, forgotten that most of my life I had lived outside the dark-skinned countries; forgotten that most of my life I had lived in affluent neighborhoods of major Western metropolitan cities; forgotten that before trying to understand one needs to be open enough to hear, feel, taste, experience; forgotten that I was probably as much of a white man that I was not and will never be; finally, I had forgotten that humility in front of this gigantic, in every ways, world lying in front of me should have been at the essence of my approach. I had forgotten so many things…
This time feels different though as time has passed and I’m experiencing Mumbai by myself. The city feels familiar today, almost in a natural and unconscious way, a kind of body knowledge, a mental understanding of some codes and interactions. There is also less anger on my side, less anger and less fear, of everything, of that 15 hours plane that brought me here from New York crashing in the ocean; less of that fear that society, that people slowly instill inside of you, the fear of the other. So I talk to people, share a cab with two young Indian guys coming back from Dubai and that I met at the airport. I chat with the chubby, moustache bearing middle-aged man at the kebab stall in Colaba. I get scammed by a beautiful young gypsy girl named Esmeralda (her name is not Esmeralda, but as I can’t remember her real name…) near Gateway of India. I get into the worst argument with the cab driver who’s outraged I asked him to use his meter. I go to Gandhi’s museum two days in a row taking pictures of small figurines narrating the life of the great man through its more symbolic moments. And I finally have a new pair of glasses made (it only took me three years…)!
And then after all of this, something truly special has happened. I was at Mani Bhavan (Gandhi’s house in Mumbai) for the second time, about to finish taking the pictures I had come for. The figurines I was mentioning are enclosed inside large wooden boxes and you can watch scenes of Gandhi’s life through a glass panel. The last of these boxes represents the burning of the Mahatma’s body in front of a crowd of everyday people and local and international personalities. I’m about to take the shot when my Indian phone starts ringing… It’s my mother. I get on the little balcony adjacent to the room and chat with her for a few minutes. I tell her that I am at Gandhi’s house, I tell her about the room, the atmosphere of tranquility and humility, about the figurines, etc. She is moved, and I believe she is also tired as Ramadan has started more than a week ago now and she’s getting old too. She tells me to make a wish, any wish while I’m there. So I hang up the phone and does just that. I make a wish…
I get back inside and in front of the last box, ready to snap my last picture. Contrary to the other boxes, the lights do not work for this one, which is just fine as the darker and more subdued atmosphere works perfectly with the moment it is narrating. So I’m about to snap my last picture when suddenly a woman’s voice behind me tells me that I’m wrong, that the picture is not there, it’s not where I think it is… The voice says in English with an Indian accent: “look up, look at the sky, and you’ll see Krishna…”. I’m surprised, confused too. I turn around to discover this 60 years-old Indian woman standing next to me, wearing a green sari outfit. She notices my confusion and tells me again: “you have to look at the sky, all the gods of all religions are there, but you need to look if you want to see. This was Gandhi, he respected all religions, faiths, beliefs.” I look at the box again and finally understands what she means. On the inside panels of the box, in the dark because of the lack of light, skies are painted. And on top of these skies, the Gods, or a symbol in the case of Muslims, of all major religions are represented, floating above the human crowd and the burning body of the Mahatma. And suddenly a strong emotion runs through my body, I’m completely moved by what I have just seen, what this woman helped me see. So I thank her, my voice almost shaking, explaining that it is not the first time I come here, not the first time that I looked at that box, not even the first time that I took pictures of it and that I had never seen what she just showed me. She smiles and tells me it’s karma, that we were meant to meet and talk today. I ask for her name that I forget the moment she says it. She asks for mine and also where I come from. “My name is Adel. I was born in Algeria, raised in France, and I now live in Brooklyn”. I said a version of this maybe a million times in my life. She says she has lived in New York before. A long time ago. She says she has been a guide for 34 years. I tell her it’s my age. And for a brief moment, both of us are strangely moved by this encounter. I want to thank her again and offer my hand to shake. She steps back and says no, holding her two hands together and slightly bowing towards me. I do the same and then I leave.
Back in the street, in the middle of the crazy traffic and hustle and bustle of the city, with cars honking like the fate of the whole universe depended on it, I call back my mother in Paris. I tell her that story, barely holding back tears of emotion and I feel that emotion running through the line and connecting us in a profound way for an instant. I hang up and keep walking all the way to Chowpaty beach.
I sit on the sand, breath, take a few pictures, and look at the sea.