A few days ago, I was the passenger in a car involved in a fender bender. Truthfully, calling it a fender bender might be a gross exaggeration. It was more like a friendly bump–like going over (yet another) pothole on our city’s fine highways. Still, it was an occasion for two burly drivers to get out of the car and waggle fists at each other, pointing vaguely in the direction of their cars. Before too long, though, both drivers slowly sauntered back to their respective automobiles and drove off.
Did you get his insurance information? I asked.
His license plate?
Did you at least exchange names and addresses?
This caught his attention.
Confused eyes met (my) alarmed ones in the rear view mirror.
He ran away, he said finally, deftly maneuvering the car away from a massive crater and into a less perilous pothole, a gentle half meter in depth.
Now I know this to be patently untrue. The other driver was neither “running” nor “away” at any point in the encounter. In fact, he was rooted at the spot, arms crossed over his chest, waving honking auto rickshaws to go around him.
But . . .
. . . Oh my God . . .
Visions of lawsuits and home foreclosures flooded my mind. Oh shit! This guy’s going to take my brother to the cleaners, sue him for all he’s got!
It’s been a couple of days now, and there is nary an insurance agent in sight nor a lawyer. The car has been washed and waxed, and the “fender bender” is just a set of faint scratches on the right side of the bumper.
The price of driving a car in this glorious city.
I had forgotten. Forgotten that a new car is only “new” for a few days. Forgotten that people here expect that accidents will happen. That an accident is just that–an accident (not an excuse to negotiate a financial windfall). Forgotten that it’s not the end of the world.
I’ve lived outside of Bombay for 30 years now. More than half my life. And there are many things I’ve forgotten, like the quickest way to get from the East to the West, or how to “drink from up” (I.e. Without your lips touching the rim of the bottle) without dribbling half the contents down my blouse, or how to eat a chicken breast with two spoons (?).
But I’m proud to say that there are some things I have definitely not forgotten. Here they are in decreasing order of accomplishment:
1. I can still speak Hindi. Okay, so I speak it with terrible grammar and a bit of a memsaab accent, but that’s how I spoke it back in the day as well–nothing’s changed. I can speak it well enough to be completely understood by all and sundry, and well enough that my cousin (a life-long resident of the North) paid me a compliment about it! Now that’s saying something!
I put this achievement at the top of the list because I was terrible (no really, I was godawful!) at Hindi in school. It was a subject I failed with healthy regularity, so much so, that when I passed my board exams with a 55%, my Hindi tutor had this to say: “What? You got 55%? Who did you bribe? The Chief Minister???
Ah, ye of little faith! Look at me now, Brah! I’m mereku tereku-ing up a storm!
2. I can cross a busy street. Nay, I can saunter across a busy street, midstream, without so much as a by-your-leave. None of this “look left, look right business” (besides, I’m always confused–is it look left, then right, then left? Or is it look right, then left, then right?–Oh well). You just go. It’s all about timing, and the confidence in knowing that (as my brother puts it) nobody really wants to hit you.
3. I can fight with a shopkeeper for 20 minutes for overcharging me by .01 cents for a product that (maybe) cost two bucks. I can tell him he should be ashamed of himself for trying to cheat someone who is old enough to be his mother. (There is a hushed reverence for age in this country, and invoking the “mother,” is tantamount to holding out the papal ring!). And I can walk away, knowing that I have provided entertainment for at least 40 passers by. Crazy old woman!
4. I can be in an 8-person elevator with 20 other people, all at eye level, yet neither touch nor make eye contact with anyone for the entire 11-story ride. This may not seem like much, but trust me, this is an important skill to have in a tiny city with a population of over 20 million people. Make the mistake of so much as glancing sideways (just the merest of eye-flicks) at a man, and it is an open invitation for inappropriate touch.
5. I can navigate a Bombay pavement (sidewalk, to you), avoiding all manner of land mines–broken bricks, puddles, open manholes, dog shit, dead rats–without so much as glancing at the ground. See, if you have to look at your feet, then you’ve identified yourself as a noob, or worse yet, a tourist, fair game.
6. I can queue in amorphous clusters. Lines are for suckers.
Still, despite my commendable accomplishments, there are some things that I used to do, that I have not done this time, and probably never will:
1. Eaten paani puri. From a street vendor. During the monsoon.
2. Boarded a BEST bus by hanging onto the shirt of the 12th man on the running board, who is himself hanging onto the belt of the man in front of him. A toe-hold is all you need. That, and a prayer.
3. Dropped in on a friend uninvited and unannounced. With traffic being the way it is (the average time it takes to drive 15 miles is approximately 2 hours), the chances of your actually finding someone home are slim to none. By the time you “drop in,” one of several scenarios could have unfolded:
(A) The Municipal Corporation could have undertaken a whole new “road improvement” project, requiring you to reroute your drive another five miles . . . In the opposite direction.
(B) Your friend could have given birth to a child who was just a glimmer in its parents’ eyes at the time of your departure.
(C) The United States could have declared war on another oil-rich country. Wait, that only takes minutes. Never mind.
4. Washed my hair and let it dry naturally. Think Roseanne Roseannadanna. In 100% humidity.
5. Salted my food.
6. Taken my shoe off to hit a man who tried to grope me.
The world has changed, and so have I.
There was a time I could not have conceived of living anywhere else. And yet I have.
I am a displaced ghost.
A global soul.
“Neither of nor from anywhere”
And yet, this city has captured my heart . . .
. . . for now and always . . .
. . . Bombay Meri Hai.