Letters From Mumbai

Julian Opie, Walking in Mumbai, 2013. © the artist, courtesy Barbara Krakow Gallery, Boston.

Mumbai Moment

Mumbai could be thought of as New York, LA, and Lagos all wrapped into one. But a string of rapes changes all that.

Mumbai, meri jaan—my life, my love. It’s a city that was once described to me as New York, Los Angeles, and Lagos all wrapped into one. It’s a city I left, a city I returned to, and now it’s a city that I am really just this close to writing off.

I’ve spent nine months now defending my adopted hometown as safe for women, half a sub-continent away in distance and culture from the headline-worthy rapes in New Delhi and northern India. I’ve justified my safety to my friends, to my family, to my husband, and—most importantly—to myself. And last month this came crashing down with the gang-rape of a female photojournalist as she was poking around an abandoned mill with a male colleague, before sunset and in the center of town.

I don’t feel as much scared or angry as I feel betrayed by a city I praised and defended more than its own natives did.


My first “Mumbai moment”—what I’ve termed a feeling of joy and peace at being here and not there—came some evening in early 2009 when I was walking with friends along Marine Drive. The pedestrian walkway runs for two miles along the sea; walking north, there are six lanes of traffic and shabby Art Deco low-rises to your right, crashing waves to your left. We had just left an Asia Society talk on the fate of the euro or trends in microhousing or maybe developments in contemporary Chinese punk music. The feeling all over Mumbai was of great optimism. The economy was booming and the world’s eyes were on the city—whether for an Oscar-winning movie about the reality TV triumph of a slumdog or the well-publicized construction of a $3 billion single-family home.

I fell in love with Mumbai not because I belonged there but because no one really belonged there.

As we strolled up Marine Drive, we congratulated ourselves for being the lucky few expats in a city where Things Were Happening, New Yorkers living through the early days of the next Jazz Age. We watched the long line of streetlights come on along Marine Drive, nicknamed “The Queen’s Necklace” for the way the lights resemble jewels on a chain. Mumbai was then, and still is now, a city that pushes itself forward. Religion, caste, gender, and tradition fall by the wayside as millions of people flock to the city to try their luck in business or Bollywood. Despite—or perhaps because of—the striving, struggling, and severe overcrowding, people remain happy, considerate enough, more concerned with tomorrow than yesterday.

I fell in love with Mumbai not because I belonged there but because no one really belonged there. The city and its residents were heading into uncharted waters, me included. Walking along Marine Drive, chatting with a vegetable seller in the market, watching a Hindi film, I felt a satisfying combination of promise, acceptance, and adaptability. I was happy and free in a way I hadn’t felt in the U.S.


But people in love tend to be oblivious to their partners’ faults. I continued on my Mumbai high for years with only slight ups and downs, until I could no longer ignore the bad news stories about India on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Most of the news centered on a string of high-profile rapes. In Delhi last December, a gang of men abducted a 23-year-old medical student and her male friend off the streets, raping her so badly with a metal pipe that she died of her injuries. A few weeks later, a Delhi man kidnapped his five-year-old neighbor, holding her captive and raping her for three days before she was found with fragments of a candle and broken glass in her vagina. In Madhya Pradesh, a group of local men raped a Swiss bicyclist who had been camping in the woods with her husband. An American woman hitchhiking to the resort town of Manali after visiting a friend was picked up by three men… The stories go on, and these are just the most prominent ones, the ones involving foreigners or with enough lurid details to capture the public’s eye.

Indian surveys find that while many women there have been the victim of rape, they do not report it to officials. Reasons vary. The Indian police range from mildly competent to distinctly malevolent.

Official crime rates in India are low. There were 24,923 official reports of rape in 2012. In the U.S., with a quarter of the population, the number of forcible rapes alone that year was 83,425. There’s no question that rape is underreported in both countries. One FBI survey found that 250,000 Americans said they were a victim of rape in 2011, whether they went to the police or not. So, is rape really one-tenth as prevalent in India as in the U.S.? Probably (certainly) not. Indian surveys find that while many women there have been the victim of rape, they do not report it to officials. Reasons vary. The Indian police range from mildly competent to distinctly malevolent. The pressures of the traditional Indian family and village encourage women to keep things quiet, lest they lose their virtue or upset the social order. Rape happens in India—maybe at a higher rate than in the West—but it isn’t reported.

Still, it’s a stretch to say women aren’t safe in India. I’ve always felt safe. But it isn’t bending the truth to say that Indian culture and society allow pervasive, persistent, and menacing sexual harassment to thrive. This is something, I’m ashamed to say, it took me years to realize.

Living in India, I’m often reminded that I’m not in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or even Dubai. When I walk around town, I see men and women mixing freely. My colleagues put their children in mixed-sex schools and young women like me can happily travel around town by train or on a scooter. There’s no stigma for a city woman to go out shopping, haggle stubbornly, buy a juice from a streetside vendor, feed stray cats, wear jeans, and even build roads. Indian women play a prominent role in their country’s politics and business, and popular TV series feature working moms on the go. But still, marital rape doesn’t exist according to law. And in rural areas, female fetuses are often aborted, leading to the current situation in states like Haryana, where fewer than 880 girls are born for every 1,000 boys.


I first moved to Mumbai in 2008, an American expat in search of an adventure and low cost of living. When I left for a new job in summer 2010, I had been dating a Mumbai local for a few weeks. Weeks turned to months turned to years, and I arrived back this summer with a new three-year job contract and a wedding ring. Despite my years living in Mumbai, my basic familiarity with Hindi, and my Indian in-laws, I still very much remain the white female expat, instantly recognizable on the street as “other.” I can sympathize with the complaints of others in the same situation of always and forever being the center of attention in public. When I leave my little bubble, a posh neighborhood in north Mumbai, the staring (and photographing and video recording) starts.

This staring forms a basic part of what makes foreign women uncomfortable. It’s hard to tell how much is a reaction to novelty, how much is natural, how much is bad manners, and how much is menacing. I want to take my cue from children, whom I presume have little or no sexual interest in me. They will happily wave and smile and stare. Grown men will do the same, minus the waving and smiling. I don’t know how their mothers raised them or what they would think about their greedy looks. It’s a question I should ask, but I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

I honestly believed that Mumbai was different and that things like the Delhi rapes couldn’t happen here.

Despite the staring and uncomfortable looks, I’ve defended Mumbai—and by extension, India—a lot over the past year, probably for naught. The start of the string of notorious north Indian rapes hit the news just about the time that I announced to God, Ganesh, my parents, and the world that I was moving back to Mumbai. Everyone asked me the same question, “But is it sa-a-a-a-afe?” “Very!” I would cheerily answer. Delhi, I patiently explained, was culturally much more similar to Afghanistan or Pakistan than other parts of India. A serious, macho, slightly menacing type of place. When I visited the capital for a month in 2008, my friends warned me to call for a cab, not take one off the street, make a big production out of reading the driver’s name and license number to an imaginary friend on the other end of your phone, and call when you get there. That should be enough ward trouble off. I never ever got such warnings in Mumbai. In fact, I had a little catchphrase to capture the safety I felt in Mumbai: “Why, you can walk anywhere, any time of day, in any state, and you’ll be just fine!”

I honestly believed that Mumbai was different and that things like the Delhi rapes couldn’t happen here. Mumbai was home to spectacular terrorist attacks, jewelry thieves, dengue fever, and C-list Bollywood celebs, but never random violent crime.

The rape of the photojournalist on Aug. 22, of course, proved me wrong. The whole story is bizarre and awful and recounting the details only gives me hives. There were five men, a leather belt, broken beer bottles, a camera phone, pretext, pretenses, and passersby on a nearby road. The police have been uncharacteristically efficient, and with suspects already arrested, soon to be tried under a new law and facing a lifetime in prison, the case looks to be quickly resolved.

But it has still shaken me to the core. The crime I thought could never happen here did. Since the attack was reported, my constant thought is, “I could have been there!” My husband and I would easily have gone poking through an overgrown abandoned mill with plenty of daylight left on our way home from work.

It is sheer betrayal. I defended India, I defended Mumbai, and still it came to this.


The attack traumatized the victim and also many of the women in the city. Previous experiences—a store clerk comically overeager to sell me the “most fashionable tiny miniskirt,” a teenage boy who wouldn’t stop filming with his camera phone, an elevator masturbator—take on a new menacing tone. And this is what makes me angriest: that the latest rape doesn’t only make me worry about the Mumbai of the future; it also makes me question and reevaluate the Mumbai of the past. An aberrant incident or a funny story becomes part of a pattern I just hadn’t seen.

Some commentators compare the string of rapes to the 2008 terror attacks in the city. I disagree. The terror attacks were an assault on the city from the outside; Mumbaikars joined together in resisting and rebuilding. There were tales of heroism and victory. But the rapes are an assault from within. They pull me apart from my neighbors, make me suspicious and untrusting. The best we can hope for is justice, not triumph.

I take all the precautions. I travel with my six-foot-tall Indian-American husband by my side. I wear jeans and a loose kurta, sensible shoes, and I carry my purse cross-body and zipped shut. But it still doesn’t feel like enough.

A day after the most recent attack, there was a protest in south Mumbai. Outraged and with more energy than I knew what to do with, I thought about going to join in. But it was getting dark, my husband was traveling for work, and I didn’t have a car. I thought about taking a cab down south, riding the train, walking down streets that now seemed unfamiliar and passing strange faces upon strange faces. I wavered, and for the first time in my years in Mumbai, I decided to stay in. And I hoped my “Mumbai moments” weren’t going to become a thing of the past.

Jil Wheeler is entering her third year in Mumbai and her seventh year living abroad in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. She does not own a monkey, yet, but if she did she would call him Asher. She is known across the Indian subcontinent for her ardor for mutton biryani. More by Jil Wheeler