Letters From Mumbai

Photograph by Nameet Potnis

The Mumbai Limited

Middle-class life in India requires two wheels. Our local correspondent adapts to rage on the road and learns about purchasing underwear while commuting.

One of the first things I bought after moving to India was a scooter. It’s a Honda Activa Dio, 102 CC, 7 hp. The selling point is that it’s styled to look like a motorcycle. I would say it’s for women (since real men ride real motorcycles), except there actually is a scooter for women—it’s called the Scooty and is purplish-pink. I never intended to buy a scooter or a scooty; it’s just that my colleague was offering it for sale, and the price was right, and it was just so damn red.

The purchase brought me into middle-class Indian life, where purchase of a “two-wheeler” is a sign that you’re on the up-and-up. If the bank manager has a car and the guard has nothing, then the teller has a scooter.

Living in the States, I never thought hard about how to get from here to there. Cars, buses, train, planes: They all functioned well enough to disappear in to the background of my life. But living in a developing country, the daily and weekly rhythm of my life is dictated by rush hour and cab availability. I think more about how to get to the restaurant than what I’ll eat, how long to get home than who’s waiting for me there.

Four paragraphs in, and I already owe India an apology. India: I’m sorry for calling you a developing country. You’re not developing, you’re a member of BRIC. BRIC consists of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. They’re countries you can’t call “developing” because they’re not developing, they’re a member of BRIC. It’s tautology at its best, and just wait until Sierra Leone, Angola, Guyana, and Indonesia figure this out (SAGI).

Mumbai features terrible pollution, a circus of oddball roadside scenes, and crushing traffic made up of a multitude of man-, animal-, and motor-powered vehicles. A few weeks ago I saw a man riding a bicycle whilst draped in dead chickens. He crashed into an oxcart, and I was off chicken and beef for a week.

In Mumbai, honking is a statement of existence. It says, “Hello, here I am on the road. Everything is fine!” Also, “Now I’m going to pass you.” And, “Passing done. La-di-da. On my way.”The streets here are a force of nature, a churning wave of vehicles. It took a few months of navigating them myself before I could detect any pattern. At rush hour, the streets are clotted with buses, cars, rickshaws, bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles, all headed in one direction. Take rush-hour traffic in midtown Manhattan on a Friday afternoon in July, then realize Mumbai is twice as big and dense, half as developed, and severely lacking a subway system. Half the time traffic is at a standstill, and so I idle my engine, shifting weight from foot to foot. Well, toe-tip to toe-tip, since the scooter’s a little big. The rest of the time it’s stop-and-go with surprisingly fast bursts of “go.”

Riding a scooter in Mumbai requires a preternatural ability to process the traffic around you. There are hundreds of obstacles to encounter. Crosswalk are nonexistent or ignored, and so pedestrians jaywalk every five feet or so. When traffic is stopped, they weave their way between bumpers. When traffic is flowing, they play Frogger, and I’m the enemy.

City buses pose the greatest danger to a little scooter like me. I’m terrified of them; they are these behemoths that lumber along, giving out a loud foghorn honk I hear in my dreams. The buses stop for no car or man, sometimes not even at the bus stop. There’s always a long line of sprinting men and women behind them, desperately trying to catch up and hop onboard.

Rickshaws are probably my favorite obstacles. These little “tuk-tuks” with only three wheels and a go-kart engine don’t try to dart ahead in traffic, they go around it by swerving into the opposite lane. Since the entire contraption is made of cheap tin and cheaper paint, the drivers are fearless about playing bumper cars. They are mostly good ol’ boys from the rural north (meaning the states of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh), and when traffic is stopped, we’re eye-to-eye, the driver and me. While I can’t say that as a white woman in jeans on a red scooter I’ve caused any traffic accidents, I certainly have caused some missed lights and honking from behind.

I have never been as bold, risky, and aggressive a driver as I am here. But it’s not just me; everyone is like that in Mumbai. We’re all opportunists who will dart ahead, slam on the brakes, change lanes, do anything to take advantage of a slim opening in traffic. When I succeed, I get an extra two feet towards home. And when I don’t, well, what else is a paint job for if not to get scratched?

The constant background to this dodging, weaving traffic is honking. Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk. Is this annoying yet? Honk, honk, honk. Honk. Honk. No? Because I can keep doing this for hours. Honk, honk. In my “native place” (to borrow an Indian phrase), honking is used to alert another driver as to the presence of danger. Sure, sometimes we blip and bleep out of frustration, but that’s few and far between.

Honk. Honk.

In Mumbai, honking is a statement of existence. It says, “Hello, here I am on the road. Everything is fine!” Also, “Now I’m going to pass you.” And, “Passing done. La-di-da. On my way.” The quantity and volume of honking is one of the first things that strikes visitors to India. Sitting in my fifth-floor apartment with the air conditioner on above a quiet road, I still hear honking. If the sound ever disappeared, I think the city would have a collective nervous breakdown.

I could buy a car and ride in air-conditioned silence. I could even hire a driver to do the dirty work for me. Contrary to the impression created by the 2008 Booker Prize winner White Tiger, the vast majority of Indian domestic servants are not out to murder their employers for personal gain; most are happy to slowly kill you by aggravation. They grouse for overtime, send your car to be fixed at their cousin’s shop for inflated prices, run a gypsy cab service after hours, and have undiagnosed heart conditions that cause them to infrequently black out. All real-life examples, mind you.

Helicopters offer an extreme solution to traffic in Mumbai; just use your money and privilege to bypass the annoyance. But a scooter? Why, that’s just embracing the whole mess—the whole life of Mumbai—entirely.So cars are out, but I could walk. It’s difficult here. Sidewalks are torn up, blocked by trees, dotted with dog shit. You often end up joining the rest of the pedestrians playing Frogger. My mother would not approve.

Sometimes I take the train. Usually it’s early evening, when street traffic is the heaviest, or the weekend, when rail traffic is the lightest. I like the train, mainly because I get to ride in the women’s car. The car is never as crowded as the men’s—though it can still get very crowded—and you have the option to purchase things like earrings, oranges, imported chocolate from “Nsetles,” and underwear. Not high-quality underwear, mind you, but a decent cotton pair you wouldn’t mind taking home and washing a dozen times before wearing. Pre-pubescent boys who hop on alone get the evil eye from most of the women; pubescent boys who hop on get physically shoved back off. The whole scene is kind of like stepping in to an ultra-Darwinian nature documentary. The train gets me where I’m going 20 minutes early, but I’m not sure the stress is worth it, convenient underwear shopping be damned.

I guess I could buy a helicopter for $1 million or so. There are a handful of helicopter owners in Mumbai who use them to get around, usually from the Juhu Aerodrome in the city’s north to a private heliport in the south. Actor Amitabh Bachchan’s penchant for helicopters is a crucial plot point in Slumdog Millionaire and an established fact. The mega-rich Ambani brothers are also helicopter fans: The richer one is currently in negotiations with the city of Mumbai over exactly how many landing pads he can build on the roof of his $3 billion new house.

Helicopters offer an extreme solution to traffic in Mumbai; just use your money and privilege to bypass the annoyance. But a scooter? Why, that’s just embracing the whole mess—the whole life of Mumbai—entirely. Nine months ago, when I arrived, I was horrified by the traffic. No way would I ever join in, and certainly not on a scooter. But sometimes a red Honda beckons, and you just can’t say no. And then you have to hold on for your dear, developing-country life.

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