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The Maelstrom that is Mumbai

This was my eighth blog entry from the ShantiSalaam tour that I co-organized with Hawah and V:shal in 2006-2007 to promote communcal harmony in South Asia.

3:24 am – I’m up late wrestling with the Internet, which has at least been productive, if not frustrating.  We’ve spent a relatively chill week in Mumbai after several on the road, feeling as though we’re drinking inspiration from a firehose, and the chance to rest, do laundry, and catch up on emails has been welcome.

This city is stunning.  It strikes me as a fusion of New York’s energy with Miami’s flora, multiplied to result in vast multitudes beyond either city’s wildest imagination.  Immense numbers of people scramble at all times, leaving the city seeming as if palpably throbbing at any given point.  Mumbai also reflects stark class disparities the likes of which I’ve seen only in Brazil.  Skyscrapers (as well as cranes building new ones) dot the horizon in every visible direction, but defy close examination if only because walking on the street requires one’s full attention to avoid either tripping over untold millions sitting or laying on the street, or else getting hit by a bus.  It’s really rather amazing.  I find myself wondering what combination of genius and madness produced the frenzied mayhem that passes for calm here.  I can’t fathom what the city’s many widely-celebrated festivals must look like.

We got here last weekend, after an overnight series of flights gave Hawah and I a chance to see Karachi for a few fleeting hours last Saturday morning. We took the step of getting a room near the airport, which offered a few hours of sleep in between a midnight flight from Islamabad and our flight to Mumbai at noon the following day. Landing in the afternoon and encountering the smell of India once again (which I’d almost forgotten), we made our way across the city to Madhuri and Luke’s wedding.

It entailed a tremendous series of events, from the mehndi we encountered upon arriving, and our reunion with Vishal shortly afterwards, to the sangeet Hawah MC’d a few days later, wearing a spectacular outfit far more elaborate than anything I’d ever seen him wear. Vishal and I enjoyed Saturday evening at the apartment of two of Hawah’s cousins, Vishwas and Nidhi, leaving Hawah free to play with his cousins and catch up with the rest of his family. That night was unassuming, yet came to be among my highlights here as it reflected both my most representative exposure to day-to-day life here, as well as the immediate warmth from family members that characterized the rest of our weekend.

Having come directly from Islamabad, where I got a chance to finally meet several aunts and cousins on my father’s side the day before leaving, it felt as if we’d not broken stride. We’d left my Aunty Nahid’s place with my cousin Shahzad on Friday morning, and had the chance to spend most of the day with my 73 year-old Uncle Saddiq, of whom I’d only heard stories and seen pictures before. He showed us his house and the extended family members who leave there with him, chatted about legal practice, and witnessed a vast army of goats being prepared for the Eid slaughter on New Year’s Day. A gargantuan feast in the afternoon that left me staggering culminated in a trip to the Faisal Mosque – the largest in all of Asia – where we prayed before driving up a cliff to visit to Daman-e-Koh, from which we stared down upon the sprawling city beneath. Islamabad fascinated me in having been erected in only 40 short years, a planned capital city not unlike Washington DC. Between the broad paved boulevards separating immaculate public squares and the sweeping architecture of massive government buildings, I felt right at home.

Karachi struck me as more like Lahore in its relatively ancient history, but we didn’t get to see much of it except from the air upon flying our the next morning.

Overall, my first visit to Pakistan was nothing short of life-changing. For the first time, I came to realize that the vision of Pakistan that had been explained to me in the isolation of my rural Missouri upbringing was a vast gulf away from the reality. I’d guessed at times that my parents aimed to share not only the culture of a place halfway around the world, but also the norms of a bygone era. But even having suspected that, I was stunned to see just familiar the cities felt. Lahore and Islamabad could both have been any of the Latin American cities I’ve explored: women walked unaccompanied with their heads covered; every intersection bore signs listing the names of the streets; more or less everyone spoke English; and even the models of cars were the same one sees back in the States. People like music. They chat about the same things we do. The biggest difference was that, somewhat eerily, everyone shared my skin tone!

I’d never quite felt as though I belong before. And while I certainly don’t “belong” in Pakistan in any meaningful sense, it was amazing to finally encounter the overwhelming hospitality that my parents described to me, as well as the particular personalities wielding it. And to prove to myself that my land of ancestral mystery was as accessible as Puerto Rico felt indescribably empowering. I look forward to going back soon…as early as mid-January, during the several days at the end of our scheduled stops during which I’d planned to be Delhi. I have a few hoops through the Byzantine Pakistani bureaucracy to jump in order to get another visa, but it all seems quite within reach.

Besides, I have a namesake who runs Lahore Chitrkar, and who invited me to share a set during a show for students at the Lahore School of Economics.  I went the first 20 years of my life thinking my name was somehow unique, before learning that in Pakistan it's about as common as "Bob" is in the United States.  I can't even count how many Shahids we encountered while in the country, but Shahid Mirza is easily the most compelling among them.  Meeting a 50-year old Pakistani bearing my name and willing to challenge convention through arts of all kinds (not only his chosen medium of painting, but also sculpture and music) was a far, far more than merely a breathe of fresh air.  For the first time, I feel the need to earn my name.

After basking in the warmth exuded by my aunts, uncles and cousins, finding the same energy among Hawah’s upon reaching Mumbai felt…as similar as the resemblance we bear to each other, I suppose….

So, getting back to this week, it was simply wonderful to spend another few days with relatives, even if they aren’t actually mine. I’d not met Hawah’s mom before, and while I’d spent a fair amount of time with his father and his sister, I’d never seen them together, nor as happy as they each were throughout the weekend. And Luke’s parents are simply beautiful, wonderfully open-minded people. Both took to the celebratory dances of Hindu weddings with gusto, and radiated kindness in every interaction. Luke’s father shared some intense professional advice the night of the sangeet, sharing his view of how badly the world, and Islam, need credible and compelling progressive voices to emerge among Muslims. His confidence in me was humbling. And in order to protect a confidence, I’ll simply recount that we all shared a particularly funny moment on the last night that left me feeling as though I were 17 again, trying to evade the watchful eyes of my parents in order to live a little. Madhuri and Luke came by our room shortly afterwards with Madhuri’s dear friend Jen, and the 8 of us (Madhuri, Luke, his mom and dad, Jen, V:shal, Hawah and I) shared delightful conversation late into the night.

Speaking of late into the night, I’m tired and the words on the screen are blurring from time to time. There remains so much more work to be done…leaving me eagerly anticipating the day we’ll have some extra hands among which to distribute it.

A few highlights of the week since then:

  • Meeting Saurav and Neelakshi, two longtime friends of V:shal’s who have graciously hosted us for the past several days in their amazing 20th floor apartment in Dadar;
  • Encountering a shocking number of DC heads with V:shal while out & about the first night after leaving the wedding, all of whom seemed to dig our project, and some of whose work presents concrete potential synergies we’ll explore further once back in the U.S. – and finally meeting Imrana Khera, a phenomenally helpful advisor based in New York who happened to be visiting Mumbai (and getting engaged!) while we were here;
  • Enjoying a riveting conversation with Gregory Roberts, the inspiring and insightful author of the acclaimed novel Shantaram (which is blowing my mind as I read it);
  • Accompanying my dear brother V:shal as he discovered that he needed some serious dental work done stemming from a mountain-biking accident several years ago, which included no fewer than three root canals this afternoon, and more to come tomorrow;
  • A wild & crazy night out centered around our gig at Prive, a hot Mumbai nightclub, that left us giggling and marauding through the streets until dawn; and
  • A very late night this evening.

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